Lessons of the Land | St. Lawrence University Sustainability Program

Lessons of the Land

Saturday, November 21, 2020

            It feels like it has been raining all week. The clouds are grey. The hayfields once lush with new growth over the summer are slowly turning from their verdancy into a new beige existence. Even the leaves, once vibrant with the yellows and reds of Autumn, have descended from the trees. As they sit on the ground they too are starting to lose their color, fading into various shades of brown. At times, the November North Country seems utterly drab and dreary, a landscape almost devoid of the life that seemed so omnipresent in the past few months.

            This time of year, it becomes difficult for me to acknowledge my relationship with the places that surround me. The forests feel emptier than they have for months. The warblers and sparrows are rapidly migrating south, leaving their summer homes behind. Even the gardens, which have occupied so much of my time since May, are almost empty. We can only try to squeeze the most out of our last few cold-hardy crops, desperately clinging to kale and cauliflower.

Brassicas are among the few plants that seem to welcome frosts, thriving in the cool sunlight of the fall. Perhaps we have lessons to learn from them. We spend so much time fixating on the apparent death of fall, dreading the winter to come, that we neglect to be present in the current moment.

Of course, it is reasonable to prepare for the winter at practical levels, and one should not ignore the change of seasons. I am certainly not proposing dressing in shorts all year long. But I believe that there are flaws in our mindset (or at least my mindset) of letting our fear of winter and our vernal nostalgia distract from our ability to connect with our surroundings. We must never forget that the land has lessons for us, and that we need only listen to learn them.

            Yes, it is true that death and dormancy exist in late fall. But annuals must die at some point. And trees know when to shed their leaves, just as we know when to don our coats. Beyond this, it is almost reductive to see only the dreariness of fall. For it is this time of year when the woods are nearly exploding with chickadee-song, their “hey-sweeties” filling the niches left by so many other song birds. Our driveway has become nearly overrun with dark-eyed juncos in the last few weeks. How, then, can we say that fall is a time of death?

            Over the past year of my life, I have grown increasingly interested in the lessons that can be learned simply from observing a given place. In fact, I believe that the land we occupy always has lessons about almost any aspect of our lives. But in order for us to learn these lessons, we must make sure that our minds are not distracted by worry for the future or nostalgia for the past. We must be mindful, be present, and be willing to learn. And when we embrace these things, I believe that there are almost no limits to the lessons the land has to teach us.