Signs & portents


By James McGuire

Contributing columnist

The sound was sudden and loud and came from a point almost directly overhead. A raspy, ratchety, buzzing screech — piercing, startling.

Daisy the dog paused in her snuffling to look up. I looked up, too, though the noise-maker was invisibly ensconced somewhere amongst the thick green leaf canopy shading the trail.

“Cicada,” I told her when she looked back to check my reaction. “Just an old jar-fly,” I added, reassuringly. “A big bug blasting out his mating song.”

My mother used to say it wasn’t truly summer until you’d heard the season’s first cicada. Neither the calendar nor a spell of sweltering weather made it official beforehand.

Annual cicadas begin calling hereabouts in mid- to late July. Smack in the middle of the Dog Days. And they’ll continue emerging and calling into September.

This was the first cicada I’ve heard all year. And when that old jar-fly abruptly cut loose with his screechy racket the other morning, I couldn’t help but smile and think of Mom.

Summer had now been validated!

A day or two later, during another outing at a different location, I came upon a vast field—multiple acres of old, overgrown pastureland — surprisingly spattered with purple ironweed just starting to bloom.

Ironweed are one of my all-time favorite wildflowers. But I wasn’t expecting to see that unfolding wealth of treasured amethyst quite so early in the season.

Yet, there they were — several hundred tall ironweed plants unexpectedly commencing their annual show.

I was both delighted and disconcerted—glad to see them, while aware of their implications.

Ironweed in bloom is one of the first things I look to for a reminder that autumn is just around the corner. A visual foreshadowing I didn’t think was yet due for several weeks—sometime in mid-to-late August. But apparently, the ironweed were listening to their own insider sources, heeding some personal signals and stirrings, and raising their purple flags of things to come—premature only from our limited perspective.

Both that trailside cicada and the old meadow dotted with ironweed carried their respective messages, each telling me something—an expression via signs and portents.

That’s nature’s way of conversing. An exquisite sensory language that employs sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch to detail past, present, and future.

I try to pay attention.

As I’ve said already, that morning cicada — for me, the year’s first — served to put his stamp of approval on summer. I didn’t really have any doubts, but it’s always good to have backup.

If the stifling mid-eighties heat and blazing sun weren’t sufficient to define the season, the ratcheting jar-fly served to seal the deal: this was, indeed, the middle of real summer! A loud and firm proclamation of the here and now.

On the other hand, the field of purple ironweed—though now in bloom—carried a different but just as unmistakable message of tomorrow, a portent of the future—notice of the weeks and season inexorably heading our way.

Similar examples — signs and portents — are everywhere.

For example, there’s an abundance of blackberry briars adjacent to a path I sometimes follow. Over the weeks since spring’s bloom-time, I’ve been keeping an eye on the developing berries.

Most of the tangle’s berries are still some shade of red — a few even yet pale green or white. They’ll all need a few more days and hours of hot summer sunshine before turning purple-black and ripening.

But a few are now ready to be carefully plucked and savored. One or two on a cane, maybe a half-dozen to a whole bush.

Not yet sufficiently plentiful to warrant bringing a pail and getting down to serious picking.

But blackberries enough to carefully extract a few from the maze of sharp thorns and pop in your mouth — the perfect early-morning trailside treat! Sweet and tart, indescribably delicious, nothing tastes more of summer than a just-foraged handful of fat, juicy, wild blackberries!

Moreover, through their many days of this prescribed journey—from vernal beginnings to luscious snacking, amid rain and sun, wind and cold—I’d watched time and season march steadily along—past to present.

Sometimes, however, nature’s signs and portents are admittedly ambiguous—or at least I’m not sufficiently astute to read and interpret their message.

A pair of geese, whom we like to call our “dooryard Canadas,” come up from the river every day for handouts of cracked corn. They’ve been doing this for years.

There are other geese on the river—often a couple dozen of the stately big birds—but the pair know us, trust us, and are unconcerned by our presence. They’ll stand, expectantly eyeing my every action, as I noisily open the lid of the metal garbage can in which the corn is stored and toss a couple of scoops literally on their feet. I can then sit on a nearby bench, three feet away, and watch them eat…and nary a feather is ruffled.

This spring they built their nest on the wooded island across from the cottage. Eggs were laid, diligently sat, and duly hatched.

As soon as the seven fuzzy pale-yellow goslings were deemed capable of swimming across the channel, the watchful parents brought them over and coaxed them up the bank. The whole family has been visiting and dining at our dooryard ever since.

Those youngsters are now as big as their parents, attired in the same plume and feathers formalwear as their parents, and can fly and honk like champions.

As best I can tell, the embodied message is simply of time’s eternal passage, reiterating the Ecclesiastical mindfulness that “to everything there is a season.”

Signs and portents are nature’s way of conversing about time and season. Past and future bookends for understanding the present.

Reach the writer at [email protected]

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