Friday, October 22, 2010


It was just one of those things, just one of those crazy flings. I was driving through Harvard Square, past Cambridge Common, when a tree near Mass. Ave. caught a gust of wind and let loose with a fantastic leaf storm. The air around me was briefly filled with small flying leaves, a confetti machine. For a moment I felt like John Glenn in the Canyon of Heroes. It got me thinking about phenomena.

I like that abracadabra sound—PHENOMENA! Its meanings are straightforward but elusive. It can be as simple as any "observed fact or occurrence" (a singular phenomenon, that is). Or slightly fancier: "something impressive or extraordinary." (Or someone—that would be a phenom.) And then there's the intriguing Kantian definition: "a thing as it appears to and is constructed by the mind, as distinguished from a noumenon, or thing-in-itself."

I once had a naive experience of that second thing, the noumenon. Or so I thought. It was on the eve of my 20th birthday on the Isle of Wight in England. I was trying to write poetry on the shore, at sunset after two days of rain, and suddenly I had a glimpse of the unmediated reality behind words and concepts, the sun behind the sun. I called it the thingness of things.

But now I think it had to be phenomena I was glimpsing, just one layer removed. Besides, it would probably be terrifying to see the thing-in-itself, without the mind. Kind of like a bad acid trip. Because the good thing about phenomena is that it's a collaboration between the observer and the observed. It's what makes the trees I saw in Rock Meadow today beautiful. Or that leaf storm phenomenal. Or what gives not just noise to the tree that falls in the forest with someone to hear it, but a thundering, branch-snapping, stentorian crash.

So I've been out looking for more phenomena, like a cameraless photographer. Yesterday we went out to Great Meadows in Concord, a vast marshland slowly returning to its former life as a meadow. Phenomena abounded, including a pair of Northern harriers, once called marsh hawks, canvassing the reeds on uptilted wings, lifting and falling like a pair of refs working an unseen game. Then, paying a visit to the Concord River on the other side of the woods, we saw a river counterpart of that aerial leaf storm in Harvard Square. This was a leaf fleet: hundreds of yellow birch leaves sailing with the current.

But the big-picture phenomenon that has now overtaken us is the fever called Peak Foliage. Not a full tide catching every tree in its flood. But not something that can be ignored, or even deconstructed into component leaf events. It's reached that gawkworthy stage: head-turning colors that you've only seen on the throat of a Blackburnian warbler or that you desired the orange-yellow Crayola to be. And today it stirred something very like love out in Rock Meadow, those deep russets (made of red and maroon) that vibrate some intimate corresponding color you can feel in your stomach. It's very un-wabi-sabi, this "peak" worship, but what can you do about it? It's color lust.

Finally, a cooler phenom last night. It wasn't the harvest moon, technically. That was last month, floating up on the very night of the autumnal equinox. But this was a second harvest moon, as friendly as the first. (Isn't it fortunate we have only one moon we get to dress up in these different personalities, one moon to keep track of, one moon to write songs about?) The phenomenon of suddenly seeing it not very high above the horizon and not too bright, just there, hanging in the sky, big and round and startling like a face in the window.

It may turn out to be the merry face of Oliver Hardy in this scene from "The Flying Deuces" that you can't see too many times. You can focus just on Stan dancing, or Ollie singing, or the fond legionnaire behind Ollie's left shoulder. And after you see it, you can read the poem "For Laurel and Hardy on My Workroom Wall" by David Waggoner. Because phenomena aren't just in nature, ya know.

ENA!! And I l that, according to Kant, we are assistant magicians. Leaf storms, rainbows, bumblebees, full moons require our senses, our brain, to be phenomena.


  1. And though I do not have the time or will to thoughtfully construct a response to the multitude of impressions, assertions and generative images, I DO have compulsion to acknowledge an old connection based in those same things. Greetings from an old friend, Hal. You write as beautifully as ever (though I confess one of my favourite lines of yours dealt with the preferred smell of one's own gas as opposed to that of others - not poetry by most folks' standards I would guess). So love to you; to those you share it with; I will check back in.


  2. Hi, Marilyn!
    I'm venturing a guess that Jerry put you onto the Almanac. A good way to catch old friends! Yes, I remember that line--from a story that was inspired by the Dominion Observatory time signal on CBC. "The Beginning of the Long Dash," I think it was called. It kind of fits with my timepieces here, actually. I should dig it up. Anyway, delighted to hear your voice and great laugh (in my mind's ear). This month has netted a lot of Vancouver pals. Glad you're one of them.