Autumn, It’s No Garden Party

The harvest moon sometimes ushers in such a frost, always one of nature’s heartbreakers, since typically it is followed by a few weeks of fine growing weather. When the tomatoes have succumbed to a September frost, and hang like black crepe from their cages, those weeks can seem cruel—the tease and rebuke of missed opportunities. So on those evenings when a full moon dominates a cloudless sky, and the air has a faint metallic tang to it, implying it will give up its heat without a struggle, we make a last-ditch stand on behalf of the annuals. To hold close some remnant of the earth’s warmth, we dress the tomatoes and squashes and cucumbers in old bed sheets and tarps. On silvery nights like these the vegetable garden looks like a congregation of ghosts, and the earth feels as if it has lost its blanket; nothing stands between it and outer space. Bed sheets, a tender annual’s spacesuit.

With luck, the garden slips past these few chilly nights into a string of safe, warm days. In the season’s slanting light, the whole garden looks overripe, laden and slightly awry. The sunflowers have blossomed massively, and now nod, drowsier by the day, their heads too heavy to hold up to the sun. Jays perch on their rims, hanging upside down in order to peck off the fat seeds. The presiding color of the season is a sharp orangey yellow—the acid shade of squash flesh, sunflower and black-eyed susan petals, sugar maples’ turned leaves. Of Mongol pencils and school buses, too, for isn’t this the official hue of all things back to school?

No time now for summer’s idle puttering, there’s real work to be done in the garden. Harvesting is the least of it, if still the best. Now’s also the time to dig new beds, plant trees and shrubs, spread compost, rake leaves, plant cover crops. Summer’s work, fingers and secateurs can handle; autumn’s wants spades and forks, the commitment of arms and backs. And the weather obliges, with cool, brittle days on which it is a pleasure to sweat. I do what I can, but I have to admit that as autumn advances and the sun’s arc slips farther and farther south, my heart is not always in it. At least not in the big, new, forward-looking projects that the garden columnists in the newspapers, and the sales at the nurseries, exhort us now to undertake. As the earth prepares to close up shop, I’m just not in the mood to argue with nature’s agenda.

Sir James G. Frazer, in “The Golden Bough,” tells of a North American tribe, the Esquimaux, that holds a contest each fall between the forces of summer and winter to see which will prevail. The tribe divides itself into two parties, the ptarmigans and the ducks; the ptarmigans are those members of the tribe born in winter, the ducks those born in summer. Each team grabs hold of one end of a sealskin rope and a colossal tug of war ensues; if the ptarmigans win, winter will come. You can’t help thinking a victory by the ducks would ring a little hollow, that their whoops might lack a certain conviction. Avid fall gardeners remind me of the Esquimaux’s duck party. For a while, through September, say, I can see pulling against the forces of winter, dressing my tomatoes in spacesuits to buy them a little time. But at a certain point every fall I feel like letting go of my end, throwing in with the ptarmigans.

Unless you are a duck or a tropical annual unversed in northern ways, nature’s agenda in the fall garden is hard to miss: Prepare for winter. As the supply of available light dwindles, the work of photosynthesis winds down and the plants concentrate their remaining energies on ripening fruit and seeds. To the gardener, the green world suddenly seems much more manageable. The grass is slow to replenish its ranks after a mowing, pulled weeds no longer reappear overnight, and the gardener at last can get out ahead of the green parade and not have his works trampled. In the garden and the woods the color green loses its overwhelming majority for the first time since May.

Autumn color in the woods signals the abdication of chlorophyll; in the garden, among the annuals, it means something else. With their ripe, tinted fruits the plants aim to flag down passing animals, offering them food in exchange for giving their seeds a lift out of here. By late September the plants are concentrating all their energies on this process—on writing down their secrets on tiny seed tablets and then encouraging someone, anyone, to take them out into the world. Recipes, instruction manuals, last testaments: by making seeds the plant condenses itself, or at least everything it knows, into a form compact and durable enough to survive winter, a tightly sealed bottle of genetic memory dropped onto the ocean of the future.

