Magazine January 26, 2015, Issue

Closing Time

Farmers and their farm stands are the most obvious candidates for closing. Months ago the first frosts ended most growing, but there was still produce to be sold. Apples and cider; pumpkins for Halloween; roots and tubers — anything that stored well, wore a rind, or lived underground could march on until the snow piled up and the soil itself froze. Even black kale, whose broad leaves look like palm fronds in an old Bible illustration, can last, in a mild season, after Thanksgiving into December (the longer it lives the better it gets, but don’t tell old congressmen). There comes a time though when the gourds look haggard and the monstrous carrots seem merely freakish. Christmas trees are the stop crop, the “Attention Shoppers” announcement that the earth store will be closing in ten minutes. For three weeks the cars with Jersey plates roll homeward down the valley with fresh-cut ornament holders strapped to their roofs. Then it ends. One farm stand on the state route shuts down completely; the other stays open half time (they realized a few years ago that they could do some winter business with bird seed and animal feed). Empty fields lie brown, then white; silos stand like abandoned watchtowers.

At the edge of town an enterprising soul set up a barbecue stand in a corner lot at an intersection. Stove, fridge, and sales counter were in a large stationary wagon; you parked your car on the grass; customers who weren’t taking out could sit on picnic tables. Texas wasn’t worried, but Texas is hundreds of miles away. Stoves and barbecue are warm, so chefs and diners carried on bravely through shrinking days and the first flurries. But past a certain point what should be a simple meal would become heroism, so up went the sign closed back April 1.

This isn’t the only eating place to shut down. Restaurants with four walls and a roof take winter breaks, often quite long ones. Some weeks a would-be diner-out can bumble around from one old standby to another before finding one that has not closed its doors.

The big resort on the ridge does not close. But after the full houses of Christmas and its mad bastard child, New Year’s Eve, comes what the owners call with stiff upper lips “the cliff.” It is not that the grounds, the size of a small township, are any less lovely. If you live in the woods for a few winters you learn how beautiful that season is. When the trees are leafless you can appreciate their bark and their bending. Spring, summer, and fall are fashion shows; winter is a parade of nudes. Creatures without roots are also worth studying. Birds sing less but they are seen more; animals leave tracks like sociologists’ flow charts. It’s a hard sell to the public though. The warmest parka in the world is no match for the USVI. So the resort sails over the cliff, hoping to touch down briefly on Valentine’s Day. They close the big dining room with the 30-foot ceiling; business relies (they hope) on conferences; the 19th-century worthies whose photographs line the hallways are less distracted by selfies.

You understand why the farmers go indoors to study their seed catalogues and their mortgages. But people still get hungry, and they still need to relax. So why does so much hospitality simply come to an end? Cold obviously. Yes, cold is unpleasant. But cold also represents effort — to keep it off, to prepare to meet it. Isn’t it better to give up — either to flee, or just to stay home?

Whole species flee, die, or otherwise disappear. In the warm three quarters of the year even most of us who are not naturalists realize that there are many, many times more insects in the world than vertebrates. They buzz around our faces when we sweat; they scurry angrily when we lift up a rock and disturb them at their labors; they crawl into flowers unconcerned that a monster thousands of times bigger than they are is only inches away. They build elaborate traps for each other and lay eggs in their fellow insects’ bodies. They fly to night lights as if they had something to offer. They propagate the first skunk cabbage and the last black cohosh (both plants that, disconcertingly, smell like rotting meat). Then insects are gone, done for, finished. I noticed on my back deck the other day a frozen Woolly Bear caterpillar; wherever he was going for the winter, he did not make it. (But sometimes they thaw in the spring and come back to life: an icy staycation.) Only the indoor bugs stay active: the noiseless patient spider; the pantry moths in the flour.

Other species move their bases of operation. You did not advertise for mouse tenants, but in the winter they come. They make homes in the best flannel sheets, they leave tiny feces all over the roasting pan in the drawer beneath the oven, they fill unused boots with seeds. In the watches of the night, when the radiator is taking a break and if you listen through the blub of the humidifier, you can hear their feet, or is it their teeth? Sometimes snap, and in the morning there is the late freeloader, snout pinned under the bar of the trap. You toss the body into the woods, spread more peanut butter on the bait area, and wait for his brother. Mice are the most common houseguests; once I was afflicted with rats. Twice, a tiny black snake crept up between the floorboards. Each one crept back down, before I had to take stern measures. Since I have never had a cat, I must do all my killing myself.

Outside the stars see everything (or all that they care to see).

Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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