The blue skies indicative of the cool, clean Canadian high pressure system that has dominated our weather for five days is rapidly being swallowed up by thick, steel gray clouds that move from west to east like a predator catching its’ prey. The dry air becomes thick with moisture and it is immediately clear that we are in for a long, steady rain. I watch the changing sky blowing in from the west like I have done a thousand times before and I am still surprised by how angry the horizon looks on this late October afternoon.
What was a gentle breeze an hour ago has turned to a steady wind. Dead leaves blow through the air, their tenacious grip loosened by the powerful forces of moving air and pressure change. The leaves are repositioned on the landscape precariously and without reason or plan. They may have found their permanent position for the winter as the rains followed by cold weather may create a lasagna of ice and leaves that will prove to be a formidable structure even in the strong winds of the late autumn.
The local terrain is subject to so many subtle, yet powerful changes. These seemingly insignificant alterations are part of the fabric that makes up our natural environments. The distribution of nutrients for the next growing season is, in part, a result of random events. Rain, snow, wind, and water runoff all may impact the immediate growth of next year’s herbaceous plant community. Where a wind blown seed lands on the landscape may determine where it germinates and grows. A plant’s future survival could be impacted by the timing and amount of precipitation. One could say that the natural world is the result of a series of random accidents and its beauty is as haphazard as an autumn storm.
As the impending storm moves in my eyes scan the fields and forest edge in front of me. The wind moves the remaining goldenrod and asters. Shrubs quiver with each gust of wind. Despite the lack of sunlight on this cloudy day colors are vibrant and distinct. Red oaks still hold their rust colored leaves as does the chestnut and gold colored American beech foliage.
While gazing at the sites in front of me I experience a bit of a déjà vu. I am reminded of a time long ago, perhaps as long as fifty years, when I was in an old field waiting for my friend Jeff. We had planned on meeting in a field to inspect an old barn, surrounded by goldenrod, asters, and staghorn sumac. We hoped to find some useable old boards on the decrepit structure that would be good building materials for a fort we were erecting. Jeff was the project engineer being an expert fort builder. I was there to help pry and lift and carry old building materials that had long ago seen better days.
Jeff was a little late. It was an after school event and Jeff often took a little more time getting ready after a long day of classes at the elementary school. He wasn’t particularly slower than me. He had more to attend to. Jeff was a juvenile diabetic and had to take care of his diabetic needs on a regular basis. Perhaps he had to eat an apple. Perhaps he needed an extra shot of insulin. It didn’t matter, it was more important than anything we had planned.
As I stood there I thought about how nice it felt on this blustery October day. The dark skies and strong wind made me feel very much alive. It was more than refreshing. It was downright invigorating. I was glad to be away from home. I always felt more secure in the outdoors where my thoughts could lead me anywhere. I felt free. I felt safe.
While I waited I inspected the old barn. What was left of the structure sat on a cement pad. The deteriorated roof was mostly fallen in; the rafters were strewn about, some at precarious angles still hanging on to a carrying beam. Sheets of old tar paper flapped in the wind. The building groaned slightly under the weight of the heavy wind. I wasn’t going inside the building alone. It gave me the creeps.
I could see Jeff to the south coming around a corner where saplings covered the landscape. He wore a red and black plaid wool jacket and hat ; a good outfit for the inclement weather. He always looked like a lumber jack to me in this outfit. On one occasion I told him so and he seemed amazing pleased. Jeff was carrying a hammer, saw, and pry bar. I had not thought of bringing any tools. Like I said, he was the engineer on this job.
Jeff came up along side of me. He looked at the building and without saying a word climbed through an opening where a window had once been. I reluctantly followed his lead. The building smelled damp and musky. It looked terribly dangerous. Parts of the roof were on the floor, poorly supported walls moved with each gust of wind, numerous boards with exposed nails threatened to pierce our boots. The lighting was poor and so a proper evaluation was difficult.
Jeff used the claw end of his hammer to assess whether or not the boards he was inspecting were rotten. He pointed at part of a wall, instructed me to remove the boards with a pry bar, and he moved on to test another section. In about an hour we had twenty decent boards or so. They were good enough for a fort, but not much else. Jeff began inspecting some old sections of sheet metal that was once part of the roofing material. He realized that this was also a very useful material and made a mental note to come back for this at another time.
Together we slid the old boards out a window opening and piled them up outside. It was getting dark and we would not be moving the recovered boards on this day. Jeff decided to make one more journey back into the old barn to look for more salvageable material. I elected to stay outside. Not more than a few moments had passed and I heard a sharp crack. Jeff yelled. I called to him but only heard him swearing as only an eight year old boy can swear. I went in side. Jeff was on his side. One of his legs had broken through a rotten piece of flooring to an unknown opening below. He wasn’t seriously hurt but needed assistance to get himself out of the awkward position. I lifted him by his arm pits. Jeff grimaced a little as his leg was pulled through the rough opening gathering a few splinters as it scraped the rough boards on the way back through.
As we stood there we looked at his leg. His khaki pants were torn. His knee was scraped and bruised. His leg had some pretty good slivers below the knee. It could have been a hell of a lot worse.
Jeff looked at me and said something I will never forget.
“You are a good friend”, he said.
This was a very simple statement. It may have even been an appropriate statement for the moment but I was taken aback. I think it was the first time he had ever expressed this in so many words. “You are a good friend”. It was a remark that was innocent, eloquent, and subtle. It was the kind of statement that stays with you a lifetime.
We crawled back out of the old barn through the open window frame. Outside it was nearly dark, the wind blew, and the air was fresh and clean. I thought about what Jeff had said but did not say a word. Jeff didn’t really need help to get back to his house but I helped him limp home anyway lending a shoulder now and then when he needed it. After all, I was a good friend.
Now it is fifty years later. I stand here alone looking at the late October field. Jeff is doing God knows what at this moment a hundred miles to the north of where I now stand. The wind blows. Falling leaves, still holding some of their glorious color, land on the ground in front of me quietly changing the landscape. If I listen closely I can still hear Jeff’s words that forever solidified a friendship. These words, carried by the autumn wind, will remain with me for eternity.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in October of 2009.