WHAT THE FIRST COLD AIR TELLS US
A cold front finally came our way and is now sitting overhead. Our breath has a bit of smoke in it, and the yard has a certain look of resignation as it huddles in the stiffening soil. After a long, ambiguous season of sudden rain followed by ephemeral droughts, we have what might be called an encounter with the season. Apples are piled high in the grocery stores, and there are lots of orchards nearby with trees groaning under the weight of a bountiful harvest, thanks to all the wet weather. The sky looks a bit harried, with clouds still wrinkled up and mopey, as if they had been milked too often. The mood in town is one of relief, as if the cold reassured everyone that the earth still remembered its obligation to strip the leaves off the trees, send the bears into their dens, and darken the rivers into slag. I have built a few fires of late and settled into my little corner to enjoy the trickle of heat playing about my legs. I’m sure many are thinking that we have survived another frightful summer with all those warnings from the weather service to prepare for heat domes and browned out fields, brush fires, and nights of gloomy heat hugging our sheets.
But I say this with a certain hypothetical sympathy since I wasn’t here to worry with my fellow citizens. I was wandering around in Provence all summer gazing upon the lush, nearly bloated size of the cherry crop, the marvelous ingenuity of spiders to hang their hunting mesh in the cool corners of the bathroom, to arouse the torpors of beetles, some as big as your thumb, that come out at night with their dragon claws at the ready now that their fluids were all thawed from a pretty cold winter. The doors of the underworld had been flung open and all manner of moths and other insects were let out to feed on the leavings of the human world. We were suddenly in the grip of some transformation of consciousness as we sat out in our little court yard to talk over the last of the wine from supper, and to shovel some remaining morsel of cheese onto an available cracker.
But here it is at last, a steel-gray light oozing through the windows, a sky as dull as tin overhead, birds hanging from the moldy undersides of the clouds, crows cawing to the ground below that they would enjoy a handout now and then. And they’ll get them. Since we know that crows have a powerful memory of who befriends them. Best not to insult the sensitivities of our sky neighbors. We keep our leftovers in the fridge and when we have enough for a meal, put them in the ditch opposite our house where they gather with all the sinister agility of Hitchcock’s crows. But they’re fun to watch. Their beady little eyes, dark as capers, stare out of blue-black heads at everything below, and make careful notes on where their allies live. I just wish they ate mosquitoes as part of their diet; alas, nothing deters these little demons from sneaking up as you stand a moment to admire the last onion shoots in the vegetable plot; they sink their nasty little feeding tubes into your tender flesh and take their measure of warm, nourishing elixir to feed to their spawn in some nearby standing water. This is Vermont so no one is eager to suggest that we hire a poison-gas truck to annihilate them; kids might get sick from the gas, or birds might perish if they eat stuff tainted by the residues.
The real cold is still bound to the granite wastelands to the north of us. It will take some powerful rumbles from the arctic circle to dislodge the lugubrious wind brooding above us. I will be longing for the dead heat the moment I feel the grip of deathly fingers on my arms and marvel at the ease with which the cold can slide through our woolen sweaters and pull you into some slow dance of shivers and writhing. But one colonsolation of darker winter is that the field mice will have retreated into their nests to raise a crop of young. I don’t know what these thumb-sized freeloadeers feed on, I only know that they have free access to everything we own, from electric wires in the attic to the phone lines in a box outside. They get into our kitchen drawers, burrow into our mailbox, eat our cereal, climb up into our car engines, and sometimes boldly approach my feet as I nod into a gentle nap. They are the smartest animals I know and are so familiar with our habits and possessions they could almost sit up and talk to us about our most intimate secrets. But I don’t let them. I surround myself with traps loaded with peanut butter and this unwelcome feature of my living room tells them we are not going to be friends.
Somebody came to gather up the last remaining cows in the pasture below and take them to the barns to be fattened up before the spring slaughter. These are not the prized dairy cows you associate with a milk culture like Vermont, but rather, beef cows, many of them bulls with haughty stares as we stroll by. Their lives are pretty good right now, but I cringe when I see some cattle truck groan by full of beeves on the way to their last pasture. It recalls James Agee’s story, “A Mother’s Tale,” I read once as a kid. It chilled my bones to hear what the mother of these naive calves had to say about the menacing world they lived in.
The long shadows grow ghostly black capes as the sun lowers. The rocks that lie half-buried in the ground are the real heroes of this season. They have been here a long time and have taken all the abuse the sky can dish out and go on enduring as if time didn’t exist. I put my foot on one particular boulder, a globe of granite flung out of the hillside above me, and feel the weight of eternity in its silence. It doesn’t sense me on its back, even if I sit down on it to ponder the mystery of this landscape. It is home here as it would be on the rubble fields of Mars. It is part of the greater cosmos that whirls about the sun, and nothing can deter its mysterious stoicism from crying out for mercy or friendship. These are the muscles of the earth, the powerful sinews and bones of a world we co-exist with without words or imagination. The massive weight of indifference is their strength, and the seasons are just colorful cloths draped over the nothing where they take their nourishment. Bless them, I can learn some lessons from these bleak, inaritculate monsters of nature.