It is well past the Ides of October and here in the northeast our annual descent steepens; many of us now rise in darkness and head home in twilight. Even as the trees pulse scarlet and yellow, even as the sky is often achingly blue, we feel an inward turn; we tend toward hunker.

All of this is seasonal backdrop for a fractious, troubled world. Our politics are those of clamor and calamity, we arm against ourselves, we seem to outnumber the very earth. In such a season, at such a time, many of us search for hope, for a voice that both admits and admires complexity and sees still through the turmoil to the delight of life, to daily goodness and purpose.

For me and for many, such a voice carries over the years from Henry David Thoreau, whose 200th birthday (7/12/17) passed not long ago. How is it that a man dubbed by many as misanthropic and hypocritical (for example, a 2015 issue of the New Yorker touted a long essay about him with the word “hypocrite” bold in its title), a man often misperceived to be a hermit, a man who never “made it” in his era and died young, offers such a lasting uplift for those of us who read him, and then often follow him out the door?

Perhaps there is a simple answer with a complex explanation: In his mid-20s, as Henry Thoreau sought purpose and traction in his hoped-for profession as a writer, he took on an assignment for the short-lived transcendental journal, The Dial. In the resulting essay, “The Natural History of Massachusetts,” Thoreau’s first foray into the style and content that would form his life’s work, he wrote the following passage: “Surely joy is the condition of life. Think of the young fry that leap in the ponds, the myriads of insects ushered into being on a summer evening, the incessant note of the hyla with which the woods ring in the spring, the nonchalance of the butterfly carrying accident and change painted in a thousand hues upon its wings, or the brook minnow stoutly stemming the current, the lustre of whose scales worn bright by attrition is reflected upon the bank.”

Almost 20 years later, as he lay dying at age 44, Thoreau worked on his final essay, Autumnal Tints, a look at the leaves and the flaring season that ushers in the annual deaths of the world. A reader might expect dark tints, a gathering gloom; instead, affirmation rises the way light rises, sometimes unexpectedly, from the leaves lying on the dark forest floor. Sometimes in fall, your way is limned by these footlight leaves; light both falls from the sky and rises from the ground; the day is suffused with it. In Autumnal Tints, we find that joy is still the condition of life…and, even, death.

That, I think, is Henry Thoreau’s sustaining, daily vision. It survived a world as fractured as ours; it survived also Thoreau’s own ferocious intelligence, capable of such piercing social criticism that it reads as fresh today; it survived every descent, even his own. For all of us “carrying accident and change painted in a thousand hues upon [our] wings,” such a vision can hold daily darkness at bay; we can work forward in its spirit.

Here’s to joy in our fall.

Community Notes: Concerns about PFAS contaminants at the old Naval Air Station, now Brunswick Landing, have recently led the Navy to declare the site a new “Operational Unit” and launch a multiyear assessment throughout. This is in addition to work already undertaken. BRAC environmental coordinator David Barney placed an ad on page 10 in the Times Record on Oct. 29, requesting public input as to how “we can keep you best informed about the Navy’s restoration program.” This restoration is critical to the longterm success of efforts to transform Brunswick Landing into a vital, healthy part of Brunswick. I encourage citizens to respond to this survey encouraging the Navy to make timely reports on their progress and engage Brunswick citizens fully. The survey, with a deadline of Nov. 30, is available at this link:

Sandy Stott is a Brunswick resident, chair of the town’s Conservation Commission, and a member of Brunswick Topsham Land Trust’s Board of Directors. He writes for a variety of publications. He may be reached at [email protected]

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