“This was the time of year when the first rainstorm was hoped for with as much longing as that with which perpetual clear weather would be prayed for six months later.” — Gabriel García Márquez, Of Love and Other Demons, trans. Edith Grossman
Something happened a couple days ago. A cool wind spread over the land, and another apple fell from the tree in the backyard. Squirrels began digging up the flowerbeds to plant their caches of gatherings as I began banging on windows to frighten them away from destroying the beds I had worked all summer to build. The nights began to get cool. Summer is winding down to fall.
Autumn may be my favorite season. November will be hard, with its days in which we hardly see the sun, and sleepiness that sets in once the sun has set in the middle of the afternoon. But it is crowned with Thanksgiving, the only holiday that has so far not been hijacked by commercialism, which has all the gatherings and nostalgia of Christmas but without the anxiety and hassle of gifts.
Every year, as the days grow short, and the leaves turn, I find myself becoming introspective. I sit up by lamplight to re-read old journals and books enjoyed years before, listening to the rain on the roof and windows. I find myself more eager to take long walks and breathe the cool air, even in the rain, than I did in the dry warmth of summer.
In my heart, fall both ends the old year and inaugurates the new far more than the change of the calendar on the first of January. In many traditions throughout the world, time and the material world wear down, and must be regenerated ceremonially each year. In this ceremonial period of regeneration, time itself can be nearly abolished (Mircea Eliade’s “eternal return”), and all points in time coalesce. I undertake such a regeneration in myself each year in fall, feeling more myself than in any other season, reminiscing on the past, and reorienting myself to the future.
Let the rainstorms come. I’ll be filling my pens and sharpening my pencils.
I've been on a hiatus from pictures while working on a project in words. I think perhaps the picture-making part of me has also been cocooning some months. But I can feel it stirring inside of me, getting ready to emerge.
Six days across a continent — it seems almost shameful, as at the same time it seems a grand adventure. In our speed we have reduced the world; and had we flown, it would have been mere hours. Yet to drive across the continent, spending most of each day on the interstate, offers a perspective on the land itself which is something akin to the view of the earth from space. It is not nearly so large as we think; and yet it is larger.
Six days across a continent presents its geology in a manner like that of a flipbook: static things like mountains rise and fall, and subtle changes in the landscape, seen rapidly, reveal a place in ways which would be overlooked if one were standing in that locale. Driving east, you know by the time you reach eastern Ohio, perhaps around Ashtabula, that you have left one place and are entering another. Ohio may not fit everyone's definition of Midwest, but the landscape is a Midwestern landscape — until you reach Ashtabula. (I have a fondness for Ashtabula, where once, passing through, we bought pizza from the side of the road, when the local Domino's was trying to push some business. That pizza tasted much better than it was, and Ashtabula is a lovely, leafy little town, sleeping on the shore of Lake Erie.)
It is a shame, perhaps, to cross by car, to be required to pay such attention to the asphalt ahead of you, while there is such beauty about you. Perhaps by train would be better, but best of all if one could recline in a pod of sorts, with the full panorama of the landscape enveloping the senses, and sleep and dream seamlessly with the scenery as it passes. Instead we stop at hotels, and spend the early morning ignoring half a dozen other groggy-eyed strangers while eating stale bagels and watching network news, which is the same, unfortunately, throughout the country. Camping would be better. This time, however, we were on a schedule, with two cats along for the ride. A cross-country camping trip is on my list of things to do.
Six days it took to return across a continent to the place where I grew up, and from where I had left six years before. I had left on the belief that I was pursuing a PhD; only to find later that I was on a quest of self-discovery, and America would be the wilderness I required for this process.
It is striking to drive the continent east to west, especially when the far end of your road is the place most familiar. We began in Connecticut, and from Hartford to Fargo, we were bathed in humid green landscapes, farmland and woodland and never a town too far off. We stayed a day in Minneapolis with her folks, and it felt, in retrospect, the last bit of solid population, or solid civilization, until we reached Missoula. After Minnesota there are the plains, which feel more isolated and forlorn than any desert landscape. We spent one night in Dickinson, North Dakota, where oil workers barbecued and drank on the sidewalk that flanked the hotel, and the young African man who checked us in at night also took our order at the fast food place across the street in the morning. In Dickinson we both felt further from home than either of us ever had, I think. I cannot imagine how the African felt. I believe I felt closer to home in Britain than I did in North Dakota.
