Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Phenology: Dancing with Leaves

It's been a while since this web site has displayed a phenology post. There's been a reason for that. I've not been out in nature enough.

In order to earn money (US$1-2 per hour if you go by hours) as a hack writer, I've been commuting to Kingsport, Tennessee. In order to get a free ride out there, I've been leaving home at 5 or 6 a.m. or sometimes earlier. I've been coming back at 7 or 8 p.m. or sometimes later, and a few nights I've stayed in Kingsport. I'm working out of Grandma Bonnie Peters' basement, a lovely big barn of a room that stays cool in summer and warm in winter, with room for all the grandchildren's sleeping bags on the floor. It's quiet and comfortable, frugally well lighted with lots of fluorescent tubes in different tones for clear natural-looking light, and as all GBP's friends know, the problem is knowing when to stop eating the fresh, delicious, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, and mostly sugar-free food GBP cooks and serves. (You can't just cook meals for her in return--you have to restock her pantry with the pricey things she eats.) It's a pleasant place to spend the night, if stuck in the city. Most days the air conditioning even filters out the smell of Kingsport air. But I'm always eager to get back to my own home and the cats and the orchard and all.

This morning I finally squeezed in some time for a walk around the Cat Sanctuary, and what I noticed most was autumn leaves.

Most people in Gate City aren't accustomed to thinking of autumn leaves as an economic resource, although the fact is that autumn leaves attract our favorite kind of tourists. Even when I was growing up here, the local woods were still recovering from excessive logging. Tulip poplar leaves turn yellow, maple leaves turn yellow or red, and dogwood leaves turn reddish purple, in September...and after that, in the 1970s, that was it, and the hills looked bare and drab until May. You had less than a week to feast your eyes on autumn foliage, and some years, during that week, it rained.

Autumn is a prettier season now. We have more of a mix of hardwood trees. If you can't visit beautiful Scott County this weekend, as the dogwoods and tulip poplars do their thing, there should be plenty of color left to enjoy for another month or two. Lots of leaves to crunch under your feet, around the Natural Tunnel or in your friends' or relatives' woodlot. Bright, breezy afternoons, warm sun on your face, migrating birds.

This year, I'm seeing a lot of leaves start to turn brown just because it's been a long, dry, mellow late-summer season. We've not come anywhere close to frost yet. Dogwoods, tulip poplars, sycamores, and some maples show their colors in September because their annual cycle is based on light more than temperature. They "see" the days growing shorter and prepare for autumn whether the temperatures are hot or cold. Oaks and beeches stay green until they feel frost. Some leaves turn brown just because it's been dry. What crunched under my feet this morning were mostly brown leaves. Purple dogwood, yellow sycamore and tulip poplar, and bright red leaves on just one (probably designer-hybridized) maple tree, are still clinging to the trees today and may stay on into the weekend.

Birds are migrating. You might see them do cute things if you're paying attention at this time of year. Last week serious birdwatchers converged on the wide spot in a back road known as Mendota, Virginia, to count migrating hawks. This morning, while GBP was sitting in her car, she saw a transient flicker inspect her deck, lilac bush, and pine tree for ants. (He didn't find any.)

Although nights have been mild and days have been quite warm this month, the time to dig out winter gear is here. I just laundered my smaller Blanket Shawl. GBP, who chills easily, has already been getting a lot of wear out of a jacket I knitted for her in 1996. (It was knitted in Red Heart Super Saver acrylic, which may stretch a bit but otherwise wears like iron, and it looks like a new oversized jacket if you don't remember...yes, if it were human, it'd be old enough to vote.) If you don't already own a selection of hand-knitted sweaters for comfort on all occasions, lurkers, please check the Lamplight Theatre's weekend bazaar. I have a few pieces on display there and am preparing more for a bigger display from October through Christmas at the Haggle Shop. By preparing I mean, mostly, letting the mothball odor air out.

If you shop early, you'll have new and beautiful gifts for everyone to put on when the nights get frosty. By putting on I mean on the bed, as well as on their backs. I have sweaters to suit every body on these displays, still have some sweater kits in stock--btw readers who knit could buy kits and patterns from me, if they want the fun of knitting their own sweaters their own way--but these days, when I think about buying yarn, I'm thinking cotton towels, bed covers, chair covers, car seat covers, insulating window covers, even trendy new mock headboard designs to hang on the wall above the bed. Your ideas are welcome.

Meanwhile, although I'm a knitter partly in order to corner a niche market in this part of the country, about a dozen crocheters and quilters are breaking out their winter displays too. However, when I was selling crafts in that grim unheated warehouse, I would not have liked to sit for hours underneath quilts, knitting, while the temperature hovered just above freezing. Crocheted afghans might have been cozier than quilts; underneath knitted blankets and shawls, I was practically comfortable. Quilts look lovely and traditional in a warm house, but if you must travel in winter, knitted blankets are what you need to have in the car.

As we all know, the cooler nights, bright yellow flowers, and few colorful leaves we're seeing this week are nature's little seasonal nag...do I need to type those familiar keywords like storm windows, flu shots, firewood, strawberry bed, insulation, or snow tires?