It’s that season when instinct sharpens our focus, when memories braided in DNA remind us that this is for real, that nature doesn’t mess around.
The mouse who stole from my kitchen was dead in the trap this morning, because this is my kitchen and not hers.
Wide-eyed owls row silently through the dark, and in sunlight hungry hawks eye my chickens. I watched from my garden as the red-tail swooped into the cluster of ginger colored chicks in the grass. The hen who fosters them flung herself full-on into the diving raptor, screeching with rage. It rose and flapped off on expansive wings, talons empty. Until dusk the hen scolded chicks out of the open lawn, kept to the hedges, tipping her head with one eye to the sky. Once roosted safely for the night with her numbered chicks intact, she kept her look of vigilance; pulled herself to full height and looked down her beak at me, reptilian-fierce for her size. Good girl, I said. Brave mama.
The bees hurry hard to replace what I’ve stolen, storing the last of summer’s gold sun into little wax pots, like grandma’s peaches in canning jars lined on pantry shelves for the long winter’s dearth. They know in their microscopic hearts that one night soon will come a killing frost, and what’s done will be done for their lifetime– the flowers burned black by cold, the next flight for nectar a winter away. As the cold closes in, the hive evicts its drones. The big-eyed males bees eat but do not work, don’t gather or guard, raise babies or make wax — so they are barred from the door in these shorter days, left outside to freeze or starve to protect the winter’s store. Nature bears no sentimentality; winter is serious business.
My hens who gave me seven eggs a day offer three, or two. They won’t go broody as the days grow short and the cold closes in. Nobody pecks my hand when I gather. They offer up eggs without protest. Their ovaries don’t know there are fifty pound bags of grain in the barn. Nature says “scarcity coming, and spring is a long way off.” In another month, the bright orange grass fed yolks will grow pale as the cold-parched lawns. In two, we’ll buy anemic eggs at the store.
My garden has slowly surrendered, vines curling back to reveal the acorn and butternut squash, the last of the paper husked ground cherries fallen on mulch. I know in my modern and civilized mind that the produce department will be there all winter, bananas from islands and decadent ruffled of kale being misted under flourescent lights. I know that my first world “white whine” problem will be rock hard winter tomatoes among the more-food-than-we-ever-could need, as we waddle the aisles with our shopping cart. Still, some part of me formed over tens of thousands of years, so I take satisfaction in well stacked woodpiles, fifty pound bags of rolled oats and rice, rows of pickled beets and tomatoes shining in canning jars. Like the bees: enough, enough for winter, enough until gardens grow again.
Summer food falls in our laps, in our lawns, blueberries tumble into our fingers and all the world is a feast. Summer is melons and babies, hammocks and gardens, fishing and naps.
Cold means the hungry hunting the hungry. In falls growing up I learned to cook for the deer camp, scald and pluck mallards, skin a hanging buck. The mouse who robs my pantry will be swept from its snowy track by the hunting owl. The fat mourning dove at my feeder is food for the kestrel, a flash of impact and a drift of grey feathers.
It’s not that fall makes me uneasy. It always reminds me of life-since-forever, tens of thousands of years that formed our likes and dislikes, skills and fears, worries and satisfactions in ways we no longer directly understand. The world plays for keeps. I’m on full alert, busy as a bee who feels impending frost. Though some of my “chicks” are twice my size, I still hover like the hen, watching with one eye for all that might threaten their safety. When hard frost comes I will greive in my garden, pulling blackened freeze-scorched plants for the compost, regretting tomatoes that never got ripe and the crops that never got planted.
Then I will reach for my comforts: the woodstove fire, the fat sweater, the pot of pea soup and fresh baked pumpernickel bread. I will talk to myself, counting my blessings, hugging my children, glad that unlike my ancestors, my “wolf at the door” is only a figure of speech. It takes all my civilized logic to convince me that even in seasons of theiving mouse and frozen garden, hungry hawk and evicted bee, no predator lies in wait on my path — no eyes glow bright in the brush — no puma, no wolf, no grizzly with cubs — nothing is hunting ME.