Bare Ruin’d choirs season
“That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”
— Excerpt fromShakespeare’s Sonnet #73
I feel a kind of sorrow in my body at this time of year, as if my very cells are sad. I know I am not the only one. Being middle-aged, and having had lots of practice, I take a Buddhist approach to seasonal feelings. I try to observe them rather than get thrown for a loop. I muse about what is behind the feelings.
My autumn dip in mood has to do with the lower sun angle, the short days and long nights. It has to do with the closing down of our garden for the season, that loss of whimsy, cut flowers and food. Our garden is a place my body likes to be.
But there is more to my rhythms than that. I think our connection to the land is profound, and that it shapes our days more than we realize.
I read this week a naturalist’s view that selling our homes and moving so often disconnects us from the earth and allows us to be coarse stewards. Instead, he thinks we should remain where we are, we should marry a place.
This reminds me of a woman I knew years ago who had lived all over the world as a kid because her father had been in the Army. She had finally settled, she owned her own home. She said she was staying put. They were going to have to bury her in her backyard.
To marry to a place, like she had, you would first feel love for that house, that piece of land. You would commit to it, treat it tenderly, and let it be who it needed to be. I know marrying a place is an abstract idea. There are many good, practical reasons to sell a house and move. In theory, the advantage of staying, though, is that our attachment to one particular place might educate our imaginations, and we might feel a lively personal stake in other places as well.
My husband, too, moved often as a child, and while he is a lover of bungalows, and our house is a rambler, we’ve stayed put for 15 years. We have a poetic resonance with our house. It was built the year my husband was born. We raised our daughter here. I grew up in a rambler, and wrote a memoir about that experience here.
If you are married to a place, just as if you are married to a person, you come up against less than desirable qualities and are stuck with them. How to handle that? I just read about a man and a woman who were asked what had made their long, happy marriage possible. “Our ability to ignore certain things,” he said.
My husband recently showed me a passage from a book called “Quarrel with the King,” by Adam Nicolson. Nicolson quotes a popular text from 1607 on what land meant and how it was cared for in early modern England. Here is the passage: “If it be not fed with nutriture, and comforted and adorned with the most expedient commodities, it will pine away, and become forlorne, as the mind that hath no rest or recreation, waxeth lumpish and heavy.” Nicolson states, “The land’s bodily nature needed to be attended to.”
We don’t seem to think much about what land means, let alone what its bodily needs are. When my husband is hurt, I feel a kind of body empathy with him. When he shows me a small cut or bruise, I feel a charge through my whole nervous system. I wince in sympathy. I am married to his body. I love the notion that the earth’s body needs comfort, like we do, and without it, it will feel forlorn.
I wonder if we have an affinity for the land we aren’t aware of. People look older at this time of year. We are all going dormant, we are stripped bare like trees. Could it be that the earth, in these high latitudes, at this time of year, with light low, and plants heading for dormancy, is in what you might call a low mood, and therefore so are we?
We would be good earth spouses, and better off ourselves, if we attended to the land’s bodily needs.
Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.