I’ve been thinking about a children’s book I bought and read aloud to my kids a long time ago. Called “The Stranger,” it is written and illustrated by the award-winning author-illustrator Chris Van Allsburg. You’ve probably heard of him, if not from books then from the movies inspired by them: “Jumanji” and “The Polar Express.” His artwork is glorious, his writing very fine, but it is his creativity – the kernel of each story he tells – that is most remarkable.
If you have read “The Stranger,” you already know why I’ve been thinking about it so much. If not, here’s why. A farmer, driving slowly in his truck down a country lane, runs into something. To his horror, it’s a man, someone he doesn’t recognize. To his relief, and ours, the man seems all right. He jumps to his feet, as if he has an important task to complete.
He does, in fact, but it’s not until mid-story that we begin to guess what that task might be. The stranger has evidently lost not only his ability to speak, but also his memory. He may look like a hermit from the woods, but he is a truly Very Important Person.
(Were this a reality show, the stranger would sue for attempted vehicular manslaughter, not to mention pain and suffering and identity theft. Thankfully, this is fiction – a much gentler, simple place, at least in children’s books.)
So the story continues, and the stranger’s truth slowly dawns. It is late summer, and although Farmer Bailey is readying his farm for the fallow season, the weather is unchanging. Crops remain robust, and the supple leaves on the trees are deeply green. The book opens by telling us this is the farmer’s favorite time of year, when summer turns to fall, but nothing is turning. Summer seems stuck, as if autumn will never arrive.
Now, some people might find this a wonderful thing, especially those of us living in Iowa. The pools could remain open, the tables outside of restaurants would never have to come inside, and our wool sweaters and heavy sweatpants – not to mention the snow blower – could remain in storage. After all, Henry James pronounced “summer afternoon” as “the two most beautiful afternoons in the English language.”
But would they be so lovely if that was all we had? I realize, of course, that there are many places around the globe where the weather is one long summer afternoon, every month of the year. I love visiting those places – please fly me to Maui right now! – but I wouldn’t want to live there. I love the crispness and dramatic beauty of autumn, even though it’s tinged by melancholy, as plants die and hands get cold even indoors. I also love the way the world wakes up in spring. Daffodils and peonies herald the arrival of warmth by sending green and red shoots up through the newly thawed soil, as if to say, “We’re coming! Don’t despair!”
And, okay, I even (grudgingly) appreciate winter, because without it, there would be no spring. I love watching a good snowfall, even from the windows at work, and wrapping up for the first time in my coat and gloves and boots. I even relish the first few rounds of shoveling our steep front yard steps.
But in this book, summer is strangely stubborn. Gradually, the stranger seems to wake up. He sees geese flying south, staring in fascination. Picking a leaf from a tree, he blows on it forcefully, and it turns from green to gold. Although he never utters a word, it’s as if he is thinking, “Oh! That’s what I do! I must be going; there’s so much to catch up on!”
Finally, the farmer’s favorite time of year proceeds as it ought to. His trees turn colors overnight. I love fall, when we all go back to school, whether in reality or memory. Soup sounds good for dinner, followed by a freshly baked pie. All those things that held no appeal during the heat and humidity of summer are now just the right thing.
As I write this, we are having an uncommonly cold February day and night. But it’s uncommon only because this year, winter has not shown up the way it normally does. We’ve had just one snowfall of any consequence. The people at work managed to get excited about the forecast one day not long ago, but that storm only grazed northwest Iowa, bypassing us altogether. Between you and me, I think they were disappointed. I find it endearing, the way people gossip about the weather – “I heard it’s going to be six inches! Maybe even eight!” – and rush to the grocery stores to overbuy, just in case a real snow day is called.
When I lived on the eastern plains of Colorado, twenty-five miles from the nearest town, a prediction of heavy snow really was something to prepare for. “Milk and toilet paper!” became a family joke, any time a forecast looked dire. I remember losing power one time, but feeling snug with our wood stove providing not only warmth but a hot cooking surface. Little house on the prairie, that was us, cooking tacos in the living room on a 20-below evening.
But now I’m worried about drought, and perennials shooting up too soon. Last year, May was so chilled, my normally glorious crab apple tree had a nervous breakdown and refused to produce even one pink bud. This year, my neighbors’ daffodils are already six inches high. This isn’t right, folks. Call it global warming, call it climate change; something is awry. Only with our help can the stranger wake up, do his job, and move on.