"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, September 26, 2014

A New England Fall–Once Is Enough

Phelan Rand was indifferent to New England Fall.  He had grown up in Connecticut amidst “the fiery reds and bright yellows framed against an azure sky in a green, grassy meadow”, as the state Bureau of Tourism and Hospitality had written, but Fall to him meant raking the fiery reds and bright yellows once they had fallen from the maples and birches along his family’s patch of Adams Street.  Fall was also the harbinger of cold weather and the snow which he had to shovel.

More than anything, however, was the fatal similarity of it all.  Fall in New England was exactly like the Bureau of Tourism posters – or the other way around.  Fall had a settled feel to it, and each year Phelan had a strong sense of déjà vu.

He had stood right here on the 14th hole of Sylvan Meadows Country Club under a deep blue sky, looking over the expanse of the fairway and the precise contours of the green shaded by the 100 year old maple that had red, yellow, green, and brown leaves on it – a once-in-a-season phenomenon where the entire cycle of the deciduous tree was seen.  It wasn’t déjà vu at all.  The poster scene simply had come to life once again, on schedule, unsurprisingly, and predictably.

The feeling that he had each October was far from a blasé ‘been there, done that’, although obviously there was some weariness about the season that visitors from below the foliage line would never have. Tourists, in fact, were never disappointed by their treks north, for reality matched simulation each and every year. That is what turned routine into indifference for Phelan Rand.

There was another reason for his indifference.  A New England Fall seemed at times like a badly photoshopped image or a psychedelic memory. There was no subtlety, no muted range, and none of the pastels, delicate whites, mauves, and pinks of Spring.

One day while an undergraduate at Harvard, Phelan saw a notice of a lecture to be given by the university’s most noted philosophers, one who was as well-known in America as Derrida and Lacan in France.  The professor, as deeply engaged in postmodern deconstructionism as his French counterparts, chose to expand upon his radical theories by addressing Fall in New England.  What was the meaning of the black and white cow grazing in the meadow, he asked? What was the significance of the tableaux of fiery maples on the lawn of a Congregational church? 

As he deconstructed the familiar scene, he explained how absurd it was.  The cow was a symbol of domesticity, traditional values, and an ideal past.  The colorful trees in a field symbolized repetitive change and marked the false idea of the nobility of labor linked only to the seasons.  Taken as a whole, he said, the Norman Rockwell scene evokes oohs and ahs; but deconstructed it exposes the vanity of bourgeois imagery.

Phelan had never been one for postmodernism, deconstructing everything to be reassembled and viewed through the lens of historicism, gender, race, and ethnicity (Hamlet was definitely not the literary equivalent as a Toyota Owners’ Manual); but the lecture did give him a clue to his indifference to Fall.  When the pieces of the scene are looked at individually and understood as predictable signifiers to evoke nostalgia, reminiscence, and fond memories, they are indeed absurd.

After Phelan left Connecticut, he rarely returned, and certainly not for the Fall foliage. He turned his attentions South where everything was the diametric opposite to the brutally vivid scenes of October in Vermont. There were no iconic scenes of Florida as there were for New England.  No horse-drawn sleigh pulling happy, red-cheeked children to church at Christmas.  No daffodils in the park; and no Fall foliage. There is more meaning to a Southern, seasonless image of palm trees, palmettos, saw grass, and swamp reeds because they are always there.  There is subtlety in permanence. The winter sun reflects off the fronds of royal palms differently in winter than in summer.  The grass is moister in December than in May.  The floral scent is more pronounced in the summer humidity.

He spent many months travelling and living in Mississippi for the same reasons.  There were seasons, but most of the year was warm, and although the alligators were more sluggish in winter swamps, they were still the dark, wet, and spooky places of summer. Whether he drove or flew, the first breath of Southern air was a homecoming.   Once he left Memphis airport and crossed the state line into Mississippi, he rolled his windows down.  There was always a spicy, fragrant, and earthy smell – alluvial soil, tilled fields, a hint of the River, tobacco smoke.

Whenever he rolled through the cotton fields of the Delta whether in the late summer when white bolls extend to the horizon; or in the Spring when the plants are green and sprouting; or in the winter when the fields are brown and spare, he felt he was home. There were no seasonal icons here - just growing things, cultivated things, and harvested things.  He never missed New England and their dramatic seasonal changes. He left expectations, icons, and perennial tableaux behind when he headed south.

I can understand why families who live below the foliage line (the line below which Fall colors are muted and dull) head North.  Fall in New England is like a Technicolor movie, an amusement park with clowns and painted ladies, and for snacking during the show plenty of apples and cider. Subtlety doesn’t play well if you have driven five hundred miles.  It’s all about your money’s worth, well-spent at the Grand Canyon, Old Faithful, and Mount Rushmore.

For Phelan Rand, it was the city, not the rural countryside, which was his place to visit when he left his bayou home. Why would anyone want to buy a ticket to a one-dimensional display in New England when they could go to the greatest show on earth, New York City. In only one block there are wackos, wastrels, bums, Park Avenue matrons, models, runaways, gigolos, cokeheads, peg-legs, dwarves, and stunningly beautiful women. No place on earth – except perhaps Calcutta – can match the energy, diversity, excitement, and challenge of New York.  The ‘A’ Train is a rocket, Battery Park a hub, the Lower East side foreign, and there are more top restaurants on Amsterdam Avenue than anywhere west of the Hudson.

“Cities trump country every day of the year”, said Phelan.  There is no stock footage of New York. “You don’t go there to be amused”, he said, “but to be engaged.”

Phelan never bothered with game parks, jungle cruises, mountain-climbing, or sailing.  He was happy on Bayou La Fourche with yearly forays to New York, Paris, and London.

On a business trip to Madagascar, he had been repeatedly asked – hectored actually – to “see the lemurs’, an animal indigenous to the island and related to no other after so many millennia of separate evolution.  They are a cross between monkeys, raccoons, and squirrels, and Phelan had no interest whatsoever in visiting the Antananarivo Game Park.  He had no idea that they were as much of a natural icon as Fall foliage in New England, and there must be something wrong with him, expatriates thought, to refuse.

Phelan Rand understood all the arguments for nature.  He had read Thoreau, Wordsworth, and a hundred other writers who had drawn spiritual meaning, original beauty, and psychological serenity in the wood.  He understood leaf-peepers and their Technicolor joyrides north.  He just had no interest whatsoever.  As he got older this preference for either solitude or New York became more pronounced.  “I would rather read War and Peace every October rather than see the foliage again”, he said.

I am with him on that score.  I, like Phelan, have my own no-fly zones over miles of mountains, woods, lakes, and valley; and again like him, I find the New England foliage the most boring and uninspiring.  I have two interchangeable screen-savers on my computer – New York City and a grove of graceful palms.

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