Seasonal Speculations


August in California is hot—temperatures of 103 or more are not uncommon on our place. The dirt has long since become powder-fine and rises from the earth at the slightest breeze. When you walk, little puffs of dust hover around each footstep. In the years when there have been fires, the smoke and dust in the air turn ordinary sunsets into pyrotechnic displays of color. The animals move slowly, seeking the shade, lashing out with tail and hoof against the maddening flies. In the hottest part of the day, everyone, human and animal alike, indulges in the custom of siesta.

But it is in this month that you can feel the approach of winter. The first sign is a cooling in the air, very subtle and easily missed unless you are paying close attention. When the windows are opened in the evening, a faint chill wafts through, laying to rest the oppressive heat of the day. There is a scent of dew in the early morning which has been absent from the summer; the shade of a tree is thick and smells of damp earth instead of dust. Days begin to warm more slowly. Instead of vaulting into the sky with a blare of heat, the sun seems to rise yawning in leisurely fashion, while evenings are cool enough to sit outside—or would be if not for the mosquitoes. Insects become even more annoying during August. The flies are a plague of buzzing, biting fury, much worse than in June. It’s as if they know their time is short.

Plants know—the oak trees have been water-stressed for weeks now, their leaves turning brown at the edges. As the air cools, the brown areas enlarge, take on russet and gold hues, and leaves begin to fall. All deciduous trees lose a few leaves every day, but when the autumn leaf drop begins in late August, you start to see the showers and swirls that herald the fall equinox. In the garden, annuals and perennials alike hurry to ripen seed. Fall-blooming wildflowers begin their show. Tiny asters with white petals shaded a faint purple dot the pastures, and California goldenrod begins to appear along the roadsides. Queen Anne’s Lace changes from starry white umbels to fantastic and delicate traceries of dusty green geodesic spheres. Nightshade berries take on the purple-black of ripeness.

Flocks of robins descend on the irrigated pastures—many in the speckled white of immaturity—to hunt for worms before they head south. They come in waves; first the females and hatchlings, then the males. Geese begin to gather, and the occasional formation heads in a southerly direction. An attentive birdwatcher will notice that the wild turkeys have changed their foraging patterns, and the old palomino broodmare need not gobble her grain so quickly to keep the turkeys from stealing it. The flocks have cleaned up after both mare and milk cow all summer, growing bolder each day, but now they seek the ripening acorns which have begun to fall from the oaks.

All the animals are readying themselves for the cold. A bear has found the blackberries and gorges on whatever it can reach, ripe and unripe alike. We have—so far—seen only the tracks, but the bushes tell the tale. Small family flocks of quail share in the feast, exploding from underfoot like feathered shot. The horses have begun to grow their winter coats, and sweat readily in the hot midday sun. My pigs stand under the hose in delight and wallow happily in the resulting mud, but they too have thicker hair. Chickens, having finished their molt, gleam in the sunlight as they scratch for bugs (how I wish they could eat mosquitoes!). The cow is a little less productive, applying her grass intake to adding fat instead of making milk.

As I watch all these changes I wonder how a city dweller tracks the changing seasons. Anyone can tell when the leaves change, but what are the subtleties of suburbia? What signs do they note—the resumption of the school year? Sales of fall clothing? The Labor Day holiday? As I watch the hornets killing wasps to provide food for the last larvae of the year, I speculate on the impact of the disconnect between humans and the natural world. It cannot be a good thing to be so distant from the busy life of the wild that you know winter is approaching because the display windows now have wool sweaters instead of bathing suits.


While I do live in the country, and see the larger signs of fall approaching in the turning of the leaves and the fall crops being harvested, there are subtler signs as well. Seven porch posts line my south porch, and on each one hangs a hummingbird feeder. For the past two weeks, when I’ve taken down a feeder to fill it, I’ve had to step back a step or two on the porch to do so rather than leaning over the porch rail as I’ve been doing all summer. The sun is lower in the sky now, and is no longer being blocked from my eyes by the overhang of the porch roof. The porch plants are requiring watering more often as well, in spite of the cooling temperatures – more sun reaching them, or the reduction of the high humidity that we have here in the summertime?


