Our neighbor stops over to say goodbye. His family has been renting the farmhouse next to our white summer cottage here in Maine.

Although we haven’t met, I’ve seen him and his daughter walking down the path to the lake, like a vision of myself as a child dancing through a summer field beside my own father. My parents are dead now, but those long-ago summers, when I took for granted the unchanging circle of my family, remain vivid in my memory.

He opens the trunk of his car. “I thought you might want the firewood we didn’t use.” It’s kind of him. Our fireplace provides the only heat for our cottage and the October nights have grown chilly. He helps my husband and me stack the logs in our woodshed.

“You’re heading home?” my husband asks when we finish. Our neighbor leans against the side of his car.

“Yes, back to Brooklyn. Then Colombia, where my wife is from. We’ve been here since March, since the coronavirus lockdown started. My wife wants to see her family. I’m not sure when we’ll return to the U.S. A lot depends upon the election in November.”

The unspoken question passes between us: Did you ever think that any of us would contemplate leaving the country, and not coming back? Is the America we grew up in lost?

“Since March? Lucky!” I change the subject. My husband and I took off from Colorado in mid-September. We drove across country in three days, car strapped down with a kayak and bikes. Just get to Maine.

“I wanted my family out of New York. I found some landscaping work here on the island, but that’s over for the season.” He looks towards the hills that darken beneath the evening sky. “It’s beautiful here. I wish we didn’t have to leave.”

“Did you build that circular fence, with the garden inside?” I can’t help noticing, every time we walk by the farmhouse, the intricate enclosure woven from fallen branches.

He nods. “There’s still a lot of parsley and basil in there. Help yourself. It would make me happy if you could use some of those herbs.” He asks, “If I gave you my email address, would you send me a picture of the trees, when the leaves change color? I’m sorry to miss that.” He is very thin, and with such sorrowful eyes.

A few days after he and his family have gone, I type his name into a Google search. There he is, fifteen years ago, featured in Art in America for a mammoth environmental art project in Colombia. Other reviews mentioned installations in New York. For a moment, he had captured the public’s enthusiasm. Then that attention had slipped loose, it seemed to me, and moved on.

Misty rain hangs in the air the next morning as I stroll over to the garden and step inside the circle as enchanting as a faerie ring. Here grows the lushest parsley with the largest leaves I have ever seen. Basil, green and purple. Masses of pungent sage that come to my knees. Vines with small tomatoes twisting between the branch fencing. Blue-flowered burdock, golden nasturtiums.

It is a kind of beauty that makes me want to drop to my knees and weep. How could he have made this—something so beautiful, so evident of care—knowing he would have to leave it?

Two weeks later the leaves reach their peak. My husband and I race on our bikes along the quiet carriage paths as if swimming in color—waves of purple, scarlet, gold, and swells of green pines. On a deserted stretch of beach, we peel off our clothes and dash into the freezing water. I am a child again—we both are—shrieking with laughter, exhilarated.

Returning to our cottage, we stop to take a photo of the circular garden with the hillside and mountains in the distance. We send that picture with the leaves on the hill, all a riot of vivid colors, at their moment of glory.

Maybe what our neighbor, the artist and gardener, had already come to terms with is that you lose everything. And so, you try to make beauty—or at least try to see it—along the way. Maybe beauty is the only thing that makes all the loss that comes, sooner or later, bearable.

That night a cold wind sweeps in. We light a fire. The next day it rains, hard, and the leaves begin to fall.

© Christina Holbrook
[This piece was selected by John Haggerty. Read Christina’s interview]