Friday, October 25, 2013

Gathering Autumn

The heat kicked on one morning this week (with the thermostat set at a frugal 55 degrees) and there’s a possibility of snow in the weekend’s forecast. Like it or not – and I know plenty of folks on both sides – winter is coming.

The uncommon warmth of the mid-October days this fall lulled me into a sense of continued summer, even as the leaves dropped from the trees and the mornings grew dark. While I’ve been able to slack a bit in preparing for the coming cold, I’ve noticed the animals scurrying about, gathering autumn before it’s too late.

I can hardly drive down a back road these days without slowing for a squirrel scampering to hide his winter nuts. The woolly bear caterpillars, so plentiful a few weeks ago, have gone into hiding. We see bear and deer under the apple trees each evening, filling up on the season’s abundance. The summer cacophony of birdsong has faded to the occasional melancholy cooing of a family of mourning doves that has set up residence in the apple trees nearest the house and the stalwart chickadees who stick around all year.

Following the animals’ lead, I will pull the last of this year’s carrots from the ground this week and pick the final handful of green peas – both products of a Hail Mary planting made well past midsummer. The rest of the garden is cleared out, raked smooth, and put to bed for the coming winter, the bounty of wild blueberries from the summer tucked away in the freezer and the applesauce put up in the pantry.

It was an odd year for gardening and gathering. The summer started hot and wet, the heat luring me to plant early, the wet saturating many of those first seeds beyond the ability to sprout. And so the garden was a bit of a flop for much of the summer. The peas came in well and seemed to promise more good things to come, but they faded fast. The green beans were nearly nonexistent until my third planting, when persistence finally paid off with a decent, but not spectacular, harvest. The broccoli was a bust, the cucumbers sparse, the carrots so-so. I didn’t even have enough zucchini to give away.

Nature, on the other hand, provided in abundance all summer and into fall. We found the first wild blueberries the second week of July, and we picked through the final muggy breath of August. The blackberries provided a decent yield, just as the blueberries began to wither. And in nine summers at this house, I’ve never seen so many apples weighing down the branches of the gone-wild trees dotting the back field.

Feathered, furry, or bundled up in increasing layers of clothing, we all spend time during this in-between season gathering autumn, whether savoring the waning warmth of the sun or storing away the fruits of fall, tucking them into root cellars, dark freezers, or squirrels’ dens. As the bears load on an extra layer of fat, we dig out our winter boots and heavy jackets. As the woolly bears curl up against the cold, we replace screens with storm doors and windows. As the deer eat all the fallen apples they can find, we have cooked ours into sauce, filling the kitchen with the warm scent of cinnamon.

Even as I lament the passing of one season, I am usually ready to welcome the next. And, so, as I miss the colors of fall and bemoan the gathering darkness of the approaching season, I am also looking forward to winter. In the darkest days of the year, as the wild ones hide away, we’ll bundle up against the chill and head outside to ski and sled, build snowmen, and feather snow angels into the crystal whiteness.

By the time the winter solstice arrives, we’ll have mostly forgotten to miss warm days and green grass, distracted by the glow of Christmas tree lights and hot cocoa by a warm fire. And at winter’s end, just when it seems we can’t handle another gray day, leaf buds will form on tree branches, the first crocuses will poke through thawing ground, and the birds will return with their colors and songs, carrying with them the next season, another chance to savor new things and start all over again.

Original content by Meghan McCarthyMcPhaul, published on her Blog: Writings from a full life. This essay is also featured in Meghan's Close to Home column in the October 25, 2013 issue of the Littleton Record.

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