On August 12th this year, I noticed the season turning. That afternoon I went outside and saw that the flowers growing beside my shed had slumped closer to the ground. I recognized the slight yellowing of the grass and the reddening of blueberry bushes across the road. Night had returned, too, or almost returned. It was not pitch dark yet, but we are beyond the Midnight Sun and long hours of sunlight. On the 12th a different wind blew over the hills above my house. There was a hint of cooler weather, a scent of rain and decay and woodsmoke. These scents blended and hung in the air for a couple of days, reminding those of us who notice such signs that summer was over and autumn was on the way, if not already with us.
“There was a hint of cooler weather, a scent of rain and decay and woodsmoke.” Photo by Damon Falke
That all happened on the 12th. A few days later, after thinking about autumn and changes, I remembered that the 12th is recognized in the U.K., recognized by sportsmen anyway, as the Glorious Twelfth. The Glorious Twelfth is the opening of grouse season in Scotland. I am not nor will I ever be of the English shooting class. I hesitate to use the word “class,” when what I mean mostly are those individuals who can afford to shoot grouse on a Scottish moor. Shooting on the moors has a long history of exclusivity. I looked through my sporting books and found a passage from Going to the Moors by Ronal Eden that reinforces this: “By the 1870’s Scotland in autumn had be a social event which, like all social events centred on sport, attracted not only those who were participants but leading members of society as well.”
Threaded through the exclusivity and honest snobbery are traditions I admire. The use of tweed, for instance, to guard oneself against the cold and damp is a nice touch. The same can be said about the tradition of carrying birds off the field by their necks, as opposed to by their feet or bodies. Their heads are held up, and therefore, in terms of tradition, they are honored. Later there will be a memorable dinner, in which grouse is served, good stories are told and wine is poured.
Although I have never hunted Red grouse (Lagopus lagopus scotica), which is the celebrated bird of the Glorious Twelfth, I have hunted other grouse species and other birds. I am glad to shoot birds and eat them. I am, after all, a meat eater. But I am also glad to participate in these traditions, insofar as I can, which includes sorting through my modest collection of sporting books. Just last week, I walked upstairs into a tiny room in our house—a room that Cassie refers to as my “second office” and what our sons call “the dead room”—and selected a few volumes to comb through and handle. There was the afore mentioned, Going to the Moors by Ronald Eden, but I also picked out two collections by the British historian and writer Max Hastings, Country Fair and Outside Days, and the only two editions of The Badminton Library I possess, which are an 1896 edition that begins with “Poetry of Sport” and a 1906 volume that begins with “Shooting: Field and Covert.” The books smell old and serious, with a feint odor of rust and a winter garden. They smell, in a word, perfect.
I will not go shooting this year nor hunting. It’s been three years since I last went hunting. My shotguns are in the States. Still there could be a grouse dinner this year. One of our local grocery stores carries grouse when they are in season. In years past, I have travelled, along with my family, during the shooting season to visit friends in Yorkshire who own a farm. They host a shoot on their farm, but not for grouse, rather for pheasant and partridge. Part of the tradition of their hunt is for the game keeper to give a few dressed birds to the farmer, in this case, Walter, at the end of the shoot. When I have been on the farm for the shoot, I have roasted the birds for the family. I feel awkward about doing this, knowing that Helen is a wonderful cook. Nevertheless, I roast the birds. At dinner the pheasants are served with a large bowl of mashed potatoes and a platter of roasted vegetables. Helen purchases delicious cheeses for the meal, including my favorite Wensleydale cheeses in wax covered blocks of Mature and Cranberry. We will drink a bottle of red wine, possibly two, and drink preferably those of an earthy, warm variety. Cassie in recent years has found delicious Portuguese wines, which are not too expensive and taste of the earth and dark berries and chocolate. I lean towards Barolos, and they are usually out of my buying range. When I do manage to sneak a Barolo, I must suffer lashes of accusations about my own wine pretensions and unreasonable tastes. Except I am not a wine snob. I probably could not tell the difference between a 10 dollar bottle of wine from a 65 dollar bottle of wine. A fact I am quick to admit. But we will not be on the farm this year. The Yorkshire pheasants and cheeses and red wines and dear friends and slow dinners will have to wait for another time.
For now, there is here. There is this northern place where autumn arrived on the 12th. There remains much to do. There are more berries to pick. There is wood to stack. The strawberries need weeding before the snow falls. The yard needs another mowing. The deck needs a coat of protective stain. The cellar has accumulated junk that needs to go the Remiks (our local recycling company). There are papers to grade, books and papers to read, and seminars to prepare for and my office rarely stays tidy for more than three days at a time. There is, constantly, another mess, another clean-up. And all I want to do is sit by.
