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Country Life

The Seasons Turn

by Richard Brookhiser

One thing that all the seasons have in common is that it is impossible, in the midst of any one of them, to imagine things any other way. When the trees are stripped, you cannot recall being unable to see through them because of the green curtain. When you are raking grass clippings, or piles of leaves, you forget wobbling in the footprints you yourself have punched in the snow on the way to the compost pile. Spring peepers banish silence.

But what time is it now? All the trees are thick with leaves (some are tired). Only the Virginia creepers have turned. The garden is going strong. It needs no maintenance; all you have to do is go out every afternoon and pick — what one neighbor called “shopping.” Some plants are done — I pulled up the cranberry beans, and the tomatoes have had it — but the second rounds of lettuce and peas are just coming up. Maybe we can skip death and go right to rebirth. Christianity without the cross — what a sales pitch. In town a few fooled magnolias are showing buds.

The sun is the clock that never lies. When I would be shooting documentaries outside, I would joke about it with my director — the big light is cheapest to rent, but when it’s done there’s no cajoling. Only yesterday, it seems, it was brutal grilling lunch on the deck; the sunlight hammered down heedless of my comfort and of my baldness. Now there is a margin of shade generous enough for the grill, and a table and two chairs to enjoy the results. At eight o’clock you could have a leisurely drink and watch the birds. Now it’s dark. We lie in a bit of a bowl with a high eastern rim, so we have never made much of dawn; we are late risers in any case. But now the sun seems to be cooperating with geography and sloth.

Every flying thing is still with us; no one has migrated or died. There are still hummingbirds and dragonflies, surprising as drones. The skeins of geese are only moving from pond to pond. But the singers have changed their tunes. The catbirds have given up their jumbled arias and stubbornly mew. They will never grace the stage, they have joined the critics.

Summer people are not such a good barometer here. Ours are not movie stars and wannabes, but busloads of Orthodox children who come to the U-pick farm to ride the hay wagons and buy kosher Eskimo pies. The Jewish calendar is opaque to outsiders: Is this New Year, or repentance? The U-pick farm is still open for business: You can feed the donkeys, play miniature golf, and get your picture taken with the giant garden gnome that stands by the roadside.

The speedway is still going. It is a dirt track with a fanatical fan base — mostly all-year residents, with a few flâneurs (one gay man told me it takes him a week to dress). You see the multicolored cars being ferried in on trailers, and on still, humid nights I can hear the roaring from four miles away. King of the Catskills has been run, Wreckage in the Catskills is yet to come.

Is Little League still going? I never partook when I was little, and I don’t follow it now. I pass the local field all the time; the team mascot is a grinning Indian; I’m surprised the artist hasn’t been arrested and sent to Gitmo. My friend, a power hitter in his day, shakes his head at what he sees: Kids don’t spend any time throwing rocks at trees, they have no arms. (Thumbs from BlackBerrys, yes.) There were giants in the earth in those days; no more.

What time of day is it? Despite what we know, and what we see as the days pass, it can be hard at any given moment for the heart to say. In the afternoon the light is so bright and so strong, especially after a night of rain, that it seems like it will blaze forever. But it is low, and the shadows behind their sharp edges are dark. The bus that takes us out of the little college town carries more students, fewer rock climbers. The apple trees that line the thruway are laden with fruit, big as stop lights.

In New Jersey we reenter civilization: car lots, carpet stores, malls, Ikea. The strip club that inspired The Sopranos is girdled with the cars of patrons; sexual humiliation (both ways) is never out of season. In the homestretch there is a respite, as the highway curls through the Meadowlands. The sunset is spectacular: red, orange, and pink; Paris-metro cloud wisps; coal black cloudlets in the foreground for contrast; the slash of a jet trail. The grey flank of a train bound for Penn Station offers to race us to the omphalos. Then, the Coney Island of the approach to the Lincoln Tunnel. Suddenly we are deluged with lights and information. WBC middleweights. Garden State Honda. An ad for a Volt. Breitling watches. Hot 97. The last-chance hotel: HBO, Jacuzzi, Mirror Rooms, Free In-Room Movies. Behind it, Toys “R” Us. Many visits to the first probably proceed to the second. An old sign, unlit and perhaps no longer true: Welcome to North New Jersey, Embroidery Capital of the World Since 1872. If you’re carrying hazardous materials or bottled gas, exit now. If you want to go to Weehawken or Hoboken, exit now.

The skyline we have been glimpsing as we crested every ridge now comes front and center. The Chrysler Building is just a little too far east to make the splash it deserves from this direction, but everyone else is at attention: Empire State, Metropolitan Life, finally and welcome the Freedom Tower. A shock: Jerry Seinfeld is playing the Borgata. I knew he was dead, but I did not know he was that dead.

Home again.

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