Last night’s passing equinox carried us into the start of a brand new season. Autumn became official — even if much of our recent weather hasn’t felt all that different from the weather we enjoyed at the month’s beginning.
Weather doesn’t make a season. Seasons are fundamental, the consequence of a tilted earth whirling along in elliptical journey around the sun. Weather is more facile, a constant recycling mix of components and influences.
In truth weather follows the seasons. And yesterday’s calendar simply confirms what outdoor-minded folks already recognized … summer was over.
The natural signs were everywhere and obvious.
For example, these last few weeks, a of flock Canada geese who typically spend their nights on an old quarry pond a mile up the road, now pass noisily overhead in the darkness before dawn. Many hours later, long after dusk has once more faded back into darkness, they pass again on their way home. The big birds have spent their day foraging nearby cornfields — gleaning what they can from the picked-over rows.
Such goose behavior is an annual and irrefutable announcement that autumn has arrived. A natural sign — one I’ve used for years to set my seasonal clock.
Just like I track the dwindling supply of fluttering monarch butterflies. Their steady journeying overtop the local goldenrod fields as they heard towards their highland wintering grounds in Mexico, has now noticeably declined — slowing from a flood to a trickle.
On the other hand, local thickets and woodlands are alive with myriad fall-cloaked warblers. Fields harbor gaggles of goldfinches. And twilit skies are beginning to host those twisting serpentine ribbons of congregating blackbirds.
Birds always understand the seasonal transitions.
There’s not much color yet — only a few yellowish leaves on the sycamores, some swirls of orange on an occasional maple, and the odd rusty hickory or two along the fencerow.
The color before the color — though Virginia creeper and sumac will do their best to prove this wrong. But the real show, those woodlands all decked out in their multicolored hues, are nearly a month away.
We’ve had a lot of rain this summer. And now that autumn has taken its place, the local landscape is still surprising green. Not verdant, mind you — but a sort of faded, anemic green that rather belies any start of fall.
Here along the river the local squirrels seem busier. They’re up early to inspect the feeder and chase away the jays.
A month ago I’d step onto the porch and spot one of them stretched on a comfortable limb, fluffy tail dangling in the breeze, while the owner enjoyed a snooze in the warm sun. But their waking hours are now ruled by a new-found work ethic.
Treetop commutes appear hurried. They have places to go, things to do—vital squirrel business which needs immediate attention. I watched several busily giving their nests in various hollow sycamore limbs and trunks a layer of fresh insulation — mostly dried grass or leaves.
Seeing them so engaged and busy, I couldn’t help but glance over at my woodpile and the stack of logs still needing to be cut and split for firewood. Then I’d feel guilty.
I already have several cords stacked and dried — but probably not enough to see us through winter. Those confounded squirrels keep reminding me that summer’s lazy days are definitely history.
Autumn is usually viewed as a time of harvest and fulfillment, of finishing up, putting things in order, making sure you’re comfortable and ready for that cold white pause of winter.
The natural perspective seems much the same — autumn is the achievement of spring and summer. A contented bow to a job well done.
But it’s also a time of newness. The new migratory journey awaiting spring’s fledglings. The new job of sustenance hunting for March’s fox pups. New antler stubs on the spike buck. Plus those tangy new windfall apples under a gnarly old tree, which will soon change to a new leaf color.
The newness of maturity.
The newness of life ongoing.
Tomorrow night, weather permitting, the full Harvest Moon will grace the sky. Not so long ago, when a countryman needed all the time he could muster for gathering in crops, this storied moon provided a silvery sky lantern, allowing workers to spend those necessary extra hours tending their fields.
The seasons have changed. Summer became autumn. But in the end, seasons — like people — must stand and be judged on their individual merits.
Will this year be a great one for leaf color … or merely average? Will the mild weather continue into October, or even November? And how much longer will crickets keep serenading the darkness before a heavy frost stills their raspy chirrups for another year?
Like always, we can only wait and see, assuming nothing. Though I do know I’d better get that woodpile worked.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org