September Lament

I have known people for whom fall holds a certain melancholy, and I have not understood.

Maybe to them, the leaves that litter lawns are parchments of surrender. Days grow short and brutal. Color drains from the landscape, the forest is gaunt and skeletal. Autumn is an ending, a rehearsal for death, a giving up for people who are sad to see fall come.

I didn’t feel this way, even through my fifties. With the first crisp days of fall–especially when living through the deepest south’s brutal summers–I came alive again the first cool days of September–invigorated, energized and expectant. Autumn was a time of rebirth out of summer torpor and lassitude. Exertion under the sun was reward on a cool day, not punishment.

When we started heating with wood in 1975, fall gave me the excuse to spend most day-lit hours outdoors, testing my youth, balance, endurance, strength and wits against whatever wood we could scrounge from whatever woodlot donor we could convince to let us cut. It was the season for the smell of wood split and stacked, feeling the heft of it in my arms, knowing the promise of the warmth it would give to the hearth, and of the hearth to our home. There was a physicality to autumn that made me body-aware in ways the summer could never do.

“Bring it on!” I would say in fall to the worst winter could inflict.

But yesterday, I sat in our woods in the splintered light of a late September day. Falling leaves soon covered my outstretched legs, my boots upturned like a headstone. As much as I have always grumbled about the heat, I was not ready to let go the warm season, filled with dread far more than anticipation.

Winter makes life here harder, and we have less reserve energy and resilience than we once did. Our reserves for working harder, for dealing with the challenges and the discomforts and the risks of winter are not what they have been. Our capacities for absorbing the challenges of ice and snow, power outages, travel woes and isolation are diminished–or at least not as reliable. (The travel woes are hers, the isolation mine–for at least a few more winters.)

Even with all that, the short days of winter spent near the wood stove will bring me back in touch with my inner life. And even though we paid for the wood we’ll burn this winter, there it sits at the ready. There is a new rhythm coming, like it or not, and when it arrives, I’ll find myself tapping out the beat and rather enjoying winter, after all.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Me too Fred – still got 2 cords to bring in though – it’s a ritual. We are so busy right now getting ready. And then we close in with all the outside chores over for 5 months – and it’s us and the dogs.

  2. I’ve been cutting wood my entire life, and that’s a bit of time. There is little that is more satisfying than cutting, hauling, splitting, and stacking wood. At the end of the day you can see your accomplishment, and that’s no small treat.

    As for winter I say bring it on. Cold biting my cheeks as I journey on snow shoes. Bitter winds trying to bite through layers of clothing. And hopefully deep snow to cushion my falls given I’m slightly less agile than my younger years.

    Long, long jaunts in the quiet woods. Nothing quite so peaceful as a forest full of winter.

    Yep, sounds mighty nice to me.