These Dwindling Days of Summer

Reading and photographs by Robert Towe

From my nature journal, August twenty eighth. Finally a few dry days, windy and warm. The morning fog burns off, cicadas start rattling the trees and thousands of insects sing in the tall grasses. In the garden, sprawling with broad leaves, pumpkin vines ramble through the rank weeds of the wet summer. A family of young crows keeps whining and arguing deep in the grove of pines. Russet apples start dropping from their heavy limbs. In the late-morning distances, a chainsaw snarls and snarls, cutting wood for winter.

Above the garden tall trees fill with the long latesummer winds, a sound like rushing waters. The wide blue sea of sky drifts with flotillas of puffy cumulus like fast white ships, casting quick shadows across the green land. We near the edges of September. Daily, the golden arc of the sun slightly descends. Already the day’s light is shorter by more than hour than it was in early July, but most of us don’t notice the lengthening shadows until later in the fall.

These are Goldenrod days, usually the driest of the year. I remember many years ago gathering the yellow blossoms for dyeing skeins of raw wool in a large cast-iron pot boiling over a wood fire in the yard. Goldenrod gives to the natural fibers a rich but muted yellow-green. Those years, our sweaters and winter scarves had woven in them the warm hues of late summer days.

Now the shed wall buzzes with the eerie staccato whine of the Mud Dauber, a shiny blue-black solitary wasp. She plasters masonry chambers hard against the vertical wall, well out of the rain and snow. “Singing” as she works, she lays eggs deep in the mud chambers, then stocks them with crab spiders, paralyzed with her sting. There they remain until spring, when the wasp eggs hatch with abundant food to get them going until warm weather. These August days I see her glistening twitching body stopping often at the birdbath, sipping enough water to make mud for the wintering birth-chambers of her young.

Rolling high above us these warm nights of late-summer, the Summer Triangle gleams. Vega, brightest star in the summer sky, sparkles like a sapphire in Lyra the Lyre. At the base of the triangle flies Deneb, tail of Cygnus the Swan, winging eternally southwest along the center of the Milky Way. At the narrow point of the triad perches Altair, alpha star of Aquila the Eagle. As autumn approaches, the Triangle travels nightly down the western sky, finally setting into the purple mountains of early winter.