There it was, without a doubt the single most beautiful day of the year, the absolute peak of Autumn, of fair weather and clear blue skies. If there were ever a moment that marked the line between what was and what was coming this was it, Nature’s clarion call, the demarcation as triumphant and immutable as full blown high noon solar eclipse on the solstice with better lighting and mind-blowing psychedelic color, this was it. Everyone says so, it is the first thing out of the mouth of everyone you stop and speak with even if they’ve lived here eighty years, right after the ‘hello, how are you’ there is the childlike excitement of ‘have you ever seen such beautiful color?’ falling from their lips like the drift of chartreuse leaves falling in synch with the soft southerly breeze, fluttering, canting, dropping with a papery rattle on the blue-green lawns around the house. There are as many explanations for the intensity as there are leaves on the trees — it was so dry this year, it was so warm so late, it was colder longer in the Spring than last year and the rain was especially heavy last month. It was a year good for apples, the boughs bent double like willows, of berries fat as your thumb and blue-back or crimson red, sweet corn as perfect as a child’s smile, three cuts of hay, swollen pumpkins more red than orange and still in the fields, Winter squashes the size of medicine balls, Summer calves over a quarter of a ton and still at their mother’s teat. Not everything went well — not a sign of deer this year so far, as if they’ve vanished from Earth, no peaches, no nectarines. The cherries were sweet but sparse, the onions smaller than I had ever seen before and sulfurous. The water levels in even the old cistern at the head of the spring was down so low you could see the bottom. Every time someone asks how the year went I find myself responding as if I have been at this forever, “Some things good, others not so much. Next year,” I say, “Next year.”
I spend the day doing a slow turn of chores; there are the layers and the turkeys to feed and water, the eggs to collect and wash. I fill the buckets with at the crimson flash a hose for the dogs, then ask them if they are hungry, and the cats come out of the barn walls like a magic trick. I fill bowls for our guardians and the felines, load up buckets of apples for the hogs, top off their water, check on the sheep — the easiest of all, their heads raised from grazing long enough to regard me as friend and then they return to it. I load up a bucket of chopped corn for the cattle as a lure to move them from one paddock to another, the grass shorn so close by their grazing that they must be mobbed together across the field each day from enclosure to enclosure, the sections unchained and dragged and reattached and closed behind them as they chew deliberately. It is impossible to move from one place to another without stopping in some kind of reverential awe to gaze at the brilliant flash of crimson and tangerine in the upper fields trying to outdo the blazing marigold and currant red along the stream. There are fat apples, hung like rubies from the apple trees glowing in the cool shade, random shudderings from the ash trees, dropping thousands of brittle gold leaves at a time to flutter softly to the ground and blanket it for Winter. The clouds — what few there are today — drift aimlessly, as if they’ve lost track of their purpose, ragged sentries posted along the lower border of the sky, falling apart like tissues before they vanish behind the scrim of mountain to the south. The sky, depending upon the color of the trees that frame it, runs from alizarin to cerulean, vibrating each time the leaves tumble across it’s implacable face. I stoop to pick up a rock and toss it to the roots of the maples, feeding the trees, and mid-chuck I stop again and my jaw falls open at the indescribable beauty of it all.
I place my tool bag in the truck and take a short drive over to the Colonel’s house to fix a cabinet door for him. We chat about the human figure in oil paintings, Nantucket baskets — he is showing my 8 year old how to make them on Wednesday afternoons — and the quality of light across the valley where he watches the progression of change on the distant hills, emerald to magenta in two weeks time. He speaks like an officer but clearly he has the soul of an artist and when I drive down his lane towards the village I see clearly down by the culvert a large cat crossing the space of open sand to the trees on the other side. From that distance it could have been a lion, but by the time I pass and look into the trees it is gone, no sign of its passing at all. Down in the village there are half a dozen people both posing for and taking pictures of each other against the dramatic backdrop of foliage reflecting on the mirrored surface of the lake. Their cars bear out of state tags and so I circle around and pull into the lot of the Meeting House and introduce myself, explain that I have a farm with views and piglets. They ask for directions and I drive off, half expecting to never see them again. Within minutes of my return home the sedans pull up the driveway and park, the dogs jubilant and barking incessantly at the guests. It turns out that there are three couples, one from Scotland, another from Texas and the third from downstate near Boston. They met accidentally where I found them taking photos and all decided to take me up on my offer. My 8 year old joins us as we begin a short tour and he answers as many questions as I do. Their accents intrigue him, I can tell and I say to the Scottish woman, “I can tell by your accent you must be from New York.” She laughs and everyone stops in their tracks when they look over the edge of the big field, down to the trout pond and the herd gathered under the shade of the apple trees beside it. In the distance the Mink Hills give off a faint glow that seems unworldly, hallucinatory and a flock of southbound sparrows fills the sky without a sound. At one point while I was answering another question, I overheard one of the visitors ask my son his favorite part of living in such a beautiful place and without a moment’s hesitation he responds, “Everything.” Before they leave us and return to Scotland and Texas and Boston they ask if they can buy some syrup and bacon and my son fills their order while I take their money. As they drive away, waving animatedly from their rental cars and giving the view one last scan, I hand my son a ten dollar bill, thanking him for his help. He looks at the money for a second and then stuffs it deep into his front pocket and runs off with the dogs.
In the evening there are the other chores to do, the slow wind down as the sky shifts red and the Sun moves lower still behind the tops of the maple orchard. The turkey calls from the back forty sound like the turkey calls from the back yard and you can hear the two flocks, one wild, one domesticated calling back and forth to one another, probably commenting on the color of the leaves or the profusion of acorns and then it falls silent. I walk back past the haybarn out into the new clearing and check the tension on the fences, stack some boards I’d cut earlier and then sit down on a boulder and just look at it all. The scrim of clouds has returned and each one is busy taking on the fading colors of sunlight- softer than the leaves, but no less stunning in their aspect, lilac and violet, bubble gum and watermelon. The Sun does it’s thing with the top edge of the trees in that last few seconds before it drops from sight, radiating brilliant shafts of silver light in a perfect arc above and then it’s gone. I sit for a moment more, the temperature dropping perceptibly. There is a shiver, a cow lows and the sound bounces around the esker and then goes silent. I can hear my daughter calling my name, drawn out and far away and it sounds like it did when my grandmother used to call me in for supper when I was younger than my son is now and like then I respond by standing up and brushing myself off and heading home in a quiet gloaming.
A cold front is expected overnight, there is rain coming too and with that the leaves will shake off in a profusion, dumping unceremoniously along the edges of the fields and on the roads to and from the farm. Today was like the end of a spectacular fireworks display, a signal and a warning all wrapped up in one. The colors will still be there for a while, the visitors will still stop and take their photos, but this was it, the peak and it was worth everything to me.