The Alchemy of Autumn

It was 11 years ago now that Middlebury College’s John Elder published “Reading the Mountains of Home,” and I don’t believe an autumn has passed since when I haven’t spent an evening or two becoming reacquainted with a chapter or two from it. The book is a seemingly alchemic mash-up of memoir, natural history and appreciation of the magic and precision of Robert Frost. But “Reading the Mountains of Home” is a pretty magical experience in its own right, and the book is the perfect companion for a Vermonter in September.

The premise is simple: Elder walked around the woods and mountains that surround Bristol, Vermont, an Addison County village that boasts (among other attributes), a mannered green, a gazebo and a mighty fine creemee stand in the summer, using Robert Frost’s 1946 poem, “Directive” as a guide. But Elder is such a thoughtful companion and his knowledge so vast that every chapter is filled with surprises about a topography we as Vermonters take for granted.

And the autumn is the perfect season either to reread the book or discover it for the first time. Why? Well, as Wendell Berry put it, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” And if Manhattan is all about skyscrapers and Florida is about wetlands (OK, wetlands and palmetto bugs the size of small cars), then Vermont is about foliage. It is about trees — and, as Elder teaches, it is about multiple deforestations and the unexpected resiliency of the northern forest. To wit: We have such kaleidoscopically lush foliage in the Green Mountains this time of the year because years ago we cleared the state of trees first for sheep and then for logging: “Durable kernels from the deciduous trees bided their time for years in a buried seed pool, ready to burst upward from the ground exposed and torn by logging. The autumnal vividness that saturates (Vermont) is thus the offspring of two eradicated forests.”

Moreover, the fall is the most wistful of seasons. We all understand on some level that those leaves are the neon of a Lady Gaga wig because they’re dying. The tree itself is helping to kill them off, producing a Berlin Wall of cells at the base of the leaf where twig and stem meet, thus starving the leaf of fluids. Meanwhile, the leaf ceases production of chlorophyll, the potion behind photosynthesis and the source of all that green in the woods. The result? We finally get to see all the colors in leaves other than green.

The truth is, in September and October the entire world seems to be either dying or growing dormant. There are few images in my yard more depressing than the dead tomato plants in their cages in the autumn. And “Reading the Mountains of Home” manages both to capture that sense of melancholy and celebrate the importance of grieving as a human need and a human right. Elder’s father died just before he embarked upon the book and — along with Frost — he uses the Vermont landscape to try to make sense of loss. Just as the fields around Bristol provide a transition between civilization and wilderness, so do the remnants of past communities in the nearby woods provide a liminal passage between mourning and healing.

Soon we will have our first small blazes in either a fireplace or a wood stove; some of us, I imagine, already have. That, too, is a rite of fall. I always look forward to those first late Sunday afternoons when I collapse on the floor in the den of my house with a book and a cat and a fire in my family’s wood stove. And, invariably, once again this season one of those books will be Elder’s exploration of this state we all call our home.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 20, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.