Winter Moves In

By now, the sky is dark at five ‘o’ clock, and a week of rain and wind stripped the last of the leaves from their trees. The world outside the window is looking an awful lot like winter. The ground is not yet frozen, and a few hardy plants hang on. Birdsong still rings through the air on a sunny morning or a stormy afternoon. But anybody could tell you that winter is moving in.

There’s an irresistible temptation to head inside as winter approaches, and it’s best resisted by abandoning efforts to dress nicely and donning your biggest coat, no matter how ugly. But sometimes there is beauty in being driven indoors as well. In this frigid season, we don’t linger outside. We scurry from building to building. We clutch close our coats and our casserole dishes. We gather to feast, to laugh, and to be with family and friends. The Christmas lights go up to cut into the darkness of early nights, and we bring a little taste of nature into our home when we put up the Christmas tree. So even as the sunny days are disappearing, we fend off the shock of this first cold of winter with our own kind of warmth.

A Season of Bronze

Record low temperatures and two whipping windy snowfalls brought autumn’s flaming colors down to the ground. Last week saw the peak of color in St. Louis. Then, on Monday, white snow came down to mingle with the falling leaves, and the flakes took the reds and the oranges down with them.

Even within autumn itself, there are four seasons. First comes the season of dusty green, September’s hint that summer has come to a close. Next comes the season of yellow, with the locust trees and the sycamores. Then come the oranges and reds of maples, ashes, and oaks. Last of all is the season of bronze.

It’s this last season that we are in right now. Only the deepest reds, the darkest yellows, and the rustiest browns hold onto their branches. Already, many look outside their windows and declare that fall is over and the color has passed.

But really, it’s just a different kind of color. Subtler, softer. Less loud. Earthy browns against a pale blue sky. Autumn is exhaling. It’s during this quiet time that winter will sneak in right under our noses. But anyone who would say that the fall color has gone for good need only look to see the copper-orange needles of a bald cypress backlit and flaming in the soft light of an early-setting sun.

Last Evenings

This weekend marks a point of no return. Until now, you might have been able to go through life hardly noticing just how much sooner the sun has been setting each night. But as we set our clocks back, the end of Daylight Saving Time finally forces us to be conscious of the sun’s schedule–and, for those of us who hate to see it go, to come to terms with it. It was only a couple short weeks ago that the temperatures remained in the eighties and nineties, and perhaps only days ago that it seemed the warmth and the sun might stick around awhile longer or come back for one last hurrah. But it seems that this year, winter is rushing in early to make up for autumn’s tardy arrival.

The loss of another evening hour of sunlight makes it impossible to ignore how quickly the darkness is pushing out the sun and becoming the majority of the day. With the help of the time change, it will only be a few weeks before the shadows grow long at quarter to four and the dark sets in by five. In these months, there’s no true evening to speak of–just afternoons cut short by darkness.

So here we are in the last of the evenings. These long nights are necessary for all the life that lives out in the elements. They stretched and grew in the sun all summer long, and now it is their time to rest. To them there is no time change, only the sunrise and the sunset, the ebb and flow of the seasons. But because our time is named with numbers and packed tight with full schedules, take Daylight Saving Time as a reminder to soak up the last few fall evenings before they slip away.

Autumn Wind

It’s late October, and the leaves are finally changing with the weather. Brilliant collages of yellows, browns, and reds begin to mask the dull pavement as the wind blows them off of their branches.

These and the other ashes of autumn blow on the perpetual wind.  This is ankle-twisting season: a time of year to find yourself looking up at the color of the leaves while your feet narrowly miss rolling over the trees’ debris. Broken twigs, nuts, and the dust of crumbling leaves skip down the street like a rock across a river. Branches and beds of pine needles collect on the shoulder of the road. Acorns tumble down from high branches and hit the ground with a pop.

These are the blustery days of autumn. The wind won’t be stopped now. It’s begun its mission: to usher out fall and invite winter to stay. It’s slow work, but it works every year; in time, the autumn wind will blast the trees bare and carry the cold in with it.

The Fog

The nights grow colder and longer, but the daytime remains warm. This is the secret recipe for some autumn magic. When the temperatures drop below the dew point, the air must let go of some of its water vapor, and so it rises: the fog.

Mornings in the city, mist rises from the ground everywhere. Out from the wet heaps of mulch, freshly mounded for winter; out from the grasses that glow golden in the autumn sunlight; out from the sewers that steam and belch up the river that runs beneath the streets.

And at nighttime in the country, down in Patterson, Missouri, where Big Creek runs through Sam A. Baker State Park, on these first cold nights of the year there’s a scene that brings chills to your skin. The fog swirls over the dark water and climbs upward, thick and slow, glowing white in the light of the bright moon. Even when the moon is full, you can’t see five feet ahead, and a flashlight can’t cut through the fog either. There, you may stand in silence. Your breath appears in the air for the first time this season as you listen to the river and stare at the dark silhouettes of the trees, still against the glowing mist.

Autumn Arrives

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.

The next question is when we can expect to see the fall foliage start to turn. The deep green of summer faded from the leaves weeks ago, but the yellow, orange, and red remain elusive. You might have noticed that the leaves started falling in September, but the changing season isn’t to blame for that–the trees are under considerable stress this year. The long, wet spring meant that they produced an unusually large number of leaves, leading to an especially green spring of fully flushed crowns. But the end of summer was exceptionally dry, so the trees didn’t have enough water to support that giant leaf crop. That’s why the sidewalks are full of dry, brown leaves–the trees just couldn’t keep up.
Now, the color will wait for consistent cool temperatures and a little more rain before it’s ready to put on its show. Most are predicting that fall color will come a little late this year–as late as the second week of November. But with nearly-freezing temperatures predicted for this weekend, it’s hard to say what will happen–if it gets too cold too quick, it’s possible that the leaves will drop before they have the chance to turn much.
Color or no color, this weather won’t stick around long. Before we know it, we’ll be grumbling around in puffy coats and cursing the long, dark nights. In the meantime, may every neighbor take a walk through their neighborhood, take a trip to the pumpkin patch, or just sit on the porch for the last few weeks of sunshine. Autumn has arrived.

A Long Summer

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.