OPINION — There were hints autumn might arrive early this year: a few yellowing leaves high in the canopy of the cottonwoods even though it was only August, the chokecherry’s foliage glowing pink around the edges, and two bright, orange pumpkins growing in our garden long before it was harvest time. Perhaps tired from a summer of heat and no rain, the grass, the trees, and the garden apparently weren’t waiting for the first frost to slide into dormancy.
I can relate. I spent the weekend driving around the state of North Dakota filming for ‘Wish You Were Here.’ As I crisscrossed the hills and valleys around the Missouri River most of the trees were in full regalia, but a surprising amount had already let go of their leaves and stood solemn and gray beside their colorful friends. The views of the autumn splendor were breathtaking, but I found myself attracted more to the trees that were already prepared for the long winter ahead. After a busy summer, the prospect of being homebound and cozy, tucked under blankets as the snow gently falls outside is very inviting.
Today I woke, my first morning back, still groggy from my journey but happy to be in familiar surroundings once again. The kids wanted to go outside as soon as their heads lifted from their pillows — the nest of kittens in one of the outbuildings needed immediate attention — so they were still in jammies when they took off running through the sliding glass door.
“You need coats!” I called.
One foot each hit the chilly cement, and they popped back inside, happy to comply. I even convinced them to don the new-to-us winter boots we’d found at a thrift store in Sioux Falls during filming jaunt earlier this summer.
By 10 a.m., however, breakfast consumed and my little crew of two back at work on important projects, sweater and boots were abandoned. By noon the day smelled faintly of bread baking, the seeded grasses nodding their heavy heads beneath the sun’s keen eye. It was as hot as summer. It’s not summer anymore though, and when the sun sets after supper time this evening the heat caught in the dusty ground will evaporate as quickly as the dew of a midsummer dawn.
Yes, it is now officially autumn, so we already know how it will go — each day the dawn will come a little later, the dusk a little earlier, and the cold that follows the darkness will creep its way steadily into the light as well, until one morning it stays. We will forget how it feels to run barefoot through green grass, the swirling heat of summer slipping over our skin. Those castoff sweaters will be replaced by thick, zippered coats, castoff shoes replaced by woolen socks and snow boots.
No one knows this better than the flowers and the grasses. This year, the field next to our house was seeded with sunflowers. All summer the sunflowers stretched their sturdy stalks skyward, blazing green against the brown dirt. A few weeks ago, the petals finally unfurled, a symphony of yellow amidst the emerald. Now, the petals are brown as the dirt, the faces of the sunflowers dipping back toward the earth. The stalks look as exhausted as I feel, withered and ready to return to their roots. Soon they will. Beyond the field, the wild hills are brown as well, what’s left for the cattle to eat already dried to stands of hay. Everything is getting quieter.
It is its own kind of homecoming, this journey toward winter. Summer is a riot of color, a time of seeking, of expansive heat and endless days. Then it recedes. We lose the ground we’ve gained, but find again the familiar hearth and the solemnity of long cold and dark nights, the prairie slumbering beneath soil in roots and seeds. And tonight, above it all, the moon will rise, her face white as snow and just as silent, reminding us to sleep, and perchance, to dream.
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