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I am old, Father William, I am old. I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. And I’m not kidding: I am sitting at my keyboard and there are wide cuffs on my dungarees. I have shrunk. I am only minimally shorter than I was when I was young, but I have settled, like an old house. I have been crawling around on this earth for 72 years. 

Two days ago, the maple tree in the front yard was a deep forest green. Today, half its leaves are yellow and orange. I don’t know if this will be my last fall, but certainly the number of them ahead is dwarfed by the number behind.

It has always been my favorite season, although I lost 25 of them by living in the desert, where fall is really just a period of about 17-and-a-half minutes between the thermometer at or above 100F and the moderating drop to about 80. In Arizona, it skulks by almost unnoticed. Winter is the great season in Arizona. 

I grew up in the Northeast, where fall has a special character, with nippy, dry October days and a sun getting lower in the sky, which makes the leaf color all the more ruddy and the shadows more deeply lined. Leaves raked into piles for kids to jump into. A skim of ice on ponds in the early morning. 

Now, I am in the North Carolina mountains and this time of year, the Blue Ridge Parkway begins to feel like the 101 in Los Angeles, clogged with cars, their inhabitants seeking the perfect fall-color experience. 

In most of my past years, what I noticed about fall was the color. It wasn’t always as postcard-perfect as the New England autumn of The Trouble With Harry, but then, in Hitchcock’s movie, they had to paint the leaves orange (they shot the film in summer). Still, that is the mental image most of us have of the season. 

But the calendar-picture image of fall is too pretty, like peonies or dahlias. I am not moved. They belong on postcards with names like “Autumn Paintbox” and “New England Rhapsody.” The very word “autumn” is too Latinate. It reeks of literature. It traces its etymological roots back to Proto-Indo-European words meaning “cold” and “dry.” In plain-spoken North America, we prefer to call the transforming season simply “fall.” It is the leaves that fall, after all. 

It is much as I love weeds and dislike flower gardens. The gardens are too prissy. Perhaps they smile in bright reds and yellows, but their smiles are unearned. But weeds at the side of the road have strained and labored and live without permission. They are ungoverned and profuse: The force that through the green fuse drives — weeds. 

Gardens are planted in rows, people march in columns, books are alphabetized, plants are given phylum and genus, but any idea of order in this profuse world is a fiction.

There is a rankness to the weeds that I love. If you need a demonstration of the difference between the pretty and the beautiful, it is there beside the roadways, the Joe-Pye weed, the ironweed, the asters, the thistles, goldenrod, cow-itch, cockle burrs, pokeweed, teasel. Most distinguished by their textures and scratchiness. You can feel them on your skin. “I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

Now that I am old, with liver spots and wrinkles, it is not the color of fall so much as its texture that appeals to me. The leaves spot and crinkle, curl at the edges and almost rattle as you walk through them as they collect on the walkway. I recognize myself. 

The inner world and the outer come to match. We have inner weather, and we have an interior climate as well. At the extreme it is Lear’s “cataracts and hurricanoes,” and it is my own sense of the textural maculation of my old age: Those blackened spots and browned edges are my own. 

I cannot distinguish between my projection of myself on the world, and that world’s identification in me. It is all one. And the shrinking leaves are verse and chorus. 

And so I look with a burning concentration at the sere and weakened leaves with an intensity brought by my own awareness of how few recurrences of the season I will get to witness. They are all the more beautiful for that. 

It is a gray rainy day, cold and damp. I am standing at the glass door looking out. I am 70 years old. Yes, that is relevant.

Leaves on the ground, bare trees like leading against the sky, hands on the edge of being numb by the cold. I have my camera and decide to make photographs from where I stand behind the door. How many different images can I frame without moving my feet?

Each of the captures bears the weight of meaning. The leaves are dry, curled and brown. Some make patterns, but most are merely random scatterings. There is no avoiding the match between the internal and external worlds.

I am alone in the world. A lifetime of experience has built up a complex web of neurons in my brain, like interwoven roots. Those connections, alive with electricity, hold seven decades of memory, learning, disappointment, fears, joys and, perhaps more than anything, language. It is the means through which I most interact with the world.

Or so it seems. Yet, it is also imagery that carries meaning. I have been speaking since I was a toddler, reading since before kindergarten, but I didn’t begin making images until I was out of college. I don’t mean snapshots, but consciously trying to find visual analogs of emotional and mental states. Images as art, if that is not too fancy a word.

So, again, through the window, I see the tangle of vines that are axons and dendrites. I see the crisped leaves wet on the ground, their lives and usefulness complete. I see the trees as nudes against the colorless sky, a black-and-white photograph even while in full color. Naked we come into the world; naked we leave it.

