Jim McGuire: Summer’s final full month


We’re already a week deep into August—coasting steadily downhill on summer’s slope. In just over six weeks autumn will officially debut.

How can a season zoom by so fast?

Should you consider expressing such concerns aloud, don’t be surprised if you receive the stock answer: “Oh, that’s only how it seems to you. Time just seems to speed up as you get older.”

Nope! You can’t dismissively blame everything on a fellow’s creeping geezerhood!

Perception is reality—and my perceived reality says this year’s version of summer has been galloping along like a runaway mule. Moreover, endless telltale signs reveal the truth of the season’s passage.

Proof begins with the dawn—that first swath of morning light above the eastern horizon, which now arrives noticeably later, and will come later and later still as the month progresses.

Twilight, conversely, begins sooner, steadfastly chewing away at its end of the daylight span. Darkness will materialize ever earlier on each successive day.

We’ve already lost an hour’s worth of daylight since summer’s official beginning. By the end of this month, that loss will be more than doubled.

Light always reveals a season’s status, not only from the parameters of its comings and goings, but also through color and angles. High noon bathed by midwinter light looks nothing like high noon under the light of midsummer. Likewise, the noons of spring and autumn also exhibit their own unique character.

I suspect a good natural observer, given nothing more than a familiar patch of earth as a focus point, and no additional clues such as temperature or surrounding vegetation, would nevertheless be able to differentiate each of the seasons purely on the basis of its distinct light. And the best practitioners could likely refine their choices to the point of calling the actual month.

Of course, it isn’t just a change in light that reveals the steady seasonal journey— everywhere you look, the landscape is daily transforming its overall appearance.

Many of the early summer wildflowers are starting to fade and disappear. In their stead comes such favorites as ironweed, Joe Pye weed, phlox, the later milkweeds, cup plant, rosinweed, the various coneflowers, great lobelia, thistles, and perhaps the most seasonally indicative of the lot, goldenrods in all their glorious permutations. Flowers which, on the whole, are bigger, sturdier, and bolder than those of the previous months.

These lovely blooms also serve as a sort of botanical reality check, a reminder that time always moves relentlessly onward, the great circle eternally continuing. A field swathed brilliant yellow with goldenrod, containing a few purple New England asters for dramatic contrast, is strikingly emblematic of this simple fact.

Plants also track and react to the lessening light. Somewhere deep within the mysteries of their DNA code, there’s a switch which gets tripped as the allotment of available daylight wanes.

With some plants, it may be the actual angle of the sun which instigates certain changes. For most, though, it’s the length of the day, the amount of light. “Photoperiod” is the fancy term.

Whatever you call it, it carries a fundamental message from leaf to stem to root. No matter whether that plant is an oak tree, a patch of big bluestem, or a stalk of sweet corn.

Various plants react differently. Some commence a final growth spurt. Others respond by releasing seed or unfurling colorful blooms. Fruits and nuts ripen. Many plants begin shutting down for the season, or start to die.

But make no mistake…those plants which make up the verdant green overlay of summer are governed by light. Change the light and you change the plants.

Photosynthesis slows.

Trees leaves began that stem sealing-off process which will suppress delivery of the masking chlorophyll, eventually allowing autumn’s patchwork reds, yellows, and oranges to dazzle us some crisp October afternoon.

August’s landscape looks drier, dustier, somehow a smidgen duller, as if the green monotone had lost its luster. Summer literally fades away, like an aging light bulb growing dimmer and dimmer, with much of this fading occurring during the season’s final full month.

When August rolls around, you don’t need the almanac’s tidy proclamations to know that fundamental change is afoot. Most years, August brings summer’s hottest temperatures. But I’m not so sure this one will follow suite considering July was rainy and relatively cool.

If it does turn suffocatingly hot, I’ll escape its clutches by going fishing. There’s no better way to beat the heat than by spending a few hours waist-deep in a shady creek, prospecting for smallmouth—a double-barrel baptism affording both pleasure and relief.

Summer will, of course, continue beyond August. But the great celestial clock keeps ticking, while time and season continue their relentless march.

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