When you talk about the season change from summer to fall, there are two slightly different definitions. Meteorological fall begins September 1 and runs through the months of September, October and November. Astronomical Fall is marked by the Autumnal Equinox on September 22 and ends with the Winter Solstice on December 21. We in the western part of New York State, often find ourselves enjoying mild weather the first couple of weeks of September, but autumn makes itself felt by the middle of the month. Most likely, a Canadian high pressure zone will push a cold front down with an accompanying low pressure zone and some rain. After the front passes, the cooler temperatures will slide in behind. Sometimes this will bring a sudden early frost, but usually it is just a gentle reminder that we need to start pulling out sweaters and flannel shirts.
The birdsong changes with the weather. The barn swallows with their chatty morning wire sitting have flown south. The killdeer comes back from its late summer wandering to sing under the full moon and the cardinals and jays are more in evidence. The chickadees’ song changes to one more like that they will sing on cold winter mornings and the nuthatches are back. We get a few migrating hummingbirds, our summer residents having already flown south. The little females chatter at each other and sip the late garden phlox and bee balm and visit the porch baskets of fuchsias.
They are here and gone, leaving the rest of the season’s nectar to the bees. The bluebirds are out in the side yard, questioning whether they should stay a bit longer and the blackbirds, redwings, grackles and starlings make flocks and visit the recently harvested grain fields, sounding like a crowd at a football game when they pause for a moment in the evergreens behind the house and on the silo roofs. The non-migrating Canada geese form up in vees as if they might think about the trip, but end up just flying from one field to the next, grazing and gleaning.
Football season comes with the beginning of the school year and on Saturday afternoons in towns small and large, you can find the playing fields behind the high school filled with teams and spectators. Under blue skies early in the season, and cloudier late, there is a sharing of high spirits and good sportsmanship as the teams battle up and down the field, cheerleaders and fans carried in the tide of their joy in the game.
On the farm, we are still harvesting hay, as the weather allows. Most farms around get ready to harvest corn for silage and high moisture corn, watching the maturity and the weather. Corn for silage is best chopped before the frost, but after the ‘milk’ in the kernels has begun to dry down. If left too long, it will be too dry and lose much of its nutrient value. If cut too soon, it will be too wet and spoil in silo or bunk. It is always a dance with the season to get it in at just the right time.
This is the time of year when hurricanes that can pound the Gulf Coast or eastern seaboard to a pulp will sometimes slip north and beat us up a bit all this way inland. In a bad year, they can bring an abrupt halt to fall, pulling cold Canadian air down in their wake and putting paid to any pleasant weather. It doesn’t happen often, and with any luck it won’t happen at all, but it must be mentioned.
As September drifts into October, the leaves rid themselves of the chlorophyll that has kept them green all summer and put on a show of their true colors.
The maples shade from lemony yellows through true oranges to bright and deeper reds. The ash trees deck themselves in smoky purples and the birch and popple trees wear bright and brassy yellows. The oak leaves weather to a leathery tan and the cherry trees become a peachy shade. My youngest daughter, when she was little and in the throes of a bright and beautiful October, once said that she wanted to eat a tree. She settled for a juicy apple, another sure sign of fall.
October will surely bring frosts, when the temperatures overnight dip down just below the freezing point and blacken the tenderest plants. Frosts are followed by freezes, the biting cold that stills the growth in all but the most hardy of plants. The fields and gardens become muted, annuals die and perennials sleep. With luck, we won’t have snow until late October, but first snow is almost always followed by Indian Summer, a warming break before the season turns more seriously to what will come.
November brings grey skies and bare branches that sing a warning song in the wind. The rains that sweep through are cold, threaten to clump up and stick to the grass. The fields have gone to browns and tans, softening in the pale sunlight. Days become shorter and the season slides to its end. We feel a bit of the ancestral fear of the darkening and gather our families together for a holiday of thanksgiving for the seasons and harvest past.
Fall comes to its end as the snows begin, laying a silence across the fields.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on September 18, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)