Gladiola August is gone, and up here in northern New Hampshire - where only the reckless plant before Memorial Day - we're wondering if our tomatoes will redden before the first killing frost. The trees are beginning to flare up, red and yellow against the smoky mountains, and by November all the flames will have fallen and the fires will be banked for the winter. It's sometimes depressing. Along my daily route over Mt. Cube I see the veal calves lying beside their empty pails and beyond them the silent, stubbled fields and pruned apple trees. The migration of monarch butterflies to Mexico is under way, and on some annunciatory October morning I'll see arrowheads of Canada geese pointing down the sky toward the Louisiana bayous.
The summer people are gone too, wondering why those of us who can choose, remain. Some will be back, of course, to see the foliage, and to reassure themselves that life has a chance, despite the Armageddon written on the wall in broad daylight by modern major generals. Some will be back to hunt, to kill the grouse and deer and bear and pheasants that they often leave to bleed to death in the snow.
Up here the snow comes early out of a spindrift sky, covering November like a comforter before Thanksgiving. The mice tunnel under the snow to their summer storage, free from want and fear of owls. The flashy evening grosbeaks wait in the maples by the feeders in the snow-covered gardens, and the fox and pheasants come close for the yellow corn kernels we sprinkle in a clearing under the apple trees in the back fields. It's usually below zero before Christmas, and we quote thermometer readings like baseball scores: Bethlehem, 22 degrees below; Passaconaway, 30 degrees below; Summit of Mt. Washington, 46 degrees below. We're proud of our snow and cold; they distinguish us from the flatlanders, the sissies who close their schools if it snows six inches or drops to 20 degrees below.
Once the snow has fallen, the light, which seemed to be strained through milk glass in November, becomes stronger, dancing off the snow like a fierce Shiva or flashing like a metaphysical signal, signifying something surely.
Some mornings the air glitters with ice crystals, ''as if the dome of heaven was falling,'' as Frost says. It's called bridal veil. I've only seen it a few times, and I wanted to stop my car and get into it, or swallow it, or say a prayer. There's darkness, too, of course, ''darkness visible'' from about four in the afternoon until around seven in the morning. It drives immigrants to Bermuda or the Caribbean by March, where they prematurely recover the light. I don't want to go. It's like forcing tulip bulbs in January. Denaturing. Deceiving, too, in a way: gives us the illusion of complete control, the arrogance of omnipotence: a thermostat mentality. I'm even secretly glad when New York City is paralyzed by a three-inch snowfall, or I myself am snowbound. ''Now we'll see,'' I think, '' 'who enters into the treasures of the snow.' ''
I used to be a part-timer, a two-timer, too, but life in the suburbs made me feel as if I were living in a New Yorker advertisement. I felt like Marie Antoinette at the Versailles ''farm,'' playing country life in a Faberge simulation. Up here life seems livelier . . . more authentic . . . wholesome. Yes, wholesome's the word, I think; in the modern sense of promoting well-being, and in the ancient sense of uninjured, and in the sense, too, of complete, undivided, containing all the parts. Certainly the air is cleaner, the water purer, the soil toxicity lower, and the streets, where there are streets, quieter and safer. The people, too, are less ''sicklied o'er'' with the pretensions of suburbia or the frustrations of the city. Last Halloween my husband and I had to urge the devils and supermen and ghosts who knocked timidly at our door to take more than one candy or apple. A cardboard computer handed me a note as she left which read: ''Thank you very much for the candy. It was very kind of you to give it to us. We love you.''
And life is less injured up here. Surprisingly, I haven't seen as many wild animals, dead or alive, as I expected, because they've not been driven from their habitats by housing developments or highway construction into the paths of oncoming cars.
And life seems more complete. Last winter I complained to my father about the broken heater in my car. ''Put your head out the window and breathe deep,'' he said, ''and find out what cold means.'' And I did that. And I ''knew the mind of winter,'' as Wallace Stevens says in ''The Snowman,'' with arctic clarity. And I also knew the joy of warmth when I got home and held in my hands the warming stones from the Ompompanoosuc River that we keep on the wood stove. This seemed more complete than life at a constant 70 degrees.
In that poem, Wallace Stevens says that the authentic observer of the winter ''beholds/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.'' When I read those lines in warmer climes, I understood ''nothing'' in the sense of emptiness, but up here I'm not so sure. The ''nothing that is'' may be that from which somethingness springs - the unceasing, unchanging, all-pervading all. I know I feel the ''currents of universal being'' when I walk in the whiteout of our Japanese-like landscape of white fields, white trees, white rivers, and white mountains under a distant whitish sun in an oyster-swirl sky.
It's not all revelation and ordination, of course. The winter is a test, too. We must endure the annual initiation rites of blizzards and ice storms, of frozen fuel lines and burst pipes. My friend Faith thinks we should institute a test for New Hampshire naturalization. She would require candidates to grow a vegetable garden, swear faithfulness to an ecological code, and survive three winters north of Concord without cursing the darkness or lighting out for Bermuda.
I'd be more selective because the good life up here is not safe, and we must protect our treasures. I wouldn't admit those who think you can catch what's here with a camera; or those who can only smell a profit in the pine forest; or those who want to see the black bears walk the tightrope behind the false fronts of Nature's Wild Wonderland Park. I'd refuse those who would salt the ground like Carthage with condominiums along the ski scars, Disneyland simulations, and ''safe'' radioactive wastes. We must ensure that the blue heron may ''find a rest for the sole of her foot.''
In fact, I'd build a great granite wall around New Hampshire to keep them out. And above the gate, up on the keystone in the archway, I would inscribe:
I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing:
therefore choose life.