Cold breaks the warm hold that trees and fields once had on the land. Color now blooms forth in a display of surrender. Trees turn scarlet, gold, purple and orange. Birches smile a frosty grin of white through the evergreens.
Wind shifts direction, and takes a hard turn at the wheel, blowing hard. North by northwest makes it all very real. Winter’s approach turns every chore urgent for a Downeaster’s preparation. Canning, chopping, stacking and hunting — all these autumn verbs give meaning to the actions of doing, preparing and surviving.
Traps are pulled. Salt spray clings to gear, clings to everything, wants to hold onto summer. Determined fishermen ply the waters. Bright bow lights lead their way beyond the reach before the sun peeks. Chart plotters dazzle pinpricks of colored light that say “Here I am,” as trap after trap is hauled and piled high on deck. Diesel sounds float with the gulls, then both turn and head for home.
Gardens are dismantled, the last of anything salvageable brought in before the cold takes that first bite. Deer prod the ground looking for anything missed. Red squirrels still annoy as animals scavenge food and fluff. Moose and deer, with ears up, hope to avoid that shot. Some will, some will not. The taken give back by letting the stronger continue, while their meat sustains families through a Maine winter of cold nights.
And sleep is what bears and the wild blueberry barrens are doing right now. All fatted up from gorging on anything and everything, the black bear dives into a deep sleep while indigenous blessings whisper over the barrens. Now, naked of berries and somewhat afraid of what tomorrow might bring, acres of plants roll over, covering themselves with a red blanket of hope.
Schools are open, yet still different, and cautious. Students step forward into the classroom. With assigned seats spaced three-feet apart — mischievous smiles hidden by masks — the students sit and their day begins. Ahead of math and history lessons, safety is paramount in this new normal. But kids are safely in school, and that’s a good thing.
With first frost, the woods welcome those who tread in search of evergreen tips. Wreath season is in full bloom. Wooden poles are stacked high with green boughs; workers then twist the branches into place capturing a Down East breath of nature that distinctly confirms winter’s approach, and that the holidays, too, are just around the corner.
Hiking trails through woods and along shorelines go silent. They will spend their much-needed time off resting, sprucing themselves up, getting into shape for next year’s season of heavy foot traffic. Kayaks and boats of all shapes and sizes will be pulled from the shore or water; they will be cleaned, wrapped like sardines and put away under decks, into sheds and garages or upon boat stands to brave the winter winds.
The wood stove, a trusted companion, is again a warm voice amidst conversations in the living room, kitchen or den. The hearth’s fire will consume wood that has been stacked since this time last year — a never-ending circle of chopped goodness. The sounds of cutting, splitting, are now a distant echo amongst the trees. Its fire will burn bright within the family house; its heartbeat of orange flame will keep winter’s punch at bay.
Plows and pickups get together for the winter dance they both know is coming, while snow blowers are made ready should the white fluff arrive early. Salt-laden sand is piled higher and higher in readiness by towns and citizens. Tires are swapped out or wrapped in chains. Radios and broadband will now scour the invisible airwaves for any sign of distress. In a tight-knit community help is always close by.
Clocks will fall back, recline with arms behind their heads, sleep a little longer and then wake to uncertainty. This year has been different. The anxious-wrapped days we have endured, the bad news piled upon bad news; schools open, then closed then opened again; supply shortages of essential goods yield an abundance of anger, questions, which conjure more uncertainty on what awaits us with the next turn of the globe. One constant amidst the concern are the seasons of the year and the changes that come along with them.
Autumn is here. It will sit for just a short while taking in all the goodness it can find, and then move on, leaving us in the hands of winter. Make good use of the seasons, for they are unpredictable, and yet always return. Like hands on a clock, the seasons move around and within us and bring us light when we open our eyes, darkness when we close them to rest, cold when we need to feel alive and warmth when we need it most.
RJ Heller, BDN Down East contributor
RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.