As for passing animals, there’s no shortage of these. The scents and hues of ripeness in the garden set off a scramble for its fruits—preparation for winter being the animals’ agenda as well. The woodchucks and raccoons, deer, squirrels and moles rouse from their summer lethargy and pitch themselves into one last great battle for the season’s spoils. The last year I planted corn, I hadn’t harvested more than a half dozen ears before a gang of raccoons climbed the fence one night and threw a raucous party on my tab. They toppled every single cornstalk, ruining the crop yet not even eating all of it—half-chewed ears littered the garden like empties. They stomped through the beds, ripped the tops off the leeks and beets strictly for spite and then, as if to add insult to injury, deposited a prodigious quantity of raccoon droppings smack in the middle of my beds. Compared with the cat burglaries of deer and woodchucks, this looked like the work of the Manson family.

But the raccoon’s debauch is only an extreme and wasteful instance of a widespread practice at this season of harvest high and low. For at the same time I’m kept busy fending off the mammals, there are also fungi and bacteria to contend with. Ripeness beckons them too and, under the broad rubric of rot, they probably claim more of the harvest than the mammals and I combined. As epidemiologists know, at this point in evolution the microorganisms offer our species its only significant competition; compared with the bacteria, fungi and viruses, the raccoons and woodchucks, the lions and tigers and bears are a joke. It’s the ones you need a microscope to see that can really mock our claims to having mastered nature, or “conquered” disease. In the garden the microorganisms wrest ripe fruits from us by rendering them unpalatable or poisonous, thereby insuring that we’ll leave them to rot on the ground. The soft, pussy beachhead that bacteria stake out on a tomato; the neat, slowly-expanding target fungus draws on squash; and the black spots a virus stamps on apples—all these are flags of victory hoisted by microbes and uncontested by us. Even the mammals hold their noses, particularly at the scent of fermentation, possibly because evolution has dealt harshly with animals who liked to get tipsy on alcoholic fruit.

Considered from this aspect, the autumn garden holds many horrors, especially in a wet year like this one. Reach your fingers around the base of an overripe cabbage and you might close them on a mass of slippery brown ooze that, unseen, has been eating into the head from below. They Came from Beneath the Earth, it seems (though the airborne spores of fungi are winging in from all directions); the earth fairly bubbles with rot this time of year, a putrefactory, reminding the gardener that whatever it gives it can also take back.

Harvest’s work is to hold off, at least temporarily, earth’s corruptions, the spoilage of our spoils. So we pick all the fruit we can before the animals get to it, and then deploy a variety of ingenious techniques to thwart the microbes. Cooking, canning, freezing, acidifying, smoking, salting, sugaring—the culture’s time-tested prophylactics against nature’s rot. But in making wine or hard cider or certain kinds of cheese, we don’t so much battle nature’s microbes as pick and choose among them and then let them work to our benefit. Sometimes we can harness the processes of decay, garden rot itself.

Nature gone gothic—but of course that’s only part of the season’s story; harvest isn’t all scramble and rot, spoils and spoilage. There is the fact of abundance, too, the season’s freely given, unencumbered gifts—”teeming autumn, big with rich increase” (Shakespeare, in Sonnet 97). On one of those cold and extra-vivid October afternoons, autumn’s rich increase never fails to astound. So much sheer, indubitable mass, none of which existed just a few months ago except in the prospect of a handful of seeds. We heap bushel baskets with summer squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, stuff bags with lettuce and chard, cut whole heads of sunflowers big as a calf’s, and lug it all indoors, where it commandeers the kitchen. But beyond the impressive bulk, there’s the unexpected weight of it all—almost as if I’m shouldering not baskets of produce but fall’s very gravity itself, the same ripe force that bows the sunflower heads and bends low the boughs of the apple trees. Apples especially seem vested with the season’s extravagant gravity. Pliny said that apples were the heaviest of all things, according to Thoreau, and that oxen start to sweat at the mere sight of a cartload of them.

They might very well sweat, too, at the sight of one of the winter squash I discovered in my garden last October. I didn’t fully appreciate the magnitude of it until then, after its mass of foliage had shriveled. Without a doubt the biggest thing I’ve ever grown, this squash tipped the scales at close to 30 pounds. Its seed I had obtained last winter from a firm in Idaho that specializes in heirloom vegetables—old varieties no longer grown commercially. Called Sibley, my squash is said to be an American Indian cultivar that was passed on to the early settlers. The reason it did not survive in commerce, I’d guess now that I’ve laid eyes on one, probably has to do with its looks, which are definitely on the homely side. A Sibley is a big warty thing with the washed-out, blue-green color of dirty ice; it might be a chunk of glacier. Its form, however, is pleasing, sort of: pinched at both ends and bulging at the waist, it looks like a gondola, or a Viking ship, listing under a fat cargo. Or like a crescent moon with the belly of a Buddha.

