The first frost

One thing never known to those who depart from this Maine island after Labor Day is the experience of a first frost.They leave their gardens behind to wither , sometimes making a last harvest of flowers or vegetables to distribute among friends; more often just turning wistfully away, perhaps with a sense of the mortality of all natural things. But to us who remain into October, the coming of frost is a visible stroke, beautiful in its way for it marks a change of season and the coming of different tasks, but sad in that it speaks of another summer gone.

The frost came early this year, accurately predicted by the local weather man. I returned from a windy sail to bring in hurriedly most of the last standing flowers -- late- blooming lillies, marigolds, petunias, and lit a large fire in anticipation of the night's cold. At dawn the window of my bedroom was frosted over and a little later I cautiously opened the front door, to find -- just as I expected -- a strange whiteness on the landscape and a sharp nip in the air.

The flowers that I had failed to cut the night before seemed, however, to be still bravely standing, many of them with their brightness undimmed. Could it be that the actual frost had failed to spread itself in my small neighborhood? Might these flowers of mine possess some special immunity, perhaps bestowed by my wife's loving care?

Down the coast across Blue Hill Bay there lives a wise gardener whom I decided to consult. Roy Barrette writes in the Ellsworth Americanm -- a paper known for its fine typography and its excellent literary qualities -- a column which he signs "The Retir'd Gardener." (The odd apostrophe, he once told me, signifies not that he has retired in the ordinary sense of the word -- the good gardener always has work to do, but that he lives somewhat apart, and withdrawn from the cares of the world.) Now he gave me a disquisition upon frost, full of worldly good sense and shrewd observation.

It seems that frost is variable and fickle, at least on its first visitation. That very morning, for instance, it had been 24 degrees in the nearby village, but where Mr. Barrette lives the thermometer had barely touched 32. Climate is a local thing; the difference of a few feet can make the difference of whether a plant fares well or ill. The water in a bird bath he had known to be frozen while nearby a fuchsia continued to bloom as if it had actually sucked warmth from the liquid's turning to ice.

Plants, too, are variable. Some perennials stick it out all winter; he had known a begonia to keep its bloom through a Maine January. Others, of course, just dig in below the soil. Parsnips and leeks may be happy enough when the wind howls and the snow piles up -- but it would take a blast of dynamite to get at them under the solidly congealed earth.

As for my own flowers, still surprisignly fresh in appearance, it was undoubedly my proximity to the sea that had saved some of them. Others were doomed despite their jaunty appearance: the marigold stood there not knowing it had received a fatal blow. Sometimes, however, a rescue can be effectuated. If tomatoes have been out in frost, the retir'd gardener assured me, they can be saved if they are dashed liberally with water.

In fact a day later when I went down to our local post office I was pleased to see roses splendidly full-blown. (How many post offices, I thought afterwards, have flowers of any kind regularly displayed on a long wooden writing-desk?) "Those were taken in before the frost," I remarked knowingly to Mrs. Tracy, our postmaster. "No," she said, "I was told they had been picked on the morning-after, and then heavily watered."

There will be other frosts soon enough. But I shall not be in this countryside to see them. In the great city there is frost of another kind. But there, too, some children of nature escape its effects. And some grow in deep places no matter what the spiritual weather.

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