The beginning of fall’s farewell

A final symphony of sight and sound as summer’s garden fades to autumn and cold weather.

Jim Cole/AP
Seasonal goodbye: Sunflowers droop in October in a Madbury, N.H., garden.

“I was saying ‘goodbye’ to the garden,” she said with a smile.

“Goodbye?” It was 3 o’clock on a warm Friday afternoon in the middle of October.

“Yes. By the time I get back, the frost of this weekend will have killed a lot here.”

That night at 9:30, with the wind blowing in summery gusts at my back and stars and a full moon pouring in light from a sky not too far away, I climbed the garden’s railing fence and began my last walk before the anticipated freeze came through. Our dog, Gizzy, slipped joyfully under the lowest bar and parted stiff marigolds just ahead.

Like a young mist, trillings of crickets lay over the fieldlike garden. Autumn had slowed the activities of people but not the tide of singing insects that now were praising the rise of late-season grasses and a few weeds. Their reedy voices spoke of the season now straddling the bar that seems to separate early fall from deep autumn.

Along the woodland edge, the rasping notes of katydids also clung to the departing skirt of this moment.

My trouser legs were being scratched by toughened flower stalks. I flicked on the beam of my small flashlight and isolated the blur of a little moth as it moved cloudlike up the stem of a pink zinnia.

Like the moth, the trilling of each cricket seemed like a blur rather than a distinct source of sound. The insects’ voices would rise and fall, like bit players at the edge of a stage, and fade away as I leaned close. As I left the garden, a scent of marigolds caught me.

So for a moment I turned back into the garden’s light wind. A patch of blossoms, red and yellow, lay beside me, standing out like a ruffled bit of pond surface where a breeze has touched down. Now in my flashlight’s cone the shining eye of a moth glinted up at me like a glowing coal.

Above me rose spare stalks of sunflowers. Birds and the batterings of their slamming against one another had taken away the seeds of the heads, which were now shrunken down to the hard, empty slots of the discs. Elongated, crusty leaves wrapped around themselves like bodiless saris.

I smelled the vague odor of tansy, still yellowish, in the herb garden; Thoreau wrote of it as covering coffins at a funeral. A feathery brushing stroked my face as I leaned over for the acid scent of the fernlike herb southernwood.

Now I could feel the nearing end. I began to live each moment more intensely. So it was that the grinding and scuffling of pebbles underfoot in the parking lot announced in sharply distinct footsteps to all that my dog and I were departing. An airplane winged its headlights under a gathering cloud cover, above the warm wind of this lingering autumn.

I leaned on a fence rail for a last look at the beginnings, our beginnings, whistled for Gizzy, and noted that my flashlight now dimmed its light briefly, like a curtain call as I, too, said “goodbye” in comfortable night air.

Red-legged grasshoppers, which can do more damage to crops than any other of our northern grasshoppers, sprang loose as though called upon to signal the end of the season.

Diets here are changing. Goldfinches, for instance, shifted from their diet relatively recently and fairly rapidly, as when Europeans landed on the continent and brought what is now one of their favorites, the seeds of dandelions and Canada thistle.

The finches have changed not only their feeding ways but perhaps also their nesting habits to suit the timing of the thistles – for those go to seed late.

Around us, goldfinches begin nesting around September, using as lining the silken parachutes that are attached to thistle seeds. A secondary advantage also accrues to this delay: Their broods appear after those of cowbirds, which have arisen by parasitizing the nests of other birds.

For humans, a rather dramatic change in diet occurred as settlers drove west and encountered a relative of the wild potato, sand bur, in the drier southern and eastern parts of today’s Colorado. The insect we now know familiarly as the Colorado potato beetle that then enjoyed sand burs moved right over to the foreign potato and even followed its cultivated path back east.

And then I heard it from the edge of the woods: a nuthatch calling “rush-rush.” In its anticipation I, too, now looked forward to the season that was coming, that would soon swirl about our lights and rap softly for the message, “Come in.”

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