A nice magazine with New Age tendencies once asked me to write a calendar of ideas on how to enjoy each month of the year in Chicago's bioregion. I started with May, the month the issue was to come out. "Watch the warblers at Montrose Harbor," I gushed. "See the phlox and wild false indigo bloom in the prairies." May was a piece of cake. I typed breezily, full of ideas for it and the four months that followed, when nature kicks into overdrive.
But when I hit October I grew nervous. After the first frost what was there? I stared at the cursor blinking on my monitor. "Eat yams," I finally wrote, deciding that eating foods in season would count as enjoying the bioregion. I managed to make it through November, December, and January with something equally feeble, but by February I was pounding gloomily into my keyboard, "Suck your money-market account dry and move to Costa Rica."
I'm uneasy with fall and I loathe winter. Consciously I understand that fall is a beautiful season, but I don't experience it that way at an emotional level. Sure, every once in a while I find myself grudgingly charmed by the golden quality of the afternoon light. But deep inside I'm worried that the cold is seeping in and living things are dying by the thousands all around me. And despite all of autumn's cheerful supporters who say it's their favorite season, I don't think I'm alone in my distrust. At the very least there's my friend Joe, a stalwart opponent of fall. "It's just the slippery slope they put us on that leads to winter," he says.
My friends who love cold weather tend to challenge me about the reasons for my autumnal aversion. Usually I explain that if the coldness didn't last seven months a year I could handle it better and that it's hard to tolerate such a short growing season. They interpret this as meaning I wish I could garden longer. But that's not it. What I mean is I miss watching everything live--my sage and sorrel plants, the prairie grasses in the forest preserves, the dragonflies that bomb past my office window having sex in midair, the nighthawks that soar over city roofs catching insects in the evenings--the whole enchilada that is nature in the city.
Dormancy is dull. Maybe if I could be dormant too the season wouldn't disturb me. But this isn't my evolutionary path. I have to continue to find food, drink water, eliminate wastes, exercise my body to keep it functioning. It occurs to me that the limbo of dormancy might not be unpleasant for the plants and hibernating animals that experience it. Perhaps they appreciate the period of peace, or maybe they have rich inner lives all winter long. This idea irritates me. I feel left out of something. If it turns out when I die and go to heaven and all knowledge is revealed to me that the perennial flowers and dozing queen ants got to spend winter filled with psychedelic visions while I was chosen to stay sober and stand watch, I'll become one surly angel.
I'm willing to admit this attitude of mine about the cold months is probably a sign of tenuous mental health. In the novel Jernigan David Gates's main character says of a winter scene, "It amounted to a moral failing...that this landscape looked dead and tattered to me, instead of sternly beautiful. In this part of the world, if you couldn't see a leafless tree as sternly beautiful you were in deep shit half the year. And probably pissing away the other half worrying that it was transitory." This is the same guy who drinks a hefty bottle of gin a day, shoots a hole in his hand so he can make his numbed self feel something, and by the end of the novel is institutionalized. My hero.
Beatrice Briggs, an ardent believer in bioregionalism--the idea that one should live within the means of the biological system one finds oneself in--said once at a meeting I attended that people tend to think the place they live now should be like the place they grew up. For example, someone who grew up in New England will always feel disappointed by a midwestern fall, because the leaves of Illinois' native oaks and hickories don't equal the brilliance of Vermont's sugar maples. I don't know whether this idea was original to her or not, but it has stuck in my head for years--and I'm reasonably convinced that this is why winter seems excessively long to me and why I believe spring should begin in March.
I know March and April and often even May are cold months in Chicago--I've spent 15 springs here, for crying out loud, plenty of time to understand this. Nevertheless when late February and March come I expect some hot southern winds to give me a taste of spring as they do in southern Indiana where I grew up. And by April I'm eager for spring to be here in full force. Joe, my fellow autumnal grinch, is from Arkansas and expects the same thing, though he's been in this bioregion as long as I have.
I realize that if I don't want to end up like Jernigan I have three choices. One option is to do my best to speed up global warming. I could buy a gas-guzzling four-wheel-drive Grand Cherokee with power accessories and use it for short-distance city errands all day long. If I were conscientious about driving excessively, I and all those folks to whom this comes naturally might be able to pump enough carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to make Chicago balmy eight months a year. Another option is to move. But so long as a high percentage of the people I love live here I'm staying put.
The only real choice seems to be resolving my differences with fall and winter, much as this option annoys me. While it's beyond my capacities to muster pleasure when faced with cold days, I am capable of savoring each last warm hour that comes along. So two weekends ago I made a pilgrimage to Door County, and though I couldn't help but comment to my companion that the views reminded me of a Roz Chast cartoon that called rainbows and fall leaves "kitsch in nature," I dutifully marveled at the reds and golds. Last week when it was 85 degrees, I canoed on the Chicago River one afternoon. And each night for dinner this week I ate yams. They're not half bad.