Fall – The Season of Gentle Changes

About the 22nd of September, Earth moved around the sun to a position that caused our night and day to be equal. Called the autumnal equinox, it signaled that fall was officially here. From then on, the days began to grow shorter and the noonday sun has now slipped farther down the southern sky. Because of the 23 ½-degree tilt of Earth’s axis, incoming radiation from the sun is not so direct, warming the surface of the land less each day.

Imperceptibly, precious heat is leaking into the black void of space and our weather is gradually becoming cooler – finally. This heat loss will continue until about December 21st, the time of the winter solstice, when the days begin to slowly grow longer again. Even so, cold or at least crisp weather may hold us in its grip well into March. Then, about the 21st of March, Earth’s orbit will have swung around so that once again day and night will be equal, a time called the vernal or spring equinox. Here in East Texas, noticeable warming usually begins in February as Camellias begin to bloom and buds to swell, but even then, we can still get hit with cold snaps and ice storms.

In the meantime, animals and plants have begun to sense the changing day length, called photoperiod, and their behavior is being altered. Those that are “wise,” such as bees, ants, and squirrels, are storing winter supplies for the harder times ahead. Grasshoppers are everywhere and as in Aesop’s Fables, are wasting their time buzzing around trying to sound like flying rattlesnakes, enjoying the last days of warmth, ignorant and oblivious to their coming demise. Butterflies are sipping final drinks of nectar to fortify themselves to lay a last batch of eggs. Yellowjackets have entered their Eat-Drink-And-Be-Merry phase, refusing to nurse larvae and instead feeding their own faces on fallen fruit or picnic goodies, even pop cans, whenever they can. They and other wasps will all die, with the exception of a few fertilized females that will overwinter to start next season’s crop of winged zingers. Hummingbirds are in short supply. However we’ve had at least two still sipping from our feeder as late as last week.

Sumac berries are glowing in fuzzy, reddish pinnacles along our roadsides, from which a pleasant lemonade-like beverage can be made. Their leaves, along with some maples, oaks and sweet gums, will soon turn red as the chlorophyll they used to make food during the growing season is destroyed, revealing bright colors the green concealed.

In the fall, humidity usually drops and evenings are pleasantly cool. The night skies glitter with stars that summer’s haze obscured. The Orionid Meteor Shower occurs each October. They peaked over this last weekend, but if you go out after midnight even tonight there are still many to see in the eastern sky as Orion slowly rises and from which they appear to originate and get their name.

In short, fall is a time of lazy, chirping crickets, maturing crops and glowing full moons. The harvest moon rose October 6th. Hope you saw it. It’s a time when the pace of outdoor life slows and maybe ours should too. It’s a great time for family activities outside. Get away from the ding blasted TV! Take a walk in the woods. Sit out in the evening. Watch the sun set and the stars rise. Take a deep breath and watch the last flights of dragonflies, chimney swifts, and geese. Expand your awareness. Reach out with your senses. Listen to the crickets. Feel the breeze. John Muir thought he could identify most of the trees in the forest by the sound they made as the wind passed through them. Can you? Sniff the air, it smells different now. Learn to “feel” the outdoor world. Exercise your humanity. No other creature is as well adapted to appreciate the bounty, beauty and variety found in the fields and forest of East Texas this time of the year. It’s all ours – and it’s all free!

Dr. Risk is a professor emeritus in the College of Forestry and Agriculture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. Content © Paul H. Risk, Ph.D. All rights reserved, except where otherwise noted. Click paulrisk2@gmail.com to send questions, comments, or request permission for use.