Autumn: 19N Latitude

I wake, check the clock, 4:00 am. Through the open hatch above, stars pulse their brilliance through a dark inconceivable distance as a gentle breeze wanders over me. I toss the crumpled sheet that sleeps beside me over half my body and wonder, why don’t houses have hatches so the stars are always present when one wakes at 4:00 am?

This has become a habit of late. Wake, and begin thinking random thoughts until the flycatchers’ dawn chitterchatter commences.

The autumn I know. Bull Creek on the Waccamaw River, South Carolina.

This particular morning when the random thoughts have coalesced around a topic, I am pondering the sheet that now covers me and how this curious, somewhat, slightly cool breeze is something new under the Dominican sun. Is this autumn?

I’ve spent much of my life marking time as work would have me do it, by deadlines, projects started and projects finished. And by dates on the calendar, new years, birthdays, anniversaries. And by cycles of the clock to some extent. But always in the background there is that more enduring measurement of time, the one that connects us to the motion of a tilted Earth around the sun and the accompanying seasons of cold and heat, of flowers blooming and leaves budding. Of the sprouting season and the oppressive wet hot air when dog days seem to slow the world into a dreamy haze. Of goldenrod alive with the haste and bumble of September bees frantic to find every ounce of life’s nectar before summer’s end sends their bodies into the earth. Of cool mist on warm waters and red leaves fluttering through crisp blue skies which fade to gray and snow and ice under an absent sun.

Fog on Mattawoman Creek, Potomac River watershed.

4:00 am is a time for nostalgia. I have been seeing some photos lately of dear friends in sweaters with leaves changing in the trees above their smiling faces. The fall, my favorite season at 38 degrees north latitude, has come home to Maryland, USA, and I am not there. And where I am the meaning of the word autumn is quite different, if it has any meaning at all.

At 19 degrees north latitude, I don’t know the land well enough to know what autumn means. I know that this moment under the hatch before dawn is the coolest part of a day that will have me hiding from the sun wherever I can. But over the past night, November 1, a subtle change appeared. A soft wind along the north coast of the Bahia de Samana pressed a handful of cool breezes through the hatch, and for once in a very long time I was glad to have that crumpled sheet at hand. The season is changing.

Our season is also changing, my partner Bill’s and mine and SV Maggie May’s. The season we live by here and now, far from our temperate home on land is not marked by the color of leaves or great shifts in temperature, but by the likelihood of a catastrophic tropical storm. There are only two seasons for us on the boat in the tropics, we order our lives around them: the hurricane season, and the not-hurricane season.

We have stayed in the Dominican Republic for almost 6 months in deference to this season of storms, which comes to an official end November 15. Very soon we will be moving on eastward.

Hurricanes, or tropical storms, can occur any month of the year. But they are most likely July through mid-November when water and air are at their warmest and most energetic. Many of these storms are born off the west coast of Africa before they charge westward across the Atlantic. All my life I have lived in the temperate climates where tornadoes, blizzards and thunderstorms are a real threat and hurricanes are a distant peculiarity, as distant as those stars through the boat hatch. But since moving onto our sailboat in May 2020, hurricanes have become a looming presence in my life and mind.

And so it turns out that fall is my favorite season in the Caribbean tropics as well. It marks the ending of the season of ocean turmoil and rage, the kind of ocean that can conjure a storm, where, if we are caught in it, our only recourse is to accept what the fates decide for us. The ocean can rage year round, but we have better odds against the short tantrums that come with random squalls and so we begin to have a certain kind of freedom of movement and freedom from a certain set of fears. Weather still remains our chief concern on the journey forward, but we can stand a little taller and peak our heads out of our hurricane holes and travel on southward.

We are again migratory. As the birds are prompted by the coming winter, and the humpback whales are traveling south to warmer waters, we are released and allowed to roam by the drawing down of the tropical storm season.

This time in the Dominican Republic has been a serendipitous pause in our journey, a gift, but it’s time to face the Mona Passage and what lies beyond…Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Anguilla, Guadeloupe, St. Lucia…

A murmuration of fish gathered around the SV Maggie May in Samana, Dominican Republic.

Through the hatch I hear the stolid flycatchers making the first noises of the dawn, chorusing with one another through the dark. It is time to get up.

I rise, make a cup of coffee and go on deck where a pelican is pacing on the marina dock, trying to defend fishing grounds from the perceived threat of two killdeer who, minding their own business, don’t seem to know what the pelican’s problem is. They turn their backs on the strange agitated bird, and orient their bodies to the rising sun. Both the pelican and I watch them. I don’t know what the pelican perceives, but this is what I see: The first light of a new day striking the white breasts of a pair of killdeer.

An image etches itself in memory like a photo etched on a glass plate. I look down at my coffee and see for the first time in six months, steam coming off of it. Steam! The morning is, as usual, warm, but the breeze coming along every so often is just cool enough to condense the hot air rising from my coffee. Fall has floated in with little fanfare. No red, orange and yellow leaf pageantry; no frost or even fog, no blue jays calling, no blustery cool wind to pull the last brown leaves from naked branches. Just a bit of steam rising from a coffee cup, born away on a gentle wind. The killdeer must feel it too because as the sun breaks the horizon they stand utterly motionless while a warm rose-tinted glow lights the white feathers of their breasts and the white ring around their necks. I can almost feel what it means to be them in this moment, the grace of the sun upon them.

The pelican flies off in a huff.

I myself for the first time in a tropical-hot long time am fully contented to have a warm cup in my hands as I sway on the SV Maggie May and watch the softest light of day break across the softest breasts of two small silent birds.

***

Given that my mind has been on changing seasons, for my annual holiday print sale in collaboration with the International League of Conservation Photographers, I put together a special set of photo prints that represent autumn to me now–the nostalgic autumn of my home, and the autumn of tropical boat life at the ending of hurricane season.

All images in this collection are printed on environmentally-friendly Hahnemühle Hemp paper, a beautiful paper that minimizes our carbon footprint. Every effort is made to reduce waste in packaging. Forty percent of profits will support the work of the International League of Conservation Photographers. The sale ends December 2.

You can see the prints here and order at: https://www.conservationphotographers.org/print-sales-schlyer