By Hal Borland
September is more than a month, really; it is a season, an achievement in itself. It begins with August’s leftovers and it ends with October’s preparations, but along the way it achieves special satisfactions. After summer’s heat and haste, the year consolidates itself. Deliberate September—in its own time and tempo—begins to sum up another summer.
With September comes a sense of autumn. It creeps in on a misty dawn and vanishes in the hot afternoon. It tiptoes through the treetops, rouging a few leaves, then rides a tuft of thistledown across the valley and away. It sits on a hilltop and hoots like an October owl in the dusk. It plays tag with the wind. September is a changeling busy as a squirrel in a hickory tree, idle as a languid brook. It is summer’s ripeness and richness fulfilled.
Some of the rarest days of the year come in the September season—days when it is comfortably cold but pulsing with life, when the sky is clear and clean, the air crisp, the wind free of dust. Meadows still smell of hay and the sweetness of cut grass. September flowers are less varied than those of May but so abundant that they make September another flowery month. Goldenrod comes by mid-August, but rises to a peak of golden abundance in early September. Late thistles make spectacular purple accents. And asters blossom everywhere, along the roadsides, in meadows, on the hilltops, even in city lots, raging in color from pure white through all degrees of lavender to the royal New England purple.
We think of spring as the miracle time, when opening bud and new leaf proclaim the persistence of life. But September is when the abiding wonder makes itself known in a subtler way. Now growth comes to annual fruition, and preparations are completed for another year, another generation. The acorn ripens and the hickory nut matures. The plant commits its future to the seed and the root. The insect stows tomorrow in the egg and the pupa. The surge is almost over and life begins to relax.
The green prime is passing. The trees begin to proclaim the change. Soon the leaves will be discarded, the grass will sere. But the miracle of life persists, the mysterious germ of growth and renewal that is the seed itself.
This is the season of the harvest moon. With reasonably clear skies it will be a moonlit week, for the harvest moon is not hasty; it comes early and stays late. There was a time when the busy farmer could return to the fields after supper and continue his harvest by moonlight. There’s still harvesting to be done, but much of it now centers on the kitchen rather than the barns. The last bountiful yield comes from the garden, the late sweet corn, the tomatoes, the root vegetables. The canning, the preserving, the freezing, the kitchen harvest in all its variety, reaches its peak.
First frost comes in the night, a clear, scant-starred night when the moon is near its fullness. It comes without a whisper, quiet as thistledown, brushing the corner of a hillside garden. Dawn comes and you see its path—the glistening leaf, the gleaming stem, the limp, blackening garden vine.
Another night or two the frost walks the valleys in the moonlight. Then it goes back beyond the northern hills to wait a little longer, and the golden mildness of early autumn comforts the land. A faint anise smell is on the air, goldenrod scent. The mist swirls and September sun shines through the deep-blue sky of September.
To warm-blooded creatures, the crisp, cool nights of September are invigorating. But cold-blooded insects are at the mercy of the sun and now their clocks run down. The cicada is stilled. The chorus of the cricket and katydid diminishes. When they rasp at all it is with the deliberate tempo of a fiddler drawing a worn bow across fraying strings.
Now come the hoarding days. Mice have been harvesting and stowing seeds for weeks. The chipmunk lines his winter bedroom, and squirrels hid the nut trees’ bounty. The woodchucks, gorging on grass and clover and fruit, lay up their harvest in body fat under their own skins.
The flickers begin to gather for migration. All summer these big wood-peckers were resolutely individual, busy with family life and wanting no company. Now they are gregarious, with time for tribal gossip and community play. The warblers and swallows have already formed in premigration flocks; soon the robins will be gathering too. Nesting is completed, fledglings are on their own, and there is food in plenty. September is vacation time for birds. Who knows but that they are discussing the trip ahead?
By September’s end the treasure chest of autumn begins to “spill over” with wealth. You see it glowing in the quiet afternoon, aflame in the sunset.
Woodland, roadside and dooryard will soon be jeweled beyond a rajah’s richest dreams.
The year’s season in the sun has run its course. Nature begins to prepare for winter. After the color in the woodlands, the leaves will blanket the soil. The litter of autumn will become mulch, then humus for root and tender seed. The urgency of growth is ended for another year, but life itself is hoarded in root and bulb and seed and egg.