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Biography & Autobiography General

Edge Seasons

A Mid-life Year

by (author) Beth Powning

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Sep 2006
General, Adulthood & Aging, General
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2006
    List Price

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From the bestselling, critically acclaimed author of The Hatbox Letters and Shadow Child comes the story of a year of transformation.

In the middle years of her life, Beth Powning stands on a threshold: an “edge season.” Late one August, when Beth and her partner, Peter, observe the deserted sauna bath on their farm near Sussex, New Brunswick, she remembers the faith and energy that went into building it. As they begin to repair the sauna, the project becomes a metaphor for how dreams, relationships and commitments need to be continuously renewed. While their only child, Jake, prepares to leave for university, Beth and Peter contemplate changes of their own.

As fall and winter gradually shut down the vibrant life of the gardens, fields and forests near her home, Beth witnesses the beauty and regenerative force of the natural world, weaving acutely observed descriptions of the countryside with the story of her own intimate transformation. Edge Seasons is an intensely absorbing journey that illuminates how change can shatter even as it strengthens.

About the author

Beth Powning grew up in a small New England town, where her family has lived since the 1790s. In 1972, she and her husband Peter Powning moved to Canada and bought an 1870s farm in New Brunswick, where they established a pottery business.

In 1995, Beth Powning published a book of photography, Roses For Canadian Gardens (written by childhood friend Bob Osborne). She later found her voice in Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life. Over the next fifteen yaers, five books followed: another book of photographs, Northern Trees and Shrubs; two works of non-fiction, Shadow Child and Edge Seasons; and two bestselling novels, The Hatbox Letters and The Sea Captain's Wife.

Beth Powning's profile page

Excerpt: Edge Seasons: A Mid-life Year (by (author) Beth Powning)


After we married at the age of nineteen, Peter and I lived in a tiny house known as “The Nutshell.” It was the summer of 1969, and we were university students. We had met on a blind date at my campus, just north of New York City. Peter wore wire-rimmed aviator glasses, bell-bottom jeans, and T-shirts with red and blue stripes. He was tall, with shoulder-length brown hair and a gap between his two front teeth. He had blue eyes and a funny last name. I’d just returned from a summer spent at a work camp in the mountains of Mexico. I wore huaraches and sweaters with threadbare elbows. I wanted to be either an actor or a writer. He studied art.

Our parents thought it was unseemly, in those years, to live together unwed, so we were married and moved to the town where I’d grown up – near to the University of Connecticut, for Peter, and a commute to Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, for me. It was a small town, its village centre built along the ridge of a hill, with nineteenth-century houses shaded by giant maples and the surrounding countryside still a patchwork of small dairy farms.

The Nutshell had once been a cobbler’s shop but had eventually become an annex to the Chelsea Inn. The inn was half-hidden by overgrown American bamboo; its windows were obscured by ancient, sun-browned paper shades. It was my Aunt Mildred’s summer place. After her husband died and her children left home, she let it fall into disrepair. Once a month she drove out from her city house in her Thunderbird, carrying trays of mushrooms in its trunk. “A perfect place for them,” she told us in her whispery, enthusiastic voice, “dark and warm.” Hair skinned into a bun, lopsided lipstick giving her a loopy smile, she collected the rent and stuffed it into her pocket. I watched her go to the inn’s side door, where she stooped, fumbling with the key.

Across the village street were two large houses: one had once been my grandparents’ summer place, and the other, my uncle’s. I had spent my childhood exploring these houses: their attics were filled with oddments from previous generations – spinning wheels, calf-hide trunks, dresses, hats. Their barns were occupied by dusty wooden tools, sleighs, carriages; and there were flower gardens, orchards, beehives. Next to The Nutshell was a house that had once belonged to my aunt’s parents. All these houses were now sold, but the family gatherings of my childhood – Fourth of July, or Labor Day, or apple-harvesting weekends – meant that on either side of the street I could push through screen doors and be offered cold lemonade or cookies. From our porch I could see the Congregational Church, where my parents and my great-grandparents had been married. I could see the library where I had learned to love the smell of books. The post office was five minutes’ walk away, as was the town’s only general store, with its sagging wooden porch and a bulletin board covered with faded, limp announcements.

Peter and I had two marmalade cats and a dog. In the dank undergrowth behind the little house we cleared space for a chicken pen and kept twelve Rhode Island Red hens. In the summer our two pigs lived at my parents’ place at the north end of town, in a pen by their pond. We thumbtacked a map of North America to the plaster wall of our living room and studied it. Place was abstract, a yearning based on notion and desire.

