Tuesday, August 22, 2023

In quest of a metaphor

I'm looking for a metaphor.  For about the last week, whenever I've been doing something brainless like cutting rhubarb up for muffins or picking green beans or hand quilting, I've also bee rifling my brain for a metaphor.  I think it's a metaphor for August.  Or it may be a metaphor for this very moment on the planet.

I want the metaphor to express the coming together of two different things.  I can get my hands to do it by spreading out the fingers of both hands and bringing them together in a kind of basket. At that moment, is it two things or one?  Or I keep coming back to Brownian Motion, though I don't think I've got my head around Einstein's physics.  He was looking at the distribution of pollen in water and observing the way the pollen and water interpenetrated in a very random way.  The two substances plus their energy bounce around and move their respective particles in a way that is unpredictable.  I remember someone in a novel or movie talking about the Brownian Motion of pouring cream into coffee.  On hot days, when I would pour oat milk into a glass of homemade cold brew, I could see Browning motion in action, the creamy oat milk languidly sending tendrils down into the dark coffee.  The point the character made was that you would hit a tipping point where more of the fluid was combined than not, but that in any case, you couldn't undo it.  Browning Motion is a one-way process.

It's an August kind of thing, I suspect.  My Scarlet Runner Beans are still blooming ecstatically, my tomatoes are ripening, and my herbs have hit their stride, particularly the oregano which is calling out to the bumble bees to fertilize it.  But at some point, those oregano blooms are going to tire and begin to go dry.  And even while my beans and tomatoes are happy, the powdery mildew and my zucchini plants are in competition:  who is going to grow or spread more and do it faster?  When I sit on my garden bench in the back yard after giving my garden its evening watering, the Manitoba Maples that keep us cool all summer are dropping yellow leaves, slowly, absent-mindedly, one leaf every five minutes or so.  The edges of some of my ferns, which thrived in the wet spring, are brown and crisp. When I look up at the crab apple tree above my bench, I can see that the apples are ripening; there are blushes of pink on the yellow-green apples that make me want to get my ladder out and harvest them for crabapple jelly.  But the crabapple leaves have gone leathery.  In the spring, the leaves are silky, so moist and new and clear that you can see the shadow a distant leaf casts on the one that's right above you.  There's no such clarity now.  They are leathery and they rustle in the wind in a different way.  Susurration. The word was made for the sound I hear.   

There's a large aspen tree that I can see from my bedroom that has one single branch that's yellow.  I don't know when it turned, but I watch it every day to see if any more has changed. Something's afoot.

Soon, I'll harvest the last of the tomatoes and pull up the pole beans and the cukes and the zucchinis and the carrots.  That will be okay.  I have always loved fall, mostly because, as an academic, I experienced  autumn as a second new year.  There will be new people and new ideas and new books.  In the house there will be the smells of canning and the brilliant colour of jars full of apple tomato chutney and cranberry sauce.  And then there will be a pause of a couple of months.  In its own kind of Brownian Motion, the days will tend to get cooler, but we'll never know when we are going to wake up to a glorious day with golden trees and a hot clear blue sky, demanding that we take a long walk and listen to what Bill calls the "unching" of the leaves.  

For some reason what makes me sad and anxious is an August that's neither one thing nor another, that interpenetrating of ripeness and loss that I can't find a metaphor for.

This sadness and anxiety and, yes, grief, is made worse by this year's fire season.  I've listened, heartbroken, to people showing CBC journalists their burnt-down homes and communities.  Yet I was most stunned at hearing a CBC employee talk about getting out of Yellowknife early and the drive not being too bad or too slow until they got to the area somewhere around Hay River.  His eyes glistened and there was a catch in his throat:  it was just gone.  That word is absolute.  Not a family photograph or a pitcher inherited from a grandmother or a favourite winter coat. How much is just gone for people, some of whom didn't even have time to choose what they took with them?  We can talk about how much carbon was loosed this year when an area the size of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick burned.  But how much grief was loosed?  You don't "rebuild," really.  You start over with nothing.

(And at this moment, grief and sadness be damned.  I want everyone who has slowed our path off fossil fuels--CEOs and provincial premiers and slow-footed politicians and every climate change denier--to look everyone who has lost a home in the eye and say "I'm so sorry for your loss.  But I'm going to wring every vote and dollar out of fossil fuels that I can.  I'm going to make sure there's more and more loss until change is inevitable.  And then I'll leave dealing with it up to someone else who wants to commit political suicide or get himself fired. Yes, we know what to do, but we're not doing it.")

Tipping point.  Is that where we are?  That Brownian Motion thing that can't be undone?  That "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness" and forests reduced to stumps and homes looking like sad implosions.  How do you balance those two visions in August?  We should be getting ready for harvest.


  1. I like to think most of us are grieving for not only the people, but the forests and animals and birds and all the rest. It's terrible and frightening. -Kate