Category Archives: Autumn watch

Autumn watch

The alarm went off this morning, and I staggered out of bed to shut it off. It seemed so dark that I was sure the alarm had gone off early. When I checked it, the alarm was set at exactly the same time it is always set for; but now the sun is rising late enough that I’m finally aware of it.

The wind blew ferociously all day, whipping leaves off trees, and coming around the side of tall buildings to slap you in the face. Carol and I went for a walk today, and we decided that wind was just too bitter to walk along the waterfront; so we walked up around the railroad yard instead, where it’s a little more sheltered. Even then, the cold north wind made us put our heads down, and tuck our hands in our pockets.

Tonight, we’re supposed to get a hard freeze, our first hard freeze of the year. Being close to the ocean moderates the temperature, but eventually the cold weather settles in here, too.

Autumn watch

A long drive up to Walpole, New Hampshire, today to sing with the New England Sacred Harp Convention. Walpole sits down in the Connecticut River valley, with the river on one side and steep hills on the other side. After the singing, K—- and I decided to stretch our legs before the long drive home. We walked up a side road to the height of land behind the town, and looked down into the river valley, and across at the hills of Vermont on the other side of the river.

“Looks like the trees are almost at peak color,” K—- said. The view of the Vermont hills was framed by one big sugar maple that was glorious in its red, orange, yellow, and green leaves. We started driving, mostly downhill, and by the time we got to the Boston suburbs, we noticed a distinct difference:– the trees were mostly green, except for the red maples in the low-lying swamps.

Autumn watch

Across the street from the fast food joint at County and Elm Streets, there’s a house that has a beautiful copper beech growing in the yard. I was walking down Elm Street when I heard an odd rustling sort of sound coming from the copper beech. I looked over and saw that brown stuff was dropping out of the tree, and I realized what was going on: the beech nuts were ripe, and some squirrels were sitting up in the tree shelling them and eating them as fast as they could. The sound was the squirrels cracking open the beech nuts, and the brown stuff coming down was beech nut shells. Squirrels almost always get to beech nuts before we humans do. I can only remember once when I got to eat any beech nuts:– a warm evening in October, 1999, while sitting outdoors reading theology on the back steps of the library of Andover Newton Theological School. The steps were covered with beech nuts that had fallen from the two big beech trees that grew nearby, and half of the beech nuts I picked still had the kernels in them. I cracked them open and ate the kernels, which tasted very good indeed; and I finally understood why the squirrels rarely leave any for us humans to eat.

Autumn watch

This year, I’ve been so busy that I’ve been watching the emergence of fall colors through car windows. Two weeks ago, the trees along the highways here in southeastern New England were almost entirely green. But as I was driving into Providence this afternoon, I saw lots of maples tipped with red or orange, and I saw several trees that were completely red.

I don’t particularly like the fact that the only time I get to look at fall color is when I’m driving. That is a sure indication that I am too busy — busier than I need to be. No one is so important that they can’t take a few hours each week to walk around a park, or out in the woods if that’s possible, and look at trees. No one is that important, yet somehow I have managed to set up my life so that the only time I get to look at trees is when I’m driving madly to get somewhere else.

Autumn watch

The autumnal equinox is a week away, and I am very aware of the rapidly shortening days. I don’t mean that I say to myself, Gee, we lost another four minutes of daylight today. Rather, my whole being responds to the lessening daylight : I want to sleep longer; my spirits are lower; I grow anxious if I can’t get outdoors for an hour or so while the sun is still high.

A couple of weeks ago, I planted some Swiss chard in our tiny little garden between our building and the building next door. It has been warm, and we have had plenty of rain, and the seeds sprouted and started to grow, but they have gotten spindly with that look that they’re not getting enough light. The sun has gotten so low in the sky that the buildings to the south block direct sunlight for all except half an hour a day. I don’t hold out too much hope for our Swiss chard.

I usually look forward to autumn, but this year I only seem to notice the loss of sunlight.

Autumn watch

We started walking back from Dunkin Donuts right at four o’clock. “Look,” said Carol, “There are two sailboats out on the harbor.” Two sloops, both carrying mainsail and jib, were tacking back and forth across the harbor. Most recreational sailors lack the courage to actually sail in the harbor, in the midst of the working fishing boats, tugs, other recreational boats, and ferries, and usually when we see sailboats, the sails are furled and they are being pushed by propellor and motor. But today, perhaps because the winds were perfect and there were no other recreational boats out, these two sloops gracefully sailed back and forth across the harbor. A large fishing boat was holding a position near the swing-span bridge, waiting for quarter after four when the bridge would swing open to let it into the inner harbor. One of the sloops sailed quite near the fishing boat, the top of the sloop’s mast about as tall as the cranes and masts on the fishing boat. “I wonder what they’re doing,” said Carol, “maybe they’re hailing the fishing boat?” I said I didn’t know, but it was pleasant to watch: the graceful white sailboat gliding by the big, tough fishing boat. By then, the sun had gone down behind the city’s skyline, and darkness was settling over the harbor.

Autumn watch

Alianthus altissima, known as the “tree of heaven” or Chinese sumac, grows everywhere in our neighborhood. Alianthus is an invasive species that grows incredibly quickly, and can reach twenty or more feet in height in two years. It will thrive in places where no other tree will grow: it will spring up in the narrow bands of rank weeds that grow between dreary parking lots; it will sprout along chain-link fences; it thrives along the trash-strewn edges of busy highways. I remember reading one field guide to trees which described alianthus as a “coarse, malodorous tree,” but that’s not an entirely fair description. It is fair to say that alianthus tends to grow in coarse, malodorous places — sometimes a stray alianthus will be the one oasis of greenery in some blasted post-industrial wasteland.

