The Prairie Fellowship, a beloved Unitarian community that provided me in anchor in my peripatetic years, used to spend a weekend every October in the Wisconsin Dells. One year I was asked to read autumn poems out of doors and so, on a warm-enough sunny morning, I sat under the forest canopy all ablaze in gold and crimson to await any participants who might come.
What follows is an excerpt from “My Wisconsin,” the first chapter from my diary-style memoir, The Peripatetic Papers.
Nice and dry under tree, where sunlight has warmed fallen leaves, while above me crows gargle and clack at each other like castanets in a language haven’t heard before, perhaps boudoir crow? Dear friend Ruth appears from forest with Pat and Metje and we all begin to thumb through our books for poems to read.
“In Heaven It Is Always Autumn,” I announce to start us off. “At least, that’s what Mrs. Miniver says.”
“Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” reads Ruth from Keats, “to swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells.”
“Especially when the October wind,” Metje quotes Dylan Thomas, “with fists of turnips punishes the land..”
We settle back upon the leaves to tell each other how fall makes us feel. Ruth (who looks like an autumn leaf herself in her thick brown sweater and orange corduroy slacks) replies
“Busy, busy – aren’t we always so busy in the fall?”
“Maybe we’re like squirrels,” suggests Metje: “in a panic because winter is coming.”
“That’s why I always collect bits of wool and material to sew,” says Pat: “projects for the winter”
“I’m always so sad in September,” I add. “I think it’s because Henry and I have just started up with our commuting marriage again, after our summer together.”
“Maybe it is something evolutionary,” wonders Metje: “you know, the squirrels that are most frantic gather the most nuts and therefore survive, passing on their genes.”
We think about that for a moment.
“Today’s mighty oak,” remarks Pat, “is just yesterday’s nut that held its ground.”
We giggle, but the somber mood returns.
“Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving“
reads Ruth from her favorite autumn poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I decide to read something I’ve just written:
“When you asked me why I was glad to be back in Wisconsin
‘It’s the berries, the berries everywhere
-highbush cranberries, elderberries exploding on frail, unlikely tendrils, black chokecherries –
we can spread out in the sun
until they are dried into tight seeds of themselves
we can pound into pemmican
against darkening November and our winter’s pain.’
And so it went then, and so it goes now, so many years later- October in all of its glory stopping us in our tracks with radical amazement to ponder together the swift passing of our lives upon our fragile and beloved planet.