A Whiff of What’s To Come in the Morning Air

Clay Jenkinson

Humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson.

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by Clay Jenkinson

There is no moment quite like that first faint whiff of autumn on a late August morning. I felt it last week, and it filled me simultaneously with sadness and joy.

You can sense the imminence of autumn by the frenetic way people are seeking recreation on our lakes and rivers. I was out on a sandbar on the Missouri River south of Bismarck a few days ago, at what I suppose you would call a pontoon party. To the extent I could still see through the fog of about twenty varieties of brats and beer enough to lift the level of Lake Oahe, I noticed a little edge of anxiety on most of the faces of my companions. You could almost feel the seasonal clock ticking.

The English poet Robert Herrick wrote, “Gather ye rosebuds while you may, Old Time is still a-flying, And this same flower that smiles today, To-morrow will be dying.”

This has been an unusual summer, at least in my experience. Six weeks ago we had those two whopping thunderstorms in short order, both of them assassins of our precious trees. But there have been very few classical thunderstorms this summer, the kind where the massive gray-black thunderhead moves in with stately and unhurried violence from the far west, deepening its fury as it crosses the plains. Such storms seldom bring much rain, but the prolonged light show they provide is one of the three or four most characteristic experiences of Great Plains life. Silly as it may sound, I moved home to North Dakota ten years ago in large part to stand out in thunderstorms, the kind unique to the Great Plains, and also to hear the lucidity of the meadowlark, and to lie out under cottonwoods as they dance to the tune of the autumn breeze.

This summer will be remembered for the Day of the Appalling Wind, July 29, 2015. I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. Oh, yes, during a terrible blizzard, or perhaps at the climax of a massive thunderstorm, but this was just plain incredible wind, unending for 36 hours, clocked at up to 70 mph in northwestern North Dakota. It blew down three rows of my corn, not in a single blast, but by way of wearing out the corn structure until the stalks just gave up and lay down to die. That wind set most of my garden back significantly. I almost cried when I surveyed the damage, after the wind broke, and I did think sympathetically of the North Dakota pioneers, our forebears, who actually depended on their crops and gardens to get through the winter in this inhospitable place.

Somehow it always makes me a little sad to see mothers and their children in the big box stores buying school supplies. It’s the surest sign of summer’s end. It makes me remember going into Green Drug on Main Street in Dickinson with my mother when I was in second or third grade. When I see children grabbing up school supplies in mid-August, I want to cry out, “Too soon. Too soon.”

My garden this year is in some respects the best I have ever grown—largely weed-free, thanks to a little help from my friends, and flourishing in biomass. Whether my 50+ tomatoes will redden and bear much edible fruit remains to be seen. I have devoured every cherry tomato thus far straight from the vine. My corn is statuesque—taller than any previous year—and now finally filling. I have five varieties: Mandan purple/black corn, Omaha Indian corn, Jefferson’s favorite Monticello corn, and two varieties of the kind you buy from the grocery store rack. My onions, for some reason, have largely dug themselves out of the ground as they grew, so they are smaller than I would like. But I’m awash in cucumbers this year. The entire top half of my refrigerator is now occupied by brining pickles, so tart, some of them, that they make my lips smack.

The owner of the for-the-moment empty land west of my house did me an immense service recently. He cut that prairie for hay. In doing so he either scared off or perhaps shredded my pesky pheasant, who spent last fall devouring virtually my entire corn crop, ear by ear, sometimes merely out of spite. My friend Jim, a master gardener and a master bird hunter, told me earlier this year that my rooster pheasant was the largest he ever encountered. It was the size of a Thanksgiving turkey, living off the fat of the land in my subdivision, smug, cocky, unapologetic, and loud. I have stalked that pheasant like a character out of Caddie Shack, but no matter how many times I have wriggled through my back yard in camo with my assault rifle paint gun, that bird got the best of me. It turns out the answer was not lethal force, but habitat encroachment. Good riddance. I shall have corn aplenty.

My friend Jim loves tomatoes so much that he eats them incessantly—the best BLT sandwich I ever consumed—until he gets his first canker sore from the ten varieties of acid they carry. I know fall is coming the first evening I come home to pluck a couple of tomatoes, an onion, a cucumber, and two ears of corn from the garden, and then eat an entirely fresh meal not fifteen minutes later. And I know it is time for winter when the yellow cornstalks clatter in the crisp afternoon breeze.

The cycles of nature are a mystery. Last year I had almost no crickets, but this year, even this far in advance of the first frost, they are massing around the foundation of my house like the Greek hordes before the walls of Troy. I’ve had to dispatch four or five of the boldest of these warriors in single combat in my laundry room, and I’m bracing for their full-on assault in a few weeks time. The noise they already make is grating, and I can tell that they are just getting warmed up, like musicians before a symphony concert. However unpleasant crickets are, they are nothing compared to the sluggish flies that somehow gather in our houses after the first freeze. They were out of control in my house last year, I’m not sure why. Unless you spend the day with a flyswatter or an old magazine, wreaking exoskeletal carnage in every room in your house, they are sure to light on your arm or face at the worst possible moments, and again and again.

My favorite days of the year are about make their appearance. I love the period between August 20 (or so) to October 15 (or so) when you wake up deep into the night, chilled to the bone, seeking a comforter, when it is chilly, and perhaps even alarming, when you leave the house in the morning, but 85 or 90 degrees by mid-afternoon. Autumn evenings with a good book, a glass of wine, and a fire pit, when the fire is really necessary, are like paradise on earth. North Dakota does fall better than anywhere I have ever lived.

We cherish autumn with special relish here, because we are all too aware of what must follow.

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