I thought about writing about these fall days: the glossy blue skies, the serene air, the landscape golden and splashed with umber and gilt. The temperature hovers in that curious cool-mild zone, so you go out wearing a jacket but you’re soon too warm and have to strip to shirtsleeves. You need keep the jacket handy, though, because the days are abbreviating and when the sun drops below the horizon the temperature will swiftly plunge. Bright but without oppressive heat, these are the mild days that incite so many people to name fall as their favorite time of year. Everything, save the colors, is more temperate with summer gone: thunderstorms are finished, outdoor chores are less intense, the manic fun-making of summer vacations is done. We’re not committed yet, but we transit toward winter and its sheltering, hunkered postures.
Then, it snowed and didn’t warm back up. Winter arrived, early, with gruff winds and a no-nonsense disposition: Put on your boots. Get a coat. Where are your gloves?
I thought about writing of the last days of the garden, the kale and carrots and beets and chives steadfast despite frosts hard enough to shrivel the more dainty tomatillos, pea vines, and beans. Salvaged tomatoes ripen on the kitchen windowsill, the last of them red in time for a Thanksgiving weekend salad. The beets—golden variety this year—are a parade of yellow globes after the tops have been cut for greenery in the soup pot. Roasted, they are sweet. Sliced equatorially, they are shot through with bulls-eye rings, alternating shades of a color that hasn’t been named: too deep to be gold, browned beyond buttery, more opaque than amber. The last of the gnarly carrots, grown huge and woody in its hiding spot beneath a volunteer cosmos plant, gets cut up as horse treats. Moondo rolls the chunk across his tongue, nodding, before biting with a satisfying crunch. Jake: crunch. Both look for more.
Then, it was all eaten and the garden was done.
I thought about writing of Moondo’s least favorite time of year. I open the parallel gates across the driveway and invite the horses through the alley to eat their grain at the barn. I’ll feed their evening hay there, too, where the walls help keep the belting wind from blowing it all away. I stand at the gate and Moondo throws me a wounded look, sticks his nose pointedly into one feed box and then the other: I want to eat out here. I don’t like the barn. Please don’t make me. He dawdles, evades shooing. I eventually lead him—to his doom, you might think—using a strand of baling twine fished from my pocket.
Then, he gets used to the new routine and enjoys eating with the stall’s half-door closed, blocking Jake from stealing his grain.
I thought about writing about a quiet walk. It is not one of Those Fall Days, but it is a fine wintry afternoon in November. The sun rides low over the contours of the horizon, and the snow under the trees on this north-facing slope is shadowy blue. I pause and listen to the stillness of winter woods and am suddenly unnerved. The stillness is too still. I listen harder, but what I hear is the faint breath of conifers sighing in a bare breeze. No wheel-squeak chirps from juncos, not a single dee dee from a foraging chickadee. No scratching of wiry feet against bark, no rattle of wings against twigs. No raven croak or jay squawk. I walk on, but pause now and again on the way home, listening hard. The silence from the birds is profound. Finally, between the barn and the house, a solitary Steller’s jay wings past, flying hard to the east and saying nothing. The birds reappear, of course—Clark’s nutcrackers whiff-whiff-whiffing past the house, ravens hunched in the pasture, scintillating wings of unidentifiable small birds pelting in front of me across the road. I’m alert for juncos, though, and for several days I do not see any sign of them—no fluffed gray orbs perched on fence wire, no gossipy flocks scratching for hay seeds under the barn’s shed roof, no cuneiform footprints in the latest dusting of snow. I am unsettled, but mostly I am sad, wistful for my winter companions.
Then, a few days later, Doug tells me the juncos scared the crap out of him, exploding out of the open stall doors when he went in to get an armload of hay. On a walk, I flush a pair from their gleaning along road, and later see more scratching near the feed boxes. I wonder where they’ve been, and pause to look affectionately at a chain of little Y-shaped tracks like a zipper across an undisturbed drift of snow.