Saturday, October 2, 2010


Walking through the fall woods, suddenly I make a realization: All squirrels have granite countertops. You think you are cool, stepping up to the de rigueur symbol of attainment in today's world? You secretly go into your kitchen in the middle of the night, don't you, and stroke that cold, shiny, black money with which you've lined the counters, don't you?

I don't know if squirrel society has its yuppie class--"My work surface is bigger and flatter than yours"; "My tree is a Lexus, you Corolla-dwelling commoner"--but I see the evidence of their winter food preparation occurring all through the forest, on low, wide rocks. They have left the crumbled shells of acorns behind. They are getting ready.

Should I be getting ready, too? Oh, I forgot. I have ShopRite. Any week of the year, I can get bananas and strawberries (they blow, of course, but they look like strawberries). Maybe I should be getting, you know, psychologically ready.

For autumn is a little death. (Hardly as pleasant as the French variety; I don't feel like fully explaining the petite mort reference now, or especially why I thought to make it. Never mind, please.) It's the part where things die in preparation for rebirth; that old wheel, turning, turning. Reruns. Endless reruns on the TV of life. This is partly why some people get depressed around September. Others of us are remembering the gut-searing anxiety of the school year. Why? What was so damn terrifying about it?

Perhaps it only was for me. To tell you the honest truth, I don't know if I'm even reasonably normal, or if I'm like the kind of godawful psychological wreck that people can only talk about in private, it's that bad--and that irredeemable. There's no value in telling her . . . they think to themselves.

This is like going through life not knowing if you are a blonde or a brunette.

I guess I won't be finding out at this point. But it remains that I still do not know what I feared so deeply about the post-summer return to campus that to this day, decades later, gossamer butterflies still beat their ghost wings against my ribcage at the approach of fall.

And then--they cease. Or maybe migrate. I am no longer afraid, just eager. There is a use to be put for all of it: the shorter days (more work, more reading, more movies watched in bed); the cold (bracing walks, with Nelly bounding after squirrels, zinging with energy all of a sudden, coming to a dead-square unmoving of such magnitude she makes of herself a statue of watchfulness; then bounds away again, and I am filled with loving admiration of her skills, herself); the holidays (more excuses for prosecco). The negative curmudgeon in me deplores the smarmy, featherbrain's phrase, but fall and winter indeed make me think, Hey, it's all good! Fires in the fireplace, too: oh, yes.

The squirrels don't think it's all, or even a little, good. It's life and death. Edging closer to the latter every minute. Unaware, the heedless driver of a two-ton weapon runs over the mate busily helping put in stores for the lean time ahead--I have seen one half of a couple rush out in disbelief to investigate the corpse of the newly dead partner--and I have no problem (indeed, no particle of doubt) believing the survivor feels the sharp knife of grief, and hopelessness, and terror. And that she weeps.

Why should we have been singled out by evolution as the only animal to experience sadness, and to respond with the full range of emotion to it? It makes no sense whatsoever. And the biological world, if nothing else, is scrupulously logical.

Welcome fall. Fear it, only a bit. And drive exceedingly carefully, for the squirrels are en route to their luxuriously appointed kitchens. They have serious work to do.


ronald said...


Well said. The Japanese have a term, "mujokan," which indicates the awareness of the fleeting nature of existence. Traditionally, they identify it in the spring, with the falling of the cherry blossoms, which signal both the end and the beginning - the planting of the rice sprouts out of their trays and the work in the fields.

But for me the autumn has always been the month of loss, even more than the dreaded dead of winter when the hush lies on the ground as a crystalline fractured ice blanket descending over a stream. Chaucer described the Noël season as one of recouping strength and looking forward to the time after Capricorn. Conversely, the autumn provides no promise, no hint of re-embodiment. The last great splurge before hibernation darkens our lives in the lamp of Morpheus and strangles life from the trees.

Be well.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

This weekend I stumbled on another opportunity to reflect on our once-upon-a-time (pre-ShopRite era) similarity to the squirrels, and to the rest of our furry brethren: a neighborhood cider pressing.

A fellow not far from here buys up windfall apples, then has the whole neighborhood over for a potluck celebration of life's persistence through the dead season. A hit-or-miss engine drives the old cider press, they fill people's jugs, we all wander around outside eating and talking, and then we take home our cider. The pulp goes into a big pile at the edge of the woods, and I imagined the scene at about 1 a.m. that night: a circle of feasting deer, a bear scattering them, and the coyotes at a watchful distance in the field beyond.

I had the sense we were participating, however unknowing and however "made up" for our convenience-riddled time, in something quite ancient.

Far less poetic than your observations, Ronald. But anyway.

Then the fellow who had the party, his wife explained to me, shut up their old farmhouse and decamp to their warm apartment in the city for the winter. The city never sleeps. And it never experiences the death before the life.