The East End Autumn’s Passage
Many years ago, I belonged to a Boy Scout troop that was selected to participate in a forest conservation program located on the East End of Long Island. We welcomed the chance to get away from the crowded city and visit the solitude of the woods. Multifamily houses and concrete parks gave way to pines, oaks and maples that surrounded us in the ebbing, vibrant gold, orange and red hues of autumn. Over the weeks of our contribution, fallen leaves formed a crisp brown carpet, which struck underfoot alerting all those in camp that you were approaching from the tree line.
As autumn pressed on and the days grew shorter, the ring of worn canvas tents became more important. Surrounding the single campfire, those tents became more than our weekend shelters. They, and the Scouts in them, became the first line of defense against a forest fire. We could not allow a single ember to evade us and spark the sea of dried leaves that waited beyond the fence of the canvas tents. Even though the fire was dug down into a pit and surrounded by fieldstones, we all took turns guarding the pit. Whoever had fire pit duty also chopped the firewood and cooked the meals, while the other Scouts ventured out to mark or cut trees that had been weakened by disease or damaged by coastal storms.
Far to the north was a dirt road that separated a great farmland of asparagus, potatoes, corn, strawberries and pumpkins from the woods. When one stood on that road with the kaleidoscope of autumn trees behind you, the flat plains of the East End rose to the browns, yellows and oranges of the remaining crops among the darkened soil below and honking geese overhead. Beyond one’s reach, a sparkling blue sound drifted into a bright sky.
It was not uncommon for the farmer, his family and field hands to be seen in the distance, tilling the soil or picking the crops. Great plumbs of dry dust would occasionally rise as a tractor moved about from fields of fading green stalks and round orange globes. When they stood to stretch their backs or load a flatbed with a bushel, they would wave if they saw you. Their bodies, barely a speck, were almost impossible to see before the horizon dropped away. We would eagerly wave back, sometimes with our ball caps in hand.
Once when I was left behind to tend to the camp site and fire, the old farmer appeared. He was a giant man. His denim overalls stained from the day’s work, his face sunburned, his large calloused hands displaying a wooden bushel of mixed vegetables. There was a teenager with him, who also appeared field weary.
The setting sun had fallen behind the trees and a cool dark air had begun to settle around us when the Scoutmaster and work party returned, a propane lantern announcing their arrival. Its bright light danced along like a large firefly through the shadowed tree line. We all crowded around the fire, our faces warm and bodies tired from the day’s labors. It didn’t take long for the hungry crowd to strike into the hot baked bread, which had been snaked around freshly stripped oak sticks and placed near the red coals to cook. What soon followed was the clang of metal plates getting filled with hot stew and cups filled with hot cocoa, both served from large smoke-blackened pots resting on stones of the fire pit.
Last month, during a recent visit to the East End for a family wedding, it took no more than a single glance at the open fields to recall the laughter from some boys I once knew being carried away on a fire’s glow and a simpler world that knew them.