I pull up plants that have finished their cycles. Into the wheelbarrow I toss bolted lettuce, bush beans whose leaves are brown and crunchy, and exhausted zucchini.
Russian sunflowers stand over these patches of empty earth, and their enormous heads hang lower, day by day. Blue jays, like brilliant brooches, pin themselves to the pendulous heads and busy themselves with the seeds. They call to one another plaintively. Their cries are clear, and seem to echo in the autumn air, and then I realize that the swallows have disappeared. The barns seem abandoned, without their swift, commanding swoops through doors, under eaves. There's a strangely desolate calm.
The sweet pulse of crickets rises around me wherever I stand. As the nights grow colder, the chorus fades until only a few survivors sing, separately, in the dying grass. There is a different kind of peace in the garden now. It is not the serenity born of potency, and affirmation, but the quiet of fulfillment, and endings.
I have saved the last phase of these plants, their final statements. Garlic hangs in a braid; paper-skinned onions fill bushel baskets. The carrots lie side by side in damp peat moss in the root cellar, and stacks of blueberry crates hold Yukon Golds and Red Pontiacs. In the garden, only husks remain.
Leaves, on the cornstalks, are white and as brittle as snakeskins, and have dried in the fluted forms of their green growing. The earth, its fertility transferred, lies sprawled, tossed, the potato furrows littered with hay. A few pea pods swing stiffly on brittle vines, their skins as puckery as parchment. On the manure pile, the sunflowers fall sideways, and the once-relentless lamb's-quarters are pale and limp.
Even in these husks, the mystery remains. It is the miracle of the seeds, the same mystery glimpsed in the blush of new life. It is the mystery that checks the northward voyage of the sun, and turns it back again. It is the mystery that travels in black river water twisting under moonlight.
At the end of the season, my garden plan is all but forgotten, and my illusion of stewardship long gone. Instead, like another harvest, there is another year's memory of the voyage I have taken, swept like a leaf away from my own small visions and into the vast, potent current of regeneration.
Autumn is like a long, deep breath drawn after some endeavor of great intensity.
Nasturtium leaves rot, quietly, into the soft mold between the raspberry canes.
In the end is the beginning.
In the garden is the whole universe.
"Then Comes the Quiet" is adapted from Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life by Beth Powning (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang, New York, 1996, $22.50).
Article published on June 23, 2008.