The hardwood trees are still bright green, and temperatures remain stubbornly in the 90s here, but the chipmunks have already lost their minds. If I spill the bird seed, it’s no time at all before they are up the spindles and onto the deck, stuffing their cheeks to the point of comedy and then rushing back to their burrows under the house, stocking up for winter.
Chipmunks are not cooperative creatures. Except during mating season, or when barking out warnings of a predator on the prowl, they forsake the companionship of their own kind. Their tunnels spread like arteries beneath the crawl space of our house, but I rarely see them in summer. Now, with autumn coming on, they are scooping up seeds like warm-blooded Roombas, ignoring one another, maneuvering under my chair and between my feet as if I weren’t there at all.
The chipmunks are not alone in preparing for a changing season. Hot as it still is, the winter-flocking birds — starlings and robins and blue jays and crows — are already gathering again. All summer they kept to their individual tasks, building their nests and tending their young, but their fledglings are more or less self-sufficient now. I love to hear the young jays crying out for a meal, like teenagers perfectly capable of making their own sandwiches but hoping a sandwich will miraculously appear even so.
My favorites are the crows. After a summer of near silence in the shady woods as they raised their young, the crows are talking among themselves again. Their own foolish teenagers are learning to balance on the power lines, their glossy tails spread wide as they wobble, trying to keep from tipping over and hanging upside down.
The last of the milky magnolia petals are going brown now, and the bees are working the remaining pollen with all the focus of a lonely soul at a dive bar’s last call. A few lightning bugs are still winking beneath the dark trees at dusk, but the cicadas that have been singing in the branches all summer are beginning to weaken and lose their grip. Last week I saw a cardinal, her head nearly bald from her August molt, snatch a fallen cicada from the grass and carry it across three yards before disappearing with it behind a neighbor’s house. I could hear the cicada crying out as it was borne away.
There is no reason for me to set out birdseed at summer’s end, for summer’s bounty is everywhere. The branches of the sugar maple trees are heavy with seeds — from a distance it looks as though they have turned brown instead of waiting to go golden in the cool of fall. Every limb, every twig is dense with seeds, a load so heavy that the lower branches are nearly brushing the ground. It’s a mast year for maples here, and I wonder if the trees know somehow that they lost a sister to the spring stormsand so are bearing enough seeds for her, too.
The berries on the volunteer pokeweed plant are still green and hard, but the Southern arrowwood bushes are adorned with bright blue berries. The drooping petals of the coneflowers are dry and brittle now, and the goldfinches are tearing apart the seed crowns, picking each seed from its spiky carapace. I plant coneflowers for the pollinators because so many of them are in trouble, but I don’t deadhead the plants to force them to produce more blooms, for there are few things more heart-lifting in this world than the sight of a goldfinch still wearing his summer finery and riding a coneflower tossing in the autumn wind.
A new slant of light signals the changing season even in this humid heat, and the ruby-throated hummingbirds know it. In this yard, the hummingbird wars are always the earliest sign of the coming fall, as the birds bulk up for their long flight, guarding every nectar source before they go. Soon they will make their way south to their wintering grounds in Central America. Some will go by land. Others will fly on their impossibly tiny wings all the way across the Gulf of Mexico. In the meantime, they fight for dominance over the feeders I’ve set out to help them.
Adding more feeders does nothing to resolve their disputes. There is plenty of food to go around, plenty of insects and plenty of seeds, but the creatures in my yard have no interest in sharing.
For us, too, change is almost always a source of dislocation, and I often wonder if the anger that so many Americans feel these days — anger about the way our country is changing, fury that a nostalgic view of the past isn’t shared by everyone — is really just an expression of fear, a feeling of anxiety that has found a toxic form. But if nature teaches us anything, it’s that fighting it will do nothing to prevent the passage of time, the turning of the seasons. It might be a long, long time coming, as Sam Cooke so gorgeously sang, but a change is gonna come. And I take his words as a promise.
New York Times