All up and down the Kickapoo Valley, folks are asking the same question: “Where’s the frost?” It’s Tuesday, the eighth of October, and the nights are still warm enough to keep things from turning white. The first light frost, which usually comes around mid-September, has yet to arrive. It’s a little strange when you consider that more than two feet of snow piled up a few hundred miles west of us two days ago. I’ve never seen the color in the autumn leaves turn so slowly, things are mostly green on the landscape. There are still crickets singing in the early evenings, and the brown bats still fly out each night and patrol the sky for flying insects.
I love the different mushrooms that appear each fall, all different sizes, shapes and colors. One of my favorites is the large, edible oyster mushroom that can be found growing on the decaying wood of maple and boxelder trees. Their fleshy white umbrellas can be seen high up in the branches, thirty feet from the ground or clinging to a dead limb on the ground at your feet. In the pasture, I find dark, round puffballs, which give off a cloud of dark, brown-green spores when I step on them. This is also where I find hoops of tiny brown fairy ring mushrooms. I pick a handful and put them in my pocket. Later, they will add a nutty flavor to my morning fried eggs. On a sunny hillside, a group of inky caps grow. Their tender white jackets hide their black inky undersides. They, too, are edible, but only when they’re young and fresh and must not be served with alcohol.
The apples are red and ripe; they hang on the tree in bunches, still half hidden by green leaves that should have turned yellow by now. Frost or no frost, the sumac leaves are always a beautiful, fiery show of color this time of year. I can always count on sumac to provide wonderful autumn splendor.
The weather has been so nice this week, I can’t help wanting to be outside. It’s hard to say no to seventy degrees and sunny with the calls of migrating Canada Geese in the air. I hadn’t seen a phoebe in the yard for over a month, but today, one was perched at the corner of the shed like he’d never been gone. He flew back and forth from the shed to the sumac as he hawked insects over the grass. A towhee called from the underbrush, a raspy, one-note song from down near the ground. I waited for him to appear but he never showed himself. All I saw was a little chipmunk that scurried across the path in front of me.
I was drawn to the colorful tall grass swaying in the breeze ahead of me and wandered over that way to see if the seed of the Indian grass and big blue stem was ready for picking. A nice-sized butterfly suddenly appeared to my right, and I was able to see where it lit only a couple of yards away. Slowly I crept, stalking to the spot where I saw it go down. Then, there it was, perched on a group of pretty purple New England asters. A beautiful buckeye. It has been a couple of years since the last buckeye caught my eye in the valley and it was the only butterfly I saw all day. Normally it’s getting late for butterflies in southwest Wisconsin, but then, everything is late this year.
I counted a dozen pretty bottle gentians peeking up from under the tall prairie grass. They are the larger cousins to the little stiff gentians I found last week. How colorful the prairie is this time of the year! The subtle colors all complement each other as though part of a big family living in harmony for the good of all. I walked with my hands out from my sides, brushing and touching every stem of grass and seed head that my fingers came in contact with. The spicy scent of the prairie lingers on my palms—the essence of bergamot rosin weed and cone flowers on my fingertips. Ah, the prairie in autumn.
A single robin talked to me from high in an elm tree, cherp-chup, cherp-chup. The local robins have all gone, and those I see now are just passing through, but I’m really hoping there will be others. I’m thinking there will be a big push of migrant robins and bluebirds once the weather turns colder.
The two small birds that flew up from the grass in front of me sure looked familiar as they flew away. It was the white in their tail feathers that told me that they were juncos, the first of the winter birds to arrive. Many of them spend the winter here after having summered in the far north. It’s good to see that they are returning, even though it seems a little early for them to come back.
A couple of young woodchucks are out in the sunshine after spending the night in their warm den under the brush pile. Like most squirrels, they like the sunflower seeds and climb up on the bird feeder for a free handout. There were four baby woodchucks at the start of summer, but now there are only two. They will probably be spending the winter in the den under the brush pile and sleep there till spring; they literally sleep half their life away.