The Arrival of the Orb-weavers

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.

Emerald August

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.

Call of the Cicada

The song of summer evenings is has risen to a blaring ruckus: It is the call of the cicadas.

Familiar as that noise is, there’s some serious confusion about the bugs that create it. Here in the Midwest, we refer to them colloquially and erroneously as locusts; really, locusts have nothing to do with cicadas and are much more like grasshoppers behaving with mob mentality.

And adding to the locust-cicada confusion is the common knowledge that cicadas are only supposed to emerge  every 17 years, lying in wait underground. But those periodical cicadas aren’t the only cicada there is—there are all kinds of cicadas out there, and most of them are annual visitors.

In Missouri, the Dog Day Cicada, Swamp Cicada, and Scissor-Grinder are a few that make their presence loud and clear from the moment the heat begins to creep into the day. Their noise grows louder all afternoon and crests, finally, in a wild and desperate whir just before nightfall.

Nothing evokes late summer like that loud and longing whine. The cicadas sing their loudest in this month of August, just before the intense certainty of summer heat, summer green, and summer humidity begins to fade. With September’s arrival they will gradually quiet, dropping out of the chorus one by one until the evenings are calm. In the same way that their raucous shriek grows as the light disappears from the sky, their ringing rises to its peak as summer starts to fade. When they leave, they carry the life out of the air with them, having sung the season to sleep with commanding fanfare.

Here Come the Storms

Driving rain and roaring thunder kept quiet all winter. Finally now, they push the silent snowfalls and feeble drizzles out of the picture. Springtime storms have arrived with a bang.

In St. Louis, we all have a story about a close encounter: a flood in the basement, a tornado in the neighborhood, hail the size of baseballs. We’ve seen it all, and we’re not afraid anymore. Who doesn’t like a good storm every once in awhile? To Midwestern folk, a big blasting thunderstorm is a little bit like a holiday that you can’t plan for.

The birds stop singing. The leaves start to fly as the wind whips up, and you know what kind of storm is coming. People get excited. It’s a special occasion—everybody’s day revolves around the same event.

And we’re stubborn. Even as the first drops fall and the thunder starts to rumble, you’ll see neighbors out and about walking their dogs, just strolling along without a hint of panic in their step. It’s only when the downpour starts that we finally step inside to stay dry. The whole family gathers around the big picture window or pulls up a chair on the front porch to watch the storm. You wouldn’t want to miss it.

Then the lightening bolts flash across the sky and the thunder grows from threatening grumbles to splitting cracks. This is when dad will say “Count the seconds between the lightening flash and the crack of thunder. For every five seconds, the storm is one mile away.” You count and count, and soon the sound and the light are simultaneous. If you close your eyes, the spray of the rain blowing up onto the porch makes you feel like a fisherman at sea.

Even when the sirens come on, most people brush them off. But if the storm gets serious enough, everyone will hide in the basement. Mom is excited to bring out her emergency crank-powered radio. The wind howls. Hail hammers the siding. And when it’s all over, everyone creeps out together, puts their hands on their hips, and surveys the damage.

Sometimes there are branches down over here and shingles gone over there; hail dents in the hoods of the cars who don’t have garages. Other times there’s hardly a sign at all of the storm that just raged. The golden sun lights up the wet streets, and the raindrops on the grass and windows sparkle. The birds start to sing again, and we know that the danger has passed.

Watching a thunderstorm brings a different kind of satisfaction. Tending a garden or walking in the park reminds us that, in spite of our urban environment, the natural world is always there to welcome us back. But a storm proclaims nature’s power. It brings us the story of a different kind of world, a world where nature calls the shots. And it reminds us that that world still exists.

First Flowers

It only took a week above freezing and a few warm rains to coax the ice out of the ground once and for all. Finally, the earth can be turned over and worked. Anyone with a garden can tell you that—they probably spent a giddy weekend with their hands in the dirt. People creep out of their homes and into the sunlight in slowly-growing numbers just to be outside. Just to look.

Still the green holds out on us, but little hints of color are popping up here and there to bring the news of the thawed soil to the surface. The delicate white snowdrops were the first to arrive a couple weeks ago. Now the daffodils and crocuses pop up out of the grass. Violets, tulips, and irises won’t be far behind. These first flowers are a promise: the big blooming is well on its way.

First, as always, there will be more rain. More mud. More cold nights. Spring is still quietly creeping out, and the people in the city are wary. They aren’t gonna greet it ’til its arrival is more obvious. When spring arrives in full sun and full color, you will no longer be alone with nature when you go outside. The bombastic, lively spring that we’re all waiting for could hit any time—and when it does, it’ll bring crowds out in droves. Every restaurant patio will be bustling. Every path through the park will be jammed. For now, let that little bit of light left in the sky at 7:30 be reason enough to take an evening walk. Go out into the quiet world and find those first whispers of spring.

Snowstorm in a City Somewhat Accustomed

First there are the whispers. The weatherman says snow, but we are doubtful. We’ve all got a boy-who-cried-wolf story about a St. Louis forecast. We poo-poo and pish-posh and ho-hum. Then we go about our week. Only the kids take it seriously because they know unless they believe with all their might, they won’t get their snow day.

Then comes the preparation. The shrugging-it-off gives way to MoDot trucks and landlords salting the sidewalks. Now begins the rush to the grocery store. Everybody’s got to get their soup, their snowmelt, their sleds and their scrapers. At a Kingshighway gas station on Friday afternoon, a man stood in line at the checkout, clutching one windshield scraper in each hand. “Lucky man,” said the cashier. “You got the last two!” The man in line behind him let out a gasp—he’d been waiting to ask the employee if they had any in stock. The first man took pity on him and gifted him one of his two new scrapers—“Well, I’d be evil not to!” he said.

