There is a chill in Echo Lake, the hint of frost in the breeze. The trees are beginning to ripen with colors, one of nature's miracles, and with apples, one of humankind's delights. Winter is on the way and, like the light of morning, it will come first here, to Maine.
These ever-shortening days in this brief transition between the high life of a Maine summer and the harshness of a Maine winter are filled with three obsessions: hunting (moose season opens next week), hockey (the University of Maine's Black Bears play 18 games before Christmas) and heating bills (everyone expects them to jump this year). The politicians can't do much about hunting or hockey. But they may pay the price for the heating bills.
The country is reeling from high energy prices. The price of crude oil contracts on the New York futures markets inched above $37 a barrel this month for the first time in a decade. Natural gas prices are expected to jump 25 percent; a gas shortage contributed to California's summertime power crisis and will wreak havoc with winter heating bills.
But the crisis is deepest here in New England, where many people heat with oil and where consumers are bracing for prices even higher than the $2 per gallon of last winter. The pricing mechanism for home heating oil is complicated beyond comprehension; it depends on corporate decisions, which are made months in advance of the winter heating season, and on supply, which the government can control in emergencies by releasing crude oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserves, and on international politics, which neither the Energy Department nor the State Department can fully control.
Now the politics of the situation. It's the usual game of blame, but in an election that is going to be very close -- where a few electoral votes one way or the other may make the difference between Al Gore sitting in the Oval Office or George W. Bush sitting there -- two small states with four electoral votes each aren't necessarily so small after all.
Here's how it's shaking out. The Democrats are painting themselves as the friends of consumers (thus Gore's proposal last week to release some oil from the petroleum reserve), and they are making much of the curiosity that the Republican ticket features one man, Gov. Bush, who used to run an oil company, and another man, Dick Cheney, who resigned from his job as the chief of another oil company to be his running mate.
One line making the rounds in Democratic circles up here: The Republicans take the view that a balanced ticket is when the presidential candidate and the vice presidential candidate are from different oil companies. Or, as Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, a feisty pugilist in the New England energy wars, likes to put it: "The Democratic administration is not vulnerable as long as the GOP ticket is Bush-Chevron -- no, I mean Bush-Cheney."
The Republicans are responding with a blame offensive of their own, arguing that the Democrats, who are willing to take credit for the economy when it is good, should shoulder responsibility for the energy situation when it is bad. They contend, moreover, that the Democrats have had two presidential terms to cobble together a coherent energy policy and have failed to do so -- resulting in rising home heating costs that will hit home in Maine and New Hampshire just around Election Day.
"Clinton and Gore came into office with tremendous advantages -- notably, the international good will generated by America's liberation of Kuwait under President George Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney," said Jim Nicholson, chairman of the Republican National Committee. "Over the years, they frittered away that good will -- to the detriment of American consumers. So now, when oil-producing nations are keeping output low to push prices higher, Clinton and Gore have no authority, no influence, no power to convince oil producers to treat American consumers with the respect they deserve."
Winter's coming. So is the election. Both are unavoidable. And so is the collision between politics, which is only of passing interest here, and the seasons, whose passing is of enormous interest.
The hockey season opens in two weeks with two games against the University of North Dakota. The mating season for moose is approaching. And, most important, the heating bills are on their way. Presidential elections have turned on less.