Sunday, October 27, 2013

Yard lights and burning leaves

The fires of sunset
Asparagus berries

Now the leaves are gone, stripped from bony tree branches by wind and rain, and at evening, a neighbor’s yard light shimmers and glitters like a solitaire in the thickening darkness at the top of the ridge on the far side of the valley.  It marks the end of summer more certainly than anything else in our world here because all summer, it has been invisible behind the thick foliage of the trees. The fallen leaves spread across the forest floor, pile into the back corner between the house and garage, and crunch beneath our feet as we make the last trips between the garden and the kitchen.   Wind has a new voice and moans and rattles in the chimney, flings leaden rain against the windows, and sends battleship clouds scudding across the high dome of sky.  We pull quilts and wool blankets, scented with lavender and mothballs, from the totes where they have summered, and during the thin light of day, hang them on the clothesline where they flap and dance before they find their way indoors, bringing the clean smell of fall to the beds they cover. 

We have dug jackets from the back of the closet for in the morning, the chill air is like a slap and the car windows and grass are furred with silver frost.  The dirt road is frozen hard and rutted as we walk the dogs whose noses are busy sniffing the air and bushes, and moose tracks scrap across the hard-packed gravel.  With the drop in temperatures, the partridges rustle and cluck in the thickets beside the road and moose are on the move.  Colder weather marks the beginning of rut for the moose, and three bulls have been roaming our fields and the ones across the road, looking for love.  One morning, there were two: one young and full of ambition, the other older, bigger and wiser, jockeying for the attention of a pair of cows who occasionally raised their heads from the red stick thickets they were nibbling to watch the jousting of the bulls. 

Kasey noted that there is something about this clear fall air, sharp with the promise of snow flurries – and we had a few this week -  that makes the heart race, and it is an apt description.  We are busier than ever, moving to the urgent beat of the coming winter, carrying in bags of carrots and leeks, bushels of chard and kale, and rearranging the freezer shelves to hold the last bounty from the garden.  The corn stocks have been pulled and tied in tepees for fall decorations and toted to the burn pile farther up into the field, fast kindling for a winter bonfire.  A new compost bin has been built from bales of mulch hay that we get from our friend Warren Grass who farms in Mars Hill, and the big round bales that the Carlsons put up for us when they cut our fields are lined up along the garden and are being forked onto the garden as a winter blanket.  Pumpkins adorn the doorsteps of houses across the countryside.  The sun is hazy gold, paler than a month ago, and a blue haze, reminiscent of leaf smoke, hangs in the air.
Bedding for the garden
When I was a child, the burning of leaves was part of the fall routine. Before anyone thought of air pollution, leaves were raked to the side of the streets and roads throughout New England and burned.  For a week, the leaves were gathered into moldering piles along the curb, ready for the night when everyone emerged from the houses in jackets and hats and the leaves were burned.  It was an evening chore that usually occurred in the last week of October, just before Halloween, when daylight savings time ended in October and street lights came on while we were eating supper.  With the table cleared and dishes soaking in a pan of soapy water, we would head outside for the fun.
The still night air was acrid with pungent smoke, and up and down the street, piles of smoldering leaves were ruby embers in the gathering dark. Fathers called back and forth to each other, leaning against their iron rakes, carefully guarding against stray sparks that could land on roofs and cause an inferno, and children ran like goblins through the darkness, their shrieks and laughter floating up to the stars.  Smoke drifted through the pooled light from the old tin-shaded  street lamps, and mothers, kerchiefs tied firmly on their heads, shared gossip and complaints, and occasionally reached out to cuff a fractious child or lift a little one back to his or her feet. 
My mother always brought out potatoes, scrubbed clean in the pantry sink, and sheets of foil for wrapping the spuds.  As the leaves burned down and the hot embers flickered and pulsed, my father would wrap the potatoes and tuck them into the bottom of the burning pile with the iron rake.  Although I always watched him as he slid the foiled potatoes under the leaves, I was soon back to tag or kick the can with the neighbor kids, galloping like wild things in the smoky darkness.  When my mother called, we would all run, and though I never saw her bring out extra potatoes, somehow there was always enough for a half potato for almost every child, and it always reminded me of the story of loaves and fishes.  We would stand in a cluster as my father raked the charred packets out and then opened the blackened foil and cut the hot potatoes in half with his pocket knife.   There were burned tongues and sighs of pleasure as we all dug in, and when they were gone, we were shepherded in to baths and warm beds while the men alone kept vigil over the fading fires.
We have somehow lost such magic in our concern for safety.  We never worried about strangers then – we knew everyone – and there was no concern about food poisoning or many of the other phobias we seem to have developed today as we ate those potatoes.  None of us got sick. It may be that the world really is not as safe as it once was, that chemicals and easy solutions have poisoned what we once had, or it may be that we are just more fearful. Whatever it is that stopped us from burning leaves with our neighbors and baking potatoes in the glowing ashes on an autumn eve has stripped some of the wonder from our lives, and I am often sorry for the children who will never know it.
Garden bedded for winter
At sunset, the western ridge – two miles away – glows like those old fires as the sun sets, and although we linger to watch it disappear and the stars blossom across the inky sky, the dropping temperature drives us indoors to fires and light, the smell of the scalloped potatoes from dinner, and the security of home.

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