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When we woke up yesterday the thermometer told us what season it was: 46 degrees, and no longer late summer. It's still a couple weeks before the autumnal equinox, but the sharp breeze carried its own message: Start bringing the firewood up to the house. It won't be long until the soapstone wood stove, cool and silent since last spring, will be fired up and providing most of the heat as we head into increasingly cooler weather.

It's a time of year I love: the change in the seasons, the dramatic colors on the maples and chestnut oaks and poplars, the hauling in of the abundant apple crop this season and the putting to bed of this old farm. There's a fence to be rebuilt, and a bit of orchard to put in when the new apple trees arrive, and the mowing -- ye gods, the mowing. Our extended family owns 71 acres on this Belcher Mountain spread, and I keep the open fields open by giving it a good bush-hogging several times in the warm season and a final cut along the Smith River feeder creek in November with the sickle bar mower, an iron beast made a long time ago by Massey Ferguson that fits, with a little bit of cussing and banging and heavy grease, on my Kubota tractor.

We've also learned over the years that when our apples ripen, the critters here about -- the bear cubs and the ground hogs and the bobcats and I don't know what-all -- will give us a few days to get ours before they crawl up into the trees and sample each apple a little bit. We've harvested the apples inside the fence; Today's the day we go after the heritage apples -- the Limbertwigs, the Northern Spies, the Firesides (still coming on an apple tree trunk that has lain on the ground ever since Hurricane Fran in 1996 -- or was it Hugo in 1989?, the Yellow Bellflowers and the seedlings that still produce fruit even when we don't know their names. We call 'em Uncles for lack of a better word -- a contraction, of sorts, for "unknown apples."

There's firewood to cut and split, too. Much of a massive maple blew over during a summer storm down near the old Connor-Wood house in the bottom, which loses more of its roof and siding each season, and the woods are full of dead-on-the-stump, leaning-and-looking-to-make-widows, fallen locusts. Those are prizes -- good firewood, already dried most of the way, and ready to burn this winter once they have a little more chance to dry out and get ready to make some heat.  I've alerted a couple of friends that we'll have a firewood gathering in a few weeks, felling, cutting and splitting enough of these old trees to help each of us get through the winter. We somehow get a lot more wood cut, split and loaded into various trucks and trailers than we would working alone, even without the distractions of storytelling, leg-pulling and spleen-venting that can go on when gents of a certain age get together amidst the roar and clink of chainsaws, wood splitters and mauls and wedges. We'll top off the day once the work is done by a sip or two of a noble whiskey -- in front of a roaring chiminea, of course, to toast the remains of the day, solve world problems, run down whatever crowd is in Washington lately and reflect on the glories of the season. Bring it on.

Jack Betts

Jack Betts is retired associate editor of The Charlotte Observer.

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