Seasonal Speculations


August in California is hot—temperatures of 103 or more are not uncommon on our place. The dirt has long since become powder-fine and rises from the earth at the slightest breeze. When you walk, little puffs of dust hover around each footstep. In the years when there have been fires, the smoke and dust in the air turn ordinary sunsets into pyrotechnic displays of color. The animals move slowly, seeking the shade, lashing out with tail and hoof against the maddening flies. In the hottest part of the day, everyone, human and animal alike, indulges in the custom of siesta.

But it is in this month that you can feel the approach of winter. The first sign is a cooling in the air, very subtle and easily missed unless you are paying close attention. When the windows are opened in the evening, a faint chill wafts through, laying to rest the oppressive heat of the day. There is a scent of dew in the early morning which has been absent from the summer; the shade of a tree is thick and smells of damp earth instead of dust. Days begin to warm more slowly. Instead of vaulting into the sky with a blare of heat, the sun seems to rise yawning in leisurely fashion, while evenings are cool enough to sit outside—or would be if not for the mosquitoes. Insects become even more annoying during August. The flies are a plague of buzzing, biting fury, much worse than in June. It’s as if they know their time is short.

Plants know—the oak trees have been water-stressed for weeks now, their leaves turning brown at the edges. As the air cools, the brown areas enlarge, take on russet and gold hues, and leaves begin to fall. All deciduous trees lose a few leaves every day, but when the autumn leaf drop begins in late August, you start to see the showers and swirls that herald the fall equinox. In the garden, annuals and perennials alike hurry to ripen seed. Fall-blooming wildflowers begin their show. Tiny asters with white petals shaded a faint purple dot the pastures, and California goldenrod begins to appear along the roadsides. Queen Anne’s Lace changes from starry white umbels to fantastic and delicate traceries of dusty green geodesic spheres. Nightshade berries take on the purple-black of ripeness.

Flocks of robins descend on the irrigated pastures—many in the speckled white of immaturity—to hunt for worms before they head south. They come in waves; first the females and hatchlings, then the males. Geese begin to gather, and the occasional formation heads in a southerly direction. An attentive birdwatcher will notice that the wild turkeys have changed their foraging patterns, and the old palomino broodmare need not gobble her grain so quickly to keep the turkeys from stealing it. The flocks have cleaned up after both mare and milk cow all summer, growing bolder each day, but now they seek the ripening acorns which have begun to fall from the oaks.

All the animals are readying themselves for the cold. A bear has found the blackberries and gorges on whatever it can reach, ripe and unripe alike. We have—so far—seen only the tracks, but the bushes tell the tale. Small family flocks of quail share in the feast, exploding from underfoot like feathered shot. The horses have begun to grow their winter coats, and sweat readily in the hot midday sun. My pigs stand under the hose in delight and wallow happily in the resulting mud, but they too have thicker hair. Chickens, having finished their molt, gleam in the sunlight as they scratch for bugs (how I wish they could eat mosquitoes!). The cow is a little less productive, applying her grass intake to adding fat instead of making milk.

As I watch all these changes I wonder how a city dweller tracks the changing seasons. Anyone can tell when the leaves change, but what are the subtleties of suburbia? What signs do they note—the resumption of the school year? Sales of fall clothing? The Labor Day holiday? I note the hornets killing wasps to provide food for the last larvae of the year and speculate on the impact of the disconnect between humans and the natural world.  It cannot be a good thing to be so distant from the busy life of the wild that you know winter is approaching only because the display windows now have wool sweaters instead of bathing suits.

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