As much as I hate summer to leave us, I am happy that fall is just around the corner. It has been a bone-dry season, one in which I’ve watched my yard bake and crack like an old pie crust. My wife and I are still spending our evenings going about the business of watering flowers, standing with a dribbling hose in our hands, optimistically hoping that our drought will be broken because we’ve tempted the weather fates to do us one better and give us a good rain.
As has been my habit, I am walking my road in the cool of the evenings, and I’ve begun to notice that the fencerows and fields and trees are changing their colors for autumn, not unlike those of us who will soon be scrounging in the closet for a favorite sweater or faded flannel shirt to slip on. I have always been interested in fencerows, and before you think that I need to desperately seek a real hobby, I’ll tell you why.
It has been suggested that fencerows, no matter how unkempt and ragged, create a boundary between what we know and what we don’t. They divide the land — perhaps segregate that which is neatly kept from that which isn’t — and they create barriers between what is ours and what is someone else’s. But more than that, I am interested in what lives in or near fencerows. Not the horses and cattle kept away from the roads and orchards by wire strung along dried and graying posts, but rather the insects and birds, the ivies and creepers and snakes that make the fencerows their home. Spray as one will, or mow, or scythe, and sooner or later fencerows will fill themselves with vines and burrows and buzzes that survive in few other places.
When I was a boy, we lived along a sandy hillside field that in odd years held rows of soybeans, and in even years, a crop of corn. There was no real fence between the edges of our yard and the field, but if we’d walk a few feet to the south past our driveway, we’d encounter a rusty old woven wire fence, its locust posts leaning at odd, decrepit angles, like a hag’s crooked teeth.
My mom always tossed table scraps and potato peelings near the fence, knowing that when she returned the next day with another bowl of odds and ends, that every crumb would be gone, a possum a bit fatter, a bird or two a bit happier because of it. It was there that we could always look out a window toward the south and east to see a raccoon or a cardinal or a squirrel as they took turns snooping amid the offerings and filling their plates.
I used to walk that fencerow back to the woods behind our house; I hunted mushrooms along it, took note that it was the poison ivy and the sumacs and the bittersweet that first pulled on fall colors weeks ahead of the oaks and ashes and maples that sat on the other side, but not much in advance of the tulip poplars and sassafras and sycamores. My grandfather often burned the grass and weeds from the fencerows in the spring, but by the time fall rolled around, they’d be fat with saplings and haggard ironweeds and wild roses and the bright yellow flowers of sunchoke. I think he enjoyed watching the fire and smelling the smoke in springtime; he must have liked to stand and lean on a shovel, too.
My friend, Marion Jackson, wrote a piece about such places years ago in “Snowy Egret” magazine. In it, he reminisced about a fencerow from his youth. It was on his southern Indiana “homeplace” and he knew it well. Some 50 years after he played near the spot, he returned there. His brother owned the farm by then, but he had never gotten around to clearing the fencerow, and it made Marion happy.
“I hope he never does [get it cleared],” Jackson wrote. “That old fencerow is one of the few ecological islands surviving in the sea of present-day chemical farming. It is also a reminder of how the rural landscape of southern Indiana once was.”
Anyway, I have been taking note of the fencerows near my place lately, all neglected it seems, whether they be mine or those of a neighbor. But while there is always a good view framed by a well-maintained fence, there seems to me a painting created by a fencerow that has been allowed to go back to nature.
As I walked along one night, “picking them up and putting them down,” my dad liked to say, I listened to the rattling corn and felt the warm breeze that blew it into a symphony. I noticed that I could look a bit deeper into the woods already, for a good many leaves, dried and dusty from a long, hot summer, have already dropped. A walnut sapling had turned golden, its leaves splotched with rusty holes. Nearby, a patch of blackberry vines held leafy flames of saw-toothed red, all in stark contrast to the bright orange of a stand of scrawny sassafras trees. Amid the whole palette of color sits an even brighter black gum tree, its leaves already piling up at its base.
In the smoky light of dusk, I saw a horde of big, fat dragonflies as they swarmed in perhaps what would be their final dogfight, and even the countless crickets chirping their legs raw in the ditches sounded a bit worn out.
Our summer is about to go away, but those old fencerows will just throw off their summer wear, put on a jacket, and hunker down in anticipation of a north wind. I guess I had better do the same.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. His third collection of stories, “A Place Near Home,” will be released in October.