Wednesday, October 29, 2008

time and the tides

The Ecologue
by John Hanson Mitchell

Time and the Tides

Throughout the autumn this year the great tide of the stock market receded and rose and fell back again to record lows. Whole fortunes were lost, banks failed, investors fled for safe ground and found nothing, stocks and bonds ebbed again and slipped seaward, and even the safe islands of money markets eroded away. But in mid October I went out one morning and saw a great river of gabbling blackbirds flowing over the fields of Scratch Flat where I live, just as they have every year at this time for the past two or three thousand years.

Frost came late this year, the roses bloomed in the garden in early October; everywhere in thickets and field edges little flitting bands of Savannah sparrows appeared and disappeared, and as I often do, I hauled a chair over to a sunny corner along the western wall of my property and fell asleep in the warm light, the sound of wind, of the last meadow crickets, and the cries of jays and crows all around me in the air.

The next day, the market fell again to record lows.

I planted tulips and daffodils and put in two new inkberries in the back garden near a sunny bench. I smelled fox and nannyberry that day, and over on the north side of the property, from a little hollow in an oak tree, I heard the singular, bird-like chirp of a grey tree frog – the last frog call of summer. There was a green frog in my fish pond again, a new one that replaced the old bull frog that spent the summer there and then left one rainy night back in September. Spring peepers had been calling earlier that week. They’ll sound off almost any month of the year. One year I heard them in mid winter, during the January thaw.

Suddenly the market flooded upward. Buyers rushed in and it rose higher. Then the Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, said something the people didn’t want to hear. The tide fell.

Later that week I saw the last monarch butterfly, one of the few migrating insects. The little red meadowhawks, a species of dragonfly that shows up each year in autumn, were everywhere over the garden, alighting on the withering tomato plants, sunning themselves on the remnant flower stakes where late the last cosmos bloomed. One of the dragonflies landed on my hand while I sat dully in the garden in my place beside the wall, half dreaming of Michoacan, and the Oyamel fir forests of northern Mexico where the eastern populations of monarch butterflies over-winter.

I noticed the next day that the euro began to fall. Federal treasury bonds fell too, not a bad sign if you happen to have T bonds I was told. The euro fell again the following day, and then again the day after that. It occurred to me that if things continued in this way I might be able to afford to get back to the gardens at Villa Lante in Italy, a place I had been thinking about for some time now. Then I met a financial adviser at a wedding party. He told me that it is not necessarily a good thing that the dollar falls against the euro. I’ve forgotten just why.

Down by Beaver Brook one day in mid month I saw an otter. I thought at first it was a log drifting downstream but it dove, then rose again in front me. Otters are intelligent and curious, so I squeaked and whistled and it stopped and looked over at me, treading water as it drifted with the flow. I squeaked again, and it chattered back at me, and suddenly dove, leaving a series of expanding concentric rings in the black waters.

The market fell.

Robins were everywhere on the north side of Scratch Flat. Every morning, I walk there and see the flocks. They chatter and cluck and cross from one wooded patch to another. Somewhere in the density of the wooded thickets there must be stands of old crab apples, or Russian olive maybe.

On a warm sunny Saturday in mid month I saw green darner dragonflies passing over the gardens, right on schedule. They’re migratory, like the monarchs, and move through with clocklike regularity. Green darners on the 12th of October. Monarchs around the 5th. The blackbird flocks anywhere between the 10th and the 20th. The last of the meadow crickets around the end of the month. You could almost tell the dates by these little comings and goings.

On October 23rd. the same day that the juncos arrived, I noticed that the golden hope of hedge funds went into a steep rushing water fall. All the fast money that defined the recent gilded age of high finance ebbed offshore into the indifferent sea. Stocks followed suit and plunged again.

The next night it rained, that warm autumnal rain that brings out the morning smell of old leaves, and moldering earth. A spring peeper called around dawn, and later that afternoon high above, I heard and then saw, a huge barking flock of snow geese headed south for the Chesapeake.

They’ll be back on April 12th.

Where the market will be on that date is less predictable.