A gift of a beautiful day before winter begins

If I closed my eyes and let the warmth play on my face, I could imagine it was early spring, not late autumn.

Normally, late autumn in Maine is as good as winter. The trees are thoroughly stripped of leaves, and the frozen grass cracks underfoot at break of day. It's not uncommon to have a preliminary, warning snow, usually gone by dusk.

The thing is, in late autumn, folks up here behave as if it were already deepest winter - as a sort of practice for the actual season, I suppose. Yard tools have been stowed, few people are seen taking walks, gardens have been turned under, flower beds lie under protective boughs of fir and spruce, and bird feeders are bereft of visitors.

But sometimes there is an unexpected reprieve or respite from what seems like an inexorable descent into winter. Today, for example, after a week of cold and wind and overcast skies, the thermometer suddenly turned heel and began to rise.

What's more, the sun made a surprise appearance and a landscape that had seemed gray and empty turned bright and optimistic once again. If I closed my eyes and let the warmth play on my face, I could imagine it being early spring rather than late autumn.

I was awakened on this momentous gift of a day by the sound of a chain saw down the road. Normally an annoyance - like an oversized and too-persistent mosquito - today it was an impetus for me to get up early and see what the buzz was all about.

Looking out the window to the road, I first saw two walkers, then a boy on his bicycle, then my next door neighbor stacking wood. On the river side of the house, the feeder was aflutter with chickadees and goldfinches.

My spirits lifted even more when, for the first time in weeks, I spotted a canoe (bright red) making its languid way upstream. My eyes moved to the thermometer, which already read 60 degrees F., even though the day had only begun!

I ate only the most tentative of breakfasts before bolting out the door to join the noble band.

When such a day is bestowed upon a place like Maine in late November, my feelings run in two directions at the same time. On the one hand, I am grateful for the turn of events, however momentary. On the other, I know that it can't last, so I immediately set to work, mentally arranging all the things that I should have done two months ago in preparation for winter.

First things first. I threw a ladder up against the side of the house and scrambled up onto the roof to clean the chimney and gutters. Moving apace, I rattled back down the ladder and got the last of the raking in, attacking leaves that had deeply infiltrated the now-bare lilacs and hedges.

That accomplished, I scraped some of the house trim and applied a much-needed coat of paint. As a sort of coda to this solo concerto of industry, I pruned the apple tree, threw a tarp over the woodpile, turned the garden, and cleaned out the mudroom (which still contained a bit of last winter's mud).

Before I knew it, late afternoon was upon me, and the sky had dimmed. I also noticed that as soon as I stopped moving for a few minutes, my fingers and the tip of my nose grew cold. It was 4 o'clock, and the sun was well down toward the horizon. The temperature had dipped to 40.

I moved to the back porch and sat to admire the results of my labors. The day had been so short, and I had accomplished so much.

It was then that I noticed one of my neighbors sitting on his front steps. In fact, I had noticed him there several hours before, but hadn't paused to chat with him. I don't think he had lifted a finger all day. Wasted time, I thought, when he could have gotten so much done.

At that moment something caught my eye. There, poking through some dried-up leaves in the small garden alongside my back porch, were two powder-blue blossoms of creeping phlox, a confirmed June bloomer. The plant had somehow hung on through the first frosts, the blossoms radiating from old shoots that were brown and wilted. No doubt the sun and warmth of this day had encouraged them to offer one last gesture toward the distant spring.

I glanced up from the phlox and looked at my neighbor again. He was still sitting. He raised a hand, and I returned his greeting. He couldn't have discerned it from my smile, but I was suddenly filled with envy for the use to which he had put his spring day in autumn.

Acknowledging this, I turned back to the phlox, and regarded it with uninterrupted awe as long as I could, until darkness and the waxing chill of late autumn drew me into the house.

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