On my walk today, I passed the alianthus altissima that has been growing up near the pedestrian overpass that crosses Route 18 in downtown New Bedford, growing right next to and choking out a fir tree. Yesterday, the alianthus was still covered with green leaves; but today, suddenly it has no leaves left. The leaves never turned red or orange or yellow or even brown, they just fell off. A mature alianthus altissima can become a beautiful tree, with masses of creamy white flowers in the spring, and in the winter with its many branches reaching up towards the sky. But it adds nothing whatsoever to the autumn landscape.

Hurricane season

The weather wasn’t nearly as wild as it could have been. The National Weather Service had warned that Hurricane Noel could bring winds gusting up to 70 miles per hour, but here in New Bedford the wind gusts never got above 39 miles per hour — enough to bring down small branches and tear some flags to shreds, but really not all that bad. And the National Weather Service had warned of the possibility of thunderstorms with heavy rains and a total accumulation of two to four inches, but so far we haven’t even gotten an inch of rain since yesterday.

I stayed in most of the day because of the severe weather warnings. I didn’t take my usual hour-long walk. The barometer kept dropping, down to 992 millibars, and my bones ached. By the end of the day I was feeling so cranky and antsy that this evening I actually lifted weights. I hate lifting weights, but after I was done I felt much better. But oh, how I wished I had taken a walk this afternoon, instead of believing the weather forecasters and their dire predictions.

I was still cursing myself for being stupid enough to listen to the weather forecasts when I checked the weather observations for Nantucket, just fifty miles east of here. The weather station on Nantucket recorded wind gusts of over 70 miles per hour (that’s hurricane force) with steady winds above 50 miles per hour, and they’ve had over three inches of rain so far. It wouldn’t have taken much — just a little twitch in the hurricane’s track — for that wind and rain to have hit here.

Autumn watch

I had to go to the gum doctor again today for another check-up, and on the way back I stopped at Verrill Farm, the farmstand Carol and I used to shop at when we lived down the street from it. They still have lots of fresh local fruits and vegetables: butternut squash, Hubbard squash (big and blue and warty), acorn squash; bags of curly spinach, and bunches of lacinto kale and curly-leaf kale; a few last tomatoes; parsnips (creamy white gnarled roots tied in neat bunches with the greens still attached), carrots (long gloriously orange blunt-tipped ones, and crookedy pointed yellow ones); Jerusalem artichokes; Brussels sprouts; bright bunches of red radishes and red-and-white radishes with rounded green leaves; Yukon gold potatoes, little wooden boxes of expensive German fingerling potatoes, Green Mountain potatoes (oddly-shaped with deep eyes), red potatoes, big long Russet potatoes; big yellow rutabagas, and this year they’re growing the white Macomber turnips that originated down here in Westport; and of course there are the native apples: McIntoshes, Spencers, Empires, Macouns, and Cortlands (although they had none of the older varieties that keep better and cook better).

As I picked up a box of Jerusalem artichokes, a woman asked me if you had to peel them before she cooked them, adding, “They look like they would be difficult to peel, they’re so small.” I said that I peeled them and ate them raw, but I knew some people ate them with the skins on. “What do they taste like?” I said they tasted nutty and, well, good. She was about to ask me something else when one of the cashiers who has worked there for years overheard our conversation, ignored me, bustled up to her and said, “You’ll love them, one of my customers doesn’t peel them, she just gently scrubs them and cooks them.” “Gently scrubs — you mean like mushrooms?” “Yes, just like that,” said the officious cashier, who obviously knew nothing about Jerusalem artichokes. Jerusalem artichokes are nothing at all like mushrooms: you do not wash them like mushrooms, you do not prepare them like mushrooms, and they do not taste like mushrooms. Under the cashier’s onslaught, the other woman put the box of Jerusalem artichokes in her shopping basket, and slunk away.

That officious cashier made the sale, but I wonder how happy that woman will be with her purchase. Scrub them gently? If she doesn’t want to peel them, she’d be better off scrubbing the hell out of them, then trimming off the unappetizing bits. Mostly, we North Americans eat a very limited number of foodstuffs these days, and most of the food we eat comes out of plastic containers or cardboard boxes. It’s hard to change the habits embedded in us by all that prepared food. You can’t change those habits by telling someone Jerusalem artichokes are “like mushrooms.” Tell them that Jerusalem artichokes are a gustatory adventure, like nothing they’ve ever tried before: nutty, sweet, with a lovely crunchy texture when you eat them raw. Tell them the truth about the food they’ve never eaten, and maybe they’ll be too intimidated to buy it this time, but you will have planted a seed in their imaginations, and they will realize that there’s a whole world of food out there that they haven’t tried — a whole world of local food that they have been shut out of because, for all the immense floor space, supermarkets actually have very little variety.

As for me, I bought a big bag of Cortland apples, ten pounds of orange carrots (which taste nothing like the California carrots you get in the supermarket), Brussels sprouts, ten pounds of Green Mountain potatoes (which are firmer, whiter, and taste different than the limp potatoes you get in the supermarket), lacinto kale, and some of that late-fall spinach (which tastes different from the plastic-wrapped spinach you get in the supermarket because of the soil and the weather, and because it’s much fresher). I also got some Jerusalem artichokes. I think I’ll go eat one right now: peel it, and bite into it raw.