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GOOD-BYE TO SUMMER
I think the daintiest scent that can be found in the woodland in these last days of September is that of the coral-root flower, which looks like a wan, tan ghost of a blossom, but nevertheless is sweet and succulent. The plant is by no means common in my world. Many a year goes by without my seeing it at all. In autumn it grows from among dry pine leaves, a slender spike that has neither root leaves nor stem leaves, but looks like the dried flower scape of some spring blooming plant. So protective is its coloration that I stand among its blooms and look long before I see them at all. It is only by getting very close that one can see that the tiny forests scattered along the pale brown scape are themselves beautifully colored with purple and white on the same soft tan foundation as the scape. They have, too, the quaintly mysterious formation of all orchid blooms and that alluring, elusive odor which must be sought intimately to be known. You must get this dainty perfume where it grows. If you pluck the blooms and take them home they will hold their beauty and color for days, but the scent will have strangely slipped from them and trembled along the still, soft air back to the woodland haunts whence it came. You might find it there, wandering disconsolate in the lonely brown spaces seeking for its own heart of bloom, but from under your roof it has departed.
The flower is a strange one, anyway, in all its growth. Fibrous roots it has none, just a bunch of coral-like tubercles which draw nourishment by their own subtle processes from the roots of trees that shade them. Leaves it has none, just a scarious brown bract that encloses a part of the stem. Living upon canned food, so to speak, it has lost its ability to win sustenance from earth and air. It seems to live, not upon the sap of these trees, but upon the dead roots and decayed wood, a specially prepared humus without which it may not thrive, even in its own limited, elusive way. Among our wild flowers doomed to ultimate extinction I fancy this will be one of the first to disappear. In the days of great stretches of moist, deep woodland it may well have flourished.
In my town it is rare and any year I may find it for the last time. On many counts I would not miss it, and yet that faint, refined odor which somehow always reminds me of ghosts of mignonette, of tender, almost forgotten memories once more stirred, gives a gentle melancholy to the woodland that all the glories of October will not be able to assuage.
It is by such subtle hints as this that autumn announces her presence among us. The prevailing tone of the upland wood is yet that of summer. Hardly will you see a splash of color in all the miles of green. It is in shady woods where no frost has yet penetrated, spots like that in which the coral-root is sheltered and befriended that nevertheless you read the open tale of what is to come. In low-lying open meadows the frost has spoken. In these on one night the chill of frozen space weighed down and turned the dew to ice and wrecked some tender herbage, leaving it brown as if touched by fire instead of frost. But it is only here and there in places peculiarly subject to this warning that this has happened. In shielding forest depths the coverlets of multiple green leaves have kept the tender things of the wood wrapped warm through the nights and the frost has said no word. Yet there too the message has penetrated, by what means I cannot say. The ferns have heard it and have turned pale. The tender, slender fronds of the hay-scented Dicksonia are very wan and the odor from them now as you tramp through is not so much that of new-mown hay, as it was in June, but rather that of the stack or the mow, always with their own inimitable woodsy flavor added. The brake whose woody stems have held its ternate, palm-like fronds bravely aloft all summer is now a sallow yellow, and the lovely Osmundas and stately Struthiopteris are bowing their heads in brown acquiescence with the inevitable. I doubt if it is a message from the air. It is rather a command from the nerve centres at the base of the stalk, a message from the brain of the heart-roots that gives the fronds warning that their day is over. If it were in the air the polypodys, the Christmas ferns and the spinulose wood ferns would have lost their color also. It is different with these. There is a hardier quality in their nature and they seem to revel in the killing frosts of late autumn and the ice and snow of winter; I find them as green and as hearty in December as I do now.
