Before the Fall

Once upon a time, it seemed summers would never end.  From the day school let out until the first fall-fair fell upon us, our days were blissful, carefree, and limitless.  Eat breakfast and rush outside to play.  Dash home for lunch, then go back outside.  Trudge home for supper, then head outside yet again.

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Such were the halcyon summers of childhood I enjoyed.

But I grew up, in spite of myself, married, found work as a teacher, and became a father.  And those summers suddenly became more finite.

The calendar tells us that summer ends with the autumnal equinox in late September, but the end always came much sooner.  It was marked, not by an arbitrary calendar, but by the requirement to go back to school.  And once I became a school principal, I had to head back to work ahead of the students if I had any hope of being ready for their return after Labour Day.

For many folks, I suppose, the coming of fall is a time of new beginnings, of anticipation.  They think in terms of the flaming fall-colours, the brisk autumn days, evenings spent curled up with a book in front of a cozy hearth.  They look forward to the change of seasons.

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Not I, though!  I’ve always tended to think of it as a gloomy time—the conclusion of summer, and the close of so many pleasurable things that vanish with the coming of September.

Let me cite a few examples.  With the end of the warm, sunny weather, there came the end to my carefree habits of dress.  No more swimsuits or running shorts; no more open sandals or ancient running shoes; no more tank-tops or faded team sweaters.  Instead, it meant a return to the straitjacketing drill of collars and ties, pressed slacks, knee-high socks, and polished dress shoes.

The end of summer put a stop to the treasured luxury of shaving every two or three days, depending upon what activities were planned.  And it called a halt to the wearing of old ball caps as an alternative to brushing my hair.

The onset of fall wrote fini to three or four leisurely cups of coffee with the morning paper, and an end to mid-morning breakfasts on the back porch.  It heralded, in their stead, the beginning of hurried showers and breakfasts-on-the-run.  It marked the re-entry into the exciting world of daily traffic reports, as I attempted to find the shortest, quickest route into and out of the city.

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In short, summer’s end brought to a close the lazy, drifting vagaries of summer living I tried so vainly to hang on to.

Coming back to the real world was a jolt to my entire system.  It was like going from childhood to adulthood all over again!  I mean, once was enough.

I’ve never wanted to be the type of person who wishes his life away, always yearning for something different than what is.  But, in a sense, I guess I used to do just that.  For me, the year was divided into two seasons, summer and not-summer.  When the autumn of the year rolled around, and not-summer was upon us once again, I would start repeating my mantra:  Next is Christmas, then Easter, and then it will be summer again!  Everything in between was just wished away.

I remember so many glorious summers-almost-ended, when I’d have one last camping trip planned for up north.  My cutoffs and hat would be in my bag, my shaving-kit left behind. Together with my wife and daughters, I’d be off for one final fling in the glorious realm of summer.  Hiking, swimming, paddling, exploring, picking berries, roasting marshmallows, singing our hearts out around the campfire, sleeping the sleep of the innocent in timeworn sleeping-bags—I would be like a child again.

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Even now—retired, when every day is like a Saturday—as September approaches, I’m going to pretend, yet again, that summer will never end, that I’ll never have to grow up and give it up.  There is so much left to do.

Before the fall!

 

The Forest

A close friend posted a picture online recently, accompanied by a passage from John Muir, the Scottish-American naturalist and author.  It read …and into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.

On this past weekend, our Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, two of my sisters went camping with their families, braving the October temperatures in the boreal forest of Algonquin Park.  They also posted online, pictures and messages, waxing eloquently on the beauty and serenity of the wilderness world around them.

I have long believed there is no more beautiful place to be in the world than Ontario in the splendor of October—when the green forest recasts itself in glorious hues of scarlet red, bright yellow, incandescent orange, and intense burgundy.  The sun, lower in the sky, shines through them, and they glow as if afire.

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We lived on a lake in the north for a long time—a long time ago.  One of our favourite October pastimes was walking the solitary cottage roads after all the seasonal vacationers had headed home.  Smelling the wood smoke from chimneys of the few year-round homes, kicking the wind-strewn piles of fallen leaves, breathing in the nippy harbingers of winter borne on the autumn breezes.

Occasionally, late in the month, we’d even get the first falls of snow, blown hither and yon before melting away in the late October sunshine.

The forest was a refuge, a release, a reminder that life, once upon a time, was simpler and elemental.

Sixty years ago, I spent a summer planting trees on the slopes of a valley, formerly the rocky, infertile fields of a pioneer farming family.  A lovely, clean river meandered its way along the valley floor.  We worked in pairs, one with the spade, the other with the bag of saplings, and we traded places every half-hour, or so.  I remember it as hard work, dirty work, thirsty work, to be sure.  But I know now it was glorious work, where we were (to steal from the 1965 novel by Peter Matthiessen), at play in the fields of the Lord.

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One of us would cut a T-shaped slice in the ground with the spade, then pry it up, splitting apart the base of the T.  The other would gently place a sapling, each about six inches high, in the crevice, and press the ground back together around the fragile stem.  When we finished a row, we’d retrace our path, pouring water from a bucket on each new plant.

I’ve lost track of how many trees we planted in a morning, or a day, or over the entire summer.  But it had to be a lot.  Hundreds.  We’d never heard the phrase paying it forward…it hadn’t even been coined back then, I imagine.  But that’s what we—such callow, carefree boys—were doing.

I had occasion some time back to drive through that same valley, not too far north of Toronto, and I stopped to look at the fields where we had laboured—private property now, far across the river on the opposite slopes.  To my chagrin, I couldn’t see them at first.  And then the astounding reality struck home.  The fields were still there, but the green canopy of a forest covered them—a forest—shielding them from my view.

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Our forest!  Our trees!

I couldn’t walk through that forest, of course—touching the trees, remembering them in their infancy, as they passed from my hands to the soil that embraced them.  Nor, truth be told, did I really need to.  It was enough to recall those barren fields as they were, and compare them to what they became after we were there.

As I think back on that long-ago summer, I know I left things behind—sweat, friends, youth.  Lost now in the mists of time.

But, as Muir so eloquently wrote, I found my soul.