It was the Friday before Halloween, overcast and raw. I took the day off and drove to Arlington's Great Meadows, a nature preserve whose main trail begins behind a small, private school. It was midmorning, and the loud, excited cries of children rang out from the field. I had stumbled, to my mild, misanthropic disappointment, upon an elaborate Halloween mummery that had appropriated the woods behind the school as its mise en scene. I was annoyed at my annoyance. What kind of unnatural beast of a woman is annoyed by the joyful cries of children ? Some kind of wicked witch ? I stifled the urge to turn back in search of a more deserted forest and headed toward the trail.
It began at a small pond --
-- that was completely covered with a uniform film of dusty-green vegetation. Ducks floated back and forth, trailing black slits of water that closed almost as quickly as they opened. It was creepy and silent. On a small rise I could see groups of ornately costumed adults scattered through the woods. A lady-in-waiting crouched by a stone noodling on a recorder. A tall, ghostly storyteller entranced a group of children perched on a semicircle of stones. A fairy godmother was decking a tree in bright silk banners. A group of gnomes -- one with her cell phone hidden behind her back --
-- even posed for me as I headed over a low hill toward the sere, flat, wood-rimmed meadows. By then even I was charmed. My mood lightened. I was in a Tolkein landscape, complete with hobbits, in the full, endlessly interesting dilapidation of fall. The clouds were breaking, and the morning was warming up. What could be better ?
Within moments I was alone. Children's voices still came through the trees, but from a distance, like the voices of the ethereal children in Eliot's rose garden. I soon realized my map was useless; there were far more trails opening out underfoot than it depicted, and I felt mildly anxious about getting lost. I had no breadcrumbs to trail behind me, and there were twa corbies --
-- hunkering on the topmost branches of an oak, watching and waiting.
I was getting into the spirit of things.
As was the vegetation -- dun, spindly, bedraggled, tangled, skeletal --
-- a post-copulative beauty, all sacrifice and attenuation, everything dying in each others' arms --
Overdressed, warm by now, I removed my hat and unzipped my jacket. The wind blew gray strands of hair into my face. I tried to fling them off with a shake of my head and heard the faithful little scritch my neck makes now, cute little memento mori right in tune with the hiss of the wind through the leathery oak leaves.
Suddenly, there they were, Rilke's ripening barberries growing red --
-- not succulent like some berries, but chitinous and hard as little beetles. Do birds find the fruits delicious whose pits they transport and drop ?
Everything's going to seed . It's the year's fulfillment, its ripening, its bright scatter and its long, combustive fall.
The trail ended at a stand of phragmites.
Swaying in the wind, their green, feathery seedheads filled with light, they seemed ecstatic. I felt ecstatic, too, a little bit. I was a witch of this wonderful, autumnal place. Not the good witch, a brood of children huddled under her protective cape, nor the wicked witch in her sweets-encrusted hermitage luring children toward the fiery oven within, but just an ordinary, seedy weed-witch on a walk, mild, benign, little more than a hag, really, out enjoying the company of her spindly sisters before the winter takes them and takes her down.