From North Dakota there is Montana to reckon with, where a sign at a rest stop proudly proclaims that the distance from one end of the state to the other is about the same as from New York City to Chicago. In spite of that it feels far less tedious, given its pretty, sunken river valleys, and the continual progress toward a more arid climate. You measure the change in rest stops: now it is sticky and hot, a typical Midwestern summer, then a few hours down the road, somewhat less so, and a few more hours on, only a dry breeze meets your face with the hot sun as you step from your vehicle.
We climbed through the Rockies and stopped for the night in Missoula, finding a pizza-and-beer place just up the road, with booths as large as a queen-size mattress, and the orange glow of dusk above the profiles of the dark mountains out the windows.
The next day we arrived at our destination. We travelled through narrow, forested ravines, and the vast, barren desert of the valley of the Columbia, where there is mostly heat, dark, volcanic rocks, and drab, tough scrub. Then up the mountains, and as I descended them on the other side, this green, temperate coastal strip of land I had long considered home, running from British Columbia to Northern California, never seemed so small and fragile. Just a thin little strip of green, on the edge of the continent, and all the arid and lonely places between it and the cheery farmland and staid Main Streets of the upper Midwest.
“Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free.... I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe,” wrote Thoreau, among the most prominent of historical New Englanders. I have done opposite; from my childhood home on the edge of a vast wilderness in the farthest west, I went east to land long measured and worked.
The land compresses the nearer it reaches to the northeastern coast of the United States. This has partly to do with the population density, but is also a very real matter of the geography of the land, of the numerous small chains of mountains and hills which define New England. It is a folded land, and numerical distances take on new meaning; what would seem to be a small matter of a few miles can become a trek, on indirect roads through little towns which sometimes seem to run together. The square mile in New England encloses dimensions unknown in a prairie place; like a fairyland, it manages to appear bigger on the inside than from without.
Even the local ecology tends to operate on a smaller scale: walk through the forest, and here you will find yourself in a pine grove, next in a stand of maples, and just a step further, in a little dell above a creek, you are beneath a canopy of graceful hemlocks. The woods of New England sometimes feel strangely familiar to the native Northwesterner. There I met old friends in the hemlock and the cedar, and the balsam fir and spruce scent the air of the higher slopes with perfumes reminiscent of the woods of home. Though they dress themselves a little differently than their cousins in the West, the Western Hemlock and Eastern Hemlock each share the same elegant presence in the woods. The former is far more compact and structured, and its Eastern counterpart more open and free, but the spirit is the same.
I have heard a few native Connecticuters describe the tiny state as a microcosm of the continent, encompassing every variety of landscape. But I had never felt so far from the high mountains of home, with their vast, winding, wild valleys; from the high desert with its silent pines; from the rainy, fir-clad slopes with their feet in the sea. Yet perhaps there was some unexpected truth in this platitude. Though I was as far as I had ever lived from those things, I continually found the Northeast—with its woods that were somewhat like "my" woods, with its rolling mountains, and the bohemianism of Vermont and western Massachusetts—to be a strange shadow of my home, while the Midwest presented itself in such stark contrast as to have a power all its own.
It was a rich new territory to explore—both without, and within. A new place presents to us both itself and ourselves. If in the Midwest I discovered new joy in broad spaces, in clear sunlight and sudden thunderstorms, in the Northeast I discovered the unexpected surprises of places hidden from plain view, of old town centers tucked away on a river’s bend and largely unchanged from the past century, of villages which can only be found by a great deal of luck by the uninitiated, of ancient cemeteries, and moss-eaten stone walls buried beneath the trees.
