At Summer’s End, a Moment of Wild Surprise
NASHVILLE — Then, just like that, the light changed, taking on the autumnal slant that turns dust motes into flecks of fire and deepens the color of songbirds’ feathers, so bright and new now after the August molt. Suddenly it is fall, whatever the temperature might suggest.
There are two ways of marking the change of seasons. Meteorological fall begins on the first day of September. Astronomical fall begins with the autumnal equinox, which this year occurs on Thursday. The disparity between the dates is owing to the specialties involved: Astronomers account for the changing seasons by observing the earth’s tilt, while meteorologists, it probably goes without saying, divide the seasons according to the weather. For meteorologists, summer is comprised of June, July and August, the three hottest months of the year.
In Tennessee, summertime temperatures have always persisted long past the first day of meteorological fall. Nowadays they persist long past the first day of astronomical fall, too. Often it is still summer here deep into October, even November. Sometimes there is no fall at all — we go directly from roasting to freezing, and the leaves drop from the trees without ever pausing to blush.
The planet is tilting anyway, and many migratory creatures take their cue from the changing light even as all the others are still panting in the shade.
This year we all got a surprise break. Early in September, a front rolled in from the north, bringing foggy mornings and cooler nights. The temperature dropped and the dew point dropped, and everything changed. It felt the way I imagine it might feel to be a troubled soul welcomed unexpectedly into heaven.
The break in the heat was never going to last. Nevertheless, “We must risk delight,” as the poet Jack Gilbert writes in “A Brief for the Defense,” and the loveliness held for longer than I had any reason to hope — day after day of blessedly cooler mornings, dewy mornings with the bumblebees in the balsam flowers sleeping late, waiting to be warmed into flight again. My dog Rascal stopped giving me the side eye when I invited him for a walk. I ought to have used the break in the heat to pull the invasive creeping Charlie and mulberry weed out of my flower beds, but I could only sit on our stoop with the skinks, soaking in the tender sun.
The wild creatures in our yard go about their business in all the usual ways of autumn, adjusting as they always do to both the changing light and the cooler temperatures. Our resident broadhead skink suns herself a little more often on the front stoop these days, sometimes joined now by a five-lined skink and a smaller broadhead. I had to stick a Post-it note to the storm door to remind myself to make sure it latched behind me whenever I stepped outside. I don’t want Rascal to get out and terrorize our skink neighbors.
Best of all, September ushered in the butterflies.
It has been a poor year for butterflies until now. I’d seen quite a few skippers, plus a few clouded sulphurs and a couple of a hackberry emperors, but only one ragged gulf fritillary and not a single swallowtail or monarch. It has been a surprisingly good year for bees in this yard, and that’s heartening, but fate seemed to have other plans for the butterflies.
Then a female monarch showed up, followed by a tiger swallowtail followed by a black swallowtail. A few days later a second monarch arrived, this one a male, and stayed in the pollinator garden all day long. Another gulf fritillary found our native purple passion vine, and then another found it too. Before long I was seeing gulf fritillaries every day, and most were laying eggs. Now the passion vines are covered with gulf fritillary caterpillars. Soon the passion fruits will ripen and fall to the ground, where they will feed the squirrels and raccoons, skunks and foxes. I have a bumper crop of passion fruits this year, thanks to the industrious carpenter bees. It’s been a good year for bees in more ways than one.
In “Braiding Sweetgrass,” Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the story of her first-year intake interview at the university’s forestry school. When the interviewer asked her to explain her choice of major, she writes, “I told him that I chose botany because I wanted to learn why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.”
I think of her story every year when the passion vines are feeding the gulf fritillary caterpillars, and the carpenter bees are pollinating the passionflowers, and the passion fruits are ripening to feed everybody else. The whole lovely cycle is happening just behind the place in my pollinator garden where the goldenrod and the asters look so beautiful together.
People ask me sometimes if I had to wait for my parents to die before I could write my first book, an account of my happy but complicated childhood. What they are asking, I know, is how my parents would feel to find themselves the subject of a book that doesn’t gloss over the family sadness that seems to be inevitable, even within happy childhoods.
No, I always say. My parents were humiliatingly proud of me, and they loved it when I wrote about our family. They would dearly have loved to see themselves in a book with my name on the cover.
But there is one sense in which the answer to such questions is also yes. My parents had to die, and my children had to grow up, before I could let myself settle into the sweetness of the earth again, before I could drop the vigilance of caregiving, the constant scrolling worries of caregiving, and be restored, if only at times, to the state in which I spent my childhood: unaware of time and its relentless, despotic unfolding.
I didn’t believe, back in the days of tending others’ needs, that I could give myself over to the pleasure of sitting on a front stoop in the morning sunshine. I could have — I absolutely could have done it — but it seemed impossible.
And yet, even then, time was passing. Summer was giving way to fall, year in and year out, and fall was giving way to winter. Gradually, without even noticing it, I began to surrender to the moments again — to the timeless time of sleepy bees and sunning lizards and nodding flowers and butterflies that float from aster to goldenrod all the mild day long.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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