Miscellany / Off Neck / Seasons / The Land / The Streams and Coves

The Outer Buoy of Summer

John Keats never climbed Mt. Wallamatogus, the rusty mound of scuffed granite that slopes down to the Northern Bay of the Bagaduce River. But it would surely have inspired an ode to autumn, one late August morning when I found myself walking its barrens.

Surely I was wandering in the Romantic poet’s “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as I climbed to the summit cairn and a clear view all the way south to Isle au Haut, as mists snuggled the inlets and valleys.

The wind off the bay contained a whiff of brisk change. Summer here can close up in a blink, catching us off-guard. The celestial imperative of rotating to the next season gets cross-wired with the beat of our current emotional season. The maple leaves are not yet turning, and the acorns are still plumping on the branch, but there is a palpable tipping point and the onset of a new autumnal rhythm. Were we there yet?

We are in no hurry to be mounting the studded snow tires or caulking the sashes against frost. There is a certain kind of day, however, when you have the sense that you’ve reached the seasonal outer buoy, and that the next tack had better be down the reach, under a small jib, towards home and snug harbor.

As we gazed at the land outleant below us, it was hard to tell which season we were tipping toward. The farmers had cut and baled their hay and had it tucked in the barns. We could look at our own meadow and think of the tipping point of chores: Time for one more pass with the brush hog? Or, Let it go—it won’t grow much longer. And is the woodpile big enough for a whole winter’s heat?

On ’Togus, we expected to find that the blueberries had been picked out, or were starting to dry into wild raisins on the sun-drenched bush. But the hill surprised us with “mellow fruitfulness.” Keats wouldn’t have been surprised. Autumn, he found, held a kind of second harvest and plentiful blossoming, to the discerning eye, not a segue to winter or shut down of summer.

As Lesley, our two dogs, and I emerged from the woods onto the naked barrens, we were greeted by that unlikely empurpled hillside. Some berries showed a slight puckering. For the most part, though, the low, wild bushes were heavy with big, plump berries—New Jersey-size berries, with wild Maine flavor; sweet, peak handfuls in every grip of our fingers combing the twiggy branches.

Autumn, Keats says, is for gleaners, and we were enthusiastic gleaners. We meandered the hillside, picking the sweetest midnight blue fruit from around the granite outcroppings. We grazed like bears storing up for the winter—that word has a frisson.

Keats was a gleaner too, of course—not so much of what was actually there, as what he felt about what was there. Keats gleaned poems from his own ripeness for inspiration, growth, beauty. His autumn of bounty was as much an interior season as it was the mellowing of the English countryside. I could also say that poets are society’s gleaners, scooping up morsels left in the furrow after the haste of harvesters. You need to walk slowly, and look carefully, to see fruit in unexpected places.

I began to detect a few lingering summer feelings—my own ripeness for inspiration, pausing to take in our fields of activity. I wanted to be a gleaner of summer, not autumn. I wasn’t done fully appreciating the thoughts and rhythms of summer. That outer buoy was marking a further channel to ply. I opened up communications with myself and sailed into romantic waters.

Pausing got my attention. There are too many choppy currents that throng the gaps we allow for slack time—a propulsion to be going, doing, making—as if outward industry is all that counts as movement and action. Because it is the season to pause, summer confronts us with the interstices of life. Time elongates, allowing us to see enclaves of thought that were blurred because we passed by at a trot. Sometimes it’s good to miss the forest for the trees! Gazing too far in the distance makes us steer as the crow flies. Picking out unique artifacts and objects in the foreground stimulates meandering, and we savor the more subtle textures of our progress: the perfume of spruce, the grasshoppers in the tomato plants, the crows caucusing on the knoll.

Keats would like my hammock. “Mowing can wait,” he would say. In the morning we will make muffins with those blueberries. Soon enough we will make time for apple picking—but this evening, here in a late-summer/early-autumn-hammock, Mr. Keats and I are listening to “gathering swallows twitter in the skies.”

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