Looking out over the yard two weeks ago, I noticed spiderwebs on the lawn sparkling with morning dew. That’s been a sure reminder that summer break is past its late-July halfway point and schools will be reopening in a matter of weeks.
Today, crickets are chirping in the yard during daylight hours, and that’s an August sign that fall is getting even closer. The autumn chill the past few mornings brings a certain fragrance with it, and nothing brings back memories more powerfully than familiar smells.
It’s been more than eight years since my retirement, but from ages 6 to 60, my life was dictated by the academic calendar as student or teacher.
These distinctly New England sights, sounds and smells will always affect me the same way. I would feel a combination of lament for the fading summer mixed with dread and pleasant anticipation of going back to school. Soon, the big yellow school bus will go by my house at 7 a.m. I’ll look up from my reading and remember all those times I’d be heading out the door to follow close behind it. Not anymore though, because I’m no longer captive to the academic calendar. Now, I can choose how to spend my day. I can go anywhere, do anything.
For example, watching sunlight fill the day with a camera in my hand is one of my favorite things. That’s more difficult from May through July when the sun clears the horizon around 5 a.m. I’m usually up by 4:30, but I prefer to shower, exercise, dress and drink coffee before going out. From late August through November, it is much easier to accomplish that. Being out and about at dawn is usually a solitary endeavor, but sometimes I’ll see another dawn person on my sojourns. I’ll nod to them or perhaps say good morning, but they usually enjoy their privacy as much as I do. They’ll nod back and then we’ll each go our own way.
Watching daylight fade at dusk is another special time. I like to be out and about then too, but so do many others. Unlike the solitude of dawn, twilight is more of a social time, especially in late summer and fall when daylight diminishes at an accelerating rate — from two minutes per day June to July — to three by end of August. By Sept. 1, those small increments have added up to the point where daylight has diminished by two hours since school let out in June.
In early August, we see the first leaves turning red, usually on maples stressed by various factors like too much or two little water. Sumacs change early as well, and sometimes it starts as early as July. Certain ferns turn yellow and then brown. Soon the sweetish smell of decaying vegetation can be detected after a rain.
For months, there’s been a big pile of tree-length hardwood in my back field. It’s hard to estimate but there are probably 12 cords, plus or minus, and it needs to be cut and split. I used to do that work every year at this time, and I may go out there and do a little just for old time’s sake — but that’s all.
I miss the unique fragrance given off while splitting red oak, and I want to experience that again, but I don’t need the wood. It’s all there because I asked someone to cut the trees beyond the field that were getting too tall and blocking some of our view. I didn’t think it would amount to that much firewood, but a former student has agreed to work on it in September.
In a few more weeks, people will be donning an extra layer as they go out in the morning. Some may even start a fire in the wood stove. Then they’ll look at their wood piles and think about adding to them. It’s hard to get motivated to do that kind of thing in August when the temperature is in the 80s every day.
It makes me tired now to remember myself as a young man spending two August weeks getting out my firewood, hauling it home, and sweating off 10 or 15 pounds in the process. I’ve been heating with oil the past several years and only keep around a little wood for the fireplace. These days I’d rather go out and take pictures to sell — then pay someone else to work up all that wood.
Tom McLaughlin lives in Lovell, Maine. He can be reached on his website at tommclaughlin.blogspot.com.