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.

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.

Deafening August

Mid-August.  So it’s back-to-school and pools closing and cinnamon brooms appearing at the grocery stores. We adjust our consumables to match the false ending that the beginning of the school year creates. But summer is a long ways from over. The constant hum of bugs will tell you that much—crickets in the morning, cicadas in the evening, katydids in the night. And this week will see some of the season’s most hot and humid days yet.

August is the month that demands to be seen. It’s wet and hot and loud; like a big fat final har-umph before abundant summer starts to give in to tempered autumn. Here in St. Louis, August is so humid that tropical plants thrive on patios and at the Botanical Garden. Anyone who spends time outside knows that autumn is still a distant thought in the mind of the natural world. Nobody can smell it coming on the wind just yet—we must stand in the smell of our own sweat and bugspray until deafening August has had its say.

Wildflowers Dominate

This kind of heat isn’t friendly to fragile beauty. Mild weather flowers and cool weather crops have burnt brown in the sun. A humid evening at a summer wedding has the groomsmen itching in their suits and the bridesmaids sweating off their makeup. It’s a hard thing to look shipshape in late July.

But not all living things are deterred by this weather. At this time of year, the wildflowers thrive. Primrose, cardinal flower, and columbine endure in rocky glades and creek beds. Vibrant butterfly weed and blazing star dominate the prairies. The coneflowers are particularly radiant, shooting up past the sky-high grass to get their daily dose of sun.

These flowers are a far cry from a delicate iris or a fragrant rose. They’re sometimes scraggly, often unkempt. But they require no attention and get on just fine without us. In midsummer, they overtake our wild landscapes. They know summer is no time for measured elegance. It is for growth, for life, for movement, for color. A time to leave the air conditioning behind and to jump in the pool, sweat in the sun, and, when the night comes down, to lay down expended in the dew-soaked grass.

Summer’s Smells

Each season has its own scent, but midsummer must be the time of year when the smells are the strongest in the city. On a Saturday morning, cut grass tickles your nose when the neighbor’s lawnmower hums you awake. On a weekday morning, when the trash pickup comes, the whole neighborhood stinks with the rotten smell of sun-cooked garbage. The warm smell of wet pavement hangs around for your day at the zoo, in the amusement park, on the blacktop at summer school. A fresh sweat follows you with every outdoor hour. The smell of charcoal brings the evening in as you drive home through the neighborhoods. Bug spray and citronella are threaded into a tiki-torch-lit twilight.

Spring’s perfume is delicate; autumn’s fresh; winter’s subtle. But summer demands attention. In the city, summer’s aroma is made by humans. Summer smells like us because it is the season we spend outside. What would summer be without cut grass, bug spray, sunscreen?

Have you ever wandered far off the path in Forest Park and smelled the hot grass sweetened by the sweltering sun? Or walked through the Botanical Garden on a day so hot that you could smell the lavender simmering in the heat? These are the smells of summer that exist with or without us, riding on the breeze even when there’s not a nose in sight to sniff the air.

Dog Days

The heat has arrived. Some plants and people thrive in this sun; others scorch and wither. Early mornings offer little reprieve from the broil, and the nights are heavy with humidity. This is prime pool season, prime drink-from-the-hose season, prime ice-cube-on-your-forehead season.

These are the dog days of summer—a phrase that comes from the rise of the dog star Sirius, who peeks over the eastern horizon just before the sunrise. Ancient astrology associated the appearance of Sirius with drought, fever, bad weather, and bad luck. Maybe so, but for us these days are equally intertwined with a kind of careless fun that can only be had when the cold–the huddling, the bundling, the turning inward and away– seems an impossible ache of a distant past. There is something about the cold that makes us shrink. But the heat—if you stand in it long enough to sweat your shirt through—will make you want to stretch your legs and shed your clothes and indulge in being alive.

Whether or not you know where the phrase “dog days of summer” came from, you know exactly what it means. You can feel the arrival in the sweat on your back and hear it in the rising buzz of insects in the cattails.

June Bugs

In St. Louis, the June Bug is an annual summer visitor. When they first arrive, they startle you tapping on the window. They whack and crack on the glass until you get up to see who’s at the door; then you remember the yearly summer flight of these brown beetles.

These bugs are harmless to humans but unpopular nonetheless. In large numbers, they can damage lawns or crops. They make people squirm when they bombard porchlights and screen doors. Their armored little bodies and thorny little legs give them an unsettling prehistoric look.

But have no doubt: they aren’t going anywhere. They were here long before we were. Every year, they will announce their arrival with a buzz straight into a brick wall. And they’ll depart in a lifeless parade, floating down the lazy river and into the filters of the community pool.

Summer Morning Steam

The glory of a summer morning awaits anyone who can stand to get up early. For the first few hours of sunlight, the cool of the nighttime hangs around. On summer evenings, the parks buzz with runners and free concerts and cyclists and food trucks, so you have to beat the crowd if you want to find some quiet. An early morning walk is your best bet to get a taste of solitude.

The crickets will stay out and sing well past sunrise, perhaps reluctant to go to bed while the rest of the world awakens. The birds chatter in the morning, too, and don’t sing through the day anymore as they did in spring. In these early hours, the heat hasn’t yet taken hold. But there’s always the same ghost of yesterday’s heat hanging around to make sure you know that heat is coming back again: the humidity.

It’s that moisture and the warmth that give a summer morning a scent all its own. The wet, warming grass brings back some of life’s best memories. It’s the smell of summer camps, morning hikes, family vacations, an early start on the yardwork. The smell of summers before jobs, summers off of school, summers for playing outside.

Fleeting Flowers

The daylily buds have been swollen for weeks, and now they are finally blooming. It’s been an unusually mild and rainy June, but the arrival of the daylilies is sure sign that summer has indeed arrived.

It’s hard to find a flaw with these flowers. They do best in full sun, but they do fine in shade, too. Their cascading green foliage sticks around even when the flowers aren’t in bloom. They can tolerate both oversaturation and drought.

Easy as they are to grow, they’re not a common-looking flower. Daylilies can be huge, opulent, multi-colored, and fascinatingly ornate. There’s a kind for every inclination–they’re easy to hybridize, so there’s a wide variety to choose from. It’s so surprisingly simple, you might be tempted to try it yourself.

First, choose the two daylilies that you want to cross. Take the anther from one daylily and brush its pollen on the stigma of the second. It’s as simple as that. You’ll know you’ve succeeded if a seed pod appears on the pollinated plant. You can harvest those seeds once they’ve matured and plant them. Now comes the hard part: you wait. Even if the daylilies sprout that first year, they won’t necessarily bloom. So it will probably take 2 years or more for you to see the results of your experiment.

The one flaw of the plant is in its name. “Daylily” comes from its scientific name, Hemerocallis, which translates to “beauty for a day.” Each flower blooms for just one day before it starts to close, wither, and fall away. It will soon be replaced by a new bloom, so the plants manage to remain colorful through the whole blooming season. Still, these fleeting flowers advise us that even the strongest among us are only here on Earth for a short while. It’s a gentle reminder to enjoy each beautiful thing in its own brief moment.