Harvest Moon

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.

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.

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.

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.