At the height of summer, my neighborhood park reminds me of a desert scene by Salvador Dali. In his most famous painting, a clock droops over a tree branch in the bright sun, as limp as an omelette hanging from a fork.
There’s nothing quite that dramatic at my local park on an August afternoon, but the weather stresses the landscape so much that it seems bent out of shape. The vacant seats of the swingset appear ready to melt into the ground. The tennis court looks like a bed of cinders. The sand pit near the jungle gym is as inviting as an ashtray. It’s too hot for most people to stick around.
Cold winter days keep the park mostly empty, too. January walks there are eerily quiet, like visiting the moon.
But in autumn, that glorious time between the poker-red part of the calendar and the deep freeze of December, the park blooms with people. Earlier this month, on the first deeply cool weekend of the season, families showed up to bask in weather that could simply be enjoyed, not endured. Even my teenage son, who often wastes his weekends on video games, felt compelled to visit the park with a friend, kicking a soccer ball for a couple of hours without breaking a sweat.
The mood across the park seemed quietly jubilant, as if we’d all gathered in a village square to celebrate an armistice. What we were celebrating, I guess, was victory over another Southern summer. Walking home, I noticed a father on his front porch carving a jack-o’-lantern for his toddler daughter, who was hardly taller than the pumpkin. He chipped out a lid with his paring knife and stuck his hand into the gourd’s fleshy skull, scooping out the seeds with his fingers. I could see him wince slightly, as I have done, when he felt the pulpy insides of the pumpkin for the first time. It’s the first fright of Halloween, I think, this odd sensation of foraging in a bowl of brains.
I’ll wait until later this month to carve a pumpkin of my own. When I cut them too early, they draw gnats to the porch — and even the occasional raccoon looking for a meal.
We’ll probably get a few possums this fall, thanks to the plenitude of persimmons in the front yard. Our persimmon tree is ugly but useful, and there’s something almost plaintive in the way that its biggest branch, heavy with fruit, has leaned low enough that I can harvest most of the persimmons without a ladder. Birds or possums will eat the rest.
I bake the persimmons into a dessert bread, the batter seasoned with cloves and cinnamon that scent the house as the loaves brown in the oven.
“It feels like Christmas,” my son told me when the smell of spices filled our rooms.
Yuletide is still weeks away. For now, it’s enough to enjoy autumn, a season worth savoring even if your football team isn’t doing so well.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.