Here in north-central Indiana, there's nothing so final as the first fall freeze. It means the end of red tomatoes and green peppers and yellow corn. It means the end of simmering pots of catsup and open crocks of pickles dining on the kitchen counter. It means the end of summer.
And the start of some of the most frenzied activity of the year. Activity more hectic than the canning season, more bustling than spring housecleaning. We call it "Getting Ready for Winter".
It all begins the morning after the first freeze. While the pepper plants are still upright. Before the tomatoes wilt and die. Before the sweet potato vines blacken.
We get up . . . yawn and stretch . . . look at the thermometer outside the kitchen window . . . and are instantly awake! There's no time for coffee or leisurely barn chores. We pull on our heavy coats and fleece-lined boots and head straight for the garden.
There are sweet potatoes to be dug and spread on the warm furnace room floor. Hampers to be filled with the largest green tomatoes before the vines die. (We carry the fruit into the cellar, wrap each of the tomatoes in a square of newspaper, and set them in a dark corner to ripen.)
We till the garden (while being careful to leave the bushy clump of brussels sprouts and the delicate "ferns" that mark the row of carrots); Cover the turnips with bales of hay and rake leaves up around the last of the celery. Pull the bean plants, pluck their dried pods, and take the plump hulls inside to shell out later during long evenings around the fireplace. Pick an armful of red and orange and yellow zinnias and arrange them into one last bouquet. We chop the cornstalks. We put the garden to bed.
And then we hurry on to prepare the rest of our little farm for winter. Someone must take the chain saw to the woods . . . slice last spring's fallen trees into neat, uniform logs . . . and stack the fuel in orderly heaps by the back door. And someone must put the storm windows on the house . . . caulk around the doors . . . mulch the roses. Get a move on! Below-zero dawns and boot-deep snow are on the way!
We load the pickup with gunnysacks of ear corn, haul them to the barn, run them through the shelter, and fill bins to overflowing with the golden-yellow kernels. We bring bags of oats and blocks of salt home from the grain elevator in town. We check last summer's hay and fasten down the wooden sidewalls by the goat stalls.
"Put new plastic on the chicken house windows next."
"Right. I'm going to clean the house too . . . and scrub down the roosts and change the bedding in the nest boxes."
"Good idea. Spread the old litter on the asparagus bed . . . and put a blanket of clean straw on the strawberry plants while you're at it."
And as we button up the farm and stock the larder and stack the fuel, we also store up memories for the long nights ahead.
Memories of waist-high calves frolicking together in the pasture . . . and moving farther each day from the watchful eyes of their mothers. Memories of the spicy-sweet smell of fall apples as we climb into the trees, pack the fruit into boxes, and store them away in the cellar. Memories of the rustling crunchy sound of red and gold leaves under the big maples and the chattering of two blue jays in the fence raw. Memories of a giant combine across the way as it waddles down aisles of corn, gobbles the stalks in great noisy gulps, and spews shelled grain into waiting wagons.
Yes, this is a busy time. A time of walnuts to be gathered and sunflowers to be hulled. But it's also a time to just stop and look. To just stop and enjoy.
For there are cold days ahead. Days when the skies will be gray and the outlook bleak. And sometimes, during those days, we'll need to look back and find that while we were stocking our larder with the fruits of autumn . . . we were restocking our sense of sight and sound and smell too.