Autumn Comes Knocking
By Jessica Shepherd
Everything we know, every relationship we treasure, every woodland we explore or cool stream we cast into, is ephemeral, like summer flowers, like dew on the grass.
Mid-August in south-central Alaska, and already autumn prowls at the edges of the day. This morning began with a tell-tale nip of chill, like wind off a glacier. By mid-day, we reached a drizzly 55 degrees, even as the rest of the planet swelters through another spate of record-breaking temperatures. Come evening, along with a full moon laced with clouds, the night sky will reveal stars we never see in July. Soon, the Sandhill cranes will gather, spiraling and calling overhead, until we wake one hushed morning to find they’ve gone.
I dread the inevitable fade from green to brown and the clench of cold weather. Summer is my season. And after last winter, which was unusually long and taxing, I’m determined to savor what’s left of these fleeting days as if storing up solar reserves for the months ahead.
At one year of age, Tavish is now the same size as our six-year-old pointer, Arlie, but with ten times the energy. With Hal up north on a work trip this week, it falls to me to run the dogs. That means driving them up to Eveline State Park and letting them off leash to charge ahead. I stroll with an ear out for bird songs and spin in wonderment amid an endless expanse of magenta fireweed. Eventually, the dogs loop back to meet me at a fork in the road, and we wander trails we will ski come December.
Even though I enjoy a week’s solitude without Hal, I missed his company. So, for Tavish’s birthday, I let the boys up on the bed to sleep with me, which made us all happier. Arlie dove under the covers with a contented groan while Tavish celebrated with ear nibbles and a neck nuzzle before collapsing across me in full-body gratitude.
Every fall and spring, the rapid change in day length messes with my equilibrium, and I suffer bouts of insomnia. As I try to find that one comfortable position which will allow me to drift off, hours go by with my chatter-box mind replaying missteps I’ve made over the years or lamenting the troubled state of the world. Last night was no different, and I found myself thinking about impending old age, like exploring a hole in your mouth where a tooth used to be. I considered all I stand to lose over the ensuing years; these fine dogs, this house, my health, and quite possibly my sweet husband. I wondered what a 92-year-old version of me might say to my 62-year-old self about the years and losses ahead. She will have endured more than I can foresee. But she will have stores of cherished memories too. My job now is to ensure that.
I’m at that sweet spot in life where I don’t really want big changes. A good marriage has a lot to do with that. Hal and I value what we have and remind one another to look up and savor this time together. Because everything we know, every relationship we treasure, every woodland we explore or cool stream we cast into, is ephemeral, like summer flowers, like dew on the grass.
When winter finally yielded to spring in mid-May, I planted the garden, dropping seeds and tucking seedlings into sun-warmed soil. Everything flourished in a hotter-than-normal June and July, and now we build our meals around what we harvest each day. On sunny days I spend happy hours weeding and gathering and simply inhaling all the heady, leafy splendor of our little world. On rainy days, while the landscape drinks, I pull on mud boots and walk the boys to the point above the canyon for a look at the bay, then dry their paws with a towel when we come through the front door.
Alaskan summers are a special kind of manic. With four snow-free months of tasks and adventures to cram in under bright skies until midnight, every hour spent inside feels like precious time lost. Often loopy from lack of sleep, we say, “We can always sleep in the winter!”
This year is no different. Next week we’ll lay out the setnet for silver salmon down on the beach. With luck, over three or four incoming tides, we’ll fill the freezer and have a few extra to share. Then it will be time to gather firewood, mow the lawn one last time, and harvest apples and raspberries. Some we will juice for wine which we make to varying degrees of success.
Somehow, we find a balance between work and play. This spring, I purchased an electric bike and now join Hal on adventurous hill climbs and trips around town. My favorite part is ringing my cheery bell “ding-ding” as I breeze past him on the uphills while he works to keep abreast by peddling standing up, thighs flexing.
If the rain lets up, we’ll get in one more kayak with friends. And no Saturday is complete without a trip to the Farmer’s Market. We’ll join our community in open spaces and small neighborhood gatherings, hoping for the best as we accommodate Covid as our new normal.
Then, with a flush of yellow leaves and the first frost, the outdoor projects will slow, the shadows will expand, and we’ll retreat indoors. It’s as if, by stepping out of sandals and into boots, we take up our winter roles and shelve our warm-weather personas until next year.
Hal will return on Saturday. When I pick him up at the airport, the Whirling Tavish will pull the leash from my hands to greet his man while Arlie waits impatiently for his moment to welcome the stranger home. Then, in the warmth of an evening fire, we’ll share the couch with the dogs and catch up on writing. We’ll shake our heads over the national news and read headlines aloud to one another, snuggling deeper into what feels safe and solid. And I’ll acknowledge that autumn is a season with homey charms.
My inner old woman will have lived to see the future of our conflicted democracy and our beleaguered efforts to stave off ecological collapse. Will she applaud or mourn the outcomes? I hope she can master the art of contentment even in the face of difficulty. Breathing in, I seek only the promise of this day. Breathing out, I shed my worries and time-worn heartaches like wind-swept leaves in the fall.