Autumn Thoughts

leaves in whirlings . . . /Around and away, resembling the presence of thought
—Wallace Stevens

I look out on the lake at Innisfree Garden, the last day it will be open until spring. I wander along its edge and look at the leaves, falling and fallen, the rippling silver of light over water. I look at my friend, the great blue heron, focused not on that shimmering surface, but what’s beneath.

In Light Over Water, an early piece for brass and electronics, John Coolidge Adams rendered the quality of light over water in sound. The piece, Adams tells us, was a compromised venture, “made with a simple Casio keyboard that produced only several organ-like timbres . . . . All the gear used to make it could fit into the backseat of a small car.” Some of its musical ideas found new life in the last eighty bars of Harmonielehre, about which Adams wrote, “I can’t even find the proper term to describe my mental state while composing, so quickly did the ideas come and so free was my spirit of accepting them into the fold.”

Wallace Stevens’ poem, An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, is far from an ordinary sense-making poem. There are few I can think of—perhaps he is the only one—who, on observing leaves fall in autumn, would see in those leaves “the presence of thought.” Yet as I look at the light over water on the autumnal lake, as I think of Adams’ music and how it came to be, I sense in the falling and fallen leaves what Stevens saw, and seeing, thought:

The mobile and the immobile flickering
In the area between is and was are leaves,
Leaves burnished in autumnal burnished trees

And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings
Around and away, resembling the presence of thought,
Resembling the presences of thoughts, as if,

In the end, in the whole psychology, the self,
The town, the weather, in a casual litter,
Together, said words of the world are the life of the world.

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Listening List

A Spotify Listening Listen can be found here.

Light Over Water (Part III/I)

Light Over Water (Part III/II)

Harmonielehre (Third Movement: Meister Eckhardt and Quackie) (The first and second movements can be found here and here.)


Credits: The quotations about John Adams’ music can be found in his book Hallelujah Junction, Composing An American Life. The quotations from Wallace Stevens are from canto XII of An Ordinary Evening in New Haven, which can be found here.

20 thoughts on “Autumn Thoughts

  1. Jane and Lance Hattatt

    Hello Susan:
    This entire post is a wonderful evocation of autumn, a time of year which can for innumerable reasons conjure up so very many different moods from deep melancholy to extreme joy. In the years in which we gardened seriously it represented, at least within the garden, a new beginning and a time of much hopefulness with the anticipation of another season which would, or so we believed, always be more wonderful than the last. Stevens’ words, where the falling leaves become ‘the presence of thought’ are most beautiful and totally inspirational.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Jane & Lance: So pleased you enjoyed this post, which I wrote and to which you responded in those innocent autumn days before the hurricane hit the east coast here! But even after, a neighbor wrote to me that the post served as a welcome reminder of the beauty that can be autumn’s as well.

  2. Steve Schwartzman

    Thanks for your introduction to the poem, which I wasn’t familiar with. I find that your photographs, all but one of which add water to the mix, harmonize with the poem’s words.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: High praise, coming from you! As for adding water to the mix, you may be amused to know that there is “implied” water even in the photograph of the chairs, as they look out on the lake.

  3. Britta

    Dear Sue,
    first: I am relieved that you are fine!
    Second: thank you for these beautiful pictures – I adore how you are able to picture the heron – and those wonderful swallows above.
    Innisfree’s Garden – a dream. Why do they close it in winter?
    As for Wallace Stephens poem:
    “And leaves in whirlings in the gutters, whirlings/ Around and away, resembling the presence of thought,/ Resembling the presences of thoughts, as if(…),” –
    I see THAT at once, understand it so much easier than music! Our thoughts might not always be litter, I hope (unconvinced though) – but whirling and coming and going – they are – not much discipline in that.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Britta: Yes, we escaped harm where we are (this year–you may recall that October’s early snowstorm last year was a different matter!), but of course so many others weren’t so lucky. I love your wit, displayed here once again in that “unconvinced thought.” Stevens’ words evoke so much, don’t they?

  4. David

    Calm thoughts for turbulent times ( which I trust you’ve both weathered). So happy to see the blue heron resplendently snapped as ever. What I love about JCA’s best scores – and Harmonielehre is certainly among them – is the mix of ‘the mobile and the immobile’.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      As to the post, when the hurricane hit (and yes, we escaped harm this year, for which we’re tremendously grateful), I did begin to feel I’d been rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic a bit–and after last year’s freak snowstorm at almost exactly the same time, Halloween is taking on a new meaning! I love how you’ve plucked out words from the Stevens quote to describe JCA’s best scores as a mix of mobile and immobile. I hadn’t picked that up, and of course it’s exactly right.

  5. Mark Kerstetter

    Your photos are great, esp the great blue heron. We have these magnificent fellows in Florida (my photos aren’t as good as yours, but I promise to do a post of some Florida birds just for you sometime). I most often see them in profile with beak shut. The angle you have captured shows the roundness of his body. With his beak open he seems to have just eaten or is about to plunge. I’ve seen them many times drying their wings.