The city-wide anticipation rises to a panic as even the most determined of the naysayers give in and run out on last-minute missions. So begins the fervor. Dad’s at Dierbergs calling mom to see if they’ve got flour in the pantry. The kids are hollering. Target sells out of sleds. Highways pack tight with people fleeing for the homestead. On the unplowed neighborhood backroads, little cars are pushed uphill by friendly neighbors. The bartenders and baristas pray that the owner will have the goodwill and decency to call up and set them free before their car gets buried. Some are luckier than others. Then the telltale blue banner goes up on the bottom of the screen on the local news: here they come, the closings. The students are giddy.

And here in the midst of the fever-pitch-frenzy comes the reveal: it has come. They were dead-on, right on the money. The snow is here, and here in huge mounds…it’s coming down and it’s stopping for nobody. The highway is jam-packed, come to a stop. For every living creature in town, this storm is the highlight of the day.

In St. Louis, we all know what to do when a big snow hits. We aren’t unaccustomed to snowstorms. We aren’t afraid. The panic that overtakes the city doesn’t come from fear—it comes from an insatiable urge to launch into those old snow day rituals we partake in every time. God forbid you get caught without cookie dough or hot chocolate! You won’t have another day like this for God-knows-how-long. So after you’ve made it through the treacherous traffic, the holiday commences. You shut the door behind you and split a six-pack with your significant other. You suit up to go sledding or shovel neighbors’ driveways. You swap horror stories about the traffic with everyone you see. When the whole city comes to a halt, anybody who’s able will gladly take their customary sabbatical. It’s tradition!

Whatever you do, don’t miss the most precious moment of these snows. Late at night, when everyone else is asleep, crack open your door and take a long look. The soft white glow lights the night sky almost lavender. And listen. The downy drifts soak up the noise of the city. Even the sounds you can hear seem distant, soft. There is the sense that nothing could go wrong on this night. All is peaceful. All is well. A summer night holds a buzzing energy, the heat of potential and possibility. But a snowy night holds you in its palm and whispers, “rest.” So close the door behind you, and, turning in for a snug winter sleep, surrender.

The Season of Stars

“Cold is the night when the stars shine bright.” So one saying goes, and though the stars themselves aren’t really shining brighter in the cold, there’s some truth to the old adage. Cold nights sometimes make for clearer skies since cool air can’t hold as much moisture as hot air can. And, in wintertime, the stars that we are facing are brighter-burning than the ones we face in summer. Thanks to these radiant winter stars, you might even be able to make out traces of some of the beautiful winter constellations, even in the center of the light-polluted city. Indeed, winter is the season for stargazing.

51027017_338874040045851_5090226000327868416_nOrion visits our night skies this time of year and makes sure you can’t miss him. He sports some of the brightest stars in the winter sky. Orion is a hunter, lunging forward with his sword drawn for a fight. His right knee is Rigel, and his left knee, which is not quite as bright, is called Saiph. At his right shoulder is the star Bellatrix. His left shoulder is the conspicuous Betelgeuse, a red giant.

Another bright red giant, Aldebaran, is the fiery red eye of the bull, Taurus. Within the Taurus constellation is the Pleiades star cluster, whose 7 brightest stars are the muses that Orion pursues forever across the night sky. And Sirius the dog star is the brightest star in the night sky, Orion’s loyal pup who will stick around and be visible all winter long.

Orion is probably the constellation you’ll have the best luck seeing from the city center, but there are other winter constellations around that you’ll have better and better luck seeing the farther out you can get. Gemini is a winter constellation, and its two brightest stars, Castor and Pollux, are visible from the city. Auriga, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Pegasus, and Andromeda (in order from bright to dim) are also major winter constellations that you may have better luck viewing a little further out. Leo is more of a spring constellation, but late at night, it too will begin to become visible as winter wears on.

There are plenty of bright stars that you can see from within the light-polluted city, but it’s hard to identify which is which when you can’t see the dimmer stars near them for reference. The best way to fix this issue is to go somewhere more remote. But if you can’t get away, there are astronomy apps out there that will tell you which stars you’re looking at when you point your phone at the sky. Once you have identified one or two stars, you’ll be better able to guess at the surrounding ones. Physical star charts are an even better tool, especially if you want to start to learn to identify the stars on your own. You should also get away from nearby lights as much as you can—it’s not just the glow of the city as a whole that affects your eyes—the lights immediately surrounding you also affect your ability to see stars since they change the way your eyes adjust to the darkness. If you have lights on even in your own backyard, turn them off. The pros will even read their star charts by a red light because the less energetic, longer wavelength has a much less significant effect on your eyes.

If you can get away and want to make a night of it, Broemmelsiek Park Astronomy Site in St. Charles is the perfect spot. It’s open to stargazers 24/7 and since it’s dedicated to looking at the stars, the light pollution is purposefully limited. The Saint Louis Astronomical Society (SLAS) is another great resource. This group holds frequent events that are free and open to the public. There’s no need to sign up ahead of time, either. You just show up and get ready to learn—educated members of the group are there to answer questions, and they’ll let you use their telescopes. They’ve even donated some telescopes to the St. Louis Public Library system, so you can check one out and use it on your own.

It just so happens that we in St. Louis are at the same latitude of Ancient Greece. So as you look up at the mysterious constellations, don’t let it slip past you that you’re seeing those stories play out across the night sky exactly as the Greeks did when they first told the tales of the stars. And even if you don’t study the stars in great detail, don’t forget when you step outside and start to shiver: the clear skies of a cold night are perfect for turning your eyes upward.