John Keats never climbed Mount Wallamatogus in Penobscot, Maine, the rusty mound of scuffed granite that slopes down to the Northern Bay of the Bagaduce. But had he been with Lesley and me yesterday, it definitely would have inspired an ode to Autumn.
Surely we were wandering in the romantic poet’s “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” as we climbed through blueberry barrens to the summit cairn and a clear view all the way south to Isle au Haut, as mists snuggled the inlets and valleys.
We were moved to walk the hill when the wind off the bay contained a whiff of brisk change. The timing between summer and autumn here can close up in a blink, catching us off-guard. The maple leaves are not yet turning, and the acorns are still plumping on the branch, but there is a palpable tipping point and also 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, toward home and snug harbor.
As we gazed at the land 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 all picked, or were starting to dry into wild “raisins” on the sun-drenched bushes. 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 just a segue to winter or the shutdown of summer.
As Lesley, our two dogs, and I emerged from the woods onto the barrens, we were greeted by that unlikely empurpled hillside. Some berries showed a slight puckering, but for the most part, the low, wild bushes were heavy with big, plump berries—New Jersey-size berries, but with wild Maine flavor; sweet handfuls as our fingers combed 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.
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, and beauty. His autumn of bounty was as much an interior season as it was the mellowing of the English countryside.
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 feelings of the season just past. 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 in a hammock this late summer/early autumn evening, Keats and I are listening to “gathering swallows twitter in the skies.”