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.

The Tune Changes

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.

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.

Dominoes

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.

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.