When I lived in Texas, I always wished that autumn had some of the classic characteristics of the season: crisp, cool nights, colorful foliage, local apples—that sort of thing. Autumn is supposed to be about change and the odd thrill of nostalgia and wistfulness and Ecclesiastes-like musing on evanescence. But in Texas, summer heat and summer feeling seemed to go on endlessly.
Classic autumn was so hard to come by, I tried to will it into being. As a student I’d go to Longhorn football games and sit in broiling sun wearing a new sweater or a tweed jacket, tyrannized by a Hallmark-card vision of the season. (Similarly, at Christmas, we’d set the air conditioning on the lowest temperature possible and make a little fire in the seldom-used fireplace.) For people in the sun belt it’s inconvenient that the fundamental concept of autumn was formed in New England. Life in Austin in September would be less conducive of the blahs, if everyone believed deep down that a perfect autumn consists of heat from which there is little respite before Thanksgiving.
Texas autumn is not entirely dispiriting, though. From time to time, the Almighty blesses the sweltering masses down there with a seasonal event that is as stirring as anything associated with pilgrim feasts—the blue norther. It has fullest force when you’ve missed the weather forecast the night before. You’re just going about your business, jogging or eating nachos, and suddenly the wind picks up and changes directions. All sentient creatures feel something happening, something beyond the limen. You look to the north and stare at the sky. It turns a peculiar blue color, the temperature drops thirty degrees or more in half an hour, and for two or three days, autumn no longer feels like summer.
Here at the monastery, we don’t get a whole lot closer to fully realized, mythical autumn than do Texans. We enjoy elements of it, but we don’t get the whole thing. We’ll have several weeks of almost-freezing nights and mist rising from the relatively warm water of the lake. Maples and birches and aspens put on a show. The Saturday farmers’ market in the village park has heaps of fresh-picked apples and various kinds of squash and Brussels sprouts with dirt still on them. All in all, it feels like autumn. That’s not the whole picture, though.
The crisp nights start too early—before Labor Day—and “crisp” becomes “freezing” all too soon. Leaves begin to turn in August, a month, which by any reasonable way of thinking, is summer. I don’t think the Hallmark people had this abbreviated, frigid autumn in mind any more than they did the overheated, almost nonexistent one of Texas.
How do such unrealistic expectations form anyway? Where do they come from? I suppose it’s a consequence of pilgrims settling in New England. But there was early settlement in the Southwest too, and a southwest version of autumn didn’t make into the cultural consciousness.
* * * *
To get ready for winter, I started with fending off skunks that might come around and root up the lawn before the ground froze. First, I spread dried fox urine. (There seems to be no limit to human ingenuity.) The least whiff of it is said to repel skunks. It probably does; it repels me.
I also ordered a batch of parasitic nematodes. They go after the grubs that skunks eat. I’m not sure what nematodes are, except that they’re alive. Since my adventure with them didn’t work out too well, I’ve found it easy not to research them.
I ordered ten million, the recommended number for my small front yard. I liked the idea of ordering ten million anything. It had a nice ring to it in this age of the oligarch. Even we who are not über rich can sometimes order things in lots of ten million. I wondered how big the shipping container would be. Probably take up at least one whole UPS van. It turned out nematodes are tiny; the whole lot fit in a box slightly smaller than a deck of cards. I was skeptical about the accuracy of the count, but I didn’t attempt to check it.
The length of the instructions pretty well matched the number of nematodes.
First, you open the package. (I swelled with pride when I read that. Even without being so directed, that’s exactly where I would have started.) Then you put them into two quarts of “clean tap water.” I inferred that the little fellows are good swimmers, but they’re fussy about what they swim in. Then it was on to the proper way to distribute them on the lawn and the advantages of a hose-mounted spray attachment versus a sprinkler can. (With regard to effectiveness, it doesn’t make much difference.) And they were to be kept in a 60-degree fridge, even though it seemed unlikely that the ride from their place of origin to the monastery had afforded such precise temperature control.
