I don’t want summer to end— night falls sooner and cooler, a sure harbinger of cold, dark winter nights to come, when green turns dry and brown, its life drained into the earth. I know I’ll miss the fecklessness of walking out lightly clad and unencumbered, my toes unfettered in open sandals. No matter how gorgeous and gaudy nature’s last hurrah, the falling leaves spell the end of another year, a fluttering dissolution of summer’s vigor, the inexorable mortality of all living things.
But with the first crisp autumnal day, when the sky, liberated at last from its hazy, humid prison, forms a vast, azure bowl over my head, when the refreshing cool invites the embrace of soft wool and the fireplace beckons, then I think of a world of possibility, of paths as yet untrod— books to read, people to meet, friends to enjoy, ideas to explore. The kitchen stove, eschewed in summer’s heat, now tempts with the promise of sensory delights shared with good company. The holidays will follow, with fellowship and good cheer and bountiful food that will consign the dreary landscape to a view outside my window.
Fall is above all a time of extreme contrast. September 11, 2001 was a day of striking beauty, a perfection that collapsed into a heap of death and ashes. Eight years have passed, and the seeds of life frozen in the icy grip of despair were shocked into a brief awakening one day last November and again in January. They are still stirring— Give us a chance, they murmur, and this too shall pass.
Ainslie Jones Uhl: The basil and I become survivalists about this time every year, struggling and striving to reach a common goal: making it past Labor Day.
My whole being is on August autopilot, making sure that each of my offspring is well-equipped physically, emotionally and materially for a new school year and a new level of independence. The last few days are always frenzied, no matter how much I’ve done in advance.
The list of “needs” grows exponentially: new laptops, new phones, new clothes, shoes, underwear, socks. My usual question, “Didn’t I just buy that?” is met with the exasperated answer, “Yes!” but for one of the other children. Who can remember? All I know is I’m exhausted, have no time to myself and an extraordinary amount of money has disappeared.
In the meantime, the poor basil is approaching the end of its summer run after a prolific season. I take the time to make sure it has plenty of water, pinch the infant flower heads and cut the leafy tops—a mental health break for me and a second chance for the culinary garden. We prop each other up.
The dill seldom survives past July and the parsley re-seeds itself. The rosemary and English thyme and lavender make it through the mild winters. I gave up on the tarragon. But the basil is different—an herb “of the moment”, fragrant and fragile with fleeting freshness. It’s easy to grow but not so easy to manage.
One year the basil made it until November, but that was extraordinary.
Our usual marker is Labor Day. That is when the last of our children departs for school; that is when the basil plants and I commit to producing and harvesting as many leaves as possible to compile an herbal legacy that can last until next spring’s planting.
I cut the plants back to encourage growth and pile the harvest into my Sussex trug. The musky sweet smell of basil crowds out everything else. I divide the kitchen island into three different stations: one a holding area for washed basil bouquets; a second with olive oil and a mini processor and tiny baggies for freezing fresh herbs; and the third for mass producing batches of pesto in my trusty Cuisinart.
Basil, walnuts, garlic. Olive oil, reggiano, pecorino. Salt. Pepper. Perfection.
I label and date the quart-sized freezer bags and fill each one with bright green, glorious pesto. I love this work. I love the purity of the process: nurturing a garden which soothes my soul and feeds my family.
Over the winter months, when the days are short and skies gray and tomatoes terrible, I reach for the frozen bright green basil pesto: a souvenir of summer, a labor that marks summer’s end, a reminder of next summer’s beginning.
Diane Vacca taught medieval literature, Spanish and Italian at several universities before becoming a journalist with specialties in politics, the arts and New York City. Her work can also be found at Talking Points Memo.com, Obit-mag.com, and New York City weekly Chelsea Now . She lives in midtown with her husband, Salvatore Vacca (they have two children and three grandchildren). Ainslie Jones Uhl, a freelance writer/editor and photographer, holds a B.A. in English from Sweet Briar College and a Master of International Business from the University of South Carolina. A native North Carolinian and former New Yorker, she relocated last year to San Diego, Calif., with her husband of 26 years and their four children.