Fall was running late this year in Missouri. But it’s here now, at long last, and with it comes the brief chance to enjoy Midwestern weather at its finest.
October 1st. It is 93 degrees. This kind of heat at this time of year feels unusual, like an Indian summer of sorts. But that term refers to an unseasonable heat that comes after a frost, and we’ve stayed well above frosts so far. Tomato plants are still blossoming, jalapeños still ripening.
It’s a bit uncertain where the term “Indian summer” comes from, but many cite the possibility that this heat-after-frost phenomenon is not common in areas where colonizers came from, so the event may have been named after the Native American misnomer, “Indian,” in whose native North America the belated heat wave is a relatively common occurrence.
A persistent heat, however, a heat that doesn’t let up for this long, is not normal for the Midwestern part of the United States. At least, it wasn’t until recently. In the past several years, the heat has stuck around, sometimes spiking into the eighties all the way into November. The climate is changing, and with it, the plants. Climate scientists at the Missouri Botanical Garden have noted that in recent years, a number of plants that should not be able to grow here have been doing just fine at the Garden. For decades, St. Louis was considered a zone 5, but it is now considered a zone 6. Even that is being pushed now as horticulturists find that zone 7 plants are able to thrive in the Garden.
The cold will come, so enjoy the warmth for now. Have a beer on the porch, grill in the backyard, and take advantage of the extra weeks of harvest. But don’t look at this as another endearing Midwestern weather fluke. Our autumns are growing shorter. That is the unfortunate truth.
The heat pushes on for now, but the autumn equinox has just passed, and the public is indignant about the summer hanging on. Boots and sweaters creep out of closets as people choose to sweat rather than miss the chance to whip out their fall wardrobe. The orange-filled Oreos are on the shelves, the mums are being planted, and the harvest festivals will go on.
Right now, the signs of summer and fall are neck and neck. But soon the scales will tip. The cicadas, whose whine was so deafening a month ago, have quieted down to nearly nothing, and though the still-green trees and the hot days would seem to say that fall is still far off, there is evidence of autumn’s arrival in the changing songs.
The sound of crows cawing is a familiar sound on a misty fall morning. But the crows have been here all year long; they don’t migrate as regularly as other birds. Their cawing comes from a change in behavior: during the summer, crows keep to themselves, spending the night in their own territories. In autumn, they gather together in large groups, flapping, bouncing, and socializing. Although crows make a number of different sounds, they stick to their distinctive caw at this time of year. All these noisy parties make them suddenly conspicuous. The rise of their morning racket reminds you that Halloween is on the way.
The crickets, too, have risen in their chorus, and their peaceful noise brings a calmness to the morning, evening, and night. Their chirps slow and quicken as the temperature changes, so listen for their speed to relax as autumn rolls in. For them, it is mating season, so their songs will ring out from now until the first hard frost. Until then, their peaceful song fills the air as the sun starts setting sooner and the world begins to slow down.
Last Friday was the harvest moon. Garden-growers have been harvesting all summer: lettuce when the nights were still cool, then kale, then tomatoes and peppers, then squash and figs and apples–it’s just now that the ripening seems to be most rapid.
Summer is a time of slow and steady growth, and right at its very end comes the bounty. Many folks think of harvest as a word synonymous with autumn, but really it’s a time that bridges summer and fall. Go to any orchard and they’ll tell you that a lot of people don’t show up for apple picking until October–they wait ’til the leaves have changed and the days have a chill because they think of apple picking as a fall time activity. By the time they get there, the season has passed, and the apples are all overripe and picked over.
Now’s the time for apple-picking, and it’s a long-running tradition here in Missouri. Eckert’s has been in the same family for 7 generations. Centennial Farms has been in operation since 1821–so long ago that President James Monroe signed the document that granted its founder his land–and it’s now been in the same family since 1854. Being born into a family like that must be something like being born a royal–like it or not, one of the siblings is going to have to grow up to take over the throne and run the apple kingdom.
