FRANCONIA NOTCH, N.H. — On comes the change of season in New England.
It is marching across the hills. It is occupying the forests. It is laying siege to the valleys. It is advancing from the country towns to the county seats. It is not coming in on little cat feet, though over on the seacoast it sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches.
Here, in northern New England, is the front line of the charge — the charge of the diminishing-light brigade.
It is one of the few meteorological phenomena that fills all five senses: Smell (the pie baking in the store at the pick-your-own orchard). Touch (that chill in the air that descends at off intervals, but always by 7 p.m.). Sound (the crunch of feet on leaves). Taste (the early Macs in the bushel basket with the wire handles bent by time). Sight (the brilliant tartan blanket that soon will lie across the hills).
Right now — September — is the crossover season, the delicious intersection of our geographic section: the final remnants of New England’s sweet corn in happy collision with the first press of apple cider.
“Some of us spend our lives preferring Fall to all the seasons,” wrote Donald Hall, more remembered here for living on a New Hampshire farm occupied by his family for generations than for being poet laureate of the United States. (The thing about New England is that here the regional is national.)
Each year for a long-ago decade — when our children were young, and when we as a family tramped in these hills before the dreaded resumption of school, a landmark in the calendar that challenged the wisdom of Donald Hall’s declaration — I would write a column in the Globe about our vacation passage and, inevitably, the passing of time. One year I spoke of an errant red leaf we encountered on a White Mountains hike as a “grim telegram from autumn’s front.”
Those children, who didn’t know the difference between World War I and a Formula One automobile race, regarded that reference to ceaseless trench warfare with high hilarity, one of Dad’s florid flourishes of foolishness. But from that year on, for our family — and for those daughters, now 33 and 29, with the wisdom that comes with increasing age — the first leaf of autumn’s descent now is always regarded as a “grim telegram,” nature’s notice of summer’s demise.
The telegrams are beginning to fly, descending from the peaks of the Presidential Range to the islands of Casco Bay.
The other day we were in an inn on one of those Maine islands where the cars require no license plates and the houses required no street numbers until six years ago. True to form, leaning near the mantel was a line of books, the sort of forgotten tomes that are salted away under eaves of lakeside camps or maybe at the far end of a warped bookshelf in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. It is a New England thing, like oysters (and white bread!) in Thanksgiving stuffing. I reached for one of those volumes, written only 21 years ago but, its pages wrinkled by sea salt and maybe inn mold, possessing the ageless air of the old-time books you often find Down East, full of the cold, hard truths of the farthest (and, in winter, the coldest) reaches of our region.
In those warped pages of “Pipers at the Gates of Dawn,” a classic portrait of New England that deserves to be a New England classic, Lynn Stegner foreshadows what, each year, follows our autumn reveries: “ten days of everything from air so balmy that the icicles along the eaves wept themselves down to a fringe; then sleet and a hard freeze; three days of dousing rain; snow flurries, stray memories, throughout; thaws making promises, breaking promises, clouds of hammered pewter, and beneath them, utter stillness.”
But that is for another time, not distant but, still, weeks away. Right now, in these hills that — the phrase comes from the poet Richard Hovey — “took me as a boy/And filled my spirit with the silences,” autumn is making promises, and keeping them.
David M. Shribman, former Washington bureau chief for the Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.