This fall has been especially beautiful here in Rockford. There is some truth, however, in the old adage that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” so I am not certain whether a year’s worth of rain and sun and cold nights with a moderately late first frost have all come together to provide particularly brilliant colors or whether the eyes of this beholder, somewhat less distracted than in recent years and moving more slowly, propelled by feet rather than by internal-combustion engine, have simply been more attentive and receptive. In any case, it has been a fall to remember, in every sense of that phrase.
Fall has always been my favorite season, and not just because of the physical beauty. It is the season that, it seems to me, most strongly evokes a sense of place. The beauty of spring can be enjoyed anywhere, and, indeed, the enjoyment is often enhanced by a measure of novelty—new growth seems especially new when you are seeing it for the first time. Summer—even (or, perhaps, especially) a summer spent at home—is a time of restlessness. Winter is a time of home and hearth and family, a season shuttered against the world outside—a bourgeois season, certainly; but, to a great extent, the delights of home can be shared even by those who have little connection to the broader place in which they find themselves.
The beauty of fall is enhanced by familiarity. When I was growing up in Michigan, we always went “up north” to see the colors, but year after year we traveled back to the same locations, and it was a comfort to note how little things had changed from fall to fall. And we always stopped at the same roadside stands on the way home, to buy potatoes and onions in 50-pound sacks to stock the root cellar for the coming cold.
Familiarity is inextricable from memory—an obvious point, but one that bears repeating, for man, without memory, is something less than human. And memory is an aspect of imagination, which even in our day of passive entertainment—television, films, computer screens—is an active faculty. It is stimulated by sights and sounds and smells, but, in the end, our memories are largely a matter of will, a point Merle Haggard understood better than most modern philosophers: I guess everything does change / except what we choose to recall . . .
As our fall stops at roadside stands suggest, men are creatures of habit—another old adage, and one that seems to have fallen on hard times. In a world of constant upheaval, in which even “conservatives” brag about their dedication to “progress,” we instinctively think of habit in a pejorative sense. Yes, there are good habits and bad habits, but shorn of the adjective, habit usually for us means the latter. “Creatures of habit” are unthinking, unfeeling, blindly pursuing lives by rote, mumbling the prayers they learned at their mother’s knee while fumbling through their beads. Habit, however, shares the same ultimate root (the Latin habere, to have, to hold) as inhabit and habitation—words that really mean nothing if separated from a particular place. J.R.R. Tolkien, in inventing his hobbits, may well have meant to suggest a combination of “human” and “rabbit” (as their long ears and furry feet would seem to indicate), but it is likely no coincidence that the word also brings to mind habit, for the hobbits are the ultimate creatures of habit—and, thus, of the Shire, of place.
Modern men spend much of their lives trying to break out of the patterns of everyday life, to discard their habits, and not only the bad ones—indeed, they tend to despise the good ones more than they do the bad. They want to make new memories, have a series of once-in-a-lifetime experiences—experiences that may have been shared with a few close friends or family members, but which aren’t the shared experiences of a particular community traveling together through time to eternity in a particular place.
Growing up in a small town where everyone impressed upon me the importance of going somewhere (else) and doing something (more important), I grew impatient with my grandfather, who would tell the same stories about the same people and the same places over and over again. Today, when no one tells stories any longer, I realize how lucky I was that he chose to cultivate his own memory—and mine—through repetition, because those places, when I return to them, are still familiar to me, wrapped up in my memory with the sound of his voice. I only wish that my children, whom he never knew (he died a few months before my marriage), could sit at his feet and learn their history as well.
His stories will never be recorded in books, and yet they are more truly history than most of what is published under that title. For history is memory, and once the lines of memory are disrupted, the people who have gone before us, and even the buildings and places that still exist around us, become little more than data. A church can make way for a tunnel for a new jail, a school building can become an abortuary, cemeteries can lie unvisited and their occupants unmourned, neighborhoods can vanish and the city of which they were once a part can expand into nothingness, an insignificant quadrant of an artificial region dominated by four rivers.
God in His mercy, however, has given us this season, with all of its sights and sounds and smells, to stimulate our memory, to call us home, to give us the opportunity to reflect on the place in which He has placed us and to remember those who have gone before: people like my grandfather and Rockford radio icon Chris Bowman, who, whatever their faults, were people of place and of living memory, ties to a past that doesn’t have to die—indeed, that we shouldn’t allow to die, if we wish to remain men and not become mere insignificant data ourselves.
And so, as the days grow shorter and we prepare for the coming winter, let us not only call to mind but ask God to help us live the words of the ancient prayer: Eternal memory. Eternal memory. Grant, O Lord, to your servant blessed repose and eternal memory.