Modern life has made harvesting into a leisurely day-trip activity, but we owe our fall fun to the farmers who’ve been working to keep it alive and well all summer. Our apples and pumpkins and peach preserves are the product of a spring’s worth of preparation and a summer’s worth of upkeep. In these last few days before autumn, we fill up our bags and collect summer’s leftovers.
We’ve found ourselves again in a distinctly in-between season. For now, the 90 degree days and still-growing gardens are shouting over the whispers of autumn. We look to the trees for hints of fall, but one sign of the season is glittering, nearly invisible, in between the branches: the webs of the orb-weavers.
Orb-weavers are the designers behind the classic image of a spider web. They spin in a spiraling, circular shape. If you’ve been noticing more spider webs in the past few weeks, it’s because there are more out and about. This is their mating season, so they’re all out in the open trying to find each other.
There’s not just one orb-weaver. There are all kinds, and many of them are eye-catchers. Most female orb-weavers are characterized by a large and especially colorful abdomen. The black and yellow garden spider is one such spectacle. Their size makes them intimidating, but they are actually a huge benefit to yards and gardens because they feast on the pests that would otherwise torment our plants.
The spiders that are laid this fall will overwinter in the egg sac, then hatch and mature this coming spring and summer. In late summer fall, they’ll come out from hiding again to create the next generation of orb-weavers, and to tell us, without a doubt, that autumn is well on its way.
All the time, nature is working, and summer is the culmination of its work. Autumn is a time of preparation. Winter is for saving energy. Spring is for birth and for growth. Summer is what it’s all for–a time to live.
It’s September now, and Labor Day has passed, so the secret is out: summer is beginning to end. From here on out it’s the falling of the dominoes. At the end of summer, a whole year’s growth begins to fade away into next year’s generation. This time of year is the end of that great cycle. Now we are plunging toward fall, and winter in turn, and back toward spring and then summer again.
With this end comes a deep and unshakable sense of sadness. It becomes easy to slip into a nostalgic and wistful mood. It must be partly the fault of the ghost of our childhood brain. Fall means the return to school, and thus to responsibility. An undeniable slowing down follows the end of summer vacation, even for those who didn’t have one. There are fewer festivals, no more families visiting the botanical garden in the middle of a Tuesday morning, a dwindling number of nighttime activities as the twilight starts to move in earlier. All season long the city has been reeling from a feverish thirst for summer fun. And now, as the trees stop producing leaves and begin to drop them, we slow down and start getting reflective.
Something about this time of year is inherently bittersweet. Soon the air will be crisp and the nights will be cool and the days will be warm instead of hot. We know that summer is ending, but on its tail comes autumn, bearing its own gifts.
In late July and early August, the trees are rich. Their emerald leaves shimmer in the rain and in the wind. It’s the deepest, greenest time of year. Now, late August is here, and with it the first signs of a changing season. If you close your eyes, the sound of the locusts and the weight of the humidity tell you that it’s deep summer.
But a keen eye will tell you something’s shifting—look down, and you’ll see that slowly, very slowly, the least healthy of the leaves are browning, and still-green acorns litter the sidewalks. Even more striking, though, is the dulling of the leaves. The sycamores were some of the first to fade. The tips of the gingko leaves are rimmed with yellow now. You won’t see it if you’re looking at the whole tree, but get up close enough to pluck a leaf. The little fan looks delicately dipped in paint. The locust trees are yellowing, too, and soon their little leaves will start to swirl, falling and flecking sidewalks like leftover confetti from last night’s party.
Those trees are the most pronounced in their changes, but now the others begin to join them. Look closely and you’ll see that those lush leaves are starting to get dusty. They’re not yellow yet, they’re not falling, and most of them won’t until mid-October. It’s still summer, without a doubt. But the seasons don’t just stand still—they never do. And so the trees trade August’s luster for September’s dust.