|Back road, Leelanau, October|
One day in August the eye catches a few leaves turned prematurely red on an otherwise green tree, and that red-bearing twig is an intimation, but it is still August, after all, until August slides seamlessly into September, but even then every day is still full of warmth and sun or, if rain comes along, the thunderstorms come like summer rain, passing quickly, with returning blue sky and warm light and every petal and leaf and edge in sharp, bright focus and lake waters still inviting swimmers free of school, and it seems that this year, at last, impossible wishes will be granted, and summer will never end. The solstice slips by, unremarked. And then one day it comes.
People sniff the air like dogs. Some shiver and reach for sweaters, while others breathe deeply and smile. The air is damp and carries a rich, earthy aroma of mold and decay. All around, warm life appears wrapped in a thin, transparent, crackling sheet of interstellar cold, the heat and the cold held in tension, equally powerful, the outcome of their struggle still in doubt, while underfoot the soil is breathing so slowly it almost seems to be holding its breath, and by the edge of the woods, where yesterday there was only grass and Queen Anne’s-lace and milkweed, today there is a silent ring of small brown mushrooms, and further down the hill a cluster of puffballs, and out in the meadow the deep rose and pale lavender and deep purple of asters have opened to the late-arriving dawn.
“Indian summer,” say the tourists, happy for the fall color, but there’s been no hard frost yet. This is simply fall. Summer is over at last.
Maybe there will be Indian summer after the frost this year, and maybe there won’t. For now, apples, pumpkins and squash jostle late sweet corn, tomatoes and zucchini at the busy farmstands, and while the time for elderberries and blueberries is past, ripe blackberries can yet be plucked from unruly canes. (It’s too soon to gather wild grapes, which need a frost to make them sweet.) Hay has been cut and baled. Here and there sowings of winter rye green the fields.
Hawks sightings are rarer now, although for weeks the hawks were everywhere, along the highways and high above the fields. The memory of monarch butterflies, single individuals and rare, sparse clouds, is prolonged by shared photographs and stories, as Canada geese, the last of the season’s migrants to depart, gather on the ground to debate flight schedules.
Wild turkeys are gathering, also, in larger and larger groups, but they, like the chickadees, will stay throughout the winter. They are not fair-weather residents. The deer will stay, too, as will coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and all species of mouse.
Ah, the mice! Whenever there is a sudden change in the weather, mice can be expected to invade the house. Days and nights suddenly become cold, the first fall nights of furnace heat, triggering a rush of immigrants, but months later on a winter thaw will bring them in again. As long as the weather is settled, they seem to stay put. It’s different with the coyotes, abroad on every calm night and still day, signaling to each other with yips and howls, coming nearer the house or at least seeming too, their voices perhaps only sounding closer as the air grows colder.