Small traditions

The first big rainstorm of the season usually occurs in October. This year, however, the month was unseasonably dry. Weather reports to the contrary, I wasn't prepared for the beginning of the rainy season to arrive on the final Saturday of the month.

We had just burned the season's accumulation of debris and, since burning in the forest always demands great care, a timely rainfall is more desirable than not. Still, as I peered out at the gray skies and cascading rivers of rain, I felt a certain disappointment. There were jobs that must be postponed. It would be necessary to implement Plan B.

In the Pacific Northwest it is taken for granted that one actually has a Plan B, particularly during the rainy season. In October, fortunately, my Plan B traditionally calls for curling up beside the fire with a good book. It is one of the events I look forward to in the autumn, particularly after weeks of harvesting, canning, stacking firewood, and cleaning up outside. And now, here it was - the first real downpour and a ripe opportunity to ''goof off,'' as our neighbor Mac characteristically labeled such activities.

I found my long-ignored book, kindled the fire, and sat down in my favorite armchair, basking in the cozy warmth that enveloped the kitchen. But I wasn't able to read. Instead, I found myself listening to the rhythm of the rain as it splashed against the patio outside the windowpane. It was a peculiarly persistent sound, perhaps for me akin to what the song of the sirens must have been for Ulysses, and when I finally glanced out the window I was hooked.

The appreciation of autumn storms demands time and attention. The wind and the rain and the falling of leaves all interplay synergistically to create a whole that is much more than the sum of its parts. There are clouds rushing up the hollows, billowing over the fir-shrouded ridges in the distance. The wind periodically unleashes polychro-matic swirls of autumn leaves from the swaying maples and oaks, stirring the bunched red berries on the dusty arbutus into vibrating waves of wild crimson. Add to this the fresh earthy dampness that permeates the air, and the rich tapestry of the elements threads itself into a provocative portrait that hints at something much deeper than expected at a casual glance. Fascinated by the dynamics of the display unfolding before me, I turned my chair toward the window and settled back to absorb it in private meditation.

But then I heard a pounding at the door. It was Mac, windblown but dry beneath a green plastic poncho. Mac's idea of ''goofing off'' during the first big blow of the year is to walk in the rain and visit neighbors.

When Mac noticed my book lying open to Page 1, he apologized for interrupting. I replied that he hadn't really interrupted anything at all. ''For some reason,'' I explained, ''on my first free afternoon in weeks, I can't seem to take advantage of Plan B.''

Mac smiled impishly and looked out at the pouring rain. it was only then that I realized he had something on his mind. When asked, he answered that the same thing had happened last year - and the year before. In fact, as long as Mac could recall, I had spent the first rainstorm of the year staring out the window rather than actively following Plan B.

And, of course, he was right. It suddenly dawned on me that for years it had been Mac's habit to take a walk during the first storm of the season. Invariably , he appeared on our doorstep to help me watch the rain. I couldn't help being thankful for a neighbor who believed in the nurture of small traditions and who went out of his way each year to see to it that I was not neglecting them.

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