Day by day the autumn wind gets colder. The quiet fragrance of osmanthus has dispersed, while the chrysanthemums begin to send out a delicate fragrance. The yellow leaves on the old locust tree outside my window – when did they turn yellow anyway? – drift onto my windowsill at every strong puff of the wind. In a big, bustling city, it is not an easy thing to indulge a leisurely appreciation of the natural scenery of autumn. What does the seasonal transition imply, a city dweller might argue, except the change in temperature and the replacement of garments?
As a person with a propensity for dreams and fantasies, however, I simply refuse to have my thoughts confined in the concrete cement that keeps pushing against me from all directions. Listening to the whistling wind outside, I see in my mind’s eye the vast and transparent sky in my hometown, the boundless fields of silvery reed catkins on the banks of the Yangtze River, the flocks of wild ducks and wild geese fluttering into the sky from the reed clusters, and the farmlands on a subtle shift from green to golden…Alas and alack for the poor city dwellers, who have to imagine the natural scenery of autumn with their haphazard memories like caged bird!
In my childhood, I was taught to recite the ancient poems about autumn:
“In rising winds white clouds pass;
Wild geese head south over withering grass.”
“A lone wild duck along the setting sun fly;The autumn river mirrors the color of the sky.”
“Dark clouds never disperse and frosts descend late,Leaving the ravaged lotus to the pattering rain.”
“As the west wind sweeps the fallen leaves,Who’s lean, the green mountain or me?”
“I pluck hedge-side chrysanthemums with pleasureAnd see the tranquil Southern Mount in leisure.”
How I craved for the natural scenery of autumn when reading these beautiful poems! In my opinion, the ancients, although unable to enjoy the benefits of today’ facilities and amenities in high-rise buildings of modern cities, could nevertheless indulge themselves in the wonderful landscapes and merge their sentiments with the natural environments, thus reducing all the noises and worries of the mundane world into clouds over green mountains and mists over limpid streams. Such transcendent experience must be well beyond the modern people who are used to an urban life!
In my youth, my life was one with the nature. When I lived and worked as an “Educated Youth” for many years in my hometown Chongming Island, as in the old saying “Sun up, I work; sun down, I rest,” I developed a robust physique as well as a hard tan, and grew so accustomed to the smell of the earth that I looked no different from a local farmer. Yet, my deep-rooted habits remained, even in such circumstances. When I sat on the dyke alone and faced the mighty Yangtze River, watching the silvery waves of reed catkins and listening to the shrill cries of wild geese flocks overhead, I often entertained some wild thoughts as if my soul just flew out of its shell. I once believed that all the life forms on the planet should be sentient, such as a drop of water, a stalk of reed, and a wild goose. Lying down by the boisterous and torrential river, I closed my eyes and imagined myself to be a drop of water traveling freely in rivers and seas, a stalk of reed swaying its silvery catkins in the autumn wind for a dance in unrestrained blitheness, or a wild goose flapping its wings across the sky in search of a distant target…I wrote down all these fantasies in my poems and essays in an effort to sing of my youth, to dream about future, and to raise na?ve but frank questions on life and nature. Now, when I look back on these youthful queries and aspirations, I can’t help feeling a throb of heartwarming excitement as the past scenes are brought back to me: river tides, wild geese’s cries, dancing reed catkins, humid sea winds tinged with fresh smells of grasses and wild tansies, and the cool moonshine over a choir of chirping crickets and katydids…O my hometown, is everything as enchanting as in the old days?
All these are but distant memories, though. At this moment, breezing past my window is the city’s autumn wind, without the fresh and vast smells of nature. In a trip to my hometown this summer, I plucked several immature reed stalks at the bank of the Yangtze River. After I returned home, I inserted them in a waterless vase. To my great delight, they developed silvery catkins one by one, which brought the autumn senses of my hometown right before my eyes. The silvery catkins also reminded me of the locks of silver hair growing at my temples, a symbol of the advent of the autumn in my life. No one can stop the coming of the inevitable, as no one can prevent the fact that autumn follows summer and winter follows autumn. I do believe, however, that the seasons of one’s mind and spirit can be subject to self-regulation: When your living place and your physical age tend to trap you like a merciless net, you can still free your heart and let your imagination fly to any destination of your choosing, as long as you are enthusiastic enough, wishful enough, and courageous enough.
Right now, listening to the rustles in the autumn wind and looking at the reed catkins, I ask myself: Will you be a wild goose again to wing the free sky?
October 27, 1995