Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Sad so-long to Summer

Sunday morning dawned 20-something degrees. By the time I ventured onto the front porch, the temperature had creeped above 30, and the sun made it feel warmer than that. I am not ready, yet, to give up my weekend morning porch-sitting, coffee-drinking, reading-writing ritual. Of course, I’m not ready to give up many of summer’s bright spots. Alas, I can clearly see the writing on the wall – or at least the white of morning frost on the grass.

Two nights of that frost over the weekend, just before the Autumnal Equinox, did the garden in. Friday afternoon I picked all the green beans I could find, plucked one more cucumber from the vine, and harvested the last two small zucchinis. I cut all the zinnias in bloom and put them into a mason jar, where their colors have allowed summer to persist for a few more days.

On Sunday, I pulled frost-wilted plants from the vegetable garden, tilling the soil and pulling weeds. The garden looks tidy now, but barren, with only the green, frilly tops of carrots still standing. This year, the chore of putting the garden to bed seemed especially melancholy; in a year of so much strife and uncertainty, I’ve come to appreciate the colors and tastes of the garden more fervently than in past summers.

Saying goodbye to summer seems especially hard in 2020. But time stubbornly marches on.

Gone now are the bright early mornings; it’s dark these days when I wake, and the light fades soon after supper. Gone are the veggies picked fresh each day as needed. Gone are the lovely summer blooms, both cultivated and wild-growing, whose array of colors brightened the yard and our dining room table for months. Gone are the days of flinging windows open wide to sunshine and warmth.

I’ll make the transition, resistant as I am, to Fall. To cozy evenings and hearty soups, wrapping up in soft blankets and sipping hot cocoa, donning warm socks and extra layers against the chill. But I’m not quite there yet, not quite ready.

I’m holding out on putting the flipflops away. I’m hoping for a few more shorts-and-t-shirt days. And I’ll keep up with my weekend morning porch sitting for as long as I can. Here, the sun still warms me, even if I can see my breath in the chill morning air. The view of the mountains, now transitioning through Autumn’s ever-changing colors, still soothes and inspires. The birds – different ones now from spring, touching down briefly as they migrate from one place to another – still provide a welcome backdrop of sound. The dog, as always, keeps good company, making her daily rounds through the yard before settling at my feet and keeping watch for squirrels and other natural offenses.

Somehow, the coffee tastes better out here, and the news I read seems less jarring when taken in from my porch perch. I’ll pull my long down coat on if I must, and close the storm door behind me, then turn my face toward the sun – and the season that has, inevitably, arrived.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's September 24, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.  

Friday, September 4, 2020

Mountains to the Sea

If ever there was a summer of sticking close to home, this was it. Luckily, we live in a beautiful place, and lots of the things we love to do are accessible right from the front door – or within a short drive. As long and, sometimes, strange as this summer has been, I’m sad to see it end. We’ve packed it as full as we could, with plenty of time in the mountains, numerous dips in the river, lots of backyard soccer, and a welcome – though short – trip to the sea.

July was a month of hiking for us. Between the second day of the month and the second to last, the kids and I stood atop eight of New Hampshire’s tallest mountains. These summits were not the most spectacular we’ve climbed to, nor were most of these hikes among the most scenic we’ve done. But they brought us eight peaks closer to our goal of reaching all of the state’s 48 4,000-footers – an effort that is, for us, a years-long slog.

What made these hikes special was the time on the trail – and on the peaks – spent with friends. Having a trail buddy to talk with during these long, steep days makes a world of difference – for both me and the kids. I count myself lucky to have two good friends who love to hike and whose kids are friends with my kids. We’ve covered a lot of miles together – some happy miles, and some whiny ones – and we have countless shared stories to tell.

Our last hike of July was to North and South Kinsman, with an overnight at Kinsman Pond, which sits along the Appalachian Trail. The Kinsmans are among our “home mountains,” those we can see from the yard or driving through town. They also offer up the best hiking views we’ve had this summer, comprising some of our other home mountains, including the one we ski on all winter.

Standing atop a mountain – whether in the wind and rain, a snowstorm, or on a sunny day – inspires wonder. To be on top of one little piece of the world and look out at a landscape that seems so wild, even though home is just down the valley road – well, it’s a feeling hard to explain. It’s a feeling I love, one that boosts me up, in part by reminding me how small I and my worries of any given day are in the grand scheme of things. I feel similarly about the sea, whose waves and tides seem mysterious, whose reach is unimaginably vast, and whose depths contain unknown wonders.

