August’s final days showcase a season in the midst of change. Just take a moment to look around around any nearby meadow, prairie, or rural fencerow. The overall dress of these unassuming landscapes is neither altogether summer nor quite yet autumn. Rather a bit of both—like the blurred mix of colors on a spinning pinwheel.
Goldenrod, ironweed, cardinal flower, Jerusalem artichoke, blazing star, Joe Pye weed, sunflowers, forget-me-nots, and bluest-of-blue fringed gentians, providing you know where to look. Too, a few precursory New England asters, magnificently regal and able to dress up any field or fence-corner.
Mostly yellow and gold and purple blooms. The same plants you’ll still find flowering throughout September. Bright splashes of color providing a closer-to-the-ground counter-balance to the higher-up canopy’s kaleidoscope of changing leaves.
Many of these hardy wildflowers will even outlast autumn’s leaf-fall—enduring all the way into the chilled barrenness of November.
For now, though, it’s still summer, and will remain summer for one more month—at least by the calendar’s official proclamation.
Yet it’s undeniably a different summer than the one we began back in June. That newborn summer has changed fundamentally—aging, maturing, transforming.
Yes, the weather is still hot, with several days last week topping the 90 degree mark. But we’ve already lost nearly two full hours of daylight since the season began—and we’ll lose even more before it ends.
These last-of-summer days dawn misty and damp. The sun takes its time rising. Midday air often carries a subtle tang—a mix of warm dust and dry grass with the vaguest hint of cider and wood smoke.
Fox grapes hang in purple pods along the river. Hickory leaves are beginning to rust. The pawpaws are ripening.
Katydids have started scratching their repetitious songs into the dark, reminding us of that old country adage “six weeks from first katydid call to first frost.”
Late summer is a season of prophecy and fulfillment—of promises already kept and promises now being made.
The kitchen table fairly creaks under the weight of the garden’s bounty. Sweet corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, onions, carrots, peppers, melons, new potatoes.
It takes almost nothing to work gastronomic magic on this wonderful abundance—salt, pepper, olive oil, butter, vinegar. Simple ingredients, rudimentary cooking. Or no cooking—because raw is often delicious.
Real vegetables, these, not plastic-tasting supermarket fakes badly masquerading as wholesome and flavorful food. You only need bite into a just-picked backyard tomato to know what you’ve been missing all those months following the end of last year’s harvest. We daily fill our gathering baskets with these crimson treasures.
Late-summer’s nutritious and tasty wealth began with a promissory seed, which we—in that ancient covenant between man and earth—planted in faith last spring. We then watered, hoed, and nurtured our plants through weather, bugs and other sundry perils.
Like most rewards, the gardener’s bounty becomes all the more exquisite for having been earned.
Apples, too, are turning ripe—at least the late-summer varieties. Thin-skinned green-to-yellow transparents, are old-fashioned fruit and delightfully tart-sweet. Available for only a brief time, their storage life is equally short. You might find a basket for sale at a roadside stand, but not the big-box grocery.
I first gathered and tasted such apples in earliest youth—probably not long after I learned to walk. My grandparents, who lived just up the street, had a huge, multi-trunked tree in their backyard. I loved those sour apples, and grew up eating them raw, fried with butter and brown sugar, or baked into soft apple-saucy pies.
Nowadays I collect my early apples in the wild from trees stumbled across during outdoor rambles. Gnarled old trees hidden in overgrown tangles. Living remains of long-abandoned family farms.
Just the other evening I stopped by a favorite such tree. I had to wade through near-impenetrable brush, stumbling over foundation stones and scattered chimney bricks lurking among the weeds and knee-high grass, dodging rotting boards with their rusty nails.
The misshapen apples weren’t pretty with their knots and dark ridges. But they were delightfully sour while delivering just a hint of sweetness.
Their taste brought forth a profusion of memories. My heartstrings pulled in every direction…and I didn’t know whether to laugh or sob.
So I simply stood there in the warm meadow—scented grass underfoot, crickets chirruping as twilight gathered—savoring the taste of another late summer as a passel of moments long gone replayed in my head.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org