One day in September, the exact day a matter of the weather, the wheelbarrow path from wood pile to porch will be strewn with the golden leaves of yellow birch. Only shaded leaves on the inside of the tree canopy will have fallen at this point, the outer leaves remaining on the trees, dark green, continuing to transform sunlight into sugar. Their day will come.
Deciduous trees and shrubs begin to shut down in September while the vegetable garden’s sunflowers, oblivious to the morning’s chilly air, open new flower heads even as goldfinches peck seeds from the old ones. A hard freeze will soon put an end to all this, but for now their bright yellow faces tower over empty beds where peas and garlic spent the summer.
Color slowly fades from the September garden, greens turning yellow and brown, branches thinning toward bare. Potted hyacinth beans with yellow-brown paper-thin leaves would have been retired to the compost heap if not for the dark red pods clinging to their topmost branches.
As a boy growing up in rural Alabama, just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Ga., I often spent my late summer afternoons following an English setter through a cornfield. We would go into the corn, Prissy and I, at the edge of the pasture that came with the house my parents rented, and stay in the corn for hours, walking the furrows between rows.
A few feet in and the corn closed around us, endless walls of long green leaves that towered over my head.
It was a cornfield that went on forever in all directions, or so it felt to a young boy. I never felt lost, but there were times when I had no idea where I was, and didn’t care. Following Prissy would eventually get me back home.
There was comfort in following the dog. My father would not let me go into the corn without her, explaining that she would smell a rattlesnake long before I would see or hear it. He taught me the difference between her behavior trailing birds and when she smelled a rattler coiled among the stalks, and she kept me safe. I never had to use the snakebite kit that I carried in my pocket.
I remember sitting in the dusty red soil surrounded by corn and smelling rain, then hearing drops spattering the leaves at the edge of the field, then finally seeing the dust rise as raindrops hit the ground. Prissy would find me, lie down next to me, and we would wait out the storm.
These are memories of half a century ago, of a different time and place, both gone. But I have kept a fondness for cornfields and can’t ride past one without slowing down and remembering what it was like to be deep inside. And every autumn, Marjorie, Lynne and I drive over to Levant, to a farm where you can pay to get lost in a cornfield.
I do so with a smile, for it brings back those distant memories. As I watch Lynne, now 15 but still willing to run through the narrow lanes of a corn maze, I realize that this may be the closest she will come, can come, to the experiences I had at her age.
We exit the maze into a field of pumpkins, some round and orange, others flat and red, pumpkins clinging to their leafless vines, and begin our private searches for the pumpkin each will carve, jack-o-lanterns to sit on the porch railing until hard freezes turn them to mush. I recall finding the the perfect pumpkin one year only to discover a field mouse had found it first, opening a door to the inside at ground level.
We fill a wagon with future jack-o-lanterns, maybe a pie or two. Back at the barn, I pay the farmer for letting me harvest his pumpkins, then join the line for free ice cream. While waiting I watch children feeding grain to goats that scamper inside a fence from one small outstretched hand to another; some goats eat the grain, others nibble on ice cream and shirt sleeves. Marjorie and I sit in the sun with our ice cream, content to watch the host of people, old and young, interacting with the farm at harvest time.
The last year we went to this farm, the corn maze took the shape of a giant tractor. We were given maps with our tickets, but I stuffed mine in my back pocket and followed Marjorie through the maze, preferring to feel lost in the corn, if only for a while. For one brief moment, as we turned a corner along the path, I saw Prissy running ahead, in and out of the stalks, her nose to the ground.
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