The View from Mattie’s Pillow

Equinox

Today was the fall equinox, the balance point between our season of extravagant light and the introspective dark of winter. Tonight, as I write this, the moon hangs full in the southern sky over the Tanana Flats, just above a bright speck of planet low to the horizon. For the last few weeks, we’ve had warm, even hot days, gradually cooling to the high 60s during the day, chillier at night. Today, however, the forecast is for colder air to move in from Canada, bringing the chance of frost, even here on the ridge.

This evening, around 7, I went out to feed the horses and felt the deepening chill in the air. It was still pretty light, and I noticed my surprise at this fact—more evidence that deep down, I’m preparing myself to accept winter. I’ve been delaying dealing with the garden, though we’ve been eating from it every day, but tonight I knew I couldn’t delay any more. I brought out some woven grocery bags and picked the pole beans, the yellow French beans curled into Cs and the purple and green Rattlesnake beans—new this year—hanging straight and full. I put the squash into separate bags—small yellow crookneck, golden patty pan, a few small delicata, and three huge zucchini. I went to the greenhouse and moved all the tomato plants that I had left around the outside of the greenhouse into the greenhouse with the more privileged plants, then went back to the house and ran three five-gallon buckets full of hot water to keep the edge off the chill in the greenhouse. Then I went up on the deck and brought in the pots of herbs and the still-flowering geraniums and covered the tomato plants I had to leave outside with a large sheet of clear plastic. I looked around at the pots of flowers on the deck: deep purple and pale yellow petunias, marigolds, orange and pale blue and purple and yellow pansies, lobelia, verbena, lupine. Some of it will take a light frost. Maybe it won’t frost at all—we’ve been lucky so far. But there was frost on the grass in places at the university this morning as I made my way to class, and my toes were cool in my sandals.

We are nearly ready after this lovely reprise of summer. Yesterday we picked up the last of our year’s supply of hay from the Mayo fields. The bales were paper-dry and light enough to make the job of stacking easy. The sun slanted on the field, we saw a family walking along the farm road with a stroller, and Jeter the poodle had a grand time running through the open space to greet the walkers, the other trucks, and us in our separate trucks. Tonight, the new hay gave off a bittersweet scent, rich with the stored sunlight in each blade that will warm Mattie and Sam’s bellies through the coldest season.

Later tonight, we watched a short film on PBS about the poet William Stafford. I don’t know how this all fits together, except to see Stafford’s face in the film and to hear his voice and the voices of others reading his poems reminded me of how much his poems have worked their way into my sensibility. He had a way of looking sideways that included rather than excluded the viewer, and he was one who proved Dickinson’s point that “the mind is wider than the sky.” In this balance point of the seasons, finding Stafford seemed both reassuring and invigorating. He was the teacher, after all, who told student writers that if they didn’t like what they had written, to “lower your standards.” He was one who wrote poems at conferences and gave them away. I remember years ago meeting him on a path at the university when he was staying in student apartments as a visiting writer. I was a graduate student, and somehow our schedules dovetailed so that he would be returning at the same time I was headed to class. The path to the center of campus led through a small grove of birch trees, and that is the point where our paths would cross. He would nod and smile as if he knew me and wanted to share in that nod and the twinkle of his glance the secret of joy in that moment. I don’t remember if we spoke. It may have been this time of year—at least I imagine there were yellow birch leaves making the path golden.

So now we head into the reflective time of year. By the weekend, I will have given up all resistance and will have picked the tomatoes. We will pull the carrots and dig the potatoes and decide the best way to store the three purple cabbages we have left in the garden. I will be sad that these beautiful plants that I have tended from seeds will freeze. Mattie and Sam will get in a few more rides, or Mattie will; Sam is on rest while he heals from his foot and back soreness (more on that in another post).

And winter, for me, is the time for writing, as Stafford reminds me. I like to think he would have appreciated how much growing plants, building the soil, tending and riding the horses stand in for poetry in the summer months. Or even more, how poetry stands in for and can barely show the surface of the richness of these things.

I hear the clatter of the wind chimes outside on the deck. The window is dark. The season has turned, just like that.

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