The first full day of autumn is as quiet as it is cool. There is a stillness in the air that envelopes the landscape with sounds seeming to carry further than normal. A lone crow calls in the distance, perhaps the same one who cried out in the spring to herald the return of the sun. The leaves on the trees on the edge of the field seem slightly lighter this morning. One has a sense that the master artist is about to begin work with her palette of autumn colors on the seasonal masterpiece that we are all awaiting. The sun is shining this morning, but it will not climb as high in the sky as it did in the throws of summer. Today, the sun will only shine for a few minutes longer than twelve hours. Tomorrow, it will shine almost three minutes less.
As the sun migrates to the south, it will leave us just enough warmth to survive until its return. Until then, all of nature must prepare for the long night ahead. Some have departed already, beginning their hundreds, even thousand mile journey to follow the sun south. Others will leave soon. They bid farewell, and travelers from further north can can be seen passing overhead periodically, using the flyways that their ancestors used and passed on to them. It turns out that many migrations are learned activities passed down through generations.
While many of these travelers will return next spring, some will not. The monarch butterflies have left, and none of those individuals will return in the spring. The current adults will begin the 2800 mile journey to Mexico and return trip that will involve three generations! We will welcome their children and some grandchildren in the spring, but for the individuals who have left, they will never return. Everything they do is for the next generation. They quite literally give their lives to make the journey for their offspring. It will be their grandchildren to whom we say goodbye next autumn.
Many species of bees and wasps will reduce their thriving colonies to but a few whose sole job is to rebuild the species in the spring. Some will dig into the soil and hibernate. Some will lay eggs that will emerge in the spring, and others will keep a skeleton crew whose job it is to keep the queen alive. Every year, these insects, and many others, literally teeter on the brink of local extinction. If the sun failed to return the warmth in the spring for even one season, their numbers would be devastated.
Some animals will hibernate, some using very elaborate biological means. Some amphibians will produce an antifreeze in their blood that will protect their cells from freeze damage. Then their bodies will shut down to within a heartbeat of death. The warmth of the spring sun will trigger a process that will revive and reanimate them. Some mammals will eat extra food in the fall and hibernate in a state of suspended animation that will require less energy to maintain. They will emerge in the spring hungry, but very much alive.
Annual plants will release their seed pods, hardened for the impending winter. In fact some will require a freeze/thaw cycle before they will germinate. Perennial plants will invoke strategies that usually involve some kind of dormant cycle. Meanwhile, a hearty few animals will attempt to live through the winter searching for available food and scrounging out a living in a stingy environment. These hearty creatures will face winter with little fear, and do their best to propagate their species.
We also have a list of tasks that we must accomplish before the long dark night settles in. We have food to store, fields to harvest, and even crops to plant for next season. For example, we need to plant our wheat for next season sometime this week, and we will plant next season’s garlic in the next couple of weeks too. We have repairs, harvests, and fields to clean before the first snow flies. Autumn is also a time for us to slow down a little. While there are no roses left for us to smell, the goldenrods will serve that purpose for us, as we take some time to truly look around. This morning I enjoyed the taste of my coffee a little more than I have lately, and perhaps in the upcoming weeks, I will be able to appreciate the longer evenings and the slower meals. In the meantime, I may just go out on the deck and try to spot some migrating cranes as they pass over the farm one last time this season.