Tomorrow night, when the last strands of cotton candy have wafted into the sky at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds and the final coals have grown cold in barbecue pits across Vermont, the summer of 2008 will be all but over. Technically, we still have three weeks of summer remaining, but the maples have already started to turn in my yard and the tomato plants in my wife’s garden — now largely bereft of tomatoes — look like they belong in a Halloween ghost story by Washington Irving. They hang black and limp and look ready to be pulled from the ground.
I think we all get a little wistful come Labor Day Weekend. Some of us probably even grow desperate. Suddenly, all those days we spent swimming in Lake Champlain or hiking (or biking) the Green Mountains are about to go on hiatus for nearly nine months. Already the days seem dramatically shorter than the last big holiday: The Fourth of July. Back then, the day seemed to stretch well into what our watches insisted was night.
Or, worse, this is the weekend when we find ourselves looking back on all those things we didn’t do in the 10 or 12 weeks when the temperature was supposed to be flirting with 90. Wasn’t this the year we were going to take the kids to Fort Ticonderoga? Wasn’t this the year I was going to bike three (or four!) gaps in a day? Wasn’t this the year we were going to volunteer a couple of days with Habitat for Humanity?
And the Lake Monsters? Have they really only four games left at Centennial Field? Was their season always this short?
This summer was especially rich in yin and yang. Take all that rain. Two weeks ago, Caledonia, Grand Isle and Lamoille counties were declared federal disaster areas. On the other hand, the buckets (and buckets) of rain that fell upon our state this summer meant that Burlington beaches were cleaner than usual and rarely closed.
And yet I have always felt that one of the reasons we choose to live here rather than, say, Miami, is that a part of us craves the melancholy that comes with September in New England. I lived in Miami, and all the autumn means there is that the Palmetto bugs — a roach-like monster the size of a toddler’s fist — seem a little less brazen and everyone starts pining for the good old days when the Miami Dolphins were the New England Patriots.
Here, however, autumn is a season of transition. It is a moment when our moods alter and we find ourselves starting to move inward. We watch the Canadian geese heading south, resting for a bit at Dead Creek but otherwise choosing to get out of Dodge before the lakes are skinned with ice and the marsh has started to grow as solid as Church Street. We may wait a little longer for the apples and pumpkins, but already we are putting the rest of the gardens to bed (a euphemism for mercilessly pulling dead husks and tendrils from the earth).
I know that I personally crave the fall. The coming season won’t help me make sense of the death of one of my wife’s very best friends from high school in July or the abduction and murder of a 12-year-old Braintree girl in June. It won’t make the three funerals my wife or I attended this summer more or less meaningful. But it will allow us both the chance to retreat a bit from the world and grow quiet. Autumn by its very nature compels us to take a step back from the vibrancy of July and August — the fireworks and colored lights and relentless desire to appreciate every moment of the shortest season there is — and savor all that we have and all that we’ve lost.
I will miss this past summer, as I have most of the summers I have seen. But I know also that I am ready for autumn.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on August 31, 2008.)