In the Alps, the French describe this period of time (Autumn) as "l'entre saison", namely between seasons, out of season, off season. Of course, it is meant literally: in the summer, Alpine resorts are busy entertaining walkers and cyclists, in the winter the skiers and the snowboarders arrive. The period when the cable cars stop working at the end of August and when they reopen again for winter is just over three months and in that time there is a great deal of work to do.
We were in the valley of Serre Chevalier (above) a few weeks ago, lucky with the weather and astonished by the difference between the valley in January and the valley in September. Naturally the main contrast was the lack of snow: a couple of glaciers hold on to their blue glass all year round, but for the most part the Southern Alps lose most of their whiteness to the rivers that lie at their feet. I was struck when I first saw Mont Blanc in winter that Shelley's poem had got it right: that it is indeed a place so overwhelming and incomprehensible as to be awe-inspiring and beautiful at the same time: the meaning of the word Sublime. This visit, I thought of Wordsworth, crossing the Alps on his tour of France at the end of his third year at Cambridge: the summer of 1792 when the French Revolution was full of energy and a Republic about to be declared.
Wordsworth discovers that they have accidentally crossed the Alps and he missed it, or missed the moment. This journey is recounted in Book 6 of his long autobiographical poem The Prelude and the realisation that he missed the moment is explored in some famous lines:
. . . whether we be young or old, Our destiny, our being's heart and home, Is with infinitude, and only there; With hope it is, hope that can never die, Effort, and expectation, and desire, And something evermore about to be.
(ll. 537-542, Bk 6, The Prelude 1805)
They retrace their steps so they are able to experience the magnitude of the Alps knowingly and rejoin their group and it is then that Wordsworth experiences his moment of wonder at the power, the Sublimity of the Alps, and note he does this in one single giddy sentence:
The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And everywhere along the hollow rent
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears—
Black drizzling crags that spake by the wayside
As if a voice were in them—the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light,
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree,
Characters of the great apocalypse,
The types and symbols of eternity,
Of ﬁrst, and last, and midst, and without end.
(ll. 556-572, Bk 6, The Prelude 1805)
What is interesting is that Wordsworth was also visiting the Alps entre-saison, when France lay between a Monarchy and a Republic, when he was newly finished as a student but not yet to begin the next stage of his life. Such periods of entre-saison, what we could describe as periods of transition, can be uneasy unsettling times. One doesn't, for instance, pack up one's bags, leave England and move to France without a sense of feeling somewhere in between for a while. Not being able to speak fluent French has been deeply frustrating for me and adjusting to French rural life after spending my childhood and much of my adult life in London has sometimes been difficult. I have a feeling that the combination of the stillness of our canoe trip at the end of August and the grandeur of our trip to the Alps marked the end of my entre-saison, despite the presence of leaves all over our lawn on our return and a reminder that the time to hibernate is fast approaching.