The vines are not just a projection of brain-tangle. They are also the way I have come to understand the narrative of my existence. Once, it may have seemed like a simple story line — a plot with beginning, middle and an upcoming end. But the longer I live, the more the plot becomes muddied, clouded, balled like tangled yarn. What was linear becomes a Pollock painting. Where does my remembrance intersect with yours? Where does it knot, where disengage? We met once; which of us recalls? Or perhaps we didn’t.

There is more ahead. I write this as I perhaps begin a new adventure.

blog danby mt road house

blog leaf iconWe have been away for a few weeks, neglecting the blog and visiting friends in Vermont, and the trip only reinforced for me one simple fact about the state. That is:

There are two Vermonts.

The first is populated by carpenters, insurance salesmen, teachers, store owners and truck drivers. It is spread out over the whole state in well-lived-in homes. The people go to work in the morning and come home to their families in the evening. They worry about money, about the kids, whether the alternator on the Ford needs replacing and if it’s going to be a hard winter. (It is).

They live in one of the nation’s most beautiful states, covered with green trees on green mountains. Water rolls down rocks and courses through rivers. In the fall, it flames out like a bonfire. blog fall tree birchfire

But there is that other Vermont, too. And you run into it too often. It is concentrated in a few congested areas. It is a Vermont of shopping for souvenirs, a Vermont of “Old Country Stores” and “Village Inns.” It is a simulacrum of a Vermont that some people like to pretend once existed: It is now made manifest and you can buy maple syrup there, and cheese wheels — or miniature wheels, anyway, since no one really wants 10 or 20 pounds of cheddar stinking up the trunk of their car.blog weston store traffic

This second Vermont is a designer Vermont and they take Visa. You can see it in towns like Woodstock and Queechee, where parking is the first concern of town planning. The buildings all have glossy new coats of paint and you have to look close to see if it isn’t really vinyl siding.

This is a Disneyland version of New England: There is the tall-steepled church in the center of town, the old post office, town meeting hall and the old country store: Usually a half dozen of them, with large parking lots.

A sure indication you should avoid them: Stay away from anything with the words “old” and “country” blazoned on its front. Like the Old-Tyme Country Frozen Yogurt stand.

Take my word for it, no old-line Vermonter is going to do his shopping in a store where, when you open the front door, you are asphyxiated with the odor of potpourri.blog vt country store side

The Vermont Country Store in Weston is a wonderful place to spend money, if that is your idea of fun. But it is about as close to the community stores of Vermont’s past as the computer is to the abacus. It pretends to be one of those village dry goods stores, but inside, it spreads out the size of a Walmart. There are toys, candles, maple syrup in bottles shaped like maple leaves; there are sweaters, watch caps, rubber boots, all emblazoned with the logo of the store, or the iconic maple leaf, or something cute, like “Mom and Dad went to Vermont and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.”

And, of course, the “world’s greatest dad” coffee mug.

And everything for at least twice the price you could buy it elsewhere, if you even had the bad taste to want to buy such stuff.

And then, there are the shopping malls, with their factory outlet shops. I know when I want gourmet kitchen tools, Vermont is the first thing that pops into my mind. You can’t leave without an air-operated wine corker or a stainless-steel spaghetti spoon.blog stone wall

The great difference between the first and second Vermonts is that the first is nearly empty. You can drive for miles without bumping into any traffic more intense than a farm tractor pulling a hayrick into a field or a propane delivery truck pulling out of its lot.

But in the second Vermont, it is bumper to bumper with Volvos and Lexuses (or is that Lexi?) People leave their teeming cities behind for a relaxing vacation in rural villages teeming with city dwellers. There are kids with ice cream dripping on their Nikes, wives looking for the perfect butter mold — as if they ever made butter in their lives — and husbands trying on “I (heart) Vermont” ballcaps.

Those tourist towns want to pretend they are a remnant of a lost time. A time when all grandmothers made gingerbread and all schools had just one room; a time when life was simpler and boys pulled girls’ pigtails. And every bit of it a lie. blog tree break

I’m reminded of this once again, as we traveled to Vermont this month to visit friends who grew up there on what was once a farm but is now a group of sublots with new houses on them. She complains of the traffic on the gravel road in front of her house, when cars go by on the average of once every 35 minutes or so.

And it is autumn, and the hill opposite her house is electrified by birches and maples turned neon. And there is a dry, cold bite to the air. And we cannot help but think, this is as close to paradise as you can get on this planet. As long as you avoid the tourists.