The urge to wander, the beauty of staying put
Welcome to our penultimate book club post! For those who are new to Granola: I am very happy to have you here. Thank you for subscribing. Since June, we’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s classic book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and challenging ourselves to a simple outdoor challenge. (If I were to summarize the goals of this year’s outdoor challenge, it’s been this: get outside more, and pay better attention.)
This week, we will read Dillard’s autumn musings in Chapter 14. Even if you haven’t been a part of this year’s book club, I hope you’ll enjoy this chapter with us. So many different corners of our globe are currently experiencing some version of seasonal change. (Australia is moving toward its summer solstice, while we in the U.S. move toward our winter solstice.) This chapter is all about the restlessness and adventure that seasonal change offers.
I’ve also included some fun recipes and links below, for your enjoyment.
Cheers, and happy autumn,
In Chapter 14, “Northing,” Dillard considers the longing and change of autumn. Both creatures and humans are familiar with cycles of migration and movement when the temperatures change. (Though we humans don’t usually move around for seasonal reasons anymore.) “In the spring the wish to wander is partly composed of an unnamable irritation, born of long inactivity,” Dillard writes. “In the fall the impulse is more pure, more inexplicable, and more urgent.”
This chapter is full of gorgeous imagery. I love this description of fall leaves and trees:
“Mysterious streamers of color unrolled silently all about me, distant and near. Some color chips made the descent violently; they wrenched from side to side in a series of diminishing swings as if willfully fighting the fall with all thee tricks of keel and glide they could muster. Others spy straight down in tight, suicidal circles. Tulips had passed their leaves on my path, flat and bright as doubloons. I passed under a sugar maple that stunned me by its elegant unself-consciousness: it was as if a man on fire were to continue calmly sipping tea.”
Amid this riot of color, activity, and splendor, Dillard craves a movement and exploration of her own—but her craving is to move North, not South: to seek the source of cold and excitement that slips into so many corners of our world in October. “A kind of northing is what I wish to accomplish,” she writes, “a single-minded trek towards that place where any shutter left open to the zenith at night will record the wheeling of all the sky’s stars as a pattern of perfect concentric circles. I seek a reduction, a shedding, a sloughing off.”
I don’t know how many humans register feelings of restlessness or migration consciously. Those feelings are often buried underneath the surface of things. If you live in a place in which seasons do not visibly change, you may not relate as deeply to the shifts that Dillard describes here. Their import and impact are often regionally specific. That said, I do think there’s an impulse to explore that comes in the autumn; a desire to hike far-off hills, to collect leaves and uncover mossy stones, to see what lies around the bend in the road. I feel more like Bilbo Baggins in the fall.
But as Dillard explores here, we are often called to hold still—not to migrate—when the glorious splendor of winter comes to us. We wait for the “southing,” Dillard writes, and we embrace it as gift. The restless impulse to move, adventure, and migrate may be regionally specific. And even in such regions, we may not indulge in these impulses. Dillard quotes Abba Moses in this chapter: “Go and sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”
As Dillard contemplates the fall migrations of various creatures, I wonder whether she’s urging us humans to notice the ways other species notice. Migration is a reaction to countless factors in a creature’s surrounding environment. Many species are phenomenologically attuned to their places in a way we humans are not. They pick up on details of weather, plant, insect, and animal life that we breeze past.
Pause for a moment. Was this morning a bit colder than the last? Was it darker? Have you experienced your first frost yet? Are you noticing any differences in the bird visitors that frequent your garden? Which plants have stopped bearing fruits? Which fruits are finally ripe?
All these changes signal the end of summer and arrival of autumn. And our bodies do respond to these changes—whether in light, weather, sustenance, or all three—just as other creatures’ bodies do. When these changes are subconscious, I think we struggle against them. We try to live in perpetual summer, whether it’s good for us or not. When we take the time to attend, however, we account for the change. Fall might prompt us to change our plans, to switch gears, to slow down or to speed up. We have our own forms of migration that might take place. When we start to notice, we learn how to respond. We transform, even in our “cell.”
The autumn acorn transforms while holding still. Dillard observes its growth, and writes, “From a raw split in its husk burst a long white root that plunged like an arrow into the earth. The acorn itself was loose, but the root was fixed…. That acorn was pressured, blown, drive down with force and up with furl…” In one small corner of the world, everything can change.
In this way, attentiveness often leads to adaptation. Some creatures respond to fall changes by moving, like the geese and the monarch butterfly (Dillard talks about them quite a bit in this chapter). Other creatures respond with bodily changes: growing a winter coat, eating extra food, preparing their homes. Still others respond in and through the process of hibernation. Regardless, they are attuned enough to adapt.
Autumn adaptations often involve fall cleaning, putting rain coats back in the closet, and sweaters back on hangers. For me, they involve apple pie, chai tea, and pumpkin bread. But more importantly, fall often prompts me to stay home. To stop bustling around, and to slow down. Some creatures are meant to migrate. Some of us wait for the “southing” as gift.
How can we as humans become better attuned to our environment?
What can we learn from creatures that migrate in the fall and winter? What can we learn from the creatures that stick around?
What do you think it means to adapt well in new seasons of life?
This week’s outdoor challenge:
Go exploring! Find a new corner of the world to meander through.
Pay attention to any/all seasonal changes in your corner of the world. What has changed in the last few weeks? What has stayed the same? What is blooming? What is dying?
My kiddos and I will be doing a nature walk this Friday, collecting leaves that we can sketch in our nature journals.
We are hard at work preserving late summer / early autumn fruits over here. I wanted to share a few recipes with you!
Plum bars with crumble topping. Add lemon or orange zest to the shortbread crust!
A glorious French apple cake.
Grape jelly for all your PB&J needs.