Making a Place for Winter to Inhabit

Sparrows bob beneath the kettle grill pecking at the grate, a poor bird's version of suet. Yet it serves them the same, painting a slip of tallow on their bones to be candied off slowly when winter comes. These days, the crown of my neighbor's oak is as raucous as a circus big top: Crow ensembles unfurl their black-satin capes and launch themselves en masse with the same disdain for gravity that aerialists display. Squirrels scurry along limbs, catapulting branch to branch, harvesting acorns, harassing the competition. They claim their inheritance and then scramble back down among leaf-drift and garden bed, depositing and withdrawing from their winter treasuries.

Late morning, I pour seed into the feeder swaying from the dogwood bough. One minute, the garden is silent and the next, a chattering fracas of house finch, nuthatch, starling, jay, and assorted sparrows, all jostling for air-time on the feeding tray or scrounging for the scatterlings along the matted ground. The red dogwood berries - at least those the squirrels haven't devoured - seem like a constellation of stars amid the clouds of bronze leaves. And in the cloudless reaches, those first limbs bare, the berries are brighter, starker still.

Early autumn, and the first telltales of winter's approach appear along the margins of thought. Some signs engender surprise. Just this morning, I noticed I've a dozen cans of soup crowding the cupboard. And oatmeal in abundance, tomato puree, two kilos of popping corn. They seem to have appeared unbidden. And yesterday I purchased a gift for myself: a new ledger, hardbound in slate-blue cloth, long and slim but an inch thick at the spine. Five hundred blank pages crying out for poetry, ink-song, late nights, and slow mornings alone by the window. It's as if winter comes to inhabit us, not vice versa. And I am clearing out a space for its arrival.

For some of my friends, autumn is a slow relinquishment of spirit and light that prepares us reluctantly for the end of the year. But ever since I was young, I'd look forward to October as if, in its radical remaking of the landscape, in its extravagant flirtation on the doorstep of winter's austerity, something foolhardy and wonderful was upon us. It's as if we are all compelled to participate in an arboreal Mardi Gras; overhead, the skies intensify and the weather, turns manic, displaying a new face every hour. Even the neighborhood trees deck themselves out in lavish costumes - first, like harlequins and madcaps, and later, bony and ash-gray.

When I began writing seriously, summer was always a struggle, overwhelming me in its lushness and languor. Autumn focused my concentration. October reached me like the shot at the start of a marathon. And when winter finally arrived to sweep away the confetti and the party debris, I was ready to be locked away, a monk in stoic contemplation of the excesses of the heart.

In New England where, without warning, a balmy morning may give way by noon to snow drifts and tortuous winds, there is a stubborn satisfaction in enduring and even thriving in this climatic kaleidoscope. Years ago, I lived in California for a time and, like all the other transplants, reveled in the gorgeous sameness of the sunny surroundings.

My friends thought I'd gone mad when, on a brief visit back to New England, I phoned them with the request: Please box my things and ship them east. But you see, I'd hit home at the height of autumn; I had no choice. Around here, weather is no small matter. It provokes a hundred savory pleasures, a rigorous chastening, reappraisal, and reawakening. I don't think it's too strong to say we come to find ourselves in this conjunction of inner and outer climates. On the opening page of my new journal, I make this notation: "Autumn is momentary and winter is long - but memory outdistances both of them."

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