September Song

September 5, 2010

There’s an old pop song from the ’60s that goes something like this:

They say that all good things must end some day.

Autumn leaves must fall.

It’s Chad and Jeremy, I think, and it’s a guy saying farewell to a summer love. There were a number of these in the ’60s. Did all of us go and live on a lake somewhere over the summer, or stay for weeks or months with our grandparents? Why was it that we were saying goodbye to summer flings? It doesn’t seem to be such a part of the present day rhythm.

But it’s a rhythm that has stayed with me my whole life. It’s a consequence of working the college circuit. September has marked a major transition in my daily activities every year of my life. It’s going back to school time, leaving aside summer diversions, and since I turned pro in the mid ’70s, it means going back to work.

Well, that’s not exactly right. I’ve been busting my butt all summer long, in some respects working harder than I do during the year. But the pace is quite different. From mid-May to August, I’m trying to wrap up projects, knock out papers that need to get written, and get geared up for my classes. Come September, I’m having these long meandering talks with my students about technology over coffee, explaining to a woman who just finished her undergraduate degree what graduate school would actually prepare her to do, having these jarring discontinuities as I bounce back and forth between the occasional new student who has read something I wrote and is impressed by the fact that they are talking to someone that they had heard of before they met them, and the more typical new student who does not know me from Adam’s off ox (and why should they?). All of this seems casual, but there is also that background pace of needing to have lecture notes, class presentations and assignments ready on an unrelenting schedule. And in all these conversations, I still have that urge to get back to the unfinished projects still lingering from the summer, but it’s an urge I have to stifle. Talking to students is my job.

And then there’s a relatively new pop song by Bruce Springsteen. It goes:

The girls in their summer clothes
In the cool of the evening light
The girls in their summer clothes, pass me by

This song captures the September mood for a late fifties guy sitting on Grand River across from the MSU campus drinking coffee during the days that students trickle back to campus pretty nicely. Look it up if you don’t know it. But in some respects, it’s just the echoes of Chad and Jeremy all over again.

For foodies, this means that fresh tomatoes and peaches are coming to an end. We’ve been eating an obscenely expensive box of white organic peaches in a mad race to savor as much of that bliss as we can before it rots. And although tomatoes will still be around for a few weeks, the dark red heirlooms are pretty much done. We still have the high points of harvest time ahead of us: root crops and winter squash in particular, and probably some of those late season greens, too. But it’s coming around and winter will be staring us in the face before we know it.

Calendars are cycles that endow the present tense with meanings it might otherwise lack. Modern folks live calendars through the school cycle, and as my musings here indicate, some of us live their whole life that way. There are also the holidays, of course, and I’m sure that lots of folks are enjoying the long weekend that marks the official end of summer. Food is a major part of that calendar. Eating in season and taking note of it with a casual remark (or a blog) is the fun side of food ethics, recompense for our responsibility to think about the hungry or bad eggs. As for me, I’m sitting in the Amsterdam airport lounge on my way to Bulgaria for a project meeting on transgenic animals. It’s another symptom of the restart that’s happening, putting me back on the academic time clock. It was great to spend the summer in Michigan, I’ll say. It would have been a tragedy to miss those tomatoes and peaches.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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