The Best Way to Enjoy Fall


Havre de Grace -- The fall is an unsettling season for some of us, and personally I blame Henry for that.

Henry understands and appreciates the fall as well as anyone, and reminds me each year that the absolutely best way to enjoy it -- he doesn't say "experience" it, not being from California -- is to get into a small boat and follow some winding waterway through the heart of a rural landscape.

Henry did that years ago with his brother, and never lets me forget about it. Each fall, prodded by Henry, it occurs to me once again that although I don't have a brother I do have a small boat, and I do know some wonderful waterways not far from home -- and wouldn't it be great to get into the boat and drift off for a week down bays and creeks where the marshes are turning orange and geese go honking by in the cold clear nights?

But even though Henry took such a mystical journey, I can't ever quite manage it, what with fences to mend and errands to run, children to chauffeur and deadlines to meet, livestock to care for and firewood to split. These are important and worthwhile activities, and mostly enjoyable as well, but always at this time of year there's a strange yearning that makes me restive and fidgety.

Often, late on an October afternoon, I'll get in the boat and idle down the channel toward the Fishing Battery and Spesutia Island, or head across the Susquehanna Flats to the mouth of Furnace Bay. If there's time I might try to catch a rockfish. Always I watch for loons, which usually show up before the end of the month.

The water stretches away before me, sometimes a poignant October blue, sometimes an austere wintry gray, but always alluring. If I kept on going, think of all I'd see! Coves where I've never been. Familiar shorelines bathed in entirely new combinations of shadows and light. Migrating hawks. Go, says Henry. But after an hour I head in. It's almost time to feed the dog. Then the sun goes down, the news comes on, and another October day slips past.

Henry was only 22 when he and his brother took their great trip on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, and he waited 10 years after that to write it up. I always thought that made sense. There were a lot of things I did when I was 22 that I didn't really understand until years later.

Because he thought the journal of his boat trip might have some commercial appeal, Henry tried to get it published, but to no avail. So he had a thousand copies printed at his own expense. He sold about a hundred, and gave away 75. The rest he ended up storing upstairs in his house, noting wryly that "I have now a library of nearly 900 volumes, over 700 of which I wrote myself."

As it happens, I have a copy of Henry's journal. It's easy to see why it wasn't an instant success. The polemical digressions certainly do overwhelm the travel reporting, and if you bought it as a canoeing guidebook you're likely to be irritated. "We were bid to a river-party, not to be preached at," grumped one critic in the Massachusetts Quarterly Review.

Many Henrys, most of them irritating, are in evidence in the journal. There is Henry the tax protester, and Henry the anti-intellectual intellectual. "Men have a respect for scholarship and learning greatly out of proportion to the use they commonly serve," he mutters. "Can there be any greater reproach than an idle learning? Learn to split wood, at least."

There is also Henry the writing coach, offering advice. "A sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plow instead of a pen, could have drawn a furrow deep and straight to the end." That sounds fine, but what does it mean? Anne Tyler writes some nice sentences, but they certainly don't suggest she'd be at home on a John Deere tractor.

I suppose what Henry is saying here is that he'd rather think of himself, and be thought of, less as a writer than as someone who can row a boat, guide a plow and swing an ax. It's a conceit, perhaps, but a harmless one, and doesn't make me like him the less.

My own associations with Henry, in fact, are all outdoor ones. I think of him most when I'm outdoors, or when I want to be. And I think of him especially at this time of year, when I want to be doing so many things for which I know perfectly well there just isn't time.

I think of him each year that first unexpectedly crisp morning when, even before getting up, I know something important has happened. "We had gone to bed in summer, and we awoke in autumn; for summer passes into autumn in some unimaginable point in time, like the turning of a leaf," he wrote in his journal.

"We heard the sigh of the first autumnal wind, and even the water had acquired a grayer hue," he says. "In all woods the leaves were fast ripening for their fall. . . . Our thoughts, too, began to rustle."

And that's the trouble with Henry. Dead and buried these 131 years, every October he still makes my thoughts rustle. They're rustling now. This afternoon, if I go down to the river to check for loons, maybe I ought to take along my sleeping bag.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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