I have been younger in October
than in all the months of spring, says W.S. Merwin.
Why does it feel so right to begin my blogal year in October? I was born the first day of the first month, first child, first grandchild, first day of the week . . . maybe it was already too much priority to maintain without a running start.
Or maybe October is just a good month for beginning things.
YoungSon and I are bumping along together in a yellow school bus, side by side. I'm wearing his extra sweatshirt under my wooly hoodie and we're sitting close to keep warm. It's a chilly morning. October's bright sunshine shines on our faces through the passing leaves. We're on our way to a young forest, growing up out of new volcanic soil over the old forest that once grew there. Young, new . . . meaning in this case more than 1900 years old.
YoungSon, who is now suddenly my older son, but who doesn't want his handle here changed. He is still my young son. He will always be my young son. What I will call his adopted brother here in these pages hasn't come to me yet. I'm waiting for a name to come. It will be the only name I give him, my younger son. My younger son who has come to me already named -- as perhaps all children come if we were paying closer attention.
What do we put on them with the names we put on our children?
How do we change what we see by the way we count it?
I grew up loving calendars. Especially calendars that showed the phases of the moon and all the unfamiliar holidays. Unfamiliar . . . meaning celebrations my family didn't celebrate. Mysterious holidays, possibly as magical and delicious as Christmas or Halloween or Easter and Thanksgiving.
What was Sweetest Day? Yom Kippur? Candlemas? And so many different New Year's Days. At first it was disconcerting to discover it was not, as I had first supposed, that everyone in the world celebrated how the world began with my birthday on the first of January. Rosh Hashanah in September, Nowruz in the Spring, Chinese New Year in February. Or Hijri, the Islamic New Year swimming from month to month like a moon-bellied fish, showing up in a different month each year.
That our own ninth month was called Sept and our tenth month was called Oct warned me that things had been different even in my own stream of tradition before I was born.
You understand, these are not just arbitrary beginning points for any culture. How deeply delightful to discover that people who begin their year at the winter's solstice, will also begin reckoning their day at the turn of midnight. But if the year begins for them with spring, then day begins with dawn. Or if autumn begins their year, sunset is when they'll begin to count the start of a new day. I love this. The consistency of vision, perhaps, is what I'm responding to. The cadence of sense and evidence of story made.
The backstory to our own Northern European calendar then: the icy stars of the Viking creation story, a world made out of endless frozen cold. Of course it would begin in January. At midnight.
Or the more temperate innocence of beginning everything in a garden. In a childlike and Edenic spring. At dawn. Like waking up to your own birthday party, balloons and streamers everywhere and the smell of cake already.
But to begin in the fall? To begin with a Fall. The oldest historical record I had as a child showed a hybrid sense of time. Biblical months are counted with an Edenic spring accounting -- the first month of the Bible is around the vernal equinox, the time of the Passover, the release from the bondage of Egypt and winter. But the New Year, the head of the year, comes nearly a half-turn of the sun later, near the autumn. And the day shows the same two-headedness: the hours of the day are counted from dawn, but the new day begins with sunset. Evidence of two cultures combined, lapping one over the other?
Or evidence of revision?
Today YoungSon and I are just two of a jostling body of students come to see the ancient new forest growing over the even older, more ancient forest beneath it that was buried in a volcano blast. The young and fresh-faced forest ranger, her long red hair the color of October leaves, points out the moss covering the forest floor. This is a sign of a young forest, the moss loving the acidity of the basalt which is what lava hardens into. The moss breaking the basalt into softer soil for the grasses and forbs that will come after.
We walk along a boardwalk to avoid walking on the fragile new forest that has been growing here before our state was here -- long years for us, short years for the forest. We walk along a boardwalk also to avoid the sudden pits. Round and deep. Drillings. Troll's foxholes. "What are all these holes?" one boy, faint mustache already shadowing his young lip, asks what we've all been wondering.
"Ah!" she says, our ranger, delighted.
The holes are the old forest. The immense boles of ancient trees, caught in the livid bath of lava, burned to charcoal and disappearing into ash as the lava itself cools against the disappearing burnt-away bark.
With the other adventurous members of his class,YoungSon and I climb down a ladder into one deep pit, the negative space of a pillar that was once a tree. At the bottom, we turn and then crawl hands-and-knees inside a tunnel, the casting of another long-gone trunk once fallen onto that long-covered forest floor. Some kind of canal, a hollow vein through solid rock.
Above us is seven, eight feet of solid basalt. This tunnel that was once the heartwood of a tree is narrow enough and long enough and dark enough, I have to remind myself to breathe. Crawling with my shoulders brushing either side, crouching as I crawl to avoid the curving rock above me. I have to remind myself that many many other people have passed through and come out the other side. The roughness of the bark impressed itself into sharp and icy basalt, a roughness that doesn't give as wood would but cuts the palms of my hands until they sting.
Coming out the other side, seeing the leaves, I am thinking only how glad I am to have made it through without embarrassing myself. No screams, no panicked thrashing. How nice the light is. How cold my hands are. How hard and unrelenting the stone. How heavy it felt above me. How light the air and wide.
Only later on the bus home, I find myself trying to remember a haiku I once knew . . . something about the midwife's hand, something about the maple leaf.
It is fall in a fallen world and it seems to me a hopeful thing to begin the year at the winding down of autumn. What confidence to take for granted the turning of the sun. Moving into a new year trusting on that turning.
I consider life after life as treasures, says Merwin in another place,
oh it is the autumn light
that brings everything back in one hand
the light again of beginnings