Great article. It took me awhile to think of how urban people mark the seasons. Yes, we do have leaves that fall, and things like that, but there are other hints for us. (Mostly from my childhood.) Those who recognize some of these are old.

“Schoolbells ringing, children singing, back to Robert Hall today”

“Wouldn’t you really rather have a Buick, a 67 Buick, than any other car this year.”

Vacation times were usually in the summer.

Window displays on 7th Ave in NYC.

A train running around the ceiling in Bamburger’s.

Christmas trees being sold. (Back then it was just a week before Christmas)

Collecting Christmas trees.

The May Flower procession at the Catholic Church.

The day after the Mayflower procession when shoe heels were stuck in the molten road.


Spring hats.

Carrying my brother 5 miles to school in the blowing snow each way so he wouldn’t get the shoes I was going to inherit wet.

Tomatoes, apples, pears, peaches from our yard.

Burpee’s catalogue

The smell of new crayons.

Eating white paste in school.

Singing “School’s out.”

Girls shivering in their school dress uniforms.

Guys looking at the girls shivering.

Yellow raincoats during April showers.

Wearing rubbers. (It’s not what you think.)

Golashes with buckles.

Father Golding (Who looked just like Mr. Clean) intoning the Stations of the Cross.

Collecting butterflies.

Catching lightening bugs and putting them in a canning jar to use as a lantern.

Rolling in the grass.

Rolling down the sled riding hill in a barrel.

Sledding down the barrel hill.

Burning a tire to keep warm while sledding.

Mosquitoes. (I grew up in NJ.)


Watching the old rotating light on top of the Empire Statebuilding. (Winter when it got dark early.)

Flipping baseball cards.

The smell of bubblegum in baseball cards.

Playing sandlot football, baseball, basketball.

The annual Thanksgiving rumble at the football game with East Orange.

Turkey smell.

The Good Humor man.

I had no idea this was going to be this long.I could go on, as it seems almost every day had its own marker.

Thank you all for your kind words about my post! And Katherine, thank you in particular for evoking the seasonal changes in the city. I’ve never lived in one and would not have been able to paint the picture you have shown us.

Beautiful article. Thank you for this.

I grew up in the city; I had no choice. My parents had no choice, really. In answer to the questions of so many, there are city kids and grown city folks who follow the turnings of the seasons.

For them it’s not all about the seasonal trends of this consumer society. It’s about watching the trees in your neighborhood change, the dew on plants outside your door and eventually the frost patterns on your windows. It’s about the changes in the appearance of sunrise and sunset. These may be framed against cityscapes, rather than dark shadows of pine trees (although in some spots you have both), but the way a summer sunrise looks is so very different from the icy sunrise of a Great Lakes city winter. The way the snow appears and feels as we move through the winter and what animals appear in your neighborhood when showed us the ways of nature. Migrations of birds were very apparent – who is on the wires overhead this month and who was last month!

Some city folks grew/grow gardens. I’m talking about decades ago, not just the current trend of urban gardening (which I’m solidly in favor of!), but growing up in the Great Lakes Rust Belt and seeing how many neighbors maintained a few fruit trees in their back yards allowed us to know where some of our food came from and how to observe what other creatures enjoyed ripe cherries as much as we children, perched up in a neighbor’s tree, did. I had my own first vegetable garden at age 9. There was a wild grape bush sprouting under and across the old tin shed in my backyard that changed with the seasons and provided snacks for me and my friends and the neighborhood birds.

