Weeds: Fall days hold a tinge of sadness
The barn swallows who spend summers on our farm are gathering on the overhead wire. One day soon they will be gone, leaving us for some unknown warmer place.
They are only here about four months of the year. They live intense little lives during that time, eating heartily, mating, building nests, and hatching out two or three broods. On summer evenings they dart above the yard, twisting and diving and turning midflight. This gymnastic aerial show goes on nightly.
Anybody who eats mosquitos is a friend of mine, and I go out of my way to offer homes to them. There are a couple outbuildings they nest in and I make sure there is a door or window open each May when they arrive.
In last year’s June storm, the yard light pole that held our last overhead electric line blew down. It made sense to bury that like all the others have been. I sheepishly asked electrician Bill Walters if it would be stupid of me to put the dead wire back up on the new pole for the barn swallows. He didn’t exactly answer my question. (Thanks Bill!) But he said he had done that for other similarly impractical customers.
Barn swallows gathering is but one sign of the shifting season. A couple days of low clouds and northwest wind last week put a coda on summer if there were doubts. We will have sunny days and warm days, but things are different. Day length falls below 12 hours as dark becomes the rule. Persephone returns in tears to the Underworld, if you remember your mythology.
I feel a little sad this time of year. I’m not sure why. Fall is an appealing time of year on the northern prairie, so why the melancholy? I’ll miss the summer birds. I think of them as “the swallows.” I looked it up recently; they typically live four years. “The swallows” that have been here each of my 61 summers are in fact many generations. Likely some of those on the wire won’t return next May.
I was talking to a friend about this slight sadness. We agreed that we carry residual feelings from our youth that equate this time of year with going back to school. School meant the end of carefree living and the ramping up of responsibilities. You went from a schedule that is loose to one that is ordered to the minute.
I have memory of going barefoot all summer and feeling discomfort having to put on shoes for school. I must have worn shoes doing chores or going to church. But in my mind I am barefoot for those three months. I know I stepped on a few nails. I remember getting a tetanus shot and thinking it was grossly unfair to inflict pain to treat something that was painful.
My brother Dean was blind, and the end of summer meant he would return to the Faribault Braille School. Fall meant my partner in play would not be around, and that was sad.
Fall meant the end of playing baseball, a glorious game played with friends on brilliant summer nights. That was replaced by football, a drudgery at best and a source of aches and pain at worst.
There is a scene at the end of the movie Bull Durham that sticks in my mind. Susan Sarandon (Annie Savoy) is walking in a driving cold, autumn rain on a wet, dirt road. That alternates to shots of the ballfield where the season’s last game has been cancelled by raindrops splashing off the tarp. The scene is mournfully sad; it is as if spring is an eternity away.
Fall is the end of the growing season. As a farmer, your work all season aims toward harvest. It is exciting and challenging. But when harvest is complete, it is months before the return of green to the fields. Years ago, I was writing about fall work on the farm, and noted that a farmer had about 40 harvests. Now that I am nearly to that number, I hope I severely underestimated when I wrote that as a silly thirtysomething.
Speaking of 40 years, it was 40 years ago that I went to a show at the Caboose Bar in Minneapolis. A friend had suggested we go see Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band. Walker is a country/folk/cowboy singer from Texas. It turned out to be one of those Funnest Nights of My Life that happens when you least expect it.
I’ve seen Jerry Jeff a few times since. Most recently was July at the Minnesota Zoo. The amphitheater there is a wonderful setting for a concert. It was likely Walker’s last time in Minnesota. His voice is still strong, but he sat on a stool the whole night in a nod to his 75 years of sometimes rough living.
Walker was reflective as he worked his way through songs, many written about experiences he’s had along the way. He mentioned early visits to Minnesota, referring to that night at the Caboose as a “life-altering experience.” That was met with cheers from a few dozen of us who had shared that.
Jerry Jeff talked about being a young man traveling in the South with not much more than his guitar, playing where he could for a few dollars. Someone asked him what he did. When informed that he travelled around playing music, Jerry Jeff was told, “Well, you can’t do that forever.” After a pause, the crowd laughed and applauded at the realization that, in fact, that is what exactly he had done.
At one point the singer referring to those younger years said, “Looking back, things are a whole lot clearer now than they were back then when I looked ahead.” I suppose that is self-evident, but the line has stuck with me.
Poets have long used the seasons as a metaphor for life. Spring brings birth and growth, and is like our childhood. Summer is a time of maturing, as our middle years are. Then fall is the season of decline. Well, let’s just stop this poetic exercise right there.
The harvest looks to be an abundant one. Already tomatoes and cucumbers fill the kitchen counter. Pumpkins and squash are ripening on giant vines. Farmers are hopeful about the corn and soybeans.
I will enjoy many of these fall days. That tinge of sadness will fade in the busyness.