A Yankee Notebook

September 21, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – You’d hardly know it was happening, for all the attention being paid it; but this is a pretty big week in the temperate and arctic zones of the globe. The earth – “our island home,” as it’s called in the weekly prayers at church – is at the stage in its revolution around its red-hot mother at which its axis is perpendicular to a line drawn from it to the sun. For a brief moment it’s presenting both its hemispheres equally to the heat and light, and all its latitudes are experiencing the same amounts of day and night. “Equinox,” we call it – “equal night” – and proceed from here to whatever changes are next.

This one is the so-called autumnal equinox, which bears a heavy load of drama for quite a few people, most of them older than the mean age of our citizenry. Not that the spring equinox doesn’t, too; but most of its freight is happy and hopeful – daffodils, trout-fishing, outdoor tennis, and the like. This one portends ever-growing darkness, ever-dropping temperatures, and ever-deepening gloom for those whose trips from the back door to the garage will soon be life-threatening.

One of the beauties of the Internet – I still can’t quite believe how much it’s changed my life – is that I can be in daily communication with folks all over the globe. During the vernal equinox of next March I’ll be in Ecuador with a tour group of birders. Ecuador, as its name suggests, is almost utterly unaffected by variations in daylight. Every day is just about the same length as every other during the year. The New Englanders with me will be coming off the rigors of winter and looking forward to longer days, which they won’t get. Warmer, yes, but no longer. They’ll be adding like crazy to their life lists – dozens of epiphytes and orchids, two or three toucans, several manakins, almost two dozen species of hummingbirds – and then returning home to longer days, rotting snowbanks everywhere, chickadees and blue jays on the feeder and, if it’s a spring like this past one, robins hopping around everywhere.

On the other hand, my friends north of the Arctic Circle, though at the moment they have just as much sunlight as we, are losing it at an amazing rate, and by December will be experiencing a day that varies from utter darkness (relieved a little by the reflection of starlight on the snow) to a deep dusk. Then on a day in January, my friend Larry Whittaker in Kugluktuk says, the sun will appear as a slice of light above the horizon between two huge oil tanks on the hill up behind his house. Each day there’ll be a slightly larger slice of sun, and by June it won’t be going down at all, but circling around the sky like a giant frisbee, and the men traveling there with me for the first time will learn why there’s no flashlight on the suggested equipment list.

Larry’s one of my favorite people: always doing new things. After he built himself a lovely house right on the shore of the Northwest Passage, he added a greenhouse and, later, a potato patch (in soil manufactured from grass clippings and whatever else organic he could find) and a tiny bit of lawn. He built a cabin up the Coppermine River not far from Bloody Fall, an ancestral Inuit char-fishing hole, and during the past three summers a new cabin on a lovely lake a few dozen miles inland. He travels back and forth in his small float plane, another do-it-yourself project.

He’s put up a game camera on the cabin, which over the winter snapped a few hundred hares. A few weeks ago it caught a magnificent grizzly walking past the picnic table and, another day, a bull caribou shambling along the beach. Then, while he was there, the local wolf pack came to visit. As they left, Larry howled; they stopped and began howling back. A lucky man; but he makes his own luck. And he and his wife stay pretty active all winter.

I noticed, as I looked at his photos a third time, that all the bushes around the cabin were bright scarlet. It was already full fall there. This week he wrote that he’s about to put the skis on the plane. I checked his weather (another amazing feature of the Net) and saw that he’s got it just about freezing all week, with showers, and on Friday, maybe, a few flurries.

For me, the fall equinox is a watershed, the end of oppressive summer heat and the beginning of temperatures more conducive to activity. I’m painting clapboards this week, and the next week or two should see the front of the barn – which is the first thing you spot as you turn into the driveway – looking the way it ought to. We may even get the big porcelain-dishpan light fixture installed way up high, with the motion detector down low. I’m looking forward to watching the deer startled as they tiptoe through the yard at night.

Then there’s the woodpile. I don’t cut and split it myself anymore, but it’s still got to be trucked into the cellar and ranked up near the wood-fired boiler. What a great feeling it is to get the last chunks in and the yard raked clean of bark chips, usually two trash cans of great kindling that flares up in the morning from the coals of the night before.

The folks in the hospitality business are crossing their fingers for good foliage. The skiers and resort folks are doing the same for early, deep snow and consistent cold. The snowbirds are discussing when to hit the road south. The down comforters are coming out of plastic storage.

For me it’s a time of nostalgia – cross-country practice through swishing leaves on cool, late afternoons; the distant sound of whistles and thudding footballs down on the fields; and fifty years of hunting seasons in the Adirondacks. Sitting on the porch in the afternoon with a few chips and a bit of bourbon, I toast the retreating flocks of geese and wish them a successful journey.

Photo by Willem lange