There comes, in the waning days of August, a quickening. The pulse of the season lifts. Gone the slumbering days of heat, the slow moving weeks of July and August when time pooled and the drift of days slowed. Now the stream of time flows faster; urgency builds. There is something afoot. The world of the Northwoods is poised as if a deer on the edge of the forest, alert, taunt with a tension, wound tight, a coiled spring. Such is the time when autumn waits on the edge of our season; a tension builds, the spiraled spring coils tighter.
On the hardscrabble blacktop of county road the scent of fresh-cut crop hangs in the air, sweet-sour, dusty; the harvester works the field row by row, the reaper comes to gather. I am on roller skis, the faux cross country ski of aluminum shaft and rubber tires, a meager substitute for snow that will come, the snow and the cold, but on this day summer sun holds rule and late August heat blooms. But different. Something has changed. There is something in the air.
The calendar calls out summer but the air on this day is different. There is a freshness to it, a dryness, a purity as if more fully charged with oxygen, more vital than a week prior. To breathe it deep brings clarity and energy that the sullen heat of summer air cannot deliver.
The sound of my ski poles on tarmac taps out the rhythm of the day, a clickety-clackety staccato that marks my pace in the afternoon light. There is an old maxim in the ski world that states that races are won in the summertime when the devotee logs the long hours in training and that the miles and hours in the summer will serve well come times of snow and races.
I think of that on this afternoon: Races are won in summer. In my case, so too are they lost in that time, when discipline and desire are, for me, as rare as snow in August and as fleeting as the winter wind yet to come. So it goes. There were days when I loved to ski and lived to ski. Now I love to ski but I no longer live to ski.
Time was when I would ski daily; log the long distance and the high intensity. Those days are gone to memory, gone as the summer heat of July and August and the long hours of slow-moving daylight, gone now to the quickening pace of the oncoming season. I plod along on roller skis but am lackadaisical in my effort and indifferent also to any gains. Things change.
Things change. In a matter 45 minutes on roller skis on a late summer afternoon shows that change. The calendar holds more weeks of summer but autumn looms, edging its way into our lives, shouldering out summer like the bully on the schoolyard cuts in line.
Autumn comes as if a magician unveiling the most powerful sleight of hand known, for autumn seems to change the measure of time. Autumn works a strange magic: Days pass faster, hours speed, time hastens. Magic! Magic on every day when the dawning brings coolness and freshness and the air is fuller and more enervated with life. Magic, again. For we know, all of us, that the air is the same and that the minutes to the hour do not change and the hours in the day are predictable. Intellect reminds us; magic disagrees.
Come September, comes magic in the rapid turn of days, in the intoxicating freshness of air, in the chill at dawn and the coolness that reaches with the shadows at dusk; magic on the wings of the migrating birds, in the unspeakable mystery and majesty of monarch butterfly gone to Mexico, of trout in vivid color moving over gravel against the current. See magic in the rose color of apple and plum, ripening on the tree, racing the season.
And the final act of the magic show of autumn: Green leaf turns to red or yellow or orange, turns in magic before our eyes. And then, poof, is gone and bare branch is all that remains.
I think these thoughts on the afternoon on the well-worn blacktop that rises with the folds of land that passes field and forest, houses and lakes I think of the magic to come. The roller skiing is a hollow exercise when all is said and done, a vain attempt to capture the reality of the actual experience but coming up short in the same way that an August day can only hint at the magic to come. One needs to stand on a September afternoon in sun and glory of fall color, stand to breathe in full the air that by logic is a match for the air of July but by dint of magic is vastly different.
On the morning after I roller ski I build a duck blind on a small lake. The air has a feel that was not there a week ago. Wood ducks take flight and sound their odd whistling call and then are gone. Across the lake a single tree shows a splash of red. The quickening of season change rises. The magic begins.