I didn’t pay much for these guys, but even so, I expected them to be a little healthier than they were; they were at death’s door when they came off the truck. The instructions were clear on this point. Use within two days, or it’s curtains.
Also, it’s best to spread them on the lawn in the morning or evening.
And while it’s raining.
I tired of reading instructions before I got anywhere near mastering them, they activated my barely controlled authority problem, it didn’t rain during the two days after my little helpers arrived, and I came down with food poisoning, an affliction best not dealt with in the front yard. I laid my ten million corpses to rest in a mass grave, and hoped that fox urine lives up to its promise.
* * * *
Around the first of August, I ordered a dump-truck load of firewood to be delivered as soon as possible. I knew it would be green, so I wanted time for it to dry out some before I started trying to burn it. The truck arrived on September 20; the scheduled 5:30 delivery, at 7:30.
When I lived down on the Mexican border, Anglos (what few there were) were quite firm in their belief that life moved more slowly in those parts, and it was almost impossible to conduct business properly because of the mañana mentality, and you should never expect deliveries to arrive when promised.
After fifteen years in the North Country, I’ve found this way of being to be the rule in the North Country also. One important difference: here it’s not blamed on “lazy Meskins”. It just is. There are probably a few Type A personalities in the Adirondacks, but they live in the shadows.
As I watched the driver work, I forgave him his lackadaisical attendance to good business practice. He backed his truck around the side of the carport steadily, without hesitation, using only his mirrors, though he had only a few inches clearance. I admire a good truck driver.
I moved the Suburban back by the garage to give him room to dump the wood close to the near-empty rick. Up went its great bed, crying out with the stress. Up and up, wood crashing onto the driveway. Move a little forward and repeat. That’s when I saw that the top edge of the bed was rising perilously close to the bottom of a cure porch that was appended to the second floor. I shouted and waved my arms without effect; the driver was concentrating on the spot where truck was about to meet overhanging porch. He stopped it just before contact, and the last remaining pieces of wood slid out, thuds diminishing like the last few pops of a corn popper.
I wrote him a check on the fender of his truck, expressed my admiration for his skill, and wished him a good evening.
On the way back into the house, I took note of one of those unintended consequences you hear so much about these days—six cords of firewood now lay between the Suburban and the street. Stacking firewood as the temperature falls in autumn is a befitting seasonal activity, like planting flowers in spring. But stacking six cords quickly, so I could get the Suburban out, required wearing Myoflex like a second skin and handfuls of ibuprofen. (When I underwent my conversion from occasional visitor to full-time resident of the monastery, I decided not to hire anyone to do something that I could do myself. I’m rethinking that.)
After a couple of days, I took a break from stacking and joined Ann in taking down the containers of geraniums and verbenas that hung on the porch rails front and back. I thought it would give my back a rest, but the planters happened to be heavy with rain water, so it didn’t.
We pulled up the still-blooming plants and put them in the compost heap (which, incidentally, was near the unmarked nematode grave). It didn’t seem quite right to discard flowers while they still had color and life, but a killing frost followed by snow would be along soon, so we hadn’t shortened their lives by much. Anyway, that’s the sort of thing that happens in autumn.
I dumped the potting soil from the containers into the berry beds in front of the porch. All summer we’d been putting coffee grounds there. Blueberries and currants love coffee as much as we do, and they’d been prolific. Ann spread the soil that had been a geranium medium over the caffeinated dirt and anticipated an even bigger yield next year.
While we worked, the sounds of a Saranac Lake Red Storm football game drifted up from the stadium about a mile away. In the past, the cheering and the band music would have been an unqualified autumn delight. But the recent reports of football-caused deaths and brain injuries turned the sounds of that happy diversion into an announcement of a newly recognized social problem that will have to be addressed.
The porch rails are now just porch rails—empty, stained where the metal flower-box supports had rested, waiting for their months-long carapace of ice and snow. Porch furniture is in the basement. Gutters are in the garage. Storm windows are hung. Outside faucets are drained and closed. The house is in full defense posture.
Adirondack autumn is just about finished.