Oct 26, 2010
Yesterday, the sky glowed a crystalline Caribbean blue, illuminating the intentional air, air downright determined to hang-on to Summer warmth, air that belied oak leaves faded to ochre and brown, the bare branches of locust and maple, the finality of Fall. Air imbued with as yet untapped potential.
In the same way a distance runner discovers a second-wind, Nature appeared determined to sprint to the finish, not just undimmed by the pressures of the previous season, but stronger, clearer, brighter than at any time since May’s final frost.
Or so it seemed as I hung my picking basket from my belt and clipped on my favorite pruners. I tied a flannel shirt around my waist and called Cosmo, “Let’s go!” He bounded off the porch and circled me joyfully. I laughed aloud, my heart as untethered as a milkweed seed teased from its pod by a tickling breeze. I might have been venturing to meet a lover, so giddy did I feel.
Certain October days do this to me. Yesterday was one of them.
For as long as I can remember, my grandmother has called such days “October’s Bright Blue Weather,” after a children’s poem by Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885). Nothing I’ve ever read captures the wonder of October any better.
“O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October's bright blue weather;
When loud the bumblebee makes haste,
Belated, thriftless vagrant,
And goldenrod is dying fast,
And lanes with grapes are fragrant;
When gentians roll their fringes tight
To save them for the morning,
And chestnuts fall from satin burrs
Without a sound of warning;
When on the ground red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine twining;
When all the lovely wayside things
Their white-winged seeds are sowing,
And in the fields still green and fair,
Late aftermaths are growing;
When springs run low, and on the brooks,
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting;
When comrades seek sweet country haunts,
By twos and twos together,
And count like misers, hour by hour,
October's bright blue weather.
O suns and skies and flowers of June,
Count all your boasts together,
Love loveth best of all the year
October's bright blue weather.”
And so it was, with bits and scraps of this beloved verse in my mind, that I went not just on any walk, but on a walk to harvest the last of whatever “late aftermaths” I might find still green and fair, and perhaps, just perhaps, still blooming.
This sense of purpose provided a delectable richness to my outing. The dark chocolate sandwiched between layers of butter crème frosting in the center of an angel food cake.
I embarked on a hunt for hidden treasure. Not for chocolate, or jewels, or Spanish doubloons, but for the herbs from which to make tea.
Just a few paces from the porch, I spotted a clump of red clover nearly buried beneath the rigid stalks of dried Queen Anne’s lace, their brown flower heads like aged fireworks, frozen in time. Not mere seasons, but entire eras seemed to collide in this tiny tableau. The sepia tones of the physically dominant Queen Anne’s lace evoked a distant time, much more serious than that of the newer, defiantly Technicolor clover. Even as I plucked the fuschia blossoms and tucked them into a small bag, I wondered how the thoroughly modern greens and pinks managed quite so effectively to hide in plain sight.
About a quarter of the way down the Spring Road, just above my favorite twin black locust trees, I stopped walking and stared at a field of withered horse nettle gone to yellow, cherry-tomato-like fruit. Milkweed stalks hung with seed-split pods towered in an imperfect, artful patch, as if placed by a set designer. The pink-red tones of clover, the brilliant white of yarrow, and the royal purple of heal-all should stick out like so many broken spokes in such a uniformly yellow, tan, and brown color wheel.
Or so I thought. As I looked. Looked harder and harder for what I wanted to see and did not find.
What’s wrong with you, Dawn? Look!
I squinted Eastwood-like, daring a blossom, any blossom, to show itself—c’mon, c’mon—and make my day.
Cosmo barked. I turned just in time to watch a resident red-tailed hawk sail downward in a great pell-mell swoop, apparently from his perch in one of the locust trees just a few feet from me. I watched the raptor rise like a fighter pilot, then plunge again, then sail smoothly, as if riding a warm current. Away to me, I thought, remembering the sheep-herding instruction from “Babe.” Away to me.
Within seconds, the hawk disappeared entirely, merged with the rusty-brown trees of Virginia. My vision blurred. Leaves and wings. Grass and seeds. Intimate air and infinite sky.
He’ll be back.
I closed my eyes and breathed the day’s bright blueness. Then turned again to the nettle-covered field, the milkweed, and there—right there, mid-way between us—a yarrow plant. Blossoms white as a doe’s lifted tail. Hiding in plain sight.
How had I missed it?
I walked through the shushing, crunchy grass, unsheathed my shears and clipped off four snow-white flower heads. The tang of new-mown hay hit my nose with a nostalgic wallop as I dropped the blooms in the basket on my belt. I smiled, considering the rightness of the term aftermath. This pungent consequence of Summer’s abundance would end its life as Winter tea.
And if this plant existed, surely, most certainly, there must be more. Tiny bubbles of anticipatory excitement rose through me. I continued to walk. Eyes focused on the ground in front of me, my gaze swept the earth like a tracking beam programmed to seek one thing and one thing only.
I don’t know how long I walked this way: jaw thrust forward, nose angled down, eyes wide open yet narrowly focused, before fatigue overcame me. I felt a creeping ache at the base of my skull. All this intentional looking fueled by immodest, even aggressive desire to find was, well, it just wasn’t working.
All my looking had, in a very real sense, caused me to go blind.
I let my chin drop toward my chest. Felt the tension of trying so hard pull from my hips through the muscles along my spine to my shoulders and neck and out the top of my skull.
It was then that I remembered the wonder of a Highlights magazine hidden pictures game. The joy came not in finding what I knew to be present, but in seeing what my eyes might find.
Seeing required I relax my eyes.
I lifted my chin and let my gaze drift across the field. Fuzzy spires and spiky burrs and blonde silken thistle tassles. Yellow-brown grasses and green-auburn vines and the lichen-dipped trunks of locusts and maples.
Silver air and indigo sky.
And here, just here, a clump of clover and there, see it!
A patch of white.