The grandest of the Canadian seasons arrived with wind and dull banks of clouds this year. When the clouds went away for a bit the sun shone brightly and seemed to invite the spectator to go out to greet it. Alas, the brightness belied the chill at the heart of the wind. As evenings approached we watched for signs: specifically the the wind direction, the movement of the barometer, the fall of the dew, and the falling temperature. Each has its place to play in a local forecast and the Great Decision - whether to get the sheets out and cover the tomatoes. We've had our first two frosts this year but the tomatoes were covered and the frost was light. In the meantime the deciduous trees along our field edges are lighting up in their autumn colours. Almost day by day the colours change and expand until, some weeks from now, our hillside will look like a piece of Harris tweed.
An autumn afternoon
Not a breath of air moved when we went to bed the other night. Not a leaf stirred on the poplars beside the house, not a single creature called from the grass or out of the woods nearby. Overhead, the stars of the summer triangle still shone as though the fall equinox was just an unconfirmed rumour.
The afternoon had been beautiful - one of those mild days we get after the first several frosts - wistful, aerially sunny, with a golden edge to the light. Not a cloud had disturbed the blue of the sky.
My wife, who keeps a kindly eye on my well-being, urged me, as the day advanced, to take some time to get outside. With good reason. The past number of days had been so full of obligations that I was feeling stressed. Day after day had passed without any sense that the list of things that must be done was getting shorter. On the contrary, it seemed that I would no sooner get one thing crossed off the list when two more things would appear that had to be added.
But there were still jobs to be done as the afternoon lengthened. Two large batches of new wine urgently required to be racked into fresh carboys. One of them should have been attended to five days before and the other was a week overdue. There they sat, where I could see them as I rushed to attend to some other necessity, and they could not be ignored any longer. And the afternoon wore away.
It was after five when the second batch was safely transferred to its new home and the record-keeping finished. There were still the old containers, not to mention the amazing proliferation of other equipment - j-tubes, syphon hose, the old bungs and air locks, plastic buckets, measuring spoons, hydrometer jar and hydrometer, and on and on - that had to be washed and cleaned.
Already the sun was sinking toward the west and shadows were long in the dooryard. I made a decision. “I’m going out,” I said; “I’ll be back before seven.”
There are different ways of “going out,” I have found. Some people “go out” with a project in mind: to clear up the garden or mow the lawn or get the onions in. Some people “go out” for a walk, whether long or short. And some people “go out” just to sit down on the porch and enjoy the peace and quiet.
I’ve never been much for sitting still for any length of time, unless I’ve got a book on the go or there is a meal to attend to. On the other hand, although often there are jobs to do outside just as there are jobs to do inside, “going out,” for me, means something different, something unplanned, something out of the ordinary.
How far does one have to go to find the wonderful, the mysterious, the unplanned? Some people head overseas. Some go to Florida. Some, like one of our children, go on excursions up the Amazon and into ancient cities of the Incas or hiking on Baffin Island.
When I was growing up my family moved fairly often because of my father’s work. But part of each summer I stayed with a great-aunt and uncle in the house my great-grandfather had built just after the Civil War. It was a big house full of interesting things, dating back into the nineteenth century, with a big back yard that stretched away on a scale unknown to the suburban houses I inhabited the rest of the year. House and yard were a world unto themselves, a world that never grew too small even if inevitably I grew too large for it, a world I can still explore in memory although the house and all its treasures were sold at auction when my great aunt died, some 40 years ago.
My excursion the other afternoon took me no further than the hedgerow beyond the orchard, to wonder at the colours of the trees and bushes, vivid in the sunlight skimming across the fields: gold and citron-yellow and buff, scarlet and wine-red and pink, russet and fawn and tan against the greens and greenish-yellows and yellow-greens of the poplars and apple trees.
A chill breeze belied the mildness of the day, and as the sun neared the brow of the hill to the west I turned around to find the big maple tree above the garden incandescent with the light of the sun behind it, a halo of blue sky around it.
By the time I reached the kitchen door the magic show was done for another day. The sun had dropped behind the hill. Dusk had arrived. By bedtime the whole world was still, waiting ‘like Patience on a monument, Smiling at Grief,’ for the frost.
15 October 2002