I wandered through the dried-out flower beds, picking the occasional weed, plucking seed heads. The hungry squirrels were gone for the night and the heavy leaves of the pumpkin vine were refreshed by the cool air. Earlier in the day they were famished by the heat and the leaves hung like collapsed tents above the yellow fruit. Now they stood up, wide green discs with perky, upturned edges.
Later that same evening, my daughter pulled on her boots and set out for a walk at 10:30. The cool dark beckoned, and I felt a twinge of sadness as I watched her walk off. Finally the nights were the perfect temperature; finally rains had cooled the parched garden; finally the sunset hung over the mountains like a pastel cloud. But all of this heralded one inescapable fact: the end of summer.
Autumn is my favorite season, but I cannot ignore the sadness it brings. Spring draws us out. Summer keeps us there, among the living. Autumn pulls us back in, swiftly erasing the evidence of new life, preparing us for the long, underground work of winter. How fitting that our nation's greatest modern tragedy happened on a September day.
Here, in the high plains, that feeling of sudden loss is particularly acute. Summer does not linger. First frost will likely come before we are prepared for it. Autumn sweeps in with a vengeance, a gorgeous orange cloak that turns the trees and scrub oak to flame then instantaneously extinguishes them.
One thing I have learned living in this part of the country: Prepare for winter, prepare for winter, prepare for winter. I don't mean put antifreeze in your car, though that is an important part of the drill. The essential preparation is mental.
Each Indian summer day is a treasure to be plundered. When the urge to stay outside hits, heed it. Don't go in. Watch every bird that crosses the pink evening sky. Watch the pumpkin grow as the vine withers. Sit on the back steps and see the moon come up. Smell the neighbor's barbecue. Listen to the shrieks of neighborhood kids, running the last race of the day.
At night, when the urge to take a walk hits, get up and do it. Turn off the TV. Smell the cooling earth. Look up at the outline of the trees, still plump with leaves. Stand beneath the apple tree and smell the ripening fruit. Beneath your feet, the fallen ones smell like wine.
Look for the last trembling patches of yellow on the tips of old tree branches. Understand that this process is inevitable and already in place: School's back; soon the frost will come.
Because I've had kids for so long, I think and live in school years. September always marks the beginning of a new year and hard work. The garden will be put to rest and my work will move indoors. My kids will move from the universe of home to the universe of school. My daughter will go back to her city on the West Coast where the seasons are vague, where fall never comes, and life is scary and exciting.
Every September I feel like a kid starting school. This year I'll learn to knit, to paint, to save money, to be satisfied, to be quiet. This year I'll write a book, lose 10 pounds, walk in the mornings, stop drinking. This year I'll figure out what I want to be when I grow up.
My preparation is for solitude, though life will be far from solitary. I imagine the trees outside my window, bare of leaves, trusty bark exposed to winter light. I imagine the long months of slow, subterranean activity in the garden.
Winter in its stark fullness will be here soon. Summer, a curtain of green (thank you, Eudora Welty, for that perfect phrase), will go out in a blaze. For now, I'll warm my hands in the last remaining light of summer and set my sights on September's challenge: The leaves will change and fall and I will change with them.