Thursday, August 18, 2005

Summer Is Not Ending

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With almost half of August before us we’ve still got a lot of summer left. But school starts next week, and as my family shifts gears in anticipation of that, there’s time to observe the home environment, so often overlooked amid summer activities that take us elsewhere. The season may not be ending, but it’s beginning to show its age.

At the back of our yard, between the fence and the alley, the progress of the prairie plants we put in this year is mixed. Some, like the rattlesnake master and the prairie blazing star, have devoted their energy to establishing strong roots, developing only enough foliage above ground to forward that purpose. Others, especially the black-eyed susans, flower and spread out, as though they’ve been here forever. Waist high seed stalks have shot up from the clumps of little bluestem, seemingly overnight. And the wisps of prairie dropseed that looked so fragile in May are now sturdy fountains of grass.

The volunteer native plants are also maturing. Pokeberries, so prized by birds that I always let a few grow up, have begun to ripen, and the robins, too heavy for the stems, pluck at the fruit as they ride them down. The giant yellow coneflowers, a river bottom species whose seeds we must have picked up inadvertently a couple of years ago, tower over an untended corner of the yard, some seven feet tall, with flowers just beginning to open.

The season’s age also shows in the behavior of the birds. Sure, the robins still muster a chorus at dawn, but there’s none of June’s gusto in it. And other yardbirds, cardinals and wrens still sing on occasion, but having started back when there was snow on the ground, I think they’re tired. Even the prolific mourning doves, which reared two successive clutches in our hanging flower basket before moving operations to the branch of a hemlock for number three, seem to have had enough. Hummingbirds have begun to buzz the more promising flowers, reminding us to put up the nectar feeder, which slows them down enough for us to watch them.

But this part of summer really belongs to insects. Crickets sing steadily through the night, loud enough to be heard even with the windows closed. Monarchs and other butterflies animate the scene when no breeze is blowing in the heat of the day. Bees and wasps, and flies that look like bees and wasps gather on the prairie flowers, too numerous and varied for us to identify them. And the seldom seen dog day cicadas whirr and whirr and whirr through the day and late into the evening.

At twilight we watch the bats come out to ride their erratic feeding circuits. My wife especially enjoys seeing them for the wildness they represent, even here in town.

Summer may not be ending, but it’s beginning to show its age.