Today I admitted in writing that, when it comes to signs of autumn, I am not eager. It’s too hot to think or write in terms of “crisp.” Most disconcerting, I can’t tell the difference between drought-generated changes and those caused by what botanists call “photoperiod” changes in our landscape (photoperiod being a technical term for the period of daylight in every 24 hours, particularly as it relates to plants and animals).
First of all, YES, autumn will arrive — as I forcefully reminded everyone before last (hesitant) spring when our Delaware was white with floes. Even though you’re still requiring air-conditioning in car, office, and home, photoperiod is shortening, markedly so. On the day this column is printed, the autumn solstice, the sun rises at 6:48 a.m. and sets at 6:54 p.m., nearly three hours less daylight than we enjoyed on the summer solstice on June 21, when the sun rose at 5:29 a.m. and set at 8:32 p.m. Plants and animals are visibly responding. Some, such as Hudsonian godwits, have already left.
One of the merriest fall heralds is the monarch butterfly. Although seriously imperiled by our ruination of its wildflower habitats, especially milkweed, these creatures hatch and fly off, no matter the temperature. Once a person whose yard is butterfly-certified brought me three of her monarchs, which had emerged in the night. She put one on my finger — its minuscule legs seemingly so fragile, yet intensively powerful. That flash of orange and black rested for seconds before zooming off in the correct direction. It had left its chrysalis in North Jersey and ridden to Princeton on the front seat of a car, before beginning the phenomenal journey. It knew where south was. When there are monarchs, it’s autumn.
Another inescapable sign of fall requires a journey to osprey habitats, such as Forsythe Wildlife Refuge above Atlantic City; Salem and Cumberland counties on the Delaware Bay; or Sandy Hook, a.k.a. Gateway National Recreation Area, Monmouth County, though within sight of Manhattan.
In all three sites, it’s been a spectacular year for young osprey. What’s fascinating is that these families do not migrate together. Not only do the young travel on their own timetable; but the parents fly south separately, wintering separately, the adults returning to the same nest on the same April day. If you’re driving and hiking these refuges and there are few to no osprey right now, autumn migration has begun.
One of the blurry places is Hodge Road in Princeton. Densely shaded by huge leathery sycamore leaves, the intriguingly camouflaged trees, called “puzzle trunks” by my daughters, sycamores “like wet feet.” They are granted no such thing on Hodge. Every year, drought or no drought, those leaves thud to the ground, all too early, lining curbs and crunching underfoot, reminding us that summer isn’t forever.
A blithe fall reminder is the precious wood aster. Short, even delicate, its sun-centered pointy white blossoms thrive even in dark woods, such as along Sourland Mountain trails. On a recent overcast day, wood asters gave my Sourlands hiking companion and me the impression of fallen stars below the tree trunks.
A blurry signal is the so-called sensitive fern. Oddly enough, when green, this plant looks like the toughest fern in the forest. It’s taller than most (not taller than Christmas fern or ostrich fern), with very thick rounded leaves. Fragile seeming adjacent ferns, oddly named New York, can endure many more weeks of autumn than can “sensitive.” Usually, brown sensitive ferns, or even gold ones, suggest a whisper of frost. Not this year. All the way through the Pine Barrens, the understory is gold, despite 90-plus degree records. I ascribe that hue to drought, not temperature.
I usually look for crimson and scarlet to reassure me that my (normally) favorite season is at hand. These tones are the gift of Longfellow’s “woodbine” (otherwise known as Virginia creeper) and, of all things, poison ivy. I’ve heard naturalists explain the fiery hues as “restaurant signs” for the birds — signaling that berries are ripe for the eating. I haven’t seen those colors yet this year. However, their fruit is seriously abundant, as is bayberry and juniper/cedar. Suggesting a serious winter, but I’m ahead of myself.
Now there IS pokeweed. More magenta than scarlet, it dangles berry clusters that turn o so gradually from chartreuse to obsidian. In Colonial days, settlers knew to be on guard as pokeweed came ripe. Those berries, although the weed is said to be poison one way and another, were used by Indians for war paint. When their harvest was complete, pokeweed was fully ripe, and war paint ritually smeared with fierce intent. This was the real “Indian Summer.”
Birders, if they study their Sibleys assiduously, are granted many cues to the new season. Breeding plumage fades. Phrases like “transition” and “eclipse” are heard along birding trails. The black-bellied plover loses his eponymous belly, whitening to a blinding degree. Laughing gulls no longer sport vintage burgundy tones along effective beaks. Certain terns (especially Forster’s) trade black heads for remnant streaks, like eye shadow.
Canada geese molt flight feathers after the young are successfully hatched and fledged. For most of the summer, we don’t see many Canada geese; and we surely do not hear them. Even though hardly any form into Vs and take off south any more, they cannot fly anywhere until new flight feathers are strong enough. I have a theory that they only honk this time of year when on the wing. That’s why it’s startling suddenly to hear them. A week ago, three cacophonous geese flew over my Lawrenceville apartment.
Some autumnal changes are frankly depressing. Ash trees brown and drop too soon. The exquisite white lace named for Queen Anne (I doubt she made lace) furls into tight fists, the color of sand at best. Brown-eyed Susans turn into dark shoe buttons. Bee balm has nourished a plethora of bees and other pollinators (butterflies, hummingbird moths). Each nectared petal fades and crisps. But hives fill and butterflies begin their incredible journeys.
I’ve seen a swamp maple or two, not in a swamp, coppery bright against all its green cousins. Gold leaves swirled along the expensive curbs of elegant Rumson, New Jersey, on Labor Day, en route to look for “confusing fall warblers” at Sandy Hook.
In autumn, a part of me remains in my Michigan childhood countryside. By September, air had crisped. Each high school year, I’d give a cider and donut party in our Royal Oak recreation room, popping corn in a black long-handled contraption over that night’s blaze.
Our mantlepiece would be decorated with native (there wasn’t any other kind) tangerine-hued bittersweet in antique pewter mugs. Our cider had frothed from burlap and wood at the Franklin Cider Mill, into hefty jugs to carry home for my friends. Daddy would have found a barrel, so everyone could bob for apples. I was terrible at this!
Wood smoke and cinnamon and apples meant autumn then. I had never heard of photoperiod.