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Fall 2000

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Periscope: The rise of fall

     Autumn is a turbulent season swept by changeable weather and conflicting emotions.

     On one hand, fall is the launch pad for the academic year, a turbocharged stream of activity that rollicks along for nine months before crashing to a halt each spring. It starts in late August. No sooner do the last of the summer-program artists and conference-goers pack up and leave than the first “traditional” students return, including varsity athletes, dormitory staffers, and orientation leaders. Then the influx of freshmen, and on their heels the upperclassmen, suddenly flood the paths and hallways, bustling, garrulous, always on the move. They sit still (some of them, anyway) for Opening Convocation, but then they scatter, touching off a rapid, almost explosive bloom all across campus: buying books, starting new classes, reviving faculty partnerships, making new friends, trying new schemes, testing fresh ideas. Watching them course up and down the Dana-Bolton corridors past my little office gives me whiplash—and a pleasant buzz. They’re loud and numerous, they take up parking spaces, and they often ask me for directions or pens or tape, but they’re the lifeblood, the very corpuscles, of this place. They bring life and liveliness to my forty-hour week.

     On the other hand, against the rising energy on the campus proper, I feel the tug of braking in the North Woods just beyond, as the plants and animals prepare to shut down operations for the season. Here too it starts in August, when the sun noticeably weakens, tree leaves begin to darken and stiffen slightly, and the ponds and puddles reflect more brown than green. By September, fall is falling fast. On a footpath one October day I came upon a real-life M. C. Escher scene: an upside-down reflection of trees, with striking patches of blue sky between the half-leafless branches, shining darkly in the beer-bottle brown mirror of a big puddle. A little gust of wind rose, shaking loose a light rain of twirling leaves, two of which settled onto the puddle’s surface with an imperceptible shimmer. It was lovely in its way, but it didn’t exactly buzz with promise and new life.

     Neither did the torpid bumblebee I spotted one chilly morning near the top of the old ski slope. Caught out late the previous evening and having lost too much body heat to get back home, it had curled up against the dew in its handsome yellow-and-black coat, snuggled into the bright purple flower of a New England aster (itself an emblem of autumn), and slipped into a deep sleep. I confess I lightly stroked its fur with my fingertip. Soon the sun would gain strength and warm its tiny muscles, I hoped, enough to power one last flight back to the nest. While I was charmed by this bee-in-blossom image, I also felt keenly its message of doom and finality.

     But then I crossed the loop road onto the campus itself and arrived at my office to find the corridors teeming with students and faculty heading to class, comparing notes, making plans. This is no time for torpor. It’s another fresh, new start.


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