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Even as Winter is coming.
Yesterday, the colors of the hills in and around Stumptown, West Virginia reached their peak of color. Along the hillsides of the giant bowl surrounding the farm, oaks turned to rust, and the various other deciduous trees presented the bright oranges and yellows of a campfire, without much flaming red.
In my busyness, I almost missed it. It comes slowly, over a period of about three weeks. It begins with “Look at the colors!” Then, slightly, with each day, the richness of color grows, turns, and ripples with greater variety and vividity. And then, for two or three days at the culmination of colors, you question the possibility that the hills could become even more majestic.
Yesterday was the day. When I let the dogs out, I decided to walk to the barn to see if I could discover some industrial remnant of life to serve as a lampshade for the floor lamp that stood in my aunt’s living room for years. The original lampshade had grown dark over the years, and my attempts to clean, repair, and/or replace it with something similar had all failed.
I scanned the hillsides as I walked. One solid red tree on the hills to the south, and another on the hills to the northwest. Two bright red dots in a surrounding swath of bright oranges and yellows layered over the base color of oaken browns. “This is the peak,” I thought, “Summer is over.”
I stopped, only for a moment, to absorb the colors and the smells before the world stands stiff, silent, and sterile for winter. To listen for any birdsong besides the year-round rankling of ravens and crows. I found two blossoms at the tip of a branch on the almost leafless apple tree and yellow buds here and there on the forsythia bush. I guess they are just as confused about the recent summer season as I am
This morning, more than a quarter of those comforting colors through the hills are gone. In spaces that just a few days ago burst with color, gnarly trunks and branches of flat gray and dirty white stand instead, the earliest skeletons of the season. And as autumn progresses the hills will lose more life and color with every day, until nothing remains but harsh trunks and reaching branches — and the insistent rust of lingering oak leaves, typically the very last to relinquish their hold.
That’s it. The end of the sun-filled season for 2023. The 2023 leaves have started their turn as compost, a slick blanket over the damp, rotting ecosystem of the forest floor. Warm breezes and summer songbirds are long gone, and the nippy winds will soon escort in the first frost, the final seal on a season gone.
And she said "So long, country bumpkin"
"The frost is gone now from on the pumpkin"
"I've seen some sights and life's been somethin'"
"See you later, country bumpkin"
Here in the rural world, on the outskirts of Dominant Society, discussions have turned to firewood and fire safety, window washing, chimney sweeping, natural gas supplies, the end of the garden harvest, and the beginning of the hunt. Small talk covers hay, straw, pumpkins, and fresh-filled jars in the pantry, many blessed with blackberry jam, molasses, and apple pie filling amongst the half-runner beans and tomato juice.
And of course, the weather. Coming off what I experienced as one of the funkiest summer seasons in memory, (convinced that rains here brought down whatever went up in that chemical train wreck), my curiosity about the coming winter peaks as the leaves lose their priority.
According to the NOAA, for the first time in years, an El Niño winter is upon us. El Niño is a weather pattern that weakens the trade winds over the Pacific Ocean. The change in water temperatures reshapes the jet stream and, ultimately, weather patterns in various parts of the world -- including North America. In a typical El Niño winter, the Polar jet stream sets up slightly further north, but every El Niño is different.
For the Ohio Valley, The Farmer’s Almanac predicts a colder than normal winter; the coldest spells in late December, early January, and late January through mid-February. The snowiest periods are predicted December through mid-January and late January through mid-February, with above-normal precipitation and snowfall overall
For the Appalachian Mountains: Winter temperatures will be below normal as well, but only by a degree or so. The coldest period is only predicted to run from early January through mid-February. Also, above-normal precipitation and snowfall are expected with the snowiest spells at the same time. The higher terrain of West Virginia in the north is likely to enjoy a white Christmas, but for the rest of us, it’s sketchy.
Of course, I have learned that here, where I am, the key difference between the two predictions is elevation, as much as location — hilltop dwellers get different weather than their valley-dwelling neighbors on a regular basis. A high ridgeline might snag a raincloud and prevent it from moving on, and Canadian wildfires can make clear days hazy.
So who knows what this winter will bring? I could use a heavy snow or two, and at least one lengthy cold snap to keep the insects of next summer down to a manageable population. (BTW - What was up with fleas this year? Have we met the super-flea, resistant to all attempts to keep them at bay?)
Cold and snowy. That’s what our predictions note is coming. That sounds like a normal winter to me. But after a summer that wasn’t much of a normal summer, a normal winter would be just fine.
But we’re off to a strange start. I wonder if the forsythia blossoms will wither at first frost and if autumn apple blossoms produce spring apples. I dream that the never-sprouted seeds I planted this year will produce something next year. But for now, I’m just ready to hibernate. Let winter come.
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