I grew up in a Rust Belt river town. The river was polluted and in a sad state, yet, as a child and teenager, it was a region of connection with the natural world for me. Things happened at the riverside that were different from my land-based life. Sometimes we would find an old rowboat, take it out onto the river, explore river islands, and then bring the boat back. Maybe we’d be seen as delinquents now for doing that? Eventually, I was the gardener and one of my friends was the riverman. He bought and patched an old rowboat. We learned to fish and though the river fish was not safe, there were old water-filled rock quarries near the city that yielded a day’s fishing and simple, delicious food.

There are so many ways that people in cities can interact with the natural world. Children, especially, are wide open to this.

I live in the country now and have a mini-farm, a drylands farm in the high desert. My heart is still with those city kids and their parents, though, having relationship with the natural world in their own best and most creative ways. I have recently been considering whether I might not eventually migrate back to a city to be a part of that. It’s not an easy choice.

Teresa Sue Hoke-House September 14, 2010 at 6:43 am

Very nicely put. The smell of the wheat stubble with the fall dew always reminds me that winter is on the way.

Way to go, Beth. Beautiful. I am astounded by the power of the internet with which I am only barely literate. Like so many people on this website (I think it is called a website), I don’t know you from Adam, probably will never meet you, and it doesn’t really matter because we can all be sympatico here on the things that really matter. But by now I am kind of curious. Just who the heck is Beth Greenwood anyway? Gene

    Well, in a nutshell: she is the eldest daughter of two surgeons–her mother was born and raised in Delaware, Ohio and her father in Woodland, California–who grew up in northern California and spent over 40 years as an RN, which means she’s done just about everything you can do in the nursing field (one of the neat things about nursing is that you can have a dozen different careers and still be a nurse). She taught herself to read at the age of four and read anything that was standing still or even moving slowly. She is an inveterate scribbler but spent many years diverting the urge to write into professional channels; it’s only been in the last ten years that she has turned to fiction and essays such as the one Dave Smith was kind enough to post here. She lives on 165 acres with her husband, daughter’s family (three granddaughters–ages 3, 5, and 12) and spends her days on the usual ranch chores such as milking, slopping pigs, gardening, helping with equipment repair, baking bread and collecting eggs, when she’s not restoring the old orchards or sloping off to pick wildflowers–she excuses this dereliction of duty by calling it herbalism. When she’s officially relaxing, she does needlework, still reads anything that is (or isn’t) nailed down, and honors her Scots/English/German heritage by being fiercely independent and…what’s a kind way to say she’s so tight she squeaks? Oh, and she can still sing on key!

“exploding… feathered shot” Very nice! You evoked the details and mood of the seasonal change wonderfully. The writing reminded me of Gene’s beautiful essay “The Aim Is Joy”. Thank you.

My Dad always repeated this phrase from a poem he learned in grade school: “The Golden Rod is yellow, the corn is turning brown”. I miss his wisdom on the changing of the seasons. Now I understand that he suffered from SAD. He watched for every signal that the days were getting shorter and the seasons were changing. Thank you for jogging my memory in such a beautiful essay.

Beth, you are an excellent writer. Thank you.

It is good to see someone who watches the same calendar; plants and animals are very good predictors of the future.


The changing of the seasons, for me, is very much hearlded by changes in the smells in the woods. Spring comes with a bright, fresh smell even with the snow still on the ground. Summer is heavy and humid and the air is mixed in July with the smells of tasseling corn from local gardens and fields. Fall, my favorite, is full of richness from the falling leaves and the many mushrooms that appear in our woods. The creek seems to sparkle more in the fall sunlight too. Winter here, with our 100+ inches of snow per year, smells sharp and cold, but is tempered by the warming smell of smoke from our many woodstoves in the area. In some ways, though some look at it as pollution, smoke from a woodstove is a very inviting and reassuring smell at that time of the year.

I could never live in the city and miss the natural changes of the seasons here in the Pennsylvania woods. As the old song goes ‘Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free, tis a gift to come down where you ought to be’. I’m glad I did.

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