I lived three years in Iowa City as though upon an island. I have no doubt that countless others before me have not felt quite the same. The peculiar beauty of the Midwest lies in its vastness and non-specificity. It is not so much that the clichéd “sea of corn” dominates outside the city, so much as that the city itself—any town, large or small, upon the prairie—is its own habitat, like the pockets of woodland which line the little dells, a place which provides the only shelter, the only physiognomy which defines the location and by which we are able to relate to it.
I arrived in Iowa from the west, leaving home behind in western Washington state and passing through mountains and wide, empty plains of dust toward the sunrise. I came from a place where glacier-capped mountains dominated the horizon from a hundred miles away, and I found the Midwest exotic and exhilarating. The heartland, while sometimes disparaged as flyover country, is just as much a part of the American popular imagination as the autumn leaves of New England and the glowing mesas of the Southwest. As the architect Louis Sullivan found it as a landscape imbued with immense power, I found its remoteness, its sweeping horizon, its buzzing fields and frequent thunderstorms, all electric with vitality.
That first summer I learned that it is possible to sweat from places which I had never before known possessed the capability. I saw a mantis as long as my hand on a neighbor’s screen door, and a wasp the size of my thumb. I began to worry about what I had gotten myself into. Then fall came, mild and beautiful—it felt like a Northwestern summer—and I began to fall in love with the landscape. Winter followed, the little woods behind the graduate student housing filled with snow, and—mirabile dictu, for the Northwesterner—sparkled in sunlight. One bright morning, while waiting for the bus in cold so deep that my nose could no longer sting, I watched the most perfectly formed snowflakes settle one by one upon the shoulder of my coat, tiny glass ornaments which did not melt.
On a weekend, I drove out of the town. In less than five minutes I was in the fields. But that winter landscape was so utterly different than I had last seen it, empty of corn and leaves, a barren desert of snow and stubble. I had never seen such a lifeless landscape. Yet it was beautiful, and when spring came, it erupted from the ground with an exuberance such as I had never before witnessed.
The Midwest was the wilderness which I went into as a young man unsure of himself and the world. It tested me in ways I had not expected. It revealed much of myself to me which had prior lay hidden, both shortcomings and strengths. It is a land which is defined by transformation. Prone to devastating winds and floods, fertile and bursting with life by summer and frozen and barren by winter, the Midwest is a place which is constantly changing, yet in its vast fields and small, forgotten towns seems to stand still.
When living elsewhere, and asked where I came from, I often said “west of Seattle.” This was said for the sake of simplicity, to avoid confusing the other person with the obscure geography of a distant part of the country. Too frequently, the response I got was “I didn’t know there was anything west of Seattle.” The Olympic Peninsula is roughly the size of Connecticut, and contains within it the vast, roadless mountain wilderness of Olympic National Park.
The Pacific Northwest is a rugged landscape of rainforest, volcanoes, and high desert; it is a land both extreme and mild, exotic and quotidian. But above all, it is a land of water: the rain which falls gently and steadily through the greater part of the year, the many islands and inlets of Washington state, the many waterfalls which give the Cascades their name, all provide the key to understanding the Northwest as a region. It is the pattern of rainfall, too, which defines the character of the landscape. While other regions of the same latitude are leafy and humid in the summer, the rains cease sometimes altogether in the Northwest, and dry, sunny days prevail. The great firs and cedars of the northwestern coastal forests do not mind waiting patiently for the rains to come again in the fall, when they can drink and grow all through the mild winter. And it is for this reason alone why these forests are characterized by the massive pillars of their trunks and the scent of their resin, and are imbued with an entirely different character and spirit than those of Minnesota, New England, the Mid-Atlantic.
I once thought nothing of regularly crossing giant channels of water while en route to college or a relative’s home, or of the fact that, on a clear day, the horizon was dominated by the vast form of Mt. Baker, over a hundred miles away. When I left, I often longed for high alpine valleys and the cold glacial lakes I swam in as a child. When I returned to my homeland after six years' absence, I returned with new eyes, and am amazed at the sight of things which remain familiar, but newly striking.