Autumn's Golden Gauntlet


Washington. -- Yesterday October flung down her golden gauntlet and bade summer begone to Outer Space. Now autumn begins to kindle the Appalachian mountains with blazing colors and change the behavior of plants, birds, insects and humans.

Now begins that time of year when . . .

. . . the first frost scorches the leaves with red and gold, knocks the petals off the nasturtiums, but hasn't yet struck deep enough to douse the light of the marigolds and purple asters.

. . . the crickets slow down their chirpings and grow faint, but still ring out urgent signals to mate before winter death, to pass along a million-year legacy of genetic codes to the next generation.

. . . hornets and honeybees stagger over the cold petals of the calico daisies and browning spikes of goldenrod.

. . . the moths beat frayed wings against the windowpane at night, frantic to fly into your reading light.

. . . a walk through the fields covers your sweater and socks with triangular seeds of trefoil, bristled seeds of Queen Anne's lace, hooked cups of tickseed sunflower.

. . . the hummingbird feeder comes down; the sunflower and millet seed feeders go up for nuthatches, chickadees and goldfinches who have already changed to their winter olive-drab.

. . . a blast of cold wind shakes the trees and sets loose a shower of gold leaves -- rich ransom for their freedom.

. . . the tuliptrees and sycamores flame amber, the sugar maples burn crimson and orange, and if this splendid sight were not enough, the river reflects it once again.

. . . the fallen leaves glide on top of the water like flotillas of ships riding to the sea and infinity.

. . . the Cacapon Mountain returns from its summer hideaway as the nearby leaves drop like scarves and reveal its massive rocky shape in the distance.

Barbara Tufty is an editor with the Audubon Naturalist Society.

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