The Universal Notebook: Signs of summer’s end

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Before the fall foliage, before the first frost, before the geese gather and go, there are other sure signs of summer’s end.

Crickets.

Edgar Allen BeemIn contemporary slang, “crickets” has come to mean a purposeful silence, as in no response, no communication. The chirping of crickets is just the opposite. It is the only sound of an August night.

I heard the sound of summer ending late one evening when my lovely wife Carolyn called me to the back door to listen to the night. Crickets, mostly, but also unseen grasshoppers and katydid were playing their wings like violins, creating a concerto of mate attraction and warning. How peaceful the world would be if ruled by insects. 

At the beach, I lay on my towel listening to the incessant rush and crash of surf too small to ride. The sound of the waves is punctuated at regular intervals by brief moments of silence after the break and the ebb. The disembodied voices of sunbathers and sea bathers speak nonsense into the silence.

At the lake, I lie on the raft in 8 feet of water and hear the fresh water slap against the hulls of the pontoon boats and powerboats moored nearby. A loon calls to her chick. Dragonflies patrol the shore. I try not to think about the prolific dock spiders busy beneath the raft. 

I have become a devotee of crows, calling to them, conversing with them, dropping leftovers out on the lawn. They approach cautiously, circle the scraps, jump in for a beak full and fly away. They are the first birds I hear at the crack of dawn, pirates out on the playing field in search of treasure.

My favorite chair provides a view of the birdfeeder where chickadees, nuthatches, and tufted titmouse flit in turn, picking out black oil sunflower seeds, retreating to a branch, and opening them with a vigorous pecking. A catbird claims the suet cage, meows birdily, and then gives way to the downy woodpecker who comes to the feeder religiously this time of day. 

Bright yellow arrows that are goldfinches shoot across the yard and light on the feeder. House finches, smaller and drabber than their gold and purple cousins, come to the tin pie plate that Carolyn has weighed down with rocks and filled with water, an improvised bird bath popular with small brown birds. They hop in, splash around and then preen as they dry in the rhododendrons.

There are no apples again this year and the squash has been taste-tested by the same squirrels that polished off the promise of peaches. But there are cucumbers and cherry tomatoes aplenty, the former becoming bloaters before they can be pickled, the latter splitting and spitting out their seeds before they can be picked. 

The glory of summer’s end is the flowers, the yard filled with patches of zinnias, dahlias, black-eyed Susans, and phlox that end up in glass vases all over the house unless they bloom and die before they can become décor.

And finally the human sounds. Schoolchildren scream with delight on the playgrounds and playing fields. College students holler urgently as they play their adult games on the junior high field just through the trees.

Traffic on Interstate 95 comes to halt for no other reason than the inability of the roadway to accommodate all the people who want summer never to end. Desperate to escape, they crawl north on Friday, south on Sunday.

And in the wee hours, young men in pickup trucks race up and down the street, wasting their gas and their youth. Their summer will be over soon enough.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.