Tomorrow night, around 10:29 p.m. in the Eastern Time zone, the autumnal equinox arrives. We all know what that means. Beginning this week, the nights will be longer than the days. There will be a decided chill in the air. And my vegetable garden will look like it belongs in the backyard of a haunted house. The tomato plants, long dead, will be drooping from their metal cages like the dying, tentacled aliens from “The War of the Worlds.”
I’m not good at autumn chores. (Oh, who am I kidding? I’m not good at spring chores, either.) But throughout September, I delude myself into believing that summer still has a little heat left. A little juice. That means the Adirondack chairs will sit on the lawn until I have to scrape the snow off them before carting them into the barn. The attic windows will remain open so long that people will think I must own stock in the LP gas company that fills the tank in my backyard. And I will resist putting the gardens to bed as long as I possibly can.
I’m not alone. Far from it.
Most of us have very mixed feelings about the autumnal equinox. We all understand the way it can (quite literally) darken one’s spirits. That’s especially true in a place like Vermont, where summers are breathtakingly beautiful and dispiritingly short. Everywhere, however, the autumnal equinox reminds us that another summer has past, the natural world is growing quiescent (or dying), and we are older. There is less sunlight. Less warmth. No blueberries.
Soon that ultimate bacchanal of death will be here, Halloween.
And what follows Halloween? The gray morass we call November. That’s usually the month when I finally get around to raking the trillions of leaves that have swooned (starving) to their death in my yard. Some are still phantasmagorically beautiful. All are annoying when they stick to the tines of my rake.
For the next three months, the days will continue to shrink and the nights will grow very, very long. There will be days in the not too distant future when it will feel here in Lincoln that the sun is falling behind the ridgeline to the west a little after lunch.
Have I depressed you enough?
But here’s the strange and wonderful reality that marks this time of the year: It actually feeds the soul’s need to cocoon. To nest. To hunker down after the zeal and sheer busyness of summer. I love those first fires I build in the woodstove – the aroma, the warmth, the luminescent little blaze through the palladian glass windows. I love collapsing on the floor in the den in the waning light of a Sunday afternoon and reading – often with a cat on my back. (Occasionally, as a matter of fact, with a 17-pound cat on my back.) I love the permission that short days and long nights give me to watch DVDs of two-decade old episodes of Seinfeld.
That’s the gift of autumn. Because we are human, we can’t hibernate and we can’t fall dormant. (Okay, we can fall dormant. But it isn’t pretty. Think grungy gray sweatpants and not bothering to shave. Envision Cheez Doodles debris on your teeth.) But we can allow ourselves a small retreat. Sure, some of us will be hunting in November and some of us will be skiing in December. Likewise, there remains an outside world in need of tending. Nevertheless, we slow down.
And that’s healthy.
The truth is, I really don’t mind the autumn. For the first time in months, we can savor the sluggishness that all of us, once in a while, crave. After all, in a mere 90 days – 13 weeks – the days once more will begin growing longer.
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on September 21, 2014. Chris’s most recent novels are “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands” and “The Light in the Ruins.”)