While our regular trip to Cape Cod was called off this year before we’d even begun to plan it, as August meandered toward September the idea of a summer without even one day at the beach seemed unbearable. So last week, the kids and I packed all the camping gear and the beach towels into the car and headed east toward the Maine coast. We spent a few days in a place we’d never been before – a far cry in many ways from our regular beach neighborhood, with its ice cream shops, familiar busy beaches, and our favorite hotdog stand and lobster roll place.

We jumped in the waves, searched for shells and sea glass, and marveled at entire logs of driftwood sitting faded and smooth along the beach. We soaked up sunshine and salty breezes and dodged exceptionally cheeky seagulls as they tried to snatch our lunch. One morning we walked within a coastal fog to explore mudflats at low tide and search for hermit crabs and sand dollars. It was, quite literally, a breath of fresh (and perfectly salty) air.

The evening the kids and I returned from Maine, our hair filled with sand and sea salt, my husband asked each of us which of two options we’d pick if we had to choose: 1) live in the mountains and visit the ocean, or 2) live near the ocean and visit the mountains. None of us hesitated; we are all, to our cores, mountain people.

Still, it felt good and right to visit the sea, to feel the sand between our toes and the pull of the waves. I’m hoping the summer memories of both – the mountains and the sea – will be enough to sustain us all through whatever this fall might bring. 

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's September 3, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Maple Tree Down

I was in the kitchen cleaning up after dinner when I heard the cra-aack! I knew before I made it outside that the gusty storm winds had taken down what remained of the old red maple tree in the front yard.

The tree’s final demise was a long time coming. It is – or was – the middle (and largest) of three red maples near one edge of our yard. All three took root long before we lived here – I’d estimate this tree even outdates the house, which is nearly 100 years old. When we acquired the house, the trees stood in a field. Our first year here, we converted part of that field to a yard with mown grass, initially to hold a wedding tent. Over the past 13 years, the yard has played host to an array of kid things – hide-and-seek, fairy house construction, made up games, and lots of soccer.

In the center of it all stood this tree, with three large branches splitting off from the main trunk, reaching up toward the sky and out over the yard, providing summer shade, fall color, and a landing place for birds returning to the neighborhood in spring.

Several years ago, one large section of the middle maple’s trunk cracked and crashed down during another storm. And a few years after that, a second segment fell. It seemed every icy winter gale or summer storm took another small branch or two until only one of the main sub-trunks was left.

Still, the leaves from that living branch contributed to the large piles of crisp and colorful leaves the kids raked up to jump into over many autumns. And one year, in late winter, when those kids were very small – and the maple still more alive than dead – we tapped that tree and a the other red maples to gather sap for our driveway sugarmaking operation. (Yes, you can make maple syrup from red maples, too, and you can do so in a large pot atop a propane grill. Not the most efficient method, but good, clean, really sweet family fun.)

Probably because of its declining health, this maple tree was always the first to sport red leaves, usually right around this time of the summer, well before any of us is ready to think about fall. Over the last few years, it’s become a home to various fungi, a slew of bugs roaming around beneath its bark, and the woodpeckers who eat those bugs.

The day after the storm that took the last living limbs from the tree was calm and bright and sunny. A perfect August day. The only evidence of the squall that had raged through the night before was the mess of maple limbs and bark and leaves strewn beneath the tree – and our ongoing power outage.

This weekend, my husband powered up the chainsaw, my son powered up the tractor, and we cut and hauled the fallen leafy branches and the rotted bits down to the burn pile in the lower field, and stacked a few dozen round logs, already seasoned and the perfect diameter for the fireplace, onto the woodpile.

All that’s left now of the old red maple is the tall, broad trunk, ending in a jagged point of dead wood. The remains of the three main branches, stripped of bark, rise like gnarled fingers around the trunk. They no longer offer shade to those beings passing below, or hidden perches for the songbirds who flit around the yard, or sap for would-be sugarmakers. Someday, even the old trunk will come down.

For now, we’ll leave it where it still stands – for the moss and lichens and fungi adorning its remaining parts. For the woodpeckers still finding snacks within. And because the old maple has been a part of this landscape for a century or more, and we have grown used to it being there. 

 Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's August 13, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Summer in Full Bloom

Every year I am enthralled by the transformation from the starkness of our winters to the summers filled with so much growth, so much green, so much vibrant sound and color. I wonder if people who live where the change between seasons is more subtle can truly appreciate either – the bare, frozen beauty of winter or the full-bloom splendor of summer, to say nothing of autumn’s burst of hues and spring’s welcome sprouting.

I love all the seasons, but summer is the one I’m often most reluctant to see go, perhaps because, despite the long days, it seems to pass so quickly. Now, in the hot, waning days of July, already a month past the solstice, I strive to appreciate each long day, every moment of lingering light, all the colors I spy.

