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Quiet Fall

The Retired

The fog comes on little cat feet.
It sits looking over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.
                                Carl Sandburg, 1916: "Fog."

Fall came in like Sandburg's fog this year, on little cat feet; we hardly noticed, but one day we got up and it was here. There were no violent equinoctial storms or unexpected early frosts; temperature and rainfall patterns in Emmitsburg stayed closer to average values than any year since I started keeping records. The whole year has been like that. The southern states had severe droughts followed by floods, the midwest had record heat waves, California had fires, and other parts of the world had earthquakes, tsunamis, and famines (to say nothing of wars and genocide); but here, we were almost boringly normal. Not a bad place to live, this.

The only thing that reminded me of the changing season was the garden. The weeds seemed to be aware that summer was passing; they grew faster, and suddenly filled up the spaces between what had been fairly tidy rows. The galinsogas1 were the worst; their succulent vines covered everything except the tallest tomatoes and peppers, and produced myriad tiny yellow flowers, filled with seeds to guarantee that next year will be the same. Russian thistles and pokeweeds were a distant second in numbers, but they grew with the same desperate speed. Even some of the vegetables got into the act; the lettuce that went to seed last spring re-planted itself, and when I pulled the weeds I found new lettuce plants growing with weed-like vigor, as if they enjoyed not being in rows. And the turnips that were planted in August actually crowded out the weeds in their vicinity.

I have reached the age at which tasks now take two or three times as long as they used to; the only trade-off is that, being retired, it doesn't matter if I don't finish on time. Most jobs can be finished tomorrow, or next spring, or even forgotten about. For example, last spring I noticed that the exhaust fan in the bathroom didn't seem to be working very well; it didn't keep the mirror from fogging, and sometimes it made odd scratchy noises even when it wasn't running.

As summer came, the noises stopped and the mirror didn't get so foggy since it was warm, so I forgot about it. Then, a couple of weeks ago, while giving the shrubbery on that side of the house its fall pruning I noticed that the vent cover of the fan had fallen off.

Since the house is now 20 years old, it was inevitable that vent covers are no longer made in the same dimensions, so I had to spend a couple of hours enlarging the original opening while standing on a ladder some 15 feet above ground level. In the process, I noticed a suspicious accumulation of sticks and leaves in the exhaust tubing. That explained both the scratchy noises and the failure of the fan to do its job: a Carolina wren had mistaken the vent opening for an abandoned woodpecker hole, and built its nest there. The tubing was too small to get my hand in, so I turned on the fan and began probing with a coat-hanger wire. That seemed to work at first, as a more or less orderly procession of debris began floating out; but suddenly there was a "FOOSH" sound, just like in the comic strips when such things happen, and the whole nest blew out in my face.

There must have been a quart of leaves, sticks, moss, spare feathers and bits of paper and yarn, all of which seemed compelled to stick to my beard and sweater; how I kept from falling, I haven't figured out yet. I got the requisite lecture from my wife about old fools and ladders, but it was worth it. It was the most exciting thing that happened to me all year.

One of my regular fall tasks is cleaning the greenhouse and bringing in potted plants that have spent the summer under trees in the back yard. These plants are relics of the Botany course I used to teach; I used them to illustrate various types of stems, leaves, roots and flowers. They were of no use after I retired, but I kept them anyhow; many were given to me by friends, whom I enjoy remembering as I water and re-pot them.

The oldest are oxalis, begonias and ferns which were from Mrs. Hallie Geesie. Her husband had worked on the college farm all his life, and they lived in a tiny house near the present location of the athletic center; they became our neighbors when we moved into college housing in 1960. They were nearly 90, and came to be like surrogate grandparents to our children; we helped tend their garden, and they provided the kids with apple pie, cookies, and stories of what life was like in simpler times.

Mrs. Geesie kept an ancient collection of potted plants on her back porch, and I kept them in the college greenhouse for her each winter; thus, I inherited them when she died. So this fall, as I trimmed and potted them, I thought of her. She and her husband were quiet, gentle people who lived unremarkable lives; such lives often go unnoticed, but they represent the character and work ethic that gave this country its ideals. They deserve to be remembered, and each fall the plants remind me.

Fall slipped in on its little cat feet, and now it sits on silent haunches and watches Emmitsburg as the leaves turn color and begin to drift down onto the lawn. As we watched it happen from our front porch last week, my wife asked what kind of bird was making the chirping sound she heard. I was pleased that she noticed, but it was not a bird; it was a tree frog. Usually we hear them in the spring, but this fall the mild temperatures and wet weather have induced a few of them to sing five months later.

I found one of them yesterday when I was bringing the last of the plants into the greenhouse; it was a tiny gray-green creature, about an inch long, recognizable by the suction cups on the tips of its toes. That day was too cold for singing; it tried to hop away at first, but then decided my hand was the warmest place available and allowed me to look at it for a while. I put it on some damp leaves behind the woodpile and wished it well. With luck it will bury itself in the soft soil there while fall moves on, and if we both survive the winter it will sing for me again next spring. Wait with me.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith