Now, in October, I am beginning to hear the geese. They are restless and noisy, traveling in small groups from river to river, sometimes in the dead of night. At these moments, I cannot help but whisper, “geese,” into the darkness, even if I am half asleep; their parade seems a solemn, anxious affair. Annie Dillard describes this in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “This October restlessness is worse than any April’s or May’s. In the spring the wish to wander is partly composed of an unnameable irritation, born of long inactivity; in the fall the impulse is more pure, more inexplicable, and more urgent.” The geese scrabble frantically at the grass, fattening themselves for their southing. As the maples turn–and they are beginning to turn already–there is something hurried and anticipatory in their colours, as though the trees are trying to use them up before they spoil. The whole season reeks of the sort of meals we had when hurricane Sandy knocked out our refrigeration: big feasts with too many dishes where everything tastes a little off. This is not wholly unpleasant–in fact, there is a certain satisfaction to be found in salvaging the waste, as perhaps the maples and geese can attest.
As my whole world migrates around me, I feel a little like the Water Rat in The Wind in the Willows: “The Rat was a self-sufficing sort of animal, rooted to the land, and, whoever went, he stayed; still, he could not help noticing what was in the air, and feeling some of its influence in his bones.” I am not in the process of any grand migration or evolution, but it is “difficult to settle down to anything seriously, with all this flitting going on.” I am inert as the birds migrate, the trees change, and friends recommence classes. While I do not necessarily hear the “call of the South” which Kenneth Grahame discusses, I am not immune to a certain westering this time of year; my thoughts and hopes skip over the Appalachians and Rockies, westward, westward, to the Sierra Nevada. Thoreau describes this phenomenon in his essay, “Walking.” On choosing a course to follow, he muses: “My needle is slow to settle… but it always settles between west and south-southwest. The future lies that way to me, and the earth seems more unexhausted and richer on that side.” He even goes so far as to say that “this is the prevailing tendency of my countrymen,” and that the progress of the human race “is from east to west,” an startling idea in our postcolonial, post0manifest destiny times.
“We must walk toward Oregon and not toward Europe,” he claims.
On the phone, a friend who recently moved to Los Angeles asked me what I missed about the West. I immediately thought of an essay by Simon Winchester that appeared in this summer’s issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. He writes, not about the West, but about the sea: “I suppose it to be a peculiarly English thing, this intense, near-painful fondness for the ocean that surrounds us.” The friend who asked me this question lived for a time in England, and so I told her, “I feel about the West as the English feel about the sea,” and she needed no further explanation.
I, like Thoreau, move westward in my thoughts, and even in my walks: west of me lies Van Cortlandt Park, “more unexhausted and richer” than the tired Bronx east of the river. My past is west, and my future, also. I am but a seasonal goose–I am here, happily, for the time being, but I do not intend to remain past this season of my life. In my October reveries, I am not here in the East at all: I am walking toward the Pacific on John Muir’s track; I am roaming the wild gold hills between the shadows of the live oaks; I am lost in a walnut orchard with miles of fragrant trees to each side of me; I am warming myself with red wine on Carmel beach on the windiest of days.
But the world around me tends a different direction. With the whole world making its way south, I am an exceptional tropical bird that migrates east, west, randomly, with the rainy season.