Saturday, September 17, 2016

On weather, at this change of seasons

I've lived in or around Chicago for nearly twenty-five years now, but autumn still belongs to the land and climate of childhood.

I grew up in a pocket of gently rolling hills in southeastern Illinois, farm country, stitched to southwest Indiana and southwestern Kentucky by the Wabash and Ohio Rivers (the latter of which also forms the region's only real tie to American history, serving as it did as the principal highway into the pathless west for decades). In that part of the world, autumn comes late, and as an explicit hinge, or perhaps a down-shifting gear, linking the bounty of summer with the post-harvest austerity of winter.

In a new anthology of writings on autumn from the UK edited by Melissa Harrison, Horatio Clare writes that "autumn has a summer and a winter." Sinead Gleeson writes that "tendrils of summer heat creep into these months." That's unquestionably true for the autumns of my growing up. Early September was like crossing from sidewalk to grass, the fading heat of the day radiating from the one, a vegetal coolness gentling the other. The autumn sun downstate is strong and golden, offering hints of our fate only at the ends of days--the mornings with a curious flatness to their light, the evenings burnished, almost liquid.

But then the leaves start to gather--we burned them still, out in the country down there--and then, the moment of true transition: the combines take to the field. I'm too young to have seen the harvest brought in by hand. I know it only from Wendell Berry, and, going farther back, Thomas Hardy, and, farther still, Tolstoy. I expect the distant prospect of men moving in rhythm across a field, slicing away at the summer, would be remarkable if seen without familiarity. But a motorized combine has its drama, too: at a glance, you see speed, precision, innovation, a robotic clarity brought to what had been the carefully constrained chaos inherent in nature. In motion, it is autumn: in front of it, summer; behind it, winter.

As the crops disappear, we see the bones of winter emerge. There's nothing quite so explicitly wintry as a harvested field. The dirt remains humped up in skeletal rows, soon to freeze in that position and hold all winter, chaff and stubble scattered about. But the overwhelming impression is of absence. Something was here and has been taken. Like the trees at the end of autumn, like the people at the end of autumn. Winter will bring its pleasures--one of them, curiously enough, gazing across an expanse of open fields sprinkled with snow--but at that moment we feel the turn as loss.

Melissa Harrison's Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons is the perfect book of its type: the light seasonal companion. It presents a mix of new work from contemporary nature writers alongside excerpts from figures like John Clare, Gilbert White, Shelley, Coleridge, and others far more obscure. Each piece is deliberately short, no more than a few pages; it's a book to set beside your cup of coffee on the porch and pick up here and there. Throughout, the emphasis is on observation: what do we see when we look closely at our landscape at this season? How do we suss out the changes underway? What can we tell of what the animals know? "Swallows are gathering on the telegraph wires," writes Alice Hunter. "Everywhere, our native wildlife is preparing to hunker down for the colder months." As are we, and I'm glad to have this book as a companion. (Note: it's only available in the UK now, but easily enough obtainable from there.)

On a grander scale is the book that might be my favorite nonfiction book of the year thus far: Alexandra Harris's Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies. Harris's book is as ambitious as its title--no less than a tracing of her theme throughout the whole history of the island. Within pages, you believe that she will be able to pull it off. Her voice is simply so confident, clear, compelling, and, crucially, welcoming. These paragraphs from the introduction will give you a sense of her assuredness:
Our thoughts will be affected by the kind of weather we're in. Dark clouds are liable to engender gloomy feelings. The weather can be responsible not just for our own mood but for the mood of a whole town or country. Our weather-talk has a special grammar. "What's it like today?" we ask, replacing the specific noun "weather" with a cosmically generalizing "it." What is it like--the weather, the day, the world? Weather is one of the most powerful threads holding us together: it is what we share with everyone else who is in it, or under it. Rainy days turn people in upon themselves--hat pressed down, chin tucked in--but there are common rhythms in the dodging and splashing and weariness. in the park on the first warm day of the year people of all kinds will be drawn into cheerful fellowship. When a bad day suddenly clears to late sun the thoughts of individuals all over a city, intent on thousands of different tasks, will take a momentary united leap. Still, each among those thousands will feel something different. The thermometer may be the same whoever reads it, but our experience of weather is more than statistical. The naturalist Richard Mabey, a lifelong observer of the weather's effects on us, describes a a "complex weave of metaphor, ancient association, and real physical experience." Our weather is made up of personal memories and moods; an evening sky is full of other evenings; a mist may be given its identity by a line from a song or a half-remembered film. The weather is made for us partly by writers and artists who have set down permanently their response to a fleeting effect. This is all interwoven with the practicalities of being hot or cold, wet or dry, while the world around us is blotted out or lit up, a brass handle or a shopfront suddenly picked out by the sun.
Weatherland is full of pleasures, and familiar names: Austen, Milton, the Brontes, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Defoe, Woolf, Wordsworth, the Pre-Raphaelites. From almost every one, Harris manages to extract something new. It's partly the effect of a tightly focused lens--close-ups in unexpected areas are bound to yield insight--but it's also a credit to her eye, and her quickness of insight and association.

