EVERY YEAR THERE’S A DAY when summer gives way suddenly to autumn. Last year it began before dawn on September 30, when the temperature fell from the fifties into the forties and a powerful wind funneled down the Great Lakes. By midmorning, waves had reached twelve feet. NOAA measured one rogue near the center of Lake Michigan at twenty feet.
A week earlier Gail and I had walked to the meadow behind our house and found summer still lingering. It was September 22, the autumn equinox, but except for the scarlet sumac it could have been July. We walked through goldenrod, knapweed, thistle, and New England aster, all in robust blossom. Honeybees droned and grasshoppers skittered ahead of us.
Usually we’ve had a spell of cold weather by the end of September, but last year the season was slow to change. There had been no frost and none of those sudden, slanting rains so characteristic of autumn in Great Lakes country. The days stayed bright and warm and the nights mild.
Of course we knew all the things we love about fall were coming, followed, perhaps sooner than we wished, by winter. We’d been noticing subtle changes since August, when the afternoon light grew brassy as the sun eased lower in the, and the nights began to cool. Starlings were flocking and lining up on telephone lines, sometimes in such numbers that the wires sagged dangerously. Along the Great Lakes shores monarch butterflies fluttered southward on their way to the mountains of Mexico. People on the beach lay in the sun or swam, but you could sense an urgency. They knew every day might be the last.
Autumn reminds us to enjoy every day. It reminds us, also, of transience and mortality. I mentioned once to my friend Emily Thompson, who is a biologist at Washtenaw Community College, that I sensed oblivion when apples fell to the ground to rot and animals disappeared into their burrows for the winter. Emily pointed out that I was being short-sighted. The seeds in decaying fruit and the animals that hibernate are not falling into oblivion, but merely waiting for spring. They are “sort of spring-loaded,” she said, “ready to bust out with offspring at the first warm weather.”
We’re spring-loaded, too, and can take comfort knowing that renewal is waiting on the other side of the sun. In the meantime we have October, the scent of burning leaves, hunting camp, the flame colors in the trees, those slanting rains rattling against the windshield. That morning last year when waves rushed the length of Lake Michigan and the temperature plummeted, I slipped into a down jacket, put on a wool cap, and walked out to meet the season straight on.
[Originally published in Michigan Blue Magazine, Autumn 2015. Copyright Jerry Dennis]