Going through the motions that mark the season’s change.
By Susan Woodward Springer
In Maine, getting ready for winter is serious business. It deserves a title all its own, perhaps even a minor season on the calendar. Getting Ready for Winter precedes fall and extends into it, taking advantage of a certain late-summer angst, when the crickets are singing mightily and the voice of the wind has changed.
You know that change of voice the moment you hear it. In July, the wind only ruffles the surface of summer, and the trees are still. But by the end of summer, the wind is in the trees, urging, “Hurry up. Hurry up.” It’s a wind that whispers a prelude to winter.
I heard it today, and it moved my paintbrush a bit faster over the clapboards in the sun. It fueled my patience with the caulking gun as I gummed and sealed each tiny crack. My neighbor heard the change of voice too, and his chainsaw tore into the afternoon quiet with a sharp and ragged sound, cuts and pauses, the idling motor a throaty, wet hum.
Down pasture, in my woods, the young fellow I’d hired to clear deadfall answered with his own saw, and so the two went as the sun relaxed into the west: a loud whine from the neighbor’s yard, then an echo, a soft and distant one from the woods. My young fellow cut with his own sense of urgency, mentally counting his earnings to pay for the new baby expected when fall turns to winter.
I covered my paint can, wrapped my brush, and set off through the tall grass to check on the young fellow. I found him busy turning deadfall into firewood, so I took up the pruners and followed him, cutting all but the sturdiest saplings and creating a trail for skiing. It will be for the neighbors, as I’m not here in winter. I’m not even a summer person. For now, I’m just a vacationer, building a cottage for a day when I can stay for a season. Cutting the trail is an invitation, one that honors the fenceless nature of the Maine woods: trees along property lines are marked, stone walls laid, and lot corners staked, but any barbed-wire fences in my neighborhood have long-ago fallen into disrepair. They are not statements of where boundaries lie, but rather suggestions. Cutting a trail acknowledges the informal path the neighbors have always made for themselves. It is my oblique apology for building my cottage atop what was once a quiet pasture.
A wise man once suggested we try living in the present and not worry about tomorrow, for it will bring worries of its own. Walking slowly from the woods back to the cottage, you can almost imagine living that way. You can linger in the grass and clover, the Queen Anne’s lace and fading wild asters, the sedges where a hidden spring rises up from deep beneath the ground. You can pause and marvel at the tidy cycle of grazing: how cows eat grass and make manure, how that manure is spread on the pasture and makes more grass, how the cows eat it and make more manure, and so on.
That’s as in the moment as I can muster in this future-looking season of Getting Ready for Winter, because the voice of the wind is insistent. When it runs fast and hard, the vernal brook in my woods slams into granite rock and splits, making two deep furrows in the land. Time does the same thing this time of year. You find yourself flowing into autumn with one foot still in summer, the other in preparation.
Back at the cottage, I heard the persistent squawking of an unfamiliar bird. As I searched the treetops for it, my eye caught a blush of orange-red in the maple across the dirt road: the first visible tinge of autumn. Clearly, the wind knew what she was talking about.
Top photo by Mark Fleming.