My favorite section comes early, in the book and in time. It's Harris's look at early Britain, of the Romans and the Saxons. There's a wonderful analysis of surviving mosaics featuring human figures representing seasons:
The Winter who survives at Chedworth in Gloucestershire is more vigorous. He is well wrapped in leggings and tunic and a cape blowing out in the wind as he bears two seasonal totems, a dead hare in one hand and the essential branch in the other.
I don't know that I've ever come closer to feeling the Roman Britons as actual people than when reading Harris's account of their commemorations of the seasons.

And then we come to the Anglo-Saxons:
English literature begins in the cold. The elegy now known as "The Wanderer," usually dated to the eighth or ninth century, introduces the figure of an exile who finds himself completely alone in the world, adrift on an icy sea and haunted by memories of the life he used to lead.

he must dip his oars
into icy waters, the lanes of the sea:
he must follow the paths of exile.

Whether or not he is actually out at sea, the Wanderer feels the solitude of a single oarsman alone with the elements and without any prospect of shelter . He was once part of a community, owing allegiance to a lord who in return gave warmth, protection, and loyalty. This man's lord is dead, "covered by earth," and it seems that his comrades have been killed in battle, leaving one desolate survivor without home or human comfort. "I left that place in wretchedness, / ploughed the icy waves with winter in my heart."
The opposite of cold for the Anglo-Saxon poet, Harris tells us,
is not the warmth of the sun, but the warmth of the communal indoor fire. Sunshiny days barely feature, and when the sun is mentioned at all it is often known as the "candle of the sky."
Good to know that some things about England and the English character never change . . .

You leave Weatherland absolutely invigorated--it's one of those rare books that makes you see things, both in the world and in other books, differently and better.

I also came away from it deeply envious of the English. We have had our share of nature writers, of course, many of genius, but both the relative youth and breadth of America work against us. In Weatherland, Harris can say of a summer that it was wet, or hot, or dry, and know she's right for nearly all in the realm; America can never be encompassed that way. In addition, the strength and duration of the nature writing tradition has given the English accounts, it seems, of nearly every county, every little pocket of land. Adding Harris's book to Melissa Harrison's you feel like you could almost lay out the writers in their places and come up with a nearly complete map of the island.

The region where I grew up has no writers telling of its seasons or nature. In the scheme of America, it's unimportant--of no larger cultural value, and too ordinary in topographic and biological terms to merit attention. But when I think back to the warmth of an October sun through closed eyelids as I lay back on a pile of leaves, it feels distinct, and beautiful, and I wish for a writing tradition that could encompass it.

"There is an air of fulfilment and rest in the landscape and the brooding weather of October," write Adrian Bell in his wonderful memoir of 1930s farm life, Silver Ley, which Harrison anthologizes. "It is like a ghost of summer evening all the time." October is still a few weeks away, but that's very much where we are. Year after year, I'm grateful for it, beyond words.


  1. Quite wonderful reviews. Lyrical and reflective. Makes me want to rush out and buy both books - especially Weatherland - now. If only the kids were amenable. Thank you.

  2. Quite wonderful reviews. Lyrical and reflective. Makes me want to rush out and buy both books - especially Weatherland - now. If only the kids were amenable. Thank you.

  3. andrea murphy3:21 PM

    "Like the people at the end of autumn." That struck me.

  4. "The region where I grew up has no writers telling of its seasons or nature."

    Well, you've made a splendid contribution, capturing the fall there in three glorious paragraphs.

  5. Very nice. Seems pretty clear *you'll* have to create that tradition...