Next to the tender ferns it is the woody undergrowth that recognizes the season first. Long ago some limb of a red maple growing in the shade has been seen to flare up with a sudden flame while else all the wood was green. But this in itself is no sign. This happens here and there in low ground even in very early summer. Now, however, it is not only here and there but everywhere that you will find this occasional limb adding scarlet beauty to the sombre shade of the deep wood, and as your glance passes from the cool pale ferns to this it slips on and finds color growing on many things in the woodland shadow. Here is the cornel, whose lovely blooms filled the forest with butterfly beauty, it seems no longer ago than yesterday. Today I find the cornel foliage green still as to midrib and veining, but with the woof of the leaf gone such a fine apple red that it is surely good enough to eat. If color counts the deer should find rich browse in the shrubbery these days. The hazels that were so green are suddenly a ripe brown that is all warm with red tones, and where the summac grows there is forest fire without smoke burning in the scarlet flame-tongues of the pointed leaflets of this modern burning bush. And all this is beneath the shelter of the still green forest into which we must go to find it. From without the full green of summer ripeness prevails, and we must seek other signs of the autumn season.
But must we, after all? Yesterday or the day before it was true and we were saying that the summer held on well. Today, so suddenly does the change seem to become visible, I saw them blaze up out of a cool swamp at the foot of the hill on which I stood. The smoke of autumn's peace pipe was blue on all the distant hills, and he must have dropped his match in my swamp, where it smouldered and flared and caught the maple even as I looked in the full expectancy of seeing nothing but green. The red fire of greeting seemed to run from tree to tree, and all the lowlands for a mile were ablaze, as if some subdominant political party had won an unexpected victory and could not wait for night to light its fires of celebration. All the little swamp maples were red with this fire, and though I suppose they have been days in turning the effect was that of their flashing up as I looked. Then I saw that the birches among them were all set with candles, whose pale yellow flames lighted them with a most chaste fire, just as in the old days of torchlight enthusiasm over political campaigns we used to put rows of them in the windows on the night that the parade was to pass. Seeing all that I felt as if autumn were again triumphantly elected, and we all ought to take off our hats and "give three cheers far the illumination on the right."
Surely autumn is the finest season of the year. I always know that as soon as it gets here. Yesterday I revelled in the summer that had stayed with us so long and, still seemed to show few signs of going. Today the fall coloring is burning, like a wood fire on a still day, slowly up from the swamps into the upland woods. Now that I have begun to notice it I see that the coloring is touching the underleaves of the hillside birches, those nearest the stem, and that perhaps one in five has the same cool, pale yellow fire alight. Thus rapidly does the conflagration spread from swamp to hillside, from the shade of the grove to its topmost boughs and before we know it the year will have once more set the world on fire.
As far those other signs, there is a whole calendar of bird voices and bird movements that might well give us the dates, day by day. To me the first warning of the passing of summer comes in the tin-trumpet notes of the blue jays. While the nesting season is on the blue jay is as dumb as an oyster. The woods may be full of him and his tribe, but never an old bird says a word. After the young can fly you may hear them if you slip quietly along in the pine woods. You have to be pretty near though, to do it. They sit in a family group in the treetops and complain, under the breath, hungrily. It is not until the young are well grown, the moulting season is over and the summer pretty nearly the same that any blue jay gets his voice. Then, almost as suddenly as the coming of autumn coloring in the trees the racket begins. You may not have seen a blue jay in the woods for months. Suddenly they appear in flocks, swooping down on the orchard in brand new uniforms of conspicuous blue, white and black, yelling tooting and chattering. They have been shy and careful. They are now tame and reckless. They troop into the pasture after the wild cherries which they eat with chattering and scolding. On vibrant limbs they give spirit rappings in imitation of a woodpecker. Then they laugh and scream about it. Hearing them we always say, "How fallish it sounds."
