The Dying of the Light

Kate Flora here. As you are reading this, I am in Paris, walking on the left bank and eating croissants and sipping small coffees in sidewalk cafes. But it did not feel like Paris, or anything pleasant, on Monday in Harpswell, when it was 40 degrees in the early morning with a howling wind and a cloudy sky. On Saturday, I was swimming in the sea, thinking it might be my last dip of the season. Monday I was wearing two sweaters and had turned the heat on. I’m enough of a New England puritan to believe that it is unthinkable to turn the heat on in September. But my feet were so cold and I was chained to my desk and desperate remedies were called for.

Fall has always been my favorite time of year. The farmhouse kitchen was always full of produce waiting to be processed. Squash and pumpkins were spread out on newspapers on the floor of the shed. Wire egg baskets of onions and potatoes were being stored in the back cellar. There were bushels of pears waiting to be canned. Dried shell beans waiting to be shelled. And since my mother believed that no decent apple pie could be made from less than five different kinds of apples, one weekend day each fall we would pile into the truck and go apple stealing.

It wasn’t stealing, really. There were plenty of old abandoned farms or cellar holes with neglected apple trees, and we would just stop here and there and gather a grocery bag full.

I was afraid of pressure cookers long before the Boston Marathon bombings. In the fall, we all shivered a little in fear as my mother processed things in her pressure cooker. Only once, I think, did it really blow its gasket, but it seemed like a fearsome object and while it was “underway,” we were banned from the kitchen. Mostly, we preferred to do our preserves in a water bath, those glass Mason jars clinking slightly as they rocked gently in the simmering water. Depending on the day, the air was sweet with sugar as applesauce or jam was made or pungent with vinegar and pepper and dill as many jars of pickles were put up “for the long, cold winter.” It was not considered a proper dinner if there weren’t pickles on the table.

I carried on the tradition when I worked in the Attorney General’s office. Sarah Redfield, another lawyer, and I, and sometimes others who’d shown an interest, would gather in her kitchen to preserve things from her garden and local farm stands. Plum chutney, dilled beans, raspberry jam, tomato chutney, pickles, corn relish. We picked and chopped and stirred and jarred and boiled all through the fall. Once my brother John dropped off a huge bag of dead ripe Concord grapes and the resulting grape jelly was ambrosia–a far cry from grocery store Welch’s.

It has been years since I’ve done any canning or preserving, but I still love to go to a farm stand or farmer’s market at this time of year. Staring at the rows of tomatoes, twenty or more varieties. Peppers in seven colors. Red, white, orange, and yellow carrots. Rainbow chard, a multitude of beets, skinny eggplants, fat eggplants, pale eggplants and striped ones. It all takes me back to the farm, and riding up from the garden in the back of the truck, my small self tucked among a mountain of produce.

One year my father raised dozens of little round watermelons. Sometimes the winter squash were as big as I was. One year there was an explosion of cantaloupe.

As I get older, I have to fight to enjoy the fall. The shorter days and the ever earlier sunsets make my thoughts skip to winter, to the way that the years are flying by too fast. I find myself thinking that June was just yesterday. That January is right around the corner. That too soon I will be old enough for medicare and social security. That maybe my vertigo will never leave and I’ll have to stop my long writing days all alone because they won’t be safe.

Then I need to kick myself out the door into world and experience the golden slant of fall light, the suddenly deeper blue of the restless waves, and the way things change color overnight. I need to stop moaning about the dying of the light and get out into the world. Staring at how gorgeous the tomatoes are, exulting in the inky purple eggplants, smelling the musty leaf smells, the ripeness of drying plants, hearing the crisp rustle of the leaves on my birch tree. I need to stop fretting about what will come, and remember to be here in the now.

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7 Responses to The Dying of the Light

  1. Gram says:

    If you had stayed in ME until Wednesday you would have found yourself back in the sea for a couple more days.
    Yes, the older we get the faster the seasons fly, but then you enjoy each moment more.

  2. jt nichols says:

    I view fall with trepidation, thinking about what’s coming….sure liked winter better when I was ten…but sometimes, on an annual road trip with a friend of mine—we head west from Portland and see where we end up—the light and the leaves and the perfect temp (and the diner we always end up finding), produces a perfectly satisfying day that reminds me of the tired, complete contentment I used to feel as a child, after a full day of playing in the snow…

  3. Lea Wait says:

    Beautiful post, Kate. And while we’re enjoying September in Maine — truly one of the best months here — hope you enjoy Paris!

  4. Brenda Buchanan says:

    It is nice to picture you in Paris, Kate, and also to recall the ambrosial qualities of homemade Concord grape jelly.

    My family had vines in our yard and one of the most delightful parts of our Septembers was the day we came home from school to find Mom making grape jelly. The whole house was redolent with the nearly intoxicating scent of grapes cooking down, and we’d help ourselves to a treat of grape foam (skimmed from the top of the vat) spread on a slice of bread.

  5. Lil Gluckstern says:

    What a beautiful post. It certainly evokes those days in the past when autumn came and brought all those riches. It is my favorite season, but we don’t have much of a fall here in California. What a wondrous childhood you had, and I hope you will continue to write and enjoy your world for a long time.

  6. Lovely post, Kate. And the pictures are great. Heading to our local farmers’ market in the morning. I’d never eaten those round watermelons before. My, they are tasty. I don’t buy them, but they have these small lavender striped eggplants I think I pick out in one of your pics. Best squash and zucchini ever. Who knew tomatoes came in so many different types. I’ve discovered Fourth of July’s. Thanks for the reminder to stay in the moment and not borrow trouble from the future.

  7. John Clark says:

    We have a much smaller freezer now, half the size of that one out in the ‘new room’ we grew up with, but it’s filled, or soon will be with frozen broccoli, home made spaghetti sauce and winter squash. That wail of wind is picking at my window this morning, reminding me of what is to come. Thanks for cranking up the wayback machine.

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