We call it crisp, as if the air itself were breakable, fragile as a crystal wine glass. But there’s something in the cool, something that cleaves, even when not frozen. There’s been a change, as if the seasons themselves were states of matter and the world shifted from liquid to solid.
There’s that first ride in what is still technically summer, but as you look around, summer is—if not already on the turnpike, then at least turning toward the on-ramp. There are yellows, flecks of brown, perhaps a flash of orange and a smell, not the must of a cellar, but an aromatic of fatigue, the signal that all that growth, all that incessant photosynthesis is ready for a vacation.
I’ve been trained into these shifts with specific expectations. Arm warmers at first, then adding embrocation, knee warmers on the shorter rides, long sleeves for the days that start early, thoughts of fall centuries and fondos, memories of mountain bike rides where I watched my breath as I climbed; and with the sound of leaves crunching, the staccato of footsteps between barriers at a cyclocross race.
What Pavlov never wrote is how there’s an emotion well beyond expectation, that the bell brings more than thoughts of the future, but the ring can waken a kind of desire. We not only know the fall is coming, but some of us even want the fall. We want the chance to wear another layer, to race bikes with no bottle cages.
If I hit the right roads I can pass the last of the vineyards being harvested. There’s a fragrance that washes over me, sweet and unfinished. It’s as if the wind carries the plump of the grape in the way I can hear the call of a hawk that is a mile from me.
The poet Richard Wilbur once told a story of seeing a neighbor the morning following the fall’s first frost. With the devotion of a nun, she’d tended a garden brimming with annuals and perennials, colors splashed like a psychedelic album cover. He bent to express his concern, asking if she’d lost any of her flowers.
She looked up and smiled. Oh, thank heaven, yes!