News From Terre Haute, Indiana

September 16, 2013

Mike Lunsford: The golden rods of September

A measure of the beauty and cost of an Autumn signpost

Dianne Frances D. Powell
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — The sunflowers that are framed in my cabin’s eastside window are soon to become things of the past, for no matter how much I water and weed, the time has come for them to go.

Just this evening, I walked around the back corner of the place and surprised a goldfinch tugging at a seed from a big yellow head like a dentist extracting a stubborn tooth. I suppose that little bit of a bird has grown tired of the thistle seed I keep in a feeder for him and his band of brothers, and I imagine he’ll not rest until he pulls that first great prize from the sunflower, in turn beginning a general erosion of the whole thing.

The whirling blades of a ceiling fan are turning overhead, and I’m keeping a wary eye watching and hearing a sudden, gusty thunderstorm making its way across the soybean and corn fields to our west. We need the water, of course, and if I am to believe the weatherman, which I sometimes do, we are to get a little of it as a cold front blows in from parts north and cools us off in the days just before you are to read this.

In this reverie in the hours I have after work and before supper and bed, I am also re-reading a favorite book by Hal Borland. Better known, I suppose, for his fiction, Borland also wrote what he called “nature editorials” for the New York Times for 30 years.

They are tiny gems of three or four paragraphs apiece, and they make me envious of his talent for putting pen to paper, and for seeing and hearing things I don’t. A collection of the stories, “Sundial of the Seasons,” is my treat of choice right now.

An almanac of sorts, Borland’s book spends a little time on each day of the year, and for my trip through it, I opened to the first of September with the intention of reading myself through to the end and back past the middle, a day at a time until next August. They are a devotional of sorts.

I, of course, have not made it very far at such an early point in the month, but his entry for Sept. 8 — my grandfather’s birthday — was simply called “Goldenrod Yellow.” In the span of just a few sentences, Borland gave me a lesson on the “weed” we’ve come to dread for its pollen and its contribution to the “hay fever” and sinus miseries that many of us endure. I didn’t know, however, that goldenrod comes from a big family, one whose scientific name (Solidago) means “to strengthen” in Latin. It earned the name for its medicinal powers, and just as I read that phrase, I recalled a folklorist family friend who tried to desensitize my sister’s miserable allergy woes decades ago by having her breathe a bit of smoldering goldenrod from a bag. I can’t recall now whether it worked or not …

Borland wrote: “Roadsides and meadow margins glow with the yellow plumes, and on a sunny afternoon the bees are almost as loud as they were at the height of clover bloom. Goldenrod provides a September harvest that adds a special tang to autumn honey. If it weren’t for the goldenrod and the asters, which are rich in nectar, the bees would soon be out of business for the season.”

September is a golden month, and I don’t mean that only in the sense that we consider it a part of autumn, because technically, very little of it is. But it does serve as a signpost to the fall, and already I am seeing that proven true. The goldenrod is flowering in abundance these days; our ditches and fencerows are brimming with it. The soybean fields, too, are well on their way to turning to bronze, but first they spend a few weeks in a golden yellow stage, the dry fall days and cooler nights transforming them nearly unnoticed. There are now leaves of gold hanging on the dying stalks of corn, too; I noticed them yesterday on a walk, but also saw that the drying husks are opening their mouths to show off toothy hybrid smiles.

My sunflowers are, of course, a golden yellow, their faces turned to the sun nearly from birth. I don’t know what variety I have growing in my garden; I never paid a bit of attention to the seed package we bought at the hardware store, not even to the planting instructions. Why, even a gardening nitwit like me would have to work to kill sunflowers once they’ve come up.

Sunflowers put off abundant pollen — like that goldenrod we don’t plant and tend to — regardless of whether they are “Sunbrights” or “Autumn Beauties,” “Velvet Reds” or “Italian Whites.” I am told that the time to cut their heads is when the back of the flower has turned brown, but I don’t think my flowers will ever face decapitation by pocketknife. My goldfinch buddy appears to have sent out a newsletter advertising my garden spot.

Years ago, as I rode by bicycle across the bubbling tar of the road on which we lived, I noticed a weed in the ditches that resembled the giant sunflowers that my grandfather grew in his garden. I didn’t know it then, but they were “sunchoke,” a bland Midwestern name for the Jerusalem artichoke, a plant that was cultivated by Native Americans and pioneers, alike. Unlike sunflowers, sunchoke was grown for its edible roots. I’ve read that it is now considered an invasive plant, for it is a tough old bird to kill off once it gets settled in, and I should know because I have a healthy stand of it growing along the fence behind my barn.

As I look out that aforementioned window, I can see that many of my sunflowers have been broken in mid-stalk, the birds and the wind riding them to the ground. I will have to pull them soon, but not today. Today is a day to look for gold, in the chrysanthemums I have blooming near my door, in the yardstick-tall coleus we’ve grown in an old wine barrel near our storage shed, in the early turning tulip-shaped leaves of our poplars. Toward the evening, it’s my hope that this faux rainstorm will cede itself to a few rays of golden but fading sunlight, and it in turn will hand the sky over to a nearly full golden orb of a moon.

The storm is, for the most part, over now. It was mostly just noise and breeze, a few anemic drops of rain spotting the dust on my sidewalk. The only good thing out of it that I saw as I stood in the doorway eating an apple was the shower of golden black walnut leaves that had been caught in the pull of the wind and sprinkled atop my grass as if dropped from a sieve.

That old granite poet Robert Frost once wrote that “Nothing gold can stay …” I understand that, so I had better enjoy it while I can.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Go to his updated website at www.mikelunsford.com; his new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” will be released next month.