Autumn's dark brilliance a gentle uncertainty
BALTIMORE — There is no certainty that the fall will continue to be the pallid travesty it has been so far. Nor can we be sure of a happier outcome. We've had yellows aplenty here in our region around mid-Atlantic Maryland, golds even, but only hints of red in the gleaming sugar maples and tulip poplars. But where were the strong iron reds, the deep purples? Can we blame the drought, or a summer that stayed on like an unthoughtful guest?
Fall fiddles with the mind: It withholds the knowledge of what to expect, as well as the strategies to respond to whatever that turns out to be.
Other seasons are clearer: summer, an idyll of unreflective pleasure; spring, fanciful hopes, the daring exuberance of weddings; winter, the lair of despondency from which we are rescued, over and over again.
Upon some, the autumnal mists, the oblique light, the mellow reds and purples and blazing golds, impose a nagging melancholy. But it is not so burdensome as it may seem. Autumn's soft anguish stands far removed from real tragedy. And these regrets or anxieties, though important to those who are weighed down by them, come and go gently with this season.
On me, fall bestows uncertainty and indecision. I can see this state of mind coming as far ahead as late July when the first covert leaf flutters down dried up and dull an unlovely herald of the brilliant cascades of October and November when all the deciduous citizens that populate every forest and park unburden themselves.
I don't look forward to this inevitable change in my state of mind. Yet, I welcome it. The uncertainty that I slip into at this time of year banishes the cloying complacency of summer; it is far less fanciful, steadier, than it was in spring with its over-the-top probabilities; it is blithe when compared with the glum, dark skirts of winter.
The uncertain mind in autumn is a more interesting place to be than all these. This is Hamlet's famous affliction, which comes to the fore during the dark brilliance of the season, the hovering time of paradox when nothing is being resolved, and everything is awakening to its slumbering force.
"He is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty," said Samuel Johnson, who hobbled about London's dank 18th-century streets, picking up new words for his dictionary. Then I am unwise, for I would trade the summer, spring, and of course winter, in a trice for this season. After all, what is so great about certainty? What if your certainty is wrong? Isn't that worse than having none?
Other people may think the way I do on this matter, and embrace this autumnal mixing up of the mind. But no animal does, from the smallest to the largest, all of them, they know precisely what they must do. Caterpillars go to bed; bears turn in as well. Birds fly south. Stags rut. I admire the obstinate way they direct their lives. Their behavior so clearly differentiates us as creatures, or at least it separates them from the creature whose name is printed above this little confessional essay.
Richard O'Mara is a former editor at The Baltimore Sun.