The Remains of the Day


I get a sinking feeling when the year winds down.  As the old song says, “the days grow short when you reach September”.  I have the emptiness that comes with leaving and with loss.  It’s a little like moving day when you look around at the boxes and the spaces on the walls where your pictures used to be.

Not that fall is complete misery. It’s just time to move on. The crackle of leaves is pleasant, the misty mornings and the ambiguous nature of the weather has a certain joie de vivre.

IMG_1078Our meadows are mowed, well after insects need them and way after any nesting grassland birds have moved on.  We follow a plan recommended by the USDA and our state DEP, hoping that proper management will encourage decling species to keep a foothold here.  We do everything we can with our meagre resources, and try to be conscientious.

It’s a different landscape without the rippling grasses and wildflowers.  The crickets are still singing day and night.  But the walking is crunchy now with a little frozen dew in the morning.  It isn’t really a frost, but it brings frost to mind.

IMG_1079I had just finished a walk the other day, in freakishly chilly, drizzling weather when a few snowflakes fell.  I wasn’t ready for that.  All was well again two days later, with waves of chirping sparrows coming through and the crickets back at their singing.  You can’t deny the foreshadowing though.

burrAutumn is the season of dispersal as well as hunkering down.  Flowers have gone to seed, and you aren’t worth a toss as a naturalist if you don’t come back from a walk with a few “hitchiker” seeds sticking to your sweater.  I pull the burrs from the burdock and give them to my little daughter.  They are “nature’s jewelery” when you stick them on yourself.  Several together can make a stunning brooch.  Some say burdock was the inspiration for velcro, since it has a sort of hook-and-eye construction, but I think this may be more country legend than truth.  Tickseed can make a real mess for you to painstakingly yank out when you get home, and there are loads of other flower seeds that like to take a ride when they can to travel somewhere new to grow.

There are so many ways for a plant to get around.  Hitchikers are one, but I favor the seeds who take to the air.  Except for being afraid of heights, balloon travel has always appealed to me, so maybe that’s the reason.  In spring, who doesn’t enjoy blowing the seeds off a dandelion clock with a big puff of air?  In fall I’d have to say that milkweed might be my favorite, with it’s silky strands that really seem  like parachute material holding on to the seed at the bottom.  The seed is the balloon’s basket, of course.  The whole affair is enclosed in a sort of warty-looking pod.  It’s shaped like an elfin ear.  When they are green you can split them open and yank out the silk and the seed.  The inner wall of the pod is smooth and soft.  When fall deepens, the pod gets brown and breaks open on its own, freeing the silken seed parachutes to fly far and wide on the breezes.  I cheer them on, hoping that every single one will yield a plant.  It’s a vain hope, but of course that is the nature of hope overall. Still, it would be nice.  Milkweed is the foundation of life for the Monarch Butterfly, who eats and lays eggs exclusively on this plant.  The milky latex sap of the milkweed also confers bitterness on the bugs, so that birds who try to eat them only try it once.  It cuts down on mortality quite a bit.   Lose your milkweed and lose your monarchs-it’s simple.

Some plants just hunker down right where they are.  After pollination seeds form and just drop right there.  It doesn’t always happen right away.  Many of them drop their seeds over the winter.  Nature has it timed so that they get moisture and light just right for them to germinate properly.  During the fall you can see them all clustered up, waiting for a good, stiff winter wind.

Queen Anne’s lace puckers up its umbel into a neat package, a lucky haven for many insects.  A great walk is to go from plant to plant gently teasing open the umbel skeleton to see if something is tucked up in there to pass the winter.  Crab spiders can often be found, and others who spin tiny webs inside the umbel, a shelter within a shelter.  Little beetles and weevils lurk in there, too.  You never know what you’ll find.  It’s a world in a wildflower.

See you on the trails,
Diane Tucker, Estate Naturalist


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2 Responses to “The Remains of the Day”

  1. Bridget Willard Says:

    I always learn something new when I read this blog.
    Thank you.

  2. Patsy Says:

    It sounds sad. But aren’t there always birds around? No flowers but it why we have seasons. I like the changes and look forward to spring renewal. Winter can be interesting.

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