Often, my last look outside at bedtime and first look in the morning is through a window toward the back of the house. The field there is green and tall with grasses, ferns, and unfettered wildflowers. The apple trees, left unpruned for so many years, boast sprawling green canopies. From the edges of field and forest, the fully-leafed branches of maple and birch trees spill toward the field. The July view from here is almost jungle-like in its verdure.

Meanwhile, the vegetable gardens, where in spring I planted seeds beneath bare soil, are brimming with summer goodness. The early shell peas have already been consumed, their stalks, browned by summer’s heat, pulled to make way for another planting of carrots. The snap peas persist, joined by the sprawling rows of green beans, the full and frilly tops of carrots, multi-colored lettuces, and the giant, twining leaves of zucchini and cucumbers.

I find happy satisfaction in seeing the garden in its summer glory. Even more in picking the bounty there, bit by bit, tasting summer’s progress by the day. This year, I added a row of zinnias alongside the sungold tomatoes. I love the happy, colorful blooms of these annuals, and it seemed apt to plant a bit of extra hope in such a strange year. The buds, tightly whirled circles of petals just last week, have burst now into blooms lush with color.

And the light. Ah, summer’s light. The sky is already brightening when I awaken, no matter how early (though I’m already noticing that brightening beginning a bit later than it did just a couple of weeks ago). Birdsong and butterflies and the scents of growing, blooming things fill the air through the long days. Afternoons are fully lit, all the way through. And light lingers long now, past dinner and cleaning up, past winter bedtimes.

Many nights, the children play outside in this protracted illumination, their voices mixing with the thrush’s evening song and the warm air, adding to summer’s fullness. Some nights, I stroll along the driveway with the dog as she surveys her domain, or I sit on the porch with a book, or with my own thoughts.

Often, these days, those thoughts can feel as heavy as the humid summer air that settles in just before a thunderstorm. From here, perched safely in my own small corner of the world, I breathe in the goodness of this season and watch clouds glide over the mountains of home, reflecting the colors of long summer evenings.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's July 30, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Summer Strange and Sweet

In some ways, this has been a strange summer. And in others, it seems just as summer should be. The strangeness began with the early closing of school – both the physical school building in mid-March and the release from remote learning at the end of May, two and a half weeks before the originally anticipated last day of school. The kids have been home nearly four months already, which hasn’t happened since before they went to preschool.

For large chunks of that time they have been left on their own to entertain themselves and each other. If necessity is the mother of invention, well, boredom seems to be a good motivator.

With no big trips planned this summer, no fast-moving weeks filled with the happy chaos of cousins visiting from California and Texas and Tennessee, no camps to attend – there are a lot of hours to fill. Some of these are taken up with books or puzzles or board games, others with screens, a few with chores, and some spent around the corner at grandparents’ houses.

The rest is time outside – alone or with each other, roping me in when I am not typing away or meeting-by-zoom in the hot office upstairs. We’ve had a couple of big hiking days, with more anticipated later in the summer. There’s the occasional bike ride. But for the most part, the kids have to find their own fun – or invent it.

For weeks this spring, after the snow had melted from the yard – during that long stretch of time
where we didn’t go anywhere or see anyone outside of our own family – we held daily 2 v. 2 soccer games late in the afternoons. We rotated teammates every other day and argued every call. It was an unwritten part of the daily schedule, a reward for making it through another day of school via Google Classroom.

In the weeks since school has ended, the kids have cycled through several rounds of self-propelled amusement. There’s a rudimentary rope swing hanging from the branch of a maple tree near the edge of the yard, and the skeleton of a fort in another corner. For a while there was an obstacle course climbing and twisting through a series of natural and kid-made structures. They’ve created a disc golf course and three variations of foot golf courses, weaving around gardens and through trees to hit the designated targets. The actual golf clubs have made only one brief appearance.

Only recently have we expanded our pandemic era circle to include a few friends. We hike through the woods toward mountain summits together, or meet at the river in the afternoons, where the kids skip rocks and choreograph synchronized leaps into the water.

Many days, as I make my way through working remotely, the kids make summer plans up as they go along. There is no itinerary, no set agenda, no schedule mapped out by the hour or the day.

But there is hot sunshine and cool, clear water just down the hill. There are bikes in the garage, hiking boots in the mudroom, and flipflops strewn across the front porch. There are trees to climb, friends to meet, towels hung on the line to dry between splashing in the pool and leaping into the river. There are books to read on long, lazy afternoons and fireflies flickering through the tall grass of the field after dark.

While we are missing some of our cherished summer traditions, I think maybe this is how summer should be, even if just this once – completely unmapped, unplanned, unbusy. Strange, perhaps, but sweet, too.

Original content published by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul. This essay appears as Meghan's July 9, 2020 Close to Home column in the Littleton Record.