Where did this thing, this great quantity of squash flesh, come from? The earth, we say, but not really; there’s no less earth here now than there was in May when I planted it; none’s been used up in its making. By all rights creating something this fat should require so great an expense of matter that you’d expect to find Sibley squashes perched on the lips of fresh craters. That they’re not, it seems to me, should be counted something of a miracle.

The first person to verify that indeed this is a miracle was a 17th-century scientist by the name of Van Helmont. He planted a willow sapling in a container that held 200 pounds of soil and, for five years, gave it nothing but water. At the end of that time, the tree was found to weigh 169 pounds, and the soil 199 pounds, 14 ounces—from just two ounces of soil had come 169 pounds of tree. Rich increase, indeed.

Before I harvested my Sibley and stopped to consider its provenance (and read about Van Helmont’s experiment), I had always thought of gardening as a zero-sum enterprise—that it was necessary to add as much to the garden (in the form of nutrients) as the produce I harvested removed from it. I assumed that I’d have to replace whatever my giant squash took from the soil or eventually nothing would grow in it. And though it is true that a monster squash like mine does deplete the soil of certain elements, their quantity is negligible; a small handful of compost could easily cover the deficit. But that deficit is much smaller than the sum total of matter my squash represents. Were I to leave it to rot on the vine, there would actually be a surplus in the garden’s accounts; the soil would be both richer in nutrients and greater in total mass than it was before I planted it. Much of the increase is water, of course. But the remarkable fact is: My Sibley, considered from the vantage of the entire planet’s economy of matter, represents a net gain. It is, in other words, a gift.

This is not exactly news, I know; Van Helmont could have told you as much 300 years ago, Shakespeare evidently sensed it, and so did all those Renaissance painters of cornucopia. But it’s something we seem to have lost sight of in recent years, as our concerns about the depletion of the Earth’s resources have mounted. We take it as an article of faith today that the Earth is running down, that we are using up its finite supplies of energy, fertility, and resources of all kinds. We’ve come to think of the Earth as a closed system; one of the age’s presiding metaphors is “spaceship Earth.” Conceived as such, it’s easy to imagine the ship’s provisions gradually being exhausted; as more and more matter is converted into energy, we must eventually run out.

Entropy is the great faith of our time. Those who are most awed by it preach “limits to growth”—that we should consume our fixed, unreplenishable stores as slowly as possible. On a spaceship, this makes good sense. But the second law of thermodynamics, under which entropy increases as matter converts to energy, applies only to closed systems, and, as the environmentalist Barry Commoner points out, the global ecosystem is not a closed system. The Earth in fact is nothing like a spaceship, because new energy is continually pouring down on it, in the form of sunlight—free, boundless, virtually infinite sunlight. And sunlight come down to earth is used by the process of photosynthesis to create new plant matter. Plants, in other words, represent energy returned to matter—entropy undone, at least here on earth.

The lesson in this is not that we should feel free to waste our resources; it’s that our environmental problems may have more to do with our technologies and habits and economic arrangements than with the planet’s inherent limits or the burden of our numbers. All we could ever possibly need is given. In terms of the global ecosystem, there is a free lunch and its name is photosynthesis. In a sense, the ancients were entirely correct to regard the harvest’s abundance as a gift from the heavens; and I would not be too far off regarding my squash’s lunar silhouette as a reminder of its extraterrestrial origins.

Living as we do in the autumn of a millennium, and somehow feeling that we’ve come very late into this world, this strikes me as the harvest’s most salutary teaching—indeed, as reason enough to garden. Here in my garden the second law of thermodynamics is repealed. Here there is more every year, not less. Here it is ever early, never late. Here, in the ungainly form of a Sibley squash, newness comes into the world.

