On a sparkling fall day a week before the first FarmAid concert at the University of Illinois, I drove the back roads to Champaign to pick up two press passes for the lovely Catherine and me. It was mid-September, 1985, and the brown corn and yellowing soybeans rattled and rippled in a soothing breeze against a postcard blue sky.
Later, while standing in line to pick up the passes, I spied a pair of purple cowboy boots that I followed upward to find a slender lady with a pay telephone—no one had cell phones back then—planted across her wide-eyed face.
“No, it’s worse than we thought when I left New York!” she shouted in the phone. “All the crops are dead! All! Dead!”
Well, they were ripe, too, but I didn’t want to scoop her scoop so I looked at my scuffed shoes and smiled a knowing smile.
That’s the thing about living in the Midwest this time of year; all the crops, pastures, woods and gardens take on a color of achievement, a hue of ripeness, or, if you like, the shades of old age.
Some fields and roadsides go gold, others slip on a layer of yellow while many do a slow mosey through shades of tan, then bronze, and finally, a final brown.
It wasn’t until I was 10 or 11 years old that I noticed fall’s color slowly washing out summer’s warm greens. That discovery occurred on the daily school bus ride as I watched, then marveled, at a long line of pencil-straight cottonwood trees change from green to yellow-green to yellow to brown to bare.
Then, a couple of years later, my biology teacher gave this seasonal shift a name. She called it senescence. It quickly became a favored word, a word I heard whispered by the always whispering cottonwoods.
Now it reminds me of the way fall slips in each September: slowly, sweetly, soothingly, surprisingly.
One colorful sign of autumn on the big southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth was my great uncle, whom everyone called Honey, wearing a big-pocketed denim coat as he chopped silage or tinkered around the barnyard.
Another sign was the trail of peanut shells Uncle Honey left in his wake because one of the coat’s pockets always held a stock of unshelled, boiled peanuts that he brought to share with his great nephews.
Senescence finally claimed Honey a month or so before coat-wearing weather in 1984.
Since that farm was in the Mississippi River bottoms, most of fall’s colors were supplied by grain crops, not trees. Bottom land trees, mostly cottonwoods, black willows, sycamores and silver maples, seem like they never find fall’s crayon box. Few radiate gold, none smack you with the crimsons and reds of oaks and hard maples.
The trees of my current farmette, however, sparkle in the fall. My straight and strong hard maples, pushed by a hot, dry September, began to whisper orange and red weeks ago. The big hickory trees, perhaps embarrassed by the showy maples, are finally allowing some gold to creep into their tops but the huge black walnuts, heavy with fruit the size of fat, well, walnuts, are already all yellow and half bare.
One prized tree, a sturdy, multi-branched red oak, however, will not tease my eyes or flirt with my heart this fall or any future falls. Last year’s drought badly weakened it and some disease this year just stone-killed it.
Soon enough, though, some cold winter week I will fell it, saw it, split it and stack it and next winter its many decades of golds and reds and oranges will once again dance before me and the lovely Catherine in our home’s wood stove as we warm ourselves against the cold fingers of senescence.