    Really interesting to listen to the two Adams pieces side by side, neither of which I’ve heard before. Listened to ‘Harmonielehre’ and from the very start I recognized the orchestrated sound from another composition from (I am supposing) the same period. But I’ve not heard anything like ‘Light Over Water’ with its Casio sound – fascinating to see how he developed his musical ideas for compositions like ‘Harmonielehre’.

    And how beautifully assembled these things are: your photos, this music, this poem. Often when I read Ashbery I am reminded that the way he conveys a feeling of time, consciousness and knowing comes straight out of Stevens.

    This is one of the magical posts of yours that make me feel like just lying down and staying a while. But I gotta go do other things. Thanks Susan!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I’d very much enjoy seeing photographs of your birds sometime–you have such magnificent ones where you are. There is something particularly appealing about sitting quietly and thinking about possible associations among music, word, and image. I’m sure that’s why I’m drawn to collage. Your comment about the line from Stevens to Ashbery of “that feeling of time, consciousness and knowing” is wonderful. Further on the subject of consciousness and knowing, I commend to all your poem, Naming the Hurricane, so moving in its spare elegance:

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Elizabeth: Such lovely things you’ve written here. Thank you so much. If I could come back in another incarnation, I’d love to draw as beautifully as you do; your illustrations are pure delight.

  6. Dennis Aguinaldo (@dsaguinaldo)

    We’ve been told that Williams was fond of early Spring and so was cummings. I think a child would be so drawn to it as she is to the first snowflake. But I have no direct knowledge, no true palpable experience, having been born and raised in the tropics where besides storms and spells of grand heat, it is almost always variations of fair weather. Therefore, thank you for this post (Composition!), I loved of course the bit of Wallace thrown in for good “measure”!

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Dennis: So very nice to see you here, ModPo pal-o-mine! I love that you named the post (Composition). Throwing in Stevens for “good measure” is always a fine thing to do, isn’t it?

  7. Scott

    Love the slide show. A real cyclical feeling for me. The yellows and russets. The amazing branching habits,hovering patiently above the water. Vacant chairs, scattered with errant words. Maybe meaningful ones, ones left unsaid. Maybe promises for another day. I keep coming back to this…”Together,said words of the world are the life of the world.”..I find this extremely uplifting. There is something to be said for listening to leaves,I think. Thanks for the beauty.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Scott: The willow over water is a particular favorite of mine. What a wonderful turn of phrase, your “Vacant chairs, scattered with errant words”! And I agree, there is a lot to be said for listening to the leaves. As the hurricane sent high winds through here, the leaves were whirling in a way we hadn’t seen before, and the trees are now mostly bare. I see, by the way, that you have an autumn post up just now–you must be still at peak, or nearby. I look forward to getting over to take a further look.

  8. shoreacres

    Of course I loved the photo of the lined-up chairs. Given Steven’s poem and your musings, I saw them at once as a place for thought to rest, a place for the mind to give up its whirlings and simply be, in the presence of a changing world.

    By chance, I came upon the one-room Fox school on the Kansas tallgrass prairie. It still was open, but there, too, it was the last day of the season. I was delighted to talk with the volunteer docent, and to be able to see inside the school. The very thought of a “season” for places like the school and Inisfree is a reminder that changes are more vivid in some parts of the country.

    Your photos as a whole are beautiful. I had such a hard time capturing a larger view of the prairie. When horizon and unbroken hills predominate, any image tends to diminish what spreads out before the eye. That’s one of the beauties of your heron,trees, water, leaves – they help diminish the vertigo of the unlimited view.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: I couldn’t resist that row of chairs, all the more so because, when Mom comes to visit, that’s where we sit and look out at the lake. (There’s a big open view of the lake from there.) I think often of you and your visit to the prairie, a place I’d very much like to see. I know what you mean about trying to photograph such places, which your “vertigo of the unlimited view” describes so perfectly.

  9. friko

    So sorry to be late in appreciating this grand post with its music, poetry and images. Life is getting in the way of blogging and blog visiting.

    It’s good that you managed to bid Innisfree good-bye for the season; the garden would probably invite as many thoughtful rambles in winter too, perhaps it’s less commercially viable to keep the space open for fewer visitors?

    As you don’t mention the storm I assume that you got away with little damage?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: Well, I think among other things, a certain fine new companion animal named Millie (not to mention Mills, Millimena, Belly and Puss), has been keeping you busy! I do wish Innisfree would stay open a bit longer, but I think the expense is too great, and the long unpaved road impossible to maintain safely. As for the storm, as I’ve noted in another comment, I wrote the post just before it hit, and thereafter felt a bit as if I’d been rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic! We did escape, thankfully, without even a power outage (the biggest worry where we are), but of course we were the lucky ones. We have many friends who live in affected areas, and it was very worrisome to be cut off from one another, so we were quite relieved when we could finally make contact. Things are slowly coming back to a new sort of normal, though, as I’m sure you’ve seen too from the news reports, there are cascading effects that will take a long time to address.

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