The Summer Community In Autumn

Tony Fischer Photography
Tony Fischer Photography

It is bad luck for the branches of a tree to touch the roof of a house. These branches are clawing at the roof, but in those first days when you wake eagerly before seven and are tired by ten, you can sleep through it. And the moderate temperatures don’t hurt: a cold body is often tired enough to sleep through even loud, intermittent noise, the kind that might ordinarily startle you awake. The dog watches the part on the inside of the roof where the branches are bumping and dragging themselves across it, thinking it’s some animal. Then she grows frustrated by something she can hear and not see and falls asleep, out of fatigue or maybe boredom.

Those who are still here, waiting out some definitive sign to leave, like more leaves on the ground than in the trees, still retreat temporarily, if they can, to insulated houses, when the weather gets like this. For now, it’s only for a day or two. If you look north and see thick bands of gray clouds stacked for 50 miles or so, you know you’ve got at least a day of it: incessant wind, intermittent rain, and a dampness in the air, which can feel worse than real winter because it’s always there, under your clothes, in your hair. Shower and your hair feels damp for hours afterward. I washed a wool hat two days ago and it’s still wet.

And no sunsets now — the highlight of most summer days. The sun is way off to the southwest, almost out of sight, and the clouds have been obscuring it for almost the entire day. The tide shoves in and shoves out, but instead of dying down when the tide starts to ebb, the wind continues. The water is choppy and the medium-sized birds, white and gray gulls and peregrine falcons, spend more time coasting over the water right in front of us. The falcons gang up on the sandpipers, and try as best they can to intimidate the gulls into leaving the area. This doesn’t happen so much in summer, but now they’re all preparing to leave for the winter. The stakes are higher. And with less people, they can safely take over the beach during the few hours when the tide is three quarters in or three quarters out. In the summer, people and their dogs would be out there, and kids with inner tubes.

What you need during this month or two: thick wool socks, long underwear, hats, down jackets and comforters, and maybe binoculars, and something to write in, because the days will feel much longer, and the activities in front of you will all seem noteworthy, like the few minutes one morning when the sun creates a misty pyramid of light around the creepy little island at the east end of the basin, where all kinds of birds, and possibly animals too, live. In the first days, novices’ mistakes: like not having enough newspaper and kindling to get a fire going, or mistaking the gray seagulls for something more exotic.

The only music that’s appropriate now is anything in a minor key, preferably something with a banjo, a violin, or both, like “Katie Cruel” by Karen Dalton, which seems to suggest the fleeting year, the clearest indicator of which is the wind, and a violin in a minor key just sounds like wind, like warmth running away. This peace is not over yet but we’re reminded continually that it will be soon. The wind, of course, is physically moving the season off, blowing off surfaces to reveal cold stone and barren wood beneath. The grass looks more vibrant than ever, but it’s only in contrast to the gray sky.

You need some means of escape, of course, but if it’s peace or concentration you’re after, it’s best to have something slow-moving, like a bicycle, or running shoes, to deter, but still technically allow for, excursions. Then, terrifyingly at first, you are left with yourself and possibly a few other stragglers, and you’ll wonder how you’ll fill your days, and then realize that even if you’re working, reading, exercising, and eating, you’ll still have plenty of time to stare vacantly into space, or into the fire in the fireplace, which you have become obsessed with replenishing, and whose heat makes you as liable to fall asleep as a puppy. The antidote to that is to go outside, suck in the wind for a few minutes while walking briskly, and then return to find the heat from the fire still blissfully trapped inside by all the windows and doors that are usually wide open in summer.

You begin to appreciate things you took for granted when you had them, of course, like warmth and cable television. That was part of the idea. After a few days I make a trip down the road two miles on foot to sit at the bar of a restaurant and drink a milkshake. The Internet suddenly seems like a treasure trove of knowledge and pleasure. I forget all the crap I used to do on it and just stick with the essentials — music, maybe TV shows, but only good TV shows. I don’t actually want to check my email, and maybe I don’t for several days. The cold becomes, somehow, fun, and the darkness, of which there is much more now, due to the lack of people and hence light pollution, and the dwindling length of the day, becomes less menacing. You can stand out in the middle of it, stare into it, watch the lightning storm on the other side of the basin, trapped between clouds, or maybe shrouded behind a wall of rain, like plankton flashing in the sea. What sounds like the earth splitting in two to the people just under the storm sounds to us, 20 miles away, like: Poof.

Things happen in the mind here that usually require drugs or drinks to happen: small revelations come to my mind at strange hours, and I get up to write them down, something I don’t think I’ve done since I was a teenager. How can it be that a more disengaged mind is a better mind? Really it’s only disengaged with the things that have become so commonplace in our lives since I was a teenager: gadgets, mainly. Let the mind be idle and it will do a better job of the things it’s supposed to do when it’s not idle. And sometimes in the idleness meaningful things surge out of the darkness. The mind just doesn’t want to be so spliced, so overstimulated, so forced into an impatience it didn’t know it was capable of.

In this state, which is something close to meditation, things can take on a fantastical quality too. I dream more, or just remember more of my dreams. And awake, I sometimes see things that aren’t there, like fireflies, or a form in pitch darkness, when even if there was someone there, I wouldn’t be able to see them. Or maybe I would: maybe the senses refine themselves, sharpen themselves, with so few threats to worry about. And whatever that form or not-form is, I’m not worried by it. There seem to be no foes here, not even the carrion birds with the four-foot wingspan who could, if they wanted to, just pluck my dog off the beach and carry her to their nest to feast on. Like the other birds, they venture closer to us now, away from the cliff edges and closer to the lawns, our bright, wet lawns, which are still, for now, mowed once a week.

There are little problems, which will be romanticized weeks from now when I’m back in a busy city, in the eye of a storm, like how to turn the pages of a book (or “turn” the “pages” of an iPad) when my hands are frozen and I’d prefer to keep them under the duvet, which is in turn under a thick old wool blanket. And how to fall asleep, if too drunk or too awakened by the contents of a book, through the sound of the branches thrashing agains the roof, and how to not, since we are so awake, think so much about what branches touching a roof portend, if indeed they do portend anything, and whether the creatures screeching just behind the cabin are crickets or frogs. TC mark

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