It is fall, I guess, and none of the leaves are turning color. That’s not true. The western sycamores in Big Sur are. The coast live oak whose leaves perpetually carpet camp’s trails. The lone sugar maple in Yosemite whose blood heart leaves people drive three, four hours just to see, just to witness.
I drove to visit the aspens in Yosemite the other week, the only deciduous swell of color in radius. Aspens live in clonal colonies, meaning many trees is actually one tree and when one turns color they all do. It creates a uniformity that feels nearly surreal. Colonies of aspens linger in the basins and climb up the craggy Eastern Sierra, splotches of yellow clinging to the granitic peaks, like lichen on earthbound boulders, like sea sponges on intertidal rocks.
I live in California now and all the seasons have scattered. June gloom, they say. Secret summer, they tell me. Seasons are dictated by the wind and the fog and the slight swing of temperature that rarely dips below freezing. It is less the landscape changes and more so the commercial ones that demarcate the season as fall. There is a bin of extra Halloween candy at work and the nearby Starbucks has been selling pumpkin spice lattes for over two months and a small, smooth cheeked pumpkin decorates my shelf, but it all feels wrong.
Fall is leaves and damp sidewalks and scarves you wrap around your neck like a bobbin. It is a slight chill punctured by sun and brilliant warmth, then a sudden blanket of frost. It is sweaters and coffee shops and dark academic fantasies and the smell of earth and moisture as the suburbanites pull their garden and leave the withered stalks at the end of their driveway to be collected with the leaves.
I find the lack of distinct seasons jarring. Time passes and passes and sometimes I forget to look up. I never got good at the summer constellations, and now it’s too late. It’s more than that, though. More than the blurry wash of time. It’s that nothing feels real anymore. That everything has smudged together in this indefinable way, and the only way I can describe it is through the lens of the pandemic, that feelings don’t settle in me the way they used to, that there are moments that I live where I think “this should make me happy; I should find meaning in this; this should be enough” and I don’t and it isn’t and I don’t know why, I don’t know why I still expect bad things to happen, why I’m sitting here typing this with a broken foot and I’m not even mad about it because of course I broke my foot in the parking lot of In-And-Out at 11:30 PM after a Halloween party, and I don’t know why the good things in my life are not good enough, and I don’t know why I don’t write anything these days, and I don’t know the line of gentleness to hold myself to and when to pry my fetal body from the bedsheets and put in the work.
This is the best autumn in years, my mom tells me over the phone. She sends me pictures of our backyard, of the neighborhood, of the trees she saw in Cleveland. Last autumn wasn’t great. It was such a dry summer, she says. I remember, I tell her, I was there. And we are both stunned by that sentence, by those unraveled three words. I was there. Rochester feels desperately long ago. I miss the trees. I still think of my students. I still get messages from several coworkers about REI, about my school.
It is fall, I guess, even though I don’t know what that means. I look forward to other phenomena now. The elephant seals will return to the rookery in the next couple of months and mate and fight and snort at one another. The wildflowers will be out post-rain covering the hillsides, the bluffs. The longer nights will bring lower tides.
I turn 30 in a couple of weeks and if I was a different person, maybe I’d make some elaborate connection about entering a new season of life, but I’m not a different person and it’s not a new season. I’ll wake up and the eucalyptus will still be green and fragrant, and the wind will still be salty. People ask me what I’m doing for my birthday, when I’ll throw a party to celebrate, and I shrug it off because I’m not doing anything eventful because 30 is meaningless in the same way that saying “it’s fall” in a place where nothing falls is rather strange. There are so many arbitrary bastions of time. And they’re fun, yes, and I love and appreciate ritual, yes, but I feel like that new era already started, birthday be damned. I am here in California. I work a steady job. I have a bedframe that’s mine for the first time since childhood. I don’t know what season this is, but it’s already here.