That Touch of Autumn

Did you feel it this morning, that touch of Autumn?

Those of us in the Nation’s Capital woke up to temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s – that’s in the 12-16 degree range, for my non-American readers.  With low humidity and a crispness in the air, it was the first real sign that Fall is on the way.  Yes, it will be hot and humid later, and yes, it will be hot and humid all weekend for those of us who did not have the possibility of getting out of town this weekend for the Labor Day holiday.  However, this morning was quite the preview of coming attractions, since for me Autumn is the absolute best time of year to be in Washington.

It’s rather appropriate that this first hit of Autumn to come fell today, when the Church remembers the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist.  You’ll remember from the Bible how St. John was executed when Salome, step-daughter of King Herod, asked for the prophet’s head as a reward for her dancing.  Like Salome, this is the time of year when the Earth, in this part of the world, begins to drop her veils, one by one, until by Winter she is completely bare.

Now for those of you who are “Team Summer”, and who like this scrivener live in an area with distinct seasons, this is the worst of all possible worlds, I know.  You enjoy being sweaty, dirty, and sunburnt.  You enjoy being attacked by insects, or being stuck in transit/traffic for hours when the air conditioning doesn’t work.  You enjoy the chaffing of sandals or flip-flops tearing up the back of your heels, or constantly adjusting those shorts that bunch up when you sit down.  In other words, you like to suffer.

For the rest of us, deliverance is at hand.

It’s soon time for clothing where anyone can both look good and feel comfortable, not just the genetic anomalies.  Drinks can be lingered over and savored, rather than rushed down before the ice melts.  The food will be flavorful and filling and bountiful, not limited by the phrase, “It’s so hot I’m not really hungry.”

There will be celebrations to prepare, requiring far more attention than the three Summer holidays of Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day, which generally involve, at best, a trip to the grocery store for some burgers and buns, and not much else.  Yet as Autumn gets underway, Halloween leads to Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving leads to Advent, and Advent leads to Christmas. Many of us even get Columbus Day and Veteran’s Day thrown in for good measure, just to have some extra time off or a change of pace.

Now be assured, I’m not forgetting the importance or the significance of any of these holidays, before someone starts to complain.  Rather the simple truth is, Autumn is a time for celebration. We gather in the products of the land, and we enjoy the hard work that went into growing them, and we have very fun ways of going about doing so which do not involve the charade of pretending that we can still live out in the open air like our ancient ancestors did, so long as we have enough propane for the grill and citronella for the tiki torches.

No, give me the cold honesty of Autumn over the pretend joys of Summer any day.  The Fall reveals character. I’m looking forward to seeing the colors of the geology and chemistry of the planet, now hidden under a mask of chlorophyll.  As growing things go dormant, each leaf reveals a uniqueness belied by the uniform green, no two the same.  We see things as they are, not in uniformity but in a huge range of colors and shades of colors, everything from scarlet red to mustard yellow to deep purple.

And similarly, when we can all get out of the blazing sun and actually sit down and see each other, without the need for sunglasses or umbrellas or the like, the chill causing us to draw a little bit closer together for warmth, I believe we’ll all be the better for it.

Detail of "Salome Dancing Before Herod" by Gustave Moreau (1876) Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Detail of “Salome Dancing Before Herod” by Gustave Moreau (1876)
Armand Hammer Museum, Los Angeles


No Nation of Whiners

Last evening I attended a going-away event for an academic friend, who is departing the Nation’s Capital for a more pastoral, albeit equally academic, clime.  Afterwards, another friend and I walked to a nearby cafe, where we had just finished dinner and were enjoying some beverages, when a torrential downpour began, looking and sounding something like a hurricane.  The storm seemed to last for hours, though truthfully the worst of it was probably closer to about 20 minutes.

We had to wait some time for the storm to pass, and when I finally managed to return home it was to find the house unscathed. However my neighbors’ tree, the upper part of which has always loomed very high and very menacingly over the back yard, had split.  The leaning part had crashed into the street behind our houses, and as of this writing is still sitting there, entangled in the utility pole and wires that run behind our block.

Fortunately on its way down the tree managed to miss any actual damage to the property and, at least as of this writing, we still have power in this block. Many people are without, in what has been described as the largest non-hurricane-related power outage in this area’s history.  Predictions are that we will be getting some more strong storms in Washington this evening, which makes me think that we may end up losing more power, including here.  Some are predicting that it may take a week to fully restore power in the metropolitan area, and with extremely high temperatures and the 4th of July coming up, things are going to be a mess.

It is not until these sorts of things happen that we realize how very dependent we are in the Western world on a certain set of comforts.  If it is hot, we have air conditioning, or we can go to someplace which has it, to feel relaxed and cool; yet just the other day I heard someone complaining on a city bus that it was too cold, on a day when it was well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37+ Centigrade) outside.  If it is cold, we have central heating to keep us nice and warm – but then we complain that we are hot, or that the re-circulated warm air dries out the house.

The truth is, most of us have nothing to complain about.  As they approached the 4th of July, for example, the founding fathers found themselves in sultry summertime Philadelphia, sweating through layers upon layers of stinking woolen clothing with no real hope of relief.  They worked in conditions which we, their political descendants, would find intolerable, to try to rationally come up with a document to declare their own fundamental beliefs and principles as to why they should form their own government.

Fortunately for them a summer storm broke the heatwave right around the 4th itself. For us, the best that most of us can do is tweet that it is hot and we need some more ice cubes from the freezer but are too lazy to get up and fix ourselves a drink.  This is perhaps a sad commentary on the intellectually and morally flabby state of this country.

The freedoms we enjoy in this country are not free: they were quite literally sweated and bled over.  It is why the Fortnight For Freedom is so important, and it is also why, whatever inconveniences you may be suffering right now in this heat or as a result of a loss of power, you ought to simply do your best to make the best of the circumstances.  In the grand scheme things, the passage of this heatwave and storms across a large swath of the U.S., while dangerous, is for most of us an inconvenience, rather than something whose importance ought to be exaggerated.

My advice is: reach out to your friends and neighbors, if they or you are without power, and get to know one another better by spending time together. Unlike in a blizzard, you are not isolated. And who knows what good may come of your meetings, even if not as portentous as the ones in Philadelphia 200 years ago.

Detail of “Drafting of the Declaration of Independence”
by Jean-Leon Gerome Ferris (1900)
Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virgina