14 August 2006

Half Past August, fifteen minutes to autumn

One of the writing projects I’ve been doing for almost ten years is a tiny monthly community newspaper called The Canning Gazette. It was started as a project by the Canning Village Commission back in 1987 as a way to support local businesses, and was operated for its first 100+ issues by the highly talented Ron MacInnis. He passed the torch to me in late 1996, and I’ve been putting the Gazette together ever since.

I describe the Gazette as one part history, one part humour, one part hard news information and all parts heart. What I really like is when readers send me tidbits, essays, stories, that they’ve written or collected and kept for years. One of our reader families sent me a story clipped from a very old and yellowed New York newspaper, date unknown; the piece was called Half-past August, and talks about how suddenly the natural world around us has shifted from spring, early and midsummer to late summer, heading for autumn.

Yikes: it’s true. Just over two weeks until September; another three weeks to equinox, and the beginning of fall. A look around our yard confirms this. The perennial asters are about to bloom, and the wild ones have just started. Goldenrod is flush with colour, and the allergy-sufferers are lamenting the flowering of ragweed—for it’s ragweed that is the maker of sneezes, watery eyes, itchy skin and other downright miserable symptoms, not goldenrod with its heavy pollen that doesn’t float through the air! Dijya know that?

Onwards. The garden and the native meadows and woodlands are each telling their own stories of where we’re heading, weather wise. The milkweeds are starting to form seedpods, where they haven’t been chewed by enthusiastic Monarch butterfly caterpillars. This will be the generation that heads for Mexico for the winter, living 5-7 months instead of mere weeks. The highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum) and doublefile viburnum (V. plicatum ‘Mariesii’ are both starting to ripen fruit, though my doublefile still has a few flowers clinging to its branches. The perennial phlox is in full, fragrant flower. The later-flowering grasses are getting ready to put up their remarkable plumes of silken flowers; the big Miscanthus cultivars, primarily, ‘Silberfeder’ and ‘Graziella’ as the Calamagrostis have already flowered nicely. The hostas have about finished their floral display, but some of the clematis have yet to begin flowering. The echinaceas are in their peak, and the rudbeckias closing on them fast with their bronzed and golden blooms. Bursts of globe thistle and sea holly provide cooler colours of blue and lavender to all the hotcolour flowers that herald autumn’s approach.

The woodlands tell similar tales. There are beginning to be hints of colour in some of the hardwoods—those that haven’t been chewed to ribbons by tussock moth caterpillars and other rapacious critters, of course. Thistles are going to seed, and the centres of the pearly everlasting have turned from soft gold to deeper bronze. The wild orchids have finished their blossoming, although at the shore the beach peas and sea lungwort are still providing exotic and wonderful bursts of colour. (I wish I could grow these in my yard, but we’re just a little too far from the shore—a mile or so, too high to be considered really coastal.) In the woods, the ghost plants, Indian pipe and Pinesap, chlorophyll-lacking species that are parasitic or saprophytic, put their pale, nodding stems and flowers up under trees, alongside the outrageous outbursts of colour from marvelous mushrooms—but have a care with the shrooms! Here’s a field mushroom, an innocent and edible Agaricus campestris, nestled next to a deadly Destroying Angel, Amanita virosa.

The light is changing, too. Not only is sunrise later and sunset earlier every day, there’s a peculiar golden light in the late afternoons. William Faulkner wrote about the Light In August, and it is distinctive, a harbinger of rapidly shortening days and cooler nights and what is to come in a few more weeks.

And the birds are changing. The swallows have fledged their young, and I think they’ve left our barn now. The young mallard ducklings from the pond up the road came down in a flock to visit our pond, and have now moved on. The goldfinches are starting to look tarnished, losing their brilliant colour of earlier in the year, and someone told me the male hummingbirds have already left for warmer climates. The females are definitely still here, madly flitting from flower to feeder to flower to the window to scold me if the feeders are empty, but soon they too will be gone. I’ll miss them, because we’ve had so many this year and they’ve charmed us daily. But they’ll be back, and I’ll be here to greet them, with any luck at all.

Half-past August, and fifteen minutes to autumn.

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