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I wrote, by actual word count, two-and-a-half million words during my 25-year career at The Arizona Republic. I retired in 2012 and couldn’t stop. Since then, I have written another million words for this blog. As I have said before, a writer never really retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

There is also a collection of five years worth of monthly essays written for The Spirit of the Senses web journal, which averages out to something like another hundred thousand words. The monthly essay gives me a deadline, something I miss terribly since leaving the newspaper. 

I loved my work. My editors will tell you, that even when I went on vacation, I came back with a packet of travel stories. I worked even when I wasn’t working. I don’t know if it is a blessing or a curse, but I am saddled with that stupid Protestant work ethic — even though I haven’t been a Protestant since childhood. It feels wrong, morally delinquent, if I am not producing something to justify my continued existence on this planet. 

And I wasn’t just a writer. I also made photographs, artwork, and sometimes even typography for the stories I wrote. And for the continuing blog, I continue to fill it with my own images. Before I was a writer, I was a photographer: I have had gallery shows and self-published books. I remind myself of William Blake’s mythical figure of Los, whose job in the cosmos is to create a chain of links forever; he cannot help himself — indeed his very definition is his production. 

In my case, it is to invent a project and then work on it. And whenever I feel I have sat on my duff too long, I work up another. And this covid “vacation” has left me too inactive, too dulled out. And so, yesterday, I set off with my camera. 

It is November and the sun is lower in the sky, and that “certain slant of light” creates long shadows and teases out any textures to be had. Bark on trees becomes rougher, pebbles on gravel roads become sharper, the scribble-lines of leafless trees in the woods, cross each other like Jackson Pollock paint drips. The sunlight is less bright, but more incisive. Late afternoon becomes a drama. 

And so, my project for yesterday was to drive the back roads of Buncombe County, North Carolina and see if I could capture some of that feeling. (Today’s project is to write this and post the pictures). 

U.S. 70 runs east-west through the mountains east of Asheville, and a series of back roads parallel the highway, with many spurs heading back into the coves nested between the hills. I drove up each one for miles until the pavement ran out, stopping to make photographs whenever I saw something that caught my eye and I didn’t have to block traffic to snap the shutter. 

The trip alone was restorative. The pandemic keeps too many of us holed up in our houses. We watch way too much Netflix. Sit too much. Eat too much. Getting out in the nippy air seemed healthier even than a workout at the gym. 

Asheville sits in a broad, flat-ish valley. Mountains are all around, including the tallest in the East. U.S. 70 runs along the Swannanoa Mountains and south of the Black Mountains and the back roads snooker up into the crenelations between peaks, always coming to an end at the foot of some steep incline. 

Waterfalls wash under culverts and lines of mailboxes sit by the road where a dirt drive heads up into the trees. It is late fall, not yet winter. The trees have not lost all their leaves, but many of them are bare skeletons, or have a shag of hangers-on, dry as cellophane. 

I drove for about four hours, until the sun was so low, whole mountainsides were darkened on eastern side and their shadows drowned out by grayness. In all, I wound up with about 70 images, of which about half were decent enough to edit into a set. I usually think of my photographs in sets, rather than as individual images, the way a novel is not simply discreet chapters. In the past, I would print them out as “books” and show them that way. 

Now I no longer have a darkroom, nor an art-grade digital printer. My publication preference is the blog. I have posted quite a few sets of photographs over these past eight years. 

In this posting are a sampling of the photos I’m calling “A Certain Slant of Light,” after the poem by Emily Dickenson. I am 72 years old and nearing the end of my own day. My own shadows are bringing out the texture of my selfness. Things like the lowering sun speak to me ever more than they did when I was young and had no meaningful idea of an end. 

And so, perhaps these images have more emotional import for me than for my viewers (or readers). I cannot help that. After all, I began writing this blog not for its potential readers (although I always hope what I write is worth the time it takes to read them), but for myself. I write because I have to. I make photographs because I have to. I breathe because I have to. 

The landscape listens — shadows — hold their breath. 

Click any image to enlarge

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. 

Fall color reflected in surface of Walden Pond, Concord, Mass.

Fall color reflected in surface of Walden Pond, Concord, Mass.

Four seasons may seem like enough. Maybe for a resort hotel. It is the conventional way to divvy  up the annual circumambulation of the sun. But four is an arbitrary number. In some places, two seasons are all there is, rainy season and dry season, or in Arizona: unbearable heat, and respite from unbearable heat.

And even in those climes where the traditional four account for our calendar, there are really any number of discernible seasons: Indian summer, midwinter spring, mud season. In Maine, there’s black fly season; there’s tourist season at the Jersey shore. Many places have their annual infestations.

