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Country Life

Melancholy Season

by Richard Brookhiser

My friend said he aspired to live in San Diego. Why was that? I asked.

“No change of seasons. No fall.”

Over a million people live in San Diego, so either they like the weather or they don’t care. But if my friend’s description of their unfallen condition is accurate, what do they miss?

In a changeable climate, spring is promise, summer is bounty. Everything is coming, then everything is here. When it arrives, no end is imaginable. The changes of crops and blossoms in July and August pass like cards being dealt from an infinite deck. In fall we know the game is ending; that is the backdrop to every new taste and sight. But look at the bounty of those last few deals.

In the farmers’ markets, where city dwellers go to remind themselves that food is not produced in the back rooms of grocery stores, it is the hour of the root: orange, yellow, and purple carrots; radishes, parsnips, turnips, and beets lie stacked on tables, hairy tips facing out like plugs awaiting some giant PC tower. The corn is mostly done — the corn we eat, the corn cows eat, and the corn no one eats but Uncle pays for, so that not every acre will be a subdivision. Upstate orchards troll for weekend U-pickers; the all-season pickers have already come up from Jamaica. Nuts harvest themselves. Two hickory trees tower over our house, Philemon and Baucis. In a good year their nuts strike the roof like marbles. They block the gutters and feed the gleaners: flying squirrels scratching in the walls, chipmunks darting around the foundation. There may even be some left over for the humans. It only takes hours with a hammer to shell what small jaws gnaw unassisted.

As with crops there is a recessional of flowers. Black cohosh, boom mikes with a rank, sweet scent. Turtle heads, perfectly named, if turtles were purple. Aster, white and blue. Snake root, a modest white weed that, if cows eat it, poisons their milk; the plant that killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother nods beside the path to my deck. Though the calendar says the year is ending, the bees don’t know it. They move from plant to plant as each one does its thing, adaptable as contractors and more industrious. I have discovered tiny blossoms — on grasses, for instance — which I would never have noticed but for their buzzing.

Creatures who need warm weather head for the exits. The season becomes a series of absences; each week you see who is not there. The catbird newscast, that cascade of gibberish, like the celebrity page of the Huffington Post, is canceled. The correspondents ate all the berries on the spice bushes and took off. No more hummingbirds, those little green souls have transmigrated. If you lie outside at night you can hear geese overhead. In their present large numbers they are sleek, stupid moochers, settling on golf courses or the shoulders of highways, eating and defecating. But when they fly they are thrilling. For the first time in 14 years of having a country house I saw a bittern — a two-foot-tall brown heron, described by all the bird books as shy. When it felt it was being observed, it stuck its neck, head, and bill up straight so as to mimic the vertical lines of cattails. When I became too observant, it spread its long wings and sailed off. See you in 2027.

I admire the stay-behinds. You expect predators at the top of the food chain and largish omnivores to stay put (both descriptions fit me). In a burst of hope and folly, I planted six pear trees. Results have been mixed. One tree has shot up 30 feet and bears no fruit; I must try trimming it one of these days. Another yields miserable grayish ornaments, like balls of ash. The others produce pears that are speckled and creased like Popeye’s profile, impossible to sell, but since I have no intention of doing so I don’t mind. They roast just fine. One year this time a bear came, ate every windfall, and shook the trees for the rest. Since then I pick early and thoroughly, but I know bears have memories, and I hope he will not revisit, especially if he should feel disappointed.

But the small and fragile tough it out, too. Once late in the season I was picking up a rock in the meadow — probably grabbing something to anchor a ground cloth on a mulch pile. I had put the lining in my jacket, there had been at least one night of frost, it was drizzling a little with icy stings. Under the rock was a salamander, dark with a red side stripe. Salamanders are soft and slow; their expressions, if I may call them that, seem passive, not very bright. They are too big simply to live nine months and die, like insects. Why hadn’t he sought shelter from the coming cold? Was the rock his shelter? Then I had to replace it. I studied the micro-terrain to make sure that, in putting it back, I did not crush him. That would be a winger’s image of irresponsible charity: salamander liberalism. I did my best, and told him to keep warm.

There are two ways to take all this. The proverb says the wind is tempered to the shorn lamb. Fall says lambs are shorn to meet the wind. Fall is the fall into winter; seventy or eighty of them ready us for the big freeze. You can resent this, as my friend does, or embrace it, like some Buddhist/Stoic, half in love with the old easeful.

That’s me, when I am melancholy. But that is not all I am. The other way to fall is by living it — to bring in the sheaves, then face the worse. Fill the shopping bag, soak up the rays, salute the migratory (to each his own), then carry on.

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