The blue jay has not only a whole vocabulary of his own, both in conversation, from twittering to oratory, and in calls from assembly cries and notes of warning to screams of derision and defiance, but he is an imitator in certain lines. He will imitate the red-shouldered hawk and the sparrow hawk and I suspect him of mixing it in conversation with the flicker. Often at this time of year I hear a subdued, rather sweet-voiced murmur in the wood as if a ladies' sewing society was just beginning to get busy pulling out the bastings. I know very well it is a convention composed of blue jays or flickers, but it is not so easy to tell which until I slip up and surprise them at it. The subdued tones of both birds in such conventions assembled are very much alike and I suspect that their polite conversation is in a common language. But I never can prove this, for they do not fraternize. The convention is sure to be of one feather or the other. They do not flock together. That is no doubt just as well, for I have great respect for the flicker. He is a whimsical old codger, very prone to talk to himself and go through strange gymnastics in a rather ridiculous way, but the flicker is honest. He brings tip a large family in the strictest probity and I have never known a flicker to do a wrong thing. On the other hand, the blue jay is a thief, a mocker and a murderer. just now he is living honestly on nuts and wild fruit, taking almost as many acorns as the squirrels and making a great deal of talk about it. You would think him the most open-hearted chap in the world, but if you will watch him carefully in the spring you will learn things which are to his disadvantage. You will likely find him taking a raw egg or two with his breakfast, to the sorrow of some small bird. Later, the fledglings are not safe from him, and if you shake a blue jay up in a bag with a crow and then open the bag, two arrant rogues will fly out, and it is hard telling which will have the other's tail feathers. For all that, I rather like the blue jay. If we are going strictly to condemn all who have a liking for an occasional small hot bird, there will be but few of us left. At this season he is the town crier of the wood, clanging his bell loudly at every wood-road corner and announcing in strident monotones that straw hats are called in and there is an exhibition sale of fall garments at Wood & Field's.
Even in August we get the first spray on the great wave of southward migrating warblers, and all through early September the woods are again full of their slender, flitting forms and their gentle voices. If you know your locality well you may mark the very dates of the month by their coming and going. So with equal definiteness the earlier departing of our summer residents leaves gaps in our hearts and the woodland on pretty definite September days. The cry-baby young of the orioles have hardly ceased to complain about the house, making the midsummer peevish, before the birds are flocking. They take August off the calendar with them. On the date that I miss them and the kingbirds September first is very near if not among those present. The redwing blackbird may linger a day or two after these, but he does not wait to any more than see September arrive before he, too, is off. The bobolinks, perfectly unrecognizable in plain brown coats, continue to flock sparrow-wise about the meadows until say, the tenth. Then they go chink-chinking down the marshes southward by way of Florida to Central America. Yucatan and the delta of the Orinoco may be lonely places in summer, but I do not think one need to be homesick there in mid-winter with all these intimate friends sitting about on the palm trees and chatting about the way things went in my meadows and woods a few months before.
As our summer residents go and the passing migrants arrive and depart we may begin to expect the winter visitants. I am looking for myrtle warblers now. Their usual date of arrival is the twentieth, and if I do not find them here it is probably my fault. The pastures are blue now with bayberries, which seem to be their favorite food. Feeding on these the myrtle warblers should be spicy, sprightly creatures, full of quaint romance, as indeed they are. The junco may come as early as this, according to the best authorities, though I confess I never have any luck in finding him much before November. The junco is a snowbird, anyway, his colors match leaden skies, and he seems to me out of place without a fellow flock of snow flakes.
The golden crowned kinglet and the winter wren, the white-throated sparrow and the brown creeper, all may be looked for between the 20th of September and the passing of the month, though as for the brown creeper those two ardent bird students, Frederic H. Kennard and Fred McKechnie have demonstrated that it is not a winter visitant only but an occasional all-the-year resident, they having found nests and eggs in the Ponkapoag swamp. So the list might be enlarged vastly till we found a new comer or a new goer or both for every day in this month of transition, September.
To me, though, the most potent signs of the presence of autumn are neither the migrants nor the changing foliage. They are the mysterious voices of the woodland which change at about this time often to an eerier and lonelier note. The voice of late September winds in the trees has a wild call of melancholy in it. There is a spot in my wood where an ancient pine, dead and stark long ago, lies in the arms of a sturdy scarlet oak. All summer the leaning trunk has shed bark and small limbs, silently, patiently waiting, final dissolution. With the coming of cool autumn winds it has begun to complain. On rainy days especially I have heard this low lonesome voice crying softly to itself through the dusk and been at a loss to know what creature made it. Foxes in the mating season along about St. Valentine's day make strange outcry in the wood, but at this time of year the fox if he speaks at all simply barks. A raccoon might whimper thus but there were some cries that no coon ever made. Once I stalked it for a lost child and I was long in locating the exact spot whence it came. After all it was only the complaining of the old tree as it rubbed on its support in the swaying wind, but it voiced all the loneliness of the good-byes which a thousand bright creatures have been saying to the wood these pleasant September days.