Traces of Gold

An afternoon in early November and I was sawing beech and ash logs into 18-inch billets, then splitting them with a maul. I'd been at it for three or four hours and still had a long way to go. This was work I should have done last winter or even earlier. Firewood needs to age.

I had an alibi, though. I could honestly say I wasn't a Vermonter, merely another lowlife flatlander. I'd been raised in the South and then gone to live in the cities of the North, which I had then fled for the Green Mountains. I was so new to this life that I was still in love with my chain saw. While I felt bad about being so late doing this job and about the fact that I would be putting green wood in my wood stove, I was having a fine time. I was, to my surprise, in a trancelike state of contentment. I might even have been “happy.”

Fourteen or so years later, I have long since fallen out of love with my chain saw. (It is now a marriage of convenience. I feed it gas and sharpen its steel teeth, and, in return, it cuts down trees for me when I absolutely must.) These days, I do not need the pretense of yeomanry and the feeling of virtue it inspires to bring on this sense of melancholy enchantment. It is enough to step outside — or merely look out of a window for a few minutes — on a day in late October or early November. This is, for me, like queuing music.

For the first few years after I'd moved to Vermont, I thought of “fall” and “foliage” as synonymous and I went all giddy when the leaves were at “peak.” The hills beyond my house would be dazzling — a gaudy blend of red, orange, and yellow with even a little purple thrown in, and I would look up and think, Hell of a show, hell of a show. And when the inevitable cold front came through with enough wind and rain to bring down the leaves, I would close a conceptual door on the season. Fall, in all its glory, was done. Now, there was this interlude to get through before the first snow. And then it would be winter.

There was no name for these days, but I began to recognize them as a sort of season of their own and to actually look forward to it. The tourists would be gone, and while I didn't share some of my neighbors' misanthropic sense of superiority to the “Joeys,” I wasn't sorry to see them go back to New Jersey. Leaf season could leave you feeling the way you do when your house is on the market and strangers are always looking in your closets.

Actually, this season between seasons had its own rhythms and its own strong appeal. It just took awhile to recognize it.

After the brilliantly colored leaves — mostly maple — were gone, there were still a few staunch holdouts. Aspen, chiefly. These leaves were gold and would still be there a couple of weeks after all the other leaves were down, even through the occasional dustings of snow. The hills would be barren and gray now except for these aspen leaves, resolutely hanging in there. Those touches of gold somehow relieved an otherwise depressingly monochromatic landscape and gave it an austere and poignant beauty. It was like going from Wordsworth to Yeats.

On a really good day, you could look up from your chores — sawing logs or putting the garden to bed for the winter, or, more prosaically, putting antifreeze in your truck — and feel strangely comforted by the sight of these last golden leaves. If it was a particularly good fall afternoon, the sky would be low and thick with ominous-looking clouds, and there would be formations of geese honking mournfully as they moved south ahead of the weather. You would feel the approach of winter right down to your bones and look forward to a fire that night in the fireplace.

Foliage, in the end, is fleeting and giddy and good for the postcard industry. It is Mardi Gras. What follows is Lent, a season of gravitas and the best sort of melancholy. This is the time when you are reminded most emphatically that winter is coming soon and, in the words of Jerry Garcia:

Gold will turn to gray
And youth will fade away
They'll never care about you
Call you old and in the way.

But on one of those good, gold November days, you can look up at the hills and feel — temporarily, anyway — like you can handle that. It's why you're here.