Some of the most interesting moments of the annual cycle are those that fall between the seasons, those moments that are neither quite winter nor quite spring, or neither summer nor fall.

Of these, my favorite has always been that slip in time between autumn and the harder breath of winter — when the color has passed from the cheeks of the trees but not all the leaves have dropped to gather in soft, brittle piles on the ground.

It was like that near the end of October at Walden Pond in Massachusetts, about 30 miles west of Boston. The Canada geese were flying south in droves across the crisp sky, the alders at water’s edge were naked except for the tiny seed cone at the tip of each branch. The pond water was beginning to chill, but not so much that the fish lost their will to bite the hook.

Walden Pond is a small kettle pond, left in place just south of Concord by the glaciers that covered the land 10,000 years ago. It is essentially a dimple left in the ground by the weight of the ice. When the ice melted, the water remained in the depression.

Around the pond, the land rises up in places something like 20 feet above the water level in formations the geologists call ”eskers,” which are the loose junk left behind by the ice. The twin tracks of the railroad run along the back side of the pond.

On the October morning, before the sun arises, the temperature is in the low 40s and desert-dry. You can see the light catch in the tops of the trees along the heights of the eskers and slowly descend into the water as the morning progresses. walden pond aerial view

Walden is an oblong stretch of lake, with one shallow bubble along its northeastern side. A bit of the lake is cordoned off by a footpath causeway, leaving a shallow lagoon trapped in the backwater.

Most of the trees’ leaves have dropped, leaving only the maroon of the red maple and the bright tan of the beech tree still hanging. A huge number of the leaves have collected on the surface of the lagoon, making it look as if it were paved in tree droppings.

On the water, about 50 yards out, I can see four ducks buzzing along, with their necks held flat on the water and their faces half-submerged as they wiggled their heads back and forth, gleaning a meal from the detritus of the pond. As they swam this way and that, moving like feathered zambonis, each left a wake behind it cleared of leaves.

Immediately, what had seemed a randomly mottled pond surface of tree-junk took on order and meaning as the old ”contrails” remained, leaving the water scratched with a history of duck dinners. Their names may have been ”writ in water,” as Keats had it, but those signatures had persistence.

I crouched down at the mucky edge of the water and waited. Patience pays off. The ducks slowly swam my way. Twenty minutes later, they were so close I could have stroked their slick, waterproof feathers. One started and flew off, leaving two females and a single male mallard. They scooted in circles, clapping their bills through the jetsam. One of the females came up to the water’s edge where I knelt down and began poking her beak into the mud. She found something to eat and continued.

A small boy approached on the path, calling back to his mother. I looked at him, put my finger to my lips to hush him and pointed at the birds. He looked briefly and walked right past. I wondered what he could have been racing to find that wasn’t right here: three ducks in arm’s reach.

It was early on a Sunday morning and the path around Walden Pond had perhaps 10 hikers on it. It is about a mile and a half to circumambulate the pond, so it never seemed crowded.

In addition, there were a dozen or so fishermen standing at the western and southern ends of the pond with their poles anchored in the sand and bobbing weights hanging like goiters from the poles.

”What do you catch?” I asked one.

”Trout. Rainbows and brookies,” he said in that dodgy Boston accent. ”This is our second time out this year” — said as “yee-ah” — “and we haven’t caught anything yet. There’s a fellow down the way there who pulled in a couple of them this morning.”

When I got to him, he had them strung on a line and submerged back in the water about three feet out. Each was about a foot long, one was speckled.

”Mighty good eating,” was all he said.

By the time I made it all the way around the pond, the sun was up and the temperature had climbed into the upper 50s. The light gleamed on the bark of the tree trunks and glared on the remaining leaves.

A century and a half ago, when Walden Pond first became known to a wider public, it was a quiet place, a few miles outside of town, where only the muskrats and crows came for recreation.

The silence was shattered only momentarily when the train to Fitchburg came through. Nowadays, a road passes right by the pond, and a divided highway sits only a quarter-mile away.

The sound as you walk across the far shore of the pond is a constant but subdued roar of whizzing cars, mixed with an occasional jet airplane and the same railroad commotion.

Oddly, though, as you walk around to the edge of the pond nearest the highway, its noise becomes blocked by the esker and the pond seems quiet once more.

Journalism is a funny profession, because its readers read about what happened yesterday and its reporters are writing what will be published tomorrow. It has little use for today.

But a day as distinct as this one on Walden Pond, in the cusp between the seasons, speaks only of the deliberate now, the specific and incandescent moment, as thin and sensuous as the membrane of the water’s surface as you stick your arm through it to pick a pebble from the pond’s bottom.