Here in Maine, autumn comes on in fits and starts, ebbing and flowing like a tide: one day warm, the next brisk, then back to warm. One morning recently, though, we reached the point of no return. When I went outside to fetch the paper, the grass crunched underfoot.
In the dim 6 a.m. light I gazed across the backyard, which shimmered beneath a half-moon. The first frost. It reminds us, if indeed we need reminding, that summer is truly gone, leaving only remnants.
It’s always been interesting to me that when the temperature first drops to freezing, the landscape responds in synchrony, as if cued. At 33 degrees F., the tomato vines are still green and robust, the pole beans are bearing, and the leaves, even in their crimson and gold, cling stubbornly to the trees.
But at 32 degrees F., the party’s over. The tomatoes shrink away, the pods of the last beans constrict, and the leaves come down in droves as if some giant hand has taken hold of the trunks and given them a good shake.
It all seems like the messy aftermath of some wonderful parade. In this case, the parade was the long, warm, green summer. Back in July, at the height of good weather, I had remarked to a friend that conditions were so enduringly pleasant that summer seemed as if it would never end.
But like all parades, there is the last float that turns that distant corner as the musicians put away their instruments and the crowd begins to disperse.
Now for the cleanup. First there are the leaves, laid out like a crisp, multi-colored carpet, but soon to be mounded in heaps high and broad enough to completely subsume a 12-year-old boy.
Such was the case last year, when I went out to get one of these piles off the lawn and my son leaped forth in a frenzy of oak and maple leaves, in exultation at the sudden gift of a new hiding place.
And then there is the vegetable garden to tend to. The dead tomato and bean vines cling to their trellises with whatever residual strength they have left. The lone watermelon, which never got bigger than a softball, still lies in state, forsaken now, and will be fodder for the raccoons to fight over.
The basil is black, the chives withered, and the dill a sorry wreck. I will take my pitchfork and turn all of them under while the ground is still soft. Thus they will make their contributions to next year’s crop.
As I move about my yard – raking, pushing my wheelbarrow, and pitching earth – something catches my eye: a small purple exclamation point against the white clapboards of the house.
I draw closer, warmed by the sight of one solitary blossom of phlox, its petals still robust. Even as I did my chores, I thought of that phlox as a valiant holdout. It reminded me of the current tenor of conversation among my neighbors, many of whom are reluctant to give up on warm weather yet.
“Did you hear that it’s going to break 65 degrees tomorrow?” gushed one woman as I greeted her in the coffee shop. Another parent was on his way out with kids in tow, en route to the beach, of all places. And the students in T-shirts and sandals are still legion.
Good for them, I thought. Good for all of us who want to make hay while the sun shines, for tomorrow the hay will be covered in hoarfrost and the ice will be edging across the lakes like a malevolent shadow, putting the final kibosh on any thoughts of one last romp in the water.
Yes, good for us. But I also have another thought, one that I keep to myself so as not to spoil the good mood generated by the occasional respite from our dark descent into the time of cold and ice: We are all in denial. Just like that purple phlox advertising for the now nonexistent bees.
As long as these first days of frost are ambivalent – frigid in the morning, sunny and fairly mild in the afternoon – we will not be able to bring ourselves to sever the slender bond that still tethers us to the receding mild weather.
But that’s OK. We won’t have to. There’s a forecast of six inches of snow in the mountains, which will do it for us. Then, like good, realistic, accepting Mainers, we will give in fully to late autumn, make the best of it, and gracefully acknowledge the counsel it offers for the winter to come.