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Sunday, September 23, 2012

"The Devil Collected Rent": An Autumn Night in Bloomington, Indiana

Beech. Fagus Sylvatica. Jean-Pol Grandmont. Source

The autumn here has been exceptionally mild and dry and blessed with a vibrant display of Bloomington's multiform leaves, coming into brilliance in staggered fashion, staggered in palette and time.

Maples first and last: a red swatch here and there in the green suspended ocean till one day you're walking in light filtered through rippling shimmering lemon; the gaudy, blood-dipped sugar maples; the sweet gum came into force mid-season, whole trees defying any chromatic logic; an outer bank would be bronze, inside, like a mango under peel, yellow and red; other gums were patchworks of true, strong colors, no shading, just abrupt green slash red slash yellow slash bronze; the sassafras had a brief, stunning season; I was doing dishes one day and the small, spindly sassafras in the backyard stunned me like a house afire -- smoldering, velvet, the next rain ripped it all away.

What the sallow, yellow mulberry lacked in bold color it made up for in shape, each leaf edged unique, in the shape a delicate gold chain might make if thrown, randomly, on a smooth table.

In leaves of the low-key beeches vibrant green retreated to the spine and veins; yellow haloed this, and a crisp border of dry beige rippled round the leaf. Whole trees looked like muted tartan.

Staggered chronologically: so that just last weekend, taking a break from the Bohunk paper, I could look up from under a gingko surrounded by naked twigs and be captivated by gem-like yellow Asiatic fans glittering against an azure heartland sky. The elm, (maybe slippery?) alone still sports a full head of green leaves.

This night, though, the devil collected rent. Wind; the clatter of empty garbage cans rolling, the rat tat tat of dry, dead things beating against other dry, dead things; worrisome sounds that drowned out all others, that made you feel the need, no matter how warm you were under your Pendleton wool and how suddenly nipple-firming chill the ambient air, to get out of bed and check things; sounds irregular and strange that made you afraid to do so. Rain came in thick sheets, leveled off, came again. I fell in and out of a cloudy something nothing like sleep. Ghosts. Skeletons. Memories.


fter earning my MA, I left Berkeley, California, and moved east to Bloomington, Indiana, for a PhD. The above passage is from a letter I wrote from Bloomington, to Berkeley.
Bloomington gets 44.2 inches of rain a year; Berkeley, 25. Berkeley's trees are often eucalyptus, an alien that can't support local flora or fauna. Even where there are trees, there is biotic desert; you can hike through a dense grove of Berkeley eucalyptus and hear neither birdsong nor insects; nothing but your footsteps and eucalyptus limbs groaning in each breeze.

I fell in love with Bloomington's trees and wrote of them often in my letters back to Berkeley.

The storm that I described in the letter felt portentous. Shortly after that night, I learned that my father was dying, that the professor for whom I worked would not allow me to travel to his deathbed, and life as I knew it stopped. I write more about these life-changing events in the essay "Small Miracle."

Black Gum. Nyssa Sylvatica. Source.

Sassafras.  Sassafras Albidum. Source.