Everything happened for the first time: it was our first kitchen, our first living room, our first bathroom. Peter, revealing himself to be both resourceful and energetic, built a bed on posts, accessible by a ladder. There was a claw-footed tub, its porcelain abraded so that the bather’s bottom was scoured. The kitchen was like a boat’s galley – sink, gas stove, and refrigerator barely left room to move.

Maples burned in the tawny sun: red-orange, freckly gold. The sweet, wormy smell of soil rose on morning mist. The air was restless, filled with migrating birds and the idle dance of spent leaves. The Vietnam War was present in our lives like an inevitable disease. Young men spent their creativity avoiding or sabotaging the draft – feigning injury or illness, mailing pumpkins to draft boards. The future had no shape. I imagined it the way I saw the valley that spread below us – folds of hills holding no known towns or people or stories. Peter and I wanted to migrate, like the birds. We imagined independence, pictured ourselves living in a place surrounded by space and light, its only sounds those of weather.

The Nutshell filled with dried herbs – tansy, thyme, marjoram – hung in string-tied bunches from nails over the kitchen window. We grew a vegetable garden in my parents’ west field. We picked wild Concord grapes from the stone walls. I learned to make jam and bread. We acquired an electric mill and ground our own flour. We went down to a farm in the valley and brought home raw milk in metal cans. Butternut squash lined our porch on frosty October mornings. We bought bushels of apples from roadside stands. I lifted racks of canning jars from their boiling bath, the metallic steam flushing my cheeks, and for the first time I felt the satisfaction of having shelves lined with glass jars: pink applesauce with saucer-shaped air bubbles, purple-black grape jam, dried mint. We sold eggs to our neighbours, made Christmas wreaths and peddled them door to door. Peter helped my father split wood. My mother showed me how to make a purl stitch. Cold air on our faces and frozen earth beneath our boots, the smell of baking bread, frost on windowpanes: these things, like first snow, turned, drifted, and coalesced.

Mint Tea

That first autumn of our marriage we visited with another young couple, Bob and Kathy. They, too, lived in my hometown in a rented house.

“What are you going to do after you graduate?” Peter asked.

“Something like this,” Bob said, pointing out the window to the remains of a vegetable garden. “But not here. The slime,” he added, nodding towards the village, where the church steeple pierced the treetops, “is just over the hill.” He meant the factories, malls, highways, and housing developments that were creeping ever closer, displacing cow pastures and orchards.

We drank mint tea and talked about the Peace River Valley in Alberta, shoring one delicious dream up against another. We imagined going in canoes to a place electricity would never find. We discussed building log cabins, setting traplines, hunting, planting gardens in riverside clearings. I imagined what we would take in our canoes.

“What about my piano?” I said.

Over the winter, we honed our vision, until a plan was made to explore New Brunswick, just beyond Maine. We found a book in the library about the Maritime provinces and pored over its photographs. Bob shared his childhood memories of visiting New Brunswick’s forests and river valleys. My maternal grandfather’s family had lived in a house called Old Oaks in the border town of St. Stephen. At the turn of the twentieth century they’d come south, to Rhode Island. Now we decided to immigrate at the same border crossing. Once we entered Canada we would leave behind a country in turmoil. Neither Bob nor Peter had been drafted: Bob because of a high lottery number; Peter by dint of creating so many headaches for his draft board that he was given a classification that meant “administratively shelved.” Still, it would be a relief to step forward into a nation at peace.

Editorial Reviews

"Edge Seasons engages the reader from the first page. It is a joyful, lyrical celebration of life and of the Earth we inhabit, always grounded in the here and now. Dense as it is with meaning and description, it is an effortless read that makes us look anew at life, and the promise of each day that we are given. It is, quite simply, a wonderful book."
The Winnipeg Free Press

Praise for The Hatbox Letters:
"Powning brilliantly illuminates grief in all its shape-shifting pain, and in so doing, expands her characters’ lives, and ours."
The Globe and Mail

"[A] novel of stunning beauty . . . The Hatbox Letters is a moving elegy to things lost and found."
New Brunswick Reader

"Powning’ s exquisite novel sings. . . . As brilliant as the light toward which it reaches."
The Chronicle-Herald (Halifax)

Other titles by Beth Powning