News From Terre Haute, Indiana

October 3, 2010

The Off Season: Ready for the ‘first gray hair amidst the locks of beauty’

By Mike Lunsford
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — A few of the hummingbirds that make our trees their summer cottages have lingered around our place, even as we see October get under way this week. Like the summer itself, it seems to me, the little buzzers must not have gotten the memo that the heat and geraniums and incessant dryness are all old hat now and that sooner than later they’ll have to yield the floor to sweatshirts and chrysanthemums and wood smoke. After all, most of their friends packed up, threw sheets over the furniture, and headed south last month.

The poet Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that even in August he could tell that fall was on its way, and that by September a single yellow leaf reminded him of a “first gray hair amidst the locks of a beauty who has seen one season too many.”

I’ve noticed those first gray hairs too, not only in my own head, but about the countryside I wander on foot and see from a speeding car. At night, I hear the grain bin dryers of my farmer neighbor down the road as they push air through corn I figured was already dry enough to pop on its own. As early as two weeks ago, our view to the west opened up all the way to the horizon as the fields were mowed down and gulped into massive hoppers. Just this morning, I saw a huge yellow tractor pulling a chisel plow through the dry, dusty earth, making it ready in anticipation of a spring that seems too far away to even think about.

I have wondered whether our trees will get much color to them this fall. Our leaves have been dropping steadily for weeks, desiccated, crunchy anemic-looking things that have already been piling up in places where the wind can’t get to them. Only the rain and cool and longer nights can help them now, so I still yet hope that I’ll be putting a rake to piles of gold and red in the weeks to come.

Our first full day of meteorological autumn was a hot and parched affair. The ground was bone dry, and the air was cooked under a microwave sun, a steady breeze wafting over us like a clothes dryer. Even the weeds in the ditches along the road looked tired and bedraggled, and I lingered in the house until after supper. The sun was almost ready for bed before I headed out to tackle a few chores and take a needed evening walk to clear the sawdust out of my head.

It was then that I realized that even the moaning weatherman and hot weather complainers, like me, were taking things too far. The landscape was changing, and the huge Harvest Moon-a real one this year in even the most technical sense-began to paint the countryside in a reddish glow. My few outdoor tasks done, I headed to the crossroads to get a walk underway and immediately saw my summer walking partner, Venus, off to the west, nightlight bright above the tree line that sits a half mile off into the distance.

My sore-footed wife hasn’t been making the rounds with me in the past few weeks, but if she had that night, I am certain she would have remarked that the rustling green-that became a rattling brown-tunnel of the road that ran between two long cornfields, had simply evaporated; it was eaten by the combines.

There was a different feel to the air too, and the familiar yap of a neighbor’s hound hung in the air a little longer than usual. It seemed to me, even though I know I am wrong, that the crickets seemed to be chirping their last. Odd, how something so maddening when hidden behind a loose baseboard or tucked away in a corner of the house, can be comforting and wanted when calling from a fencerow or weedy ditch.

On the return trip, I noticed Jupiter-as close to Earth as it’s roamed in nearly 60 years-tucked neatly under the moon to the east. I always find it interesting that distance seems to make even the biggest of the planets sit on equal terms with the smallest, that even our punky little moon dwarfed the giant of the solar system, at least from where I stood. For the next few months, Jupiter will be the brightest thing in the sky-besides our moon- and, I am told, I can even see the big boy’s four Galilean moons myself- that is, if my binoculars and my patience are good enough.

Not long before I arrived home, I passed a tree that stands alone in a soybean field; it is as familiar to me as an old shoe. Silhouetted in the sky by the full moon, it always reminds of an Ossawa Tanner painting I once saw, “Abraham’s Oak.” I was thinking of that when I turned into my drive in time to startle two deer that stood ramrod straight in my front yard. With a snort, both bolted and shot past our garden into the woods, their reverie, and mine, unsettled for a while.

Now is the time of year for putting things in their places; my wife is itching to buy pumpkins, wants to know if I have a few bales of straw in the barn to sit under our yellowing tulip poplar. I drove to the orchard the other day to buy apples, and I have begun to empty the scruffy dregs of summer flowers from their pots, slowly getting into the groove of stowing away and putting up. The goldenrod is golden, the ragweed is ragged, and the sassafras trees are dyeing themselves orange

Throw a blanket on the bed; get used to the feel of corduroy and the comforting rattle of a blowing furnace. After a long hot summer, it is finally fall. I am ready for it.

You can contact Mike Lunsford by e-mail at or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at, and visit his website at to learn more about his books.