Jim McGuire: Cherish this ‘between-time’

Months and seasons, like almost everything from moles to mountains, exist within an allotted span of time. Only 10 more days remain for 2020’s version of September. Moreover, two days from now, following the invisible passing equinox, summer will officially give way to autumn.

It seems like only yesterday I was out tramping about in the spring mud, looking for the year’s first wildflowers, ice still edged a few pools along the creek, and I remember wondering how soon it would be before I could go wading with any realistic hopes of catching a few smallmouth.

That was before COVID-19 brought its paradigm shift. I foolishly assumed that during the months to come, the only hindrance to my many fishing plans would be bad weather and high water!

Now, summer is all but gone, and September is staging its final hurrah. The virus is still lurking out there, insisting we alter and second-guess routine behaviors and activities.

Meanwhile, just over the seasonal hill, autumn stirs, restless and eager to move in and get the show going.

We’ve reached what an old friend always referred to as a “between-time.” Indeed, that does seem to exactly describe this interim period, which even a cursory outdoor ramble will reveal.

I certainly noticed during a recent morning hike. The trail—a familiar loop I like because of its varied terrain— is one I try and walk at least every couple of weeks. From the grassy parking pull-off, the path immediately leads down a steep, second-growth covered slope, into an old and long-abandoned field.

Descending, you look across the narrow bottomland, which runs adjacent to a small creek. Low hills, thickly wooded, rise on each side, cupping the winding acres of fat land.

Even from this long view, you could tell the field was starting to fade. Summer’s green lushness, including all that chlorophyll-making business, is tiring. Every ounce of a plant’s available energy is spent on growth and reproduction, on putting out leaves, budding and flowering, making fruit and seeds.

The field’s plants now looked dry and ragged; weary. So did the trees on the nearby slopes as I followed the trail down for a closer look.

Three weeks ago, the place was a riot of color—purple ironweed, snowy Queen Anne’s lace, lemony wild parsnip, orange butterfly weed, yellow prairie dock, whorled rosinweed, blackeyed Susans, sunflowers, and a dozen others.

Along the edges and in the moister sections I found wingstem, Jerusalem artichoke, ox-eye, cup plant, plus a few showy examples of blazing star. Tucked here and there, like purple fames, were 2-foot tall great lobelia. This old field obviously boasts a pocket-prairie heritage.

The lobelias were still pretty luxuriant. But most of the other late-summer wildflowers appeared tattered and shopworn. Several had withered and disappeared entirely.

In their place, a wealth of goldenrods asserted themselves. Plus, a few daisies.

Gorgeous clumps of purple asters were scattered about like a king’s treasure trove of amethysts. The grasses and sedges, of which I recognize only a few, were noticeably ripening, tawny seed heads fattening, stems changing from dark green to rich shades of burgundy and mahogany-gold.

Goldfinches flittered about in small, quick groups, winging low over the nearly head-high growth, only to suddenly bank and settle downward like a handful of tossed confetti.

After skirting the feld for a half-mile, I turned into the thin border of woods and headed for the creek.

In the spring you’re hardpressed to cross on the stepping stones without getting wet feet. Now, barely a trickle found its way between the rocks.

Midway, along the trail, I chanced upon a maple whose leaves were already a rich orange. Too early? No. Like those certain sumacs willing to dress in scarlet well before their neighbors, or the first spirals of woodbine twining crimson flames up the trunks of a riverbank sycamore, a few maples always assume the role of seasonal precursors—visual messengers heralding the color extravaganza to come.

Atop the hill I found several shagbark hickories. Light-colored squirrel cuttings, fresh, littered the ground underneath.

Later, for a minute, my hopes soared at a nearby pawpaw patch … until all my exhaustive scrutinizing failed to turn up even a single fruit. Alas, I fear I may have to survive this year without tasting a single pawpaw!

Summer is swift drawing to a close. Autumn awaits. Life, says the verse from the lovely old hymn, is flled with swift transitions.

This is that brief and unique between-time. Enjoy every moment you can.