The Last Wildflowers of the Year

Reading and photographs by Robert Towe

From my nature journal, October 9: The late-afternoon autumn rain has crossed into the dark mountains to the east, purple with turbulence and storm. Daylight’s last hour, long gold shafts of sun break out from under the somber stone-grey cloud. Bright spangles of light stream through the oaks, sparkling every branch and leaf.

Each bent weed stem and rose thorn drips with a brief delicate jewel of glittering light. Cleansed of pollen and dust, the air breathes fresh, invigorating like morning air. The washed earth steams with raw pungent fragrances. A sublime windless moment of dripping stillness, mild after the frosts and sharp winds earlier this week. We know they will return.

The late day’s colors, indeed the richest pigments of the natural year saturate with the gloaming of deepening dusk. It’s like watching a grand autumn landscape painting being dimmed, as the bright gallery lights are turned off for the evening. Daubed with splashes of scarlet, now the shining gold-green land goes slowly drab. Fingers of shadow reach out of the forest. It is a time of mysteries unfolding, familiar shapes and distances vanish into veils of darkness.

Morning, October the eleventh: The air is spinning with a thousand leaves. Warm south breezes stir the tall, yellowing birches outside the door, whisking down whirls of speckled leaves, scattering like summer birds. With every gust of October wind, with each rain-shower, the trees slowly become transparent again, revealing graceful lithe skeletons of tossing limbs. Watching the trees being stripped of another year’s leaves, we feel a strange mix of thrill and loss.

The morning mountain wind smells warm and moist, like a lost sea wind. Flotillas of white cumulus clouds float across the wide blue ocean of sky. Down in the wet bottomland, tall Ironweed flowers (“Queen of the Meadow”) paint the low meadows regal shades of purple. Their royal crowns richly complement the ragged yellow swatches of common Goldenrod. Along with tall heathery Joe Pye Weed and star-like clusters of lavender Asters, these are among the last wildflowers of the year. Soon even their hearty blossoms will be burned black, by frost.

Over the garden a late Monarch drifts like a burnt orange leaf, maneuvering through the swirling fall of windy leaves. The lone butterfly is making its long journey two thousand miles southwest to the mountain forests of Mexico, where it will cluster with millions of others to sleep for the winter.

For complete contrast to this exquisite natural scene, a large commercial jet suddenly roars overhead, steel silver wings shining in loud descent to the airport twelve miles south. The delicate papery wings of the orange and black Monarch float it down through falling leaves, silently, to rest a few minutes in the blossoms of a Butterfly Bush. The long black tongue uncoils, refueling with deep sips of nectar---the pure energy of flowers, for the long autumn flight.