Finally, the tamaracks in the lower yard have turned yellow. I unconsciously scan their branches for the dark blob of a spruce grouse and then remember there aren’t any around here. In a week, those coppery needles will be all gone and the trees, clearly conifers, will look dead. They’ll be unwelcome reminders of my disastrous very first Boy Scout camping trip, on Thanksgiving weekend in 1947.
Everybody else — the war had just ended — had Army surplus double down-filled sleeping bags; I had an old horse blanket of my grandfather’s, in which I shivered and sobbed miserably all through the long night. In the morning, seeing me shaking, my Scoutmaster sent me for firewood. We were camped in a tree farm by the sufferance of its owner, so I was told to bring back only dead wood. I dragged back what I figured was a dead tree. But it was a live tamarack that had dropped its needles. That was a lesson I’ve never forgotten, and in the intervening 72 years, tamarack has become my favorite tree. It grows from here all the way to treeline in the Arctic, where it waves sensuously in the wind like a Martha Graham dancer.
When my wife and I moved to Vermont some years ago, I discovered our property was pretty wet, a perfect spot to plant North American tamaracks (the Asian variety prefers well-drained, sandy soil). I found a nurseryman in northern Vermont who brought about a dozen — by the look of them, I think he dug them up in somebody’s swamp — and located them where I’d see them every day: in an arc around our old dog’s grave, along the driveway, and down by the road, so I’d know each day that I was truly home.
This has been a good week for Larix laricina — cold, wet and dark — and a lousy one for people trying to gather their gumption for the winter ahead. Kiki and I sat watching the rain run from the eaves all afternoon Sunday, venturing out today in intermittent drizzle to find Sunday’s rain underfoot. Very still in the woods, not a zephyr stirred the remaining leaves. Kiki bounded fiercely through the sloppy litter in search of prey; I sloshed onward, rehearsing in my head Frost’s “My November Guest.” “My Sorrow, when she’s here with me ... Not yesterday I learned to know the love of bare November days before the coming of the snow.” Faster walkers, passing me, wondered no doubt what in the world I was going on about.
The coming of November is especially poignant this year. This last day of October, Halloween, would have been our 60th wedding anniversary. My kids seem surprised that I was pretty sure we’d make it; they saw an earlier end coming. I didn’t. But there it is. On Thursday, rain or shine, Kiki will bound as usual after elusive squirrels up trees and chipmunks scolding from under stone walls. I suspect I’ll hike with a head full of memories and eyes occasionally blurred. She gave it all she had. She always did.
The geese have been streaming past for a few weeks now. If there’s a warbler left, I haven’t seen him. The last of the sapsuckers are slipping quietly away. Friends with winter homes are just as quietly packing their cars and disappearing. But I’m getting regular emails from much farther north. Helen (Ayalik) Whittaker in Kugluktuk has been sending photos of her family berrying on the tundra in winter jackets as the first snow threatens to cover them all. Two days ago, she sent me a photo taken from her window, of the Coppermine River mouth frozen and gray as sheet steel in the dim sunlight at noon. Her husband, Larry, who’s collected and sheltered my friends and me at the end of several river trips, has the skis on his plane already, waiting for the long, dark, inevitable winter of the far North.
Here, I’ve got the snow tires on the Prius and on moderate days am painting clapboards for the unfinished back of the barn. I’m holding off on the heat — even the stove — till at least Nov. 1, and plod around the house swathed in fleece and shod in my old down-filled mountaineering booties. I’ve put a fourth layer of covers on the bed, where my little portable heater and I pass the cold nights like bugs in a rug. I do notice she’s lost some of her eagerness to fly yapping out the back door at 6 each morning but instead, stays, to paraphrase the poet Alan Seeger, “... deep pillowed in flannel and scented down,” till she hears the click of my knife out in the kitchen slicing cheese for my omelet.
And today, amid all the gloom of the season, I struck a vein of pure gold. Out of salad for lunch, I opened the soup cabinet, and my eyes fell upon a can of split pea with ham — just what sustained the Canadian loggers throughout winters in the woods. But the makers of the soup are notoriously stingy with the ham; so what to add to give it some body? At that moment, 6 inches to the left of the soup, I spied an old, old friend — Spam! We grew up together; it’s only two years younger than I. It’s sustained armies the world over and is considered by many a delicacy. Not so among most of my pals, who disdain it as “mystery meat.” But on this dark day in a dark week, it — to resort again to Mr. Frost — has given my heart a change of mood, and saved some part of a day I had rued. Tomorrow morning, it’ll be in a Spamish omelet!
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to the Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.