Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Descriptions of Autumn: Ray Bradbury and Poul Anderson

Before autumn abandons us completely, if it hasn’t done so already, I want to share a few favorite and long-cherished passages describing it—in this “blog for all seasons”—and invite others to submit favorite readings of their own, whether recent or from the past.  To save time and space, I’ll include just two writers, Ray Bradbury and Poul Anderson, both in science fiction (and the ties between SF and autumn could make a separate blog of its own). 
One aspect of fall is the mood of change, the transience that makes for an invigorating, and yet subdued, dynamic feel:  the freshness of the new colors, the time speeded up and each day bringing something different.  After summer’s doldrums and humid haze, the sky clears, the winds grow brisk, and the low sun paints late-afternoon golds.  Each tree asserts its uniqueness with its own color and stands out from the forest crowd.  The time is vivid, painted, festive, with its longer twilights and nights orange-lit with decorations.  But the fat pumpkins are deteriorating, the leaves drying and crackling away, the harvests over-ripening, and the strong colors quickly withdrawing. 
Ray Bradbury in the short story “The Emissary” (from The October Country) describes a boy who is sick and confined to his bed, but who gets information about the outside world and season through his dog: 

            Martin knew it was autumn again, for Dog ran into the house bringing wind and frost and a smell of apples turned to cider under trees.  In dark clock-springs of hair, Dog fetched goldenrod, dust of farewell-summer, acorn-husk, hair of squirrel, feather of departed robin, sawdust from fresh-cut cordwood, and leaves like charcoals shaken from a blaze of maple trees.  Dog jumped.  Showers of brittle fern, blackberry vine, marsh-grass sprang over the bed where Martin shouted.  No doubt, no doubt of it at all, this incredible beast was October.  (104)
Note the emphasis on change:  apples turned to cider, “farewell-summer,” a “departed” robin, the ferns “brittle,” and the image of burning in “leaves like charcoals shaken from a blaze of maple trees.” 
A similar passage that again stresses exuberance, color, and change, is taken from Poul Anderson’s early SF novel, Brain Wave: 

            Autumn again, and winter in the air.  The fallen leaves lay in heaps under the bare dark trees and hissed and rattled across the ground with every wind.  Only a few splashes of color remained in the woods, yellow or bronze or scarlet against grayness. 
           Overhead the wild geese passed in great flocks, southward bound.  There was more life in the sky this year—fewer hunters, Brock supposed.  The remote honking drifted down to him, full of wandering and loneliness.  It was a clear pale blue up there, the sun wheeled bright and heatless, spilling its coruscant light across a broad and empty land.  The wind was strong, flowing around his cheeks and flapping his clothes, the trees were noisy with it.  (113-114)

Here too are details of transience:  winter soon to come, only few splashes of color remaining, the wild geese migrating and their sound filled with “wandering and loneliness.”  Anderson’s novel covers several years and uses the descriptions of the seasons to indicate time changes.  Also, the subject-matter of the book is change itself:  the Earth moves out of a large inhibiting field in space and thus the intelligence of every person on Earth increases, forcing humanity to cope with the change.  (This sense of transformation is one of the ties between SF and autumn—SF assumes historical, sociological, and technological change, while autumn is the naturally recurring state of change.)
Another aspect of autumn is “mystery,” its slight and playful and yet always latent sense of horror, mostly childish but sometimes not.  Halloween, ghosts, headless horsemen, scarecrows, hounds, flaking labyrinth cornfields at night, barren tree limbs exposing full moons or needle-sharp stars.  Ray Bradbury in his “Pillar of Fire” catches this edginess in contrasting the season’s stillness with its fiery-consumption when a zombie “resurrects” and longs to feel his environment again:

The smells of the world were all about him.  Frustratedly, he tried to smell the smells of autumn.   Autumn was burning the land down into ruin.  All across the country the ruins of summer lay; vast forests bloomed with flame, tumbled down timber on empty, unleafed timber.  The smoke of the burning was rich, blue, and invisible.   (141)
Instead of quaint or pretty images we get “ruins,” forests that “bloomed with fire” and “tumbled down,“ the smoke of this burning strangely “invisible” or only blue sky.
And then, used as the introduction to a seminal fall work, Bradbury writes:

OCTOBER COUNTRY . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year.  That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.  That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun.  That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts.  Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . . 

All the images are of mystery, insubstantiality, vague boundaries, darknesses, and people penetrated by or composed of autumn itself.  The season here is not a backdrop but a determinant, a powerful force that doesn’t just represent change but can reach out and change you. 
Other aspects of autumn can be seen (like location—it’s mostly a northeast American experience), as well as more ties to science fiction (like other planets made to be like “autumn” planets—see Poul Anderson’s “The Mills of the Gods” in his Orbit Unlimited, maybe a subject for a future blog), but I want to invite people to send me their own favorite passages of autumn.  Plenty are out there, so help me gather more—before the season disappears for yet another year.  

The works quoted were read long ago but they still impress:

Anderson, Poul.  Brain Wave.  1954.  Anthony Boucher, ed.  A Treasury of Great Science Fiction.    
        Vol. 2.  New York:  Doubleday, 1959.  7-119.
________________.  Orbit Unlimited.  New York:  Pyramid, 1961.
Bradbury, Ray.  “Pillar of Fire.”  1948.  Anthony Boucher, ed.  A Treasury of Great Science Fiction.  
        Vol. 1.  New York:  Doubleday, 1959.  141-169.
Bradbury, Ray.  "The Emissary."  The October Country.  New York:  Ballantine, 1956.  104-111.

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