By late October, killing frosts no longer terrify. The deaths of the annuals are stingless now, almost a release. On the morning of the first really hard frost the vegetable garden is more black than green, and the whole edifice, from the broad tenting leaves of the squashes to the upright networks of bean and tomato vines, sags as though all the air had suddenly been let out of it. It’s not really air, of course, but water that’s been holding up the garden since spring. Except for the woody plants in them, gardens are just elaborate architectures of water; cells tensed with liquid and stacked like bricks give it its form. Frost blasts that structure cell by cell, as the glass-sharp facets of the ice crystals it forms within puncture each cell wall, releasing the water trapped inside.

Everything, you realize, depends on this precarious tumescence. Though the cells don’t actually lose their form until the temperature rises again; if it stayed below freezing, the plants could remain stiff and green forever. It’s the warming rays of the morning sun that betray the wounds within, releasing summer’s taut waters and collapsing the green bodies into black heaps.

Some mornings now the ground is iron, other days still workable. But it’s well before the earth locks for good that I feel ready to go out from the garden. For me the flower garden loses its hold in October. There’s still plenty of bloom then—the asters, heliopsis, and rudbeckias are gamely holding on—but the late flowers just can’t hold the eye once the forest has started to bloom.

As radical as frost, the trees of a New England autumn change everything in the garden, overturning laws of space and light that have been in force since spring. All summer, the matte green walls of trees that enclose my land lend it an intimacy, forming a neutral backdrop against which the flowers can put on their genteel show without competition from the larger landscape. Now, though, the green room seems to grow larger every day, as each new scrim of forest color draws the eye farther out through what was formerly opaque. The walls lose their modesty, flower spectacularly, and the perennial border all but fades away, like an unlucky bride who finds herself outshown by her bridesmaids’ more brilliant gowns. Of the fall foliage in New England, Thoreau said, “If such a phenomenon occurred but once, it would be handed down by tradition to posterity, and get into the mythology at last.”

“We have only to elevate our view a little,” he wrote, “to see the whole forest as a garden.” And so it is in October: the hickories are its lemon lilies, the sugar maples its blushing dahlias, the scarlet oak its rose. Quickest to fall, the ash leaves freckle the lawn like daffodils in April; a few weeks later, the Norway maples drop bright yellow skirts around their ankles. Now, when the sun is low in the sky, its slant rays snag in the tops of the scarlet trees, setting forest fires from west to east, a border of blazing crowns miles long. Against this, I won’t even try to defend the garden. Thoreau wrote relatively little about autumn apart from a seldom-read essay called “Autumnal Tints,” composed in the last months of his life. Go back to “Walden,” which purports to be a chronicle of an entire year, and you won’t find more than a few passages about fall; that’s because, metaphorically, at least, “Walden” is a book about springtime. About renewal, fresh prospects, and defiance, too, and autumn tends to undermine exhortations on such themes. Too much talk of autumn in “Walden” would have collapsed that book’s taut, unflagging spirit like a hard frost. Thoreau, like his mentor Emerson, usually kept his moments of resignation confined to his journals. At least until those last months when, dying of tuberculosis, he took up the subject of autumn leaves. “How beautifully they go to their graves,” he writes. “How gently they lay themselves down and turn to mold”¦ They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully and as ripe,—with such an Indian summer serenity will shed their bodies, as they do their hair and nails.”

Autumn’s no season for defiance. You can dispute nature’s agenda all you want, play tug of war till you’re blue in the face, but the duck party never wins, not really. So if I feel like giving up now, if I feel like shedding for a time the cares of this garden and following Thoreau out into that wider one, the October forest, I will. To do so is not to forsake my garden, only to acknowledge the temporariness of my hold on it, and the inevitability of its demise. In “Autumnal Tints” Thoreau is not making his usual case for the moral superiority of wilderness; he mentions that the maples on the Concord green move him as much as those in the forest. No, his real subject in that essay is fate.

A garden that never died eventually would weary; maybe gardens require walls in time as well as space. The garden winter doesn’t visit is a dull place, robbed of springtime, unacquainted with the extraordinary perfume that rises from the soil after it has had its rest. That promise, the return every spring of earth’s first freshness, would never be kept if not for the frosts and rot and ripe deaths of fall. I don’t think I want to stand in the way of this. (As if I could!) So when I go out from the garden for the last time in autumn, I leave the gate open behind me.