By Jim McGuire
August is all but over. September waits restlessly in the wings. And in just over three weeks hence, the passing equinox will mark another summer’s official passing as a brand new autumn begins.
Not that the season are being sneaky. Last week’s unseasonably cool weather felt more like early-autumn than late-summer. Morning temperatures in the mid-50s and midday highs that barely made it into the 70s simply don’t jive with what I’ve come to expect from southwestern Ohio this time of the year.
I’m not complaining. Being in the midst of a major DYI remodeling project on the cottage, I can tell you sweat and sawdust make for an uncomfortable mix. As I wrestled 2x4s and sheets of plywood, I truly appreciated the natural air-conditioning.
Last night’s full Sturgeon Moon is now on the wane. It’s diminishing shape and dimming light shines through increasing atmospheric mist, as if from behind a gauzy veil — cool, fuzzy, its pale glow gleaming silver on dew-covered grass. A soft, magical wash of portent.
Fireflies are all but gone. Crickets and katydids still serenade the stars — though their time, too, grows short. I can’t remember that last time I heard a frog croaking along my backyard stretch of the Stillwater. Only the great horned owl, calling from somewhere among the river’s bankside fringe of ghostly sycamores, appears to find solace—even encouragement — in the increasing breadth of darkness.
The next full moon to grace the night sky will be the storied Harvest Moon, though the actual work of harvesting has already begun.
Many area farmers are starting to get seriously busy dealing with their various field crops. Cutting, picking, combining, bailing. For the next several weeks they’ll be working frantically…while praying the weather holds.
On a far lesser scale, we kitchen-garden types have our own picking and gathering, canning and freezing to do. Beans, peas, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, chili peppers, melons, maybe even a last yielding of sweet corn. A tasty bounty that has even the most fervent carnivore struggling to find room for a pork chop or chicken thigh on his already over-heaped plate.
If local weather prognosticators are correct, the week ahead promises to be a bit warmer — more in keeping with typical temperatures for this time of year. Fine, so long as the cool nights stay around. I like sleeping with the bedside window open and the whole-house fan off. That way, inside and outside temperatures don’t equalize — which means I don’t get up the next morning and shiver in a 50-degree kitchen while making my coffee.
Besides, the season has reached that point where the sun seems to have somehow lost its sting. A daytime high in the upper-80s just doesn’t feel so sweltering, perhaps in part because the days themselves are considerably shorter. We’ve already lost two hours of daylight since the solstice; we’ll lose an additional hour and a half by the end of the coming month.
The palette of field and forest is currently neither green nor gold. Visibly less than lush summer, yet not donning those Technicolor hues like full-blown autumn. Instead, as befits its transitional personality, the countryside tenders a visage that’s a bit of both, with its own distinctive highlights thrown in for good measure.
Some plants are well on their way to browning. Others remain green, but with a rusty, dusty, tired look to them, showing evident signs of wear and aging following a long period of growth and maturity.
The odd woodbine is starting to twine up its host trunk in spirals of dark flame. A few sumacs are going crimson. Now and then you might see a branch tip on a certain maple that’s changed to yellow-gold.
First daubs of the color-before-the-color display that will increase dramatically during upcoming weeks.
Goldenrods are gleaming but won’t reach their scintillating peak until the latter part of next month, when entire fields glow in richest yellow, as if sunlight and fire had conspired to dazzle us with a king’s ransom of precious coin.
The other morning I spent a half-hour ambling around a favorite overgrown tract just up the road. Among the many blooms I noted were blue-purple vervain, orange butterfly weed, purple-magenta ironweed, and magenta-pink Joe Pye weed. Along the edge of the wet woods, bright blue lobelia caught my eye, as did a delightful clump of scarlet cardinal flowers.
Yep, any way you look at it, we’re in the midst of fundamental transition. Months, seasons, temperatures, ratios of light-to-darkness—and most apparently, the landscape itself.
The times are clearly a’changin’ … and they’re changing fast.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org