Remembering all there is to do, I turn, as I have every autumn since my childhood, to The Wind in the Willows and to my favorite chapter, Chapter 9 “Wayfarers All,” in which Water Rat becomes irritated at the field mice who are getting ready to leave their summer havens. The mice know the summer season is changing. They are packing their trunks and dress-baskets, planning for where they will stay after the summer turns. Rat is unwilling for change, at least so soon. We read that, “The rat was a self-sufficing sort of animal, rooted to the land, and, whoever went, he stayed.” When he meets the busy mice family, he admonishes them, “’What sort of games are you up to?” said the Water Rat severely “You know it isn’t time to be thinking of winter quarters yet by a long way!’” But the mice will not heed Rat’s petitions. One field-mouse, “rather shamefacedly,” explains to Rat, “Of course, we’re early, we know that; but we’re only just making a start.” The dialog continues:
“O, bother starts,” said the Rat. “It’s a splendid day. Come for a row, or a stroll along the hedges, or a picnic in the woods, or something,”
“Well, I think not to-day, thank you,” replied the field-mouse hurriedly, “Perhaps some other day—when we’ve more time—
Eventually Rat is discouraged and realizes the mice will not be convinced. He then “returned somewhat despondently to his river again—his faithful, steady-going old river, which never packed up, flitted, or went into winter quarters.” As someone who has returned to rivers and a beloved country all my life, I understand Rat’s affection for what we call his place. What is desired is that the good places, the good souls, the good seasons, the good moments will stay around a bit longer.
“The hills above the birch forests have turned their autumnal colors.” Photo by Damon Falke
Here at the end of August, those changes in nature I saw two weeks ago have since deepened. The hills above the birch forests have turned their autumnal colors. There are more yellows, more shades of umbers and dull vermilions brushed into the hillsides. Yesterday I saw fresh snow had fallen on the mountains. I am touched by the sight of early snows. This was an event I paid attention to as a kid, growing up in Moab. If I didn’t catch sight of a first snow, my mother did, and she was sure to tell me. To this day when someone says, snow fell on the mountains last night, I think of my mother. I believe first snows make her happy.
When I was a teenager, Mom and I ate breakfast together. I do not know where my dad and sister are in these memories. Mom and I were early risers, and we also enjoyed breakfast. My dad and sister were not breakfast eaters nor were they earlier risers, unless, of course, they had to be. Too bad for them, because Mom made a great breakfast. She made eggs—fried, scrambled or boiled. She made toast. Sometimes she made ham, bacon or sausage. She cooked them in combination, too, alongside oatmeal, cereals, fruits and yogurt. On special mornings, such as when a first snow fell on Mt. Tukuhnikivatz or when autumn arrived unexpectedly, Mom made biscuits & sausage gravy. Mom’s biscuits & gravy are the best, and I’ve eaten sausage gravy from Quitaque, Texas, to Glenbeigh, Ireland. Early snows, early autumns, my mama’s biscuits & gravy, snow fell on the mountains last night—all those gifts. Yet I remain stupidly awkward about telling my mother thank you, even as I once appreciated those mornings with her.
I leave my library and the piles of books and papers on my desk, along with two ceramic mugs, two travel mugs, an empty bag of peanuts, a camera, and a White Rabbit mug filled with colored pencils, and go into the kitchen and living room to see what the windows are saying. On the hill across the road, my two favorite birch trees have started to turn. Maybe I will take a photo of them this year. The two birch trees, I suspect, grow from the same root. Together they look like an imagined pair of birch trees, in an imagined setting—clean white bark, the one trunk straight , the other curved. There is a splash of white flowers beneath them and blueberries and pig berries (grisbær in Norwegian) grow in clusters beneath the largest branch of the tree, whose leaves nearly reach the ground. Two weeks ago most of the leaves and groundcover were green. Now they have turned.
Høst is the Norwegian word for autumn. Høst is also the word for harvest in Norwegian. In spite of my poor hearing, I recognize the word as wonderfully onomatopoeic. It sounds like leaves blowing across a dry sidewalk. I can picture walking through E. H. Shepard’s Hundred Acre Wood and watching leaves fall or finding them clustered at the base of an oak tree where, if I look closely enough, there is a little door. I recall, too, Jean Toomer’s poem, “Reapers,” which begins “Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones/Are sharpening scythes.” While tropes more sinister are operating in Toomer’s poem, the repetition of the “s” sound enforces our sense of the sound a scythe makes—a sound of cutting, a sound of harvest. Høst is also the sound beneath these autumnal days. There are changes coming. After them, we know, there will be other changes.
With these changes, I ask myself if I have done enough, if I have taken in enough, if I have seen enough, if I have saved enough of what is beautiful? I understand the year is slipping away, and I am slipping away, too, but those are the questions and that is the truth. Now what?
I leave the living room and go into the kitchen and turn on water for tea. I draw water for coffee, too. I fill the pot with cold water and set a filter in the bail and add grounds and then start the brewing. Cassie and the boys are on the hill picking berries. It’s not raining or snowing, but either could happen. The snow that fell on the mountains yesterday is still there, and snow will reach the valley soon enough. Clouds gather in the south over the sea and the wind blows from the west, bringing more weather, bringing more høst. Then something in the light softens outside, some edges are mercifully trimmed, and for a moment, I can believe all of this will go on.