Melancholy: noun: a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.
Sure—that's the way your online dictionary defines melancholy, but this time of the year most of us know the cause. The shadows deepen, the last gold leaves burnish to brown and tumble, the days shorten, and the air grows cooler. As they say on Game of Thrones, "winter is coming."
I suspect that those of us who live in places where the seasons turn feel the pensive sadness a bit more profoundly than folks where the changes are less dramatic. It is said that there are four seasons north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but it's more like six. Walk through the calendar and January through March are winter, April is the season of unlocking, May and June are spring, July through mid September are summer, then it turns to autumn and runs through most of October. Then there's a weird interval that arrives just before Halloween and lasts until winter returns in December. Someone wiser than I dubbed that 'tweener season "locking" and it's the one that most induces deep thoughts and melancholy. You know what lies on the other side of locking, but you seldom know exactly when the lock will snap shut. Call it melancholy mixed with angst.
In my view, the melancholic essence of locking occurs in shore towns. It's oddly appropriate that residents of oceanside towns tend to be very creative when decorating for Halloween. All those ghosts and ghouls are emblematic of the haunted ambience of places where boisterous streets become the silence of the sepulcher in the wink of an eye.
The photos in this article come from Cape May, New Jersey– a lovely place, but a melancholic one by November 1. One goes there in locking season to be pensive, not to party. The old line about rolling up the sidewalks is metaphorically true. Mini-golf courses pack their windmills and concrete dinosaurs in bubble wrap and put them in storage; the few hulking hotels still accepting visitors seem especially cadaverous with their darkened exteriors punctuated by a few dimly illuminated third floor rooms. The occupied rooms appear so separated from other life that one imagines sad loners sitting in front the TV blue light in striped boxers and socks held up by garters. There is nobody on the beach and only the occasional jogger on the Promenade. The sunset is framed by skeletal structures than once held the billowing canvas of cabanas; cotton candy kiosks and pizza ovens are shut away in storage sheds. Mercifully, so too are the karaoke machines. The bars are silent, more trash than cars shuffles down the main drag, and if you can find an open eatery, maybe three tables are occupied and everyone seems to be talking in a whisper.
Locking season at a beach town is one of the few places where daybreak comes with a louder soundtrack than the nighttime. Except the sounds you hear are more locking activities: plywood being nailed to arcade fronts, wood being scrapped for painting, and loose shingles being stripped from roofs. You know it's quiet when your Prius is the nosiest thing on the road. I like it that way, but it's both peaceful and a tad unsettling. A driver can almost welcome the Garden State Parkway. At least it's an affirmation that one hasn't slept through the Apocalypse.
Yeah—locking season is like that. Time to relax a bit, but also a time to muse and brood before getting down to the serious task of making it through winter. Still, it's a thoughtful sadness, not a soul-crushing depression—the sort that seems to brighten the first time the snowshoes get strapped on, and further lightens when the seed catalogues arrive in the mail. The attached photos are my attempt to capture in images what it feels like when Nature begins to lock down.