In New England, we know how to wait.
We wait for summer, through irksomely moderate Mays and sometimes less-than-sunny Junes.
We wait for relief when in July and August the mercury blows past the measurable hash marks and the humidity index hits triple digits (one that weathermen and women infuriatingly refer to as, “steamy,” when what they really mean is “suffocating”).
We wait for spring through six (sometimes more like eight) grueling, soul-crushing months of winter––a stretch that leaves us hard-nosed, ash-knuckled, gruff and grumpy.
And we wait for fall, when the famously spectacular foliage attracts tourists––folks seeking some twee autumnal adventure––before they head back to their California coast or similarly mild (or at least slightly more merciful) climate for the culmination of their calendar year.
During a very few short weeks, the leaves still cling to their limbs but explode into rippling, oversaturated reds and soaring oranges, painting strokes against cloudless blue skies above I-95, the Merritt Parkway and other main throughways of those six collective states.
Growing up in New England is what we like to refer to as character-building. We survive frigid, teeth-clacking cold, the permanent back damage sustained from shoveling wet, weighty snow (a substance that the rest of the world seems to believe has the consistency and composition of cotton candy), raking a yard full of fallen leaves––or my own personal hell: doing anything during the lung-crushing humidity of high summer.
We’re accustomed to extremes, but within those extremes we’re rewarded with moments of extreme beauty. It makes us a proud people particularly fond of tradition. Pumpkin picking is one such practice.
When I was living in Southern California, I tried to describe this to a friend.
“You can go pumpkin picking here,” she told me. Directions were provided to the nearest “pumpkin patch,” which turned out to be a Von’s parking lot with a pitched orange tent and a few groups of gourds for sale. It had zero resemblance to my New England squash-and-seeks.
My memories are of permanent, immoveable farms. The ones in my parents’ hometown of Shelton, Connecticut––like Jones Family Farms––offer a rotation of annual experiences: pumpkins, of course, but come back to pick your own berries in the spring. In December, bundle up and tailgate with a thermos full of frothy cocoa (maybe a nip of something stronger when no one’s looking, just to kill the cold), before venturing into the fields to physically saw down and drag out your own Douglas Fir. Go ahead and try to tell me that those artificially flocked evergreen imposters strung up in parking lots are satisfactory Christmas trees.
When I was a kid, farms weren’t in vogue. No one was talking about locally sourcing their beloved vegetal lawn ornaments; the farm was just where pumpkins happened to come from. And so we ventured into the October air to pick a pumpkin, a pack of mums, and a peck of Macoun or McIntosh apples. We filled flatbeds with tall stalks and dried ears of multi-colored corn, each a critical brush stroke in the Normal Rockwell that was a New England autumn.
As a child, I trailed my parents on wobbly legs, unsteady on the hay-covered and rapidly hardening ground. As a youth, I returned on school field trips, or sometimes for friends’ birthday celebrations. In high school, it was a place where many of my peers had their first paying jobs plowing fields or collecting admission for the corn maze in a metal cashbox.
And then we grew up. We started our own families. Facebook feeds increasingly became communal baby books, former classmates smiling at me from my computer screen, commemorating their tiny family members’ introductory farm visit. Living far away is fine most of the time, but these memories in fall make me long for my roots.
This year I made my own return trip to one of those farms. My nearly three-year-old niece sat snuggled beneath a pink felt cap with kitten ears, eyes wide, inquiries abound (“Can I have a doughnut?” among them, silencing any question I might have ever had of our being related), totally rapt by the tractor that toted us around the field.
Inevitably, I ran into some of those classmates—ones who have returned to Shelton just for this farm visit, or who have remained in my hometown to raise their own kids.
To watch them—my niece, my neighbors’ kids, my former schoolmates’ sons and daughters––is kind of an adventure in itself now. To see them take in the colors, to ride in the back of a tractor on a bail of hay, to try to pick up a pumpkin that’s bigger than they are.
New Englanders are a patient people. And on a few perfect autumn days, that virtue is well-rewarded.
Jones Family Farms
606 Walnut Tree Hill Rd, Shelton, CT 06484