Final Report from the Summer Garden
A pistol shot in the dusk launched me from my easy chair and out the back garden door to see who could possibly be attacking us at such an hour.
The scene was deceptively tranquil. The terrace garden, despite weeks of pointless watering, lay limp and leggy from punishing heat and drought. Old Rufus the cat sprawled peacefully snoozing in a wrought iron chair, oblivious to anything but the dinner bell.
I stood perplexed, with my evening refreshment in hand, surveying the scene, wondering at the source of the gunplay. Just then, something fell from the sky and bonked me on the head. The wounding object turned out to be an immature cone from the ancient longleaf pine that presides over our back terrace.
On a limb several feet up, a gray squirrel perched glaring down at me, either because he'd dropped his delicious pine cone supper or couldn't resist taking aim at my head - hard to tell which. Longleaf cones reportedly contain more nutrients than any other form of pine cone, packed with nutrition and useful calories. That's why gray squirrels eat them the way we eat summer Silver Queen corn.
If you've never seen one of these hefty little critters - the pine cone, that is, not the squirrel - much less been thumped on the head by one, picture a small, solid, all-natural hand grenade made from from the flesh of a cactus. Trust me, they can leave a dent.
As I reached down to pick up the half-eaten one from the withered lily bed, I was greeted by two sets of reptile eyes peering up at me, a pair of young, brightly marked snakes. I recognized them as baby hognoses, probably just hours old and off to make their way in the world. They took one look at me - or maybe it was the sight of a suddenly curious Rufus on the approach - and rolled over to play dead, which is a hognose's first line of defense.
I've always marveled at the way they do this, mouths cranked open like thirst-killed desert travelers with their little black tongues hanging out, bodies limp as soup noodles.
Hognoses, I learned as a boy, are a gardener's friend. They eat bugs and toads and have even been known to chase off and even kill copperheads with their mild venom. I had a friend who claimed they made great pets and used to let the one he owned chew on his finger.
Though I'm unprepared to go that far, I'm never sorry to see a hognose or king snake moseying around the garden, though it occurred to me these guys stood short odds for personal growth with two sharp-eyed cats and pair of curious dogs within feet. So I scooped them up and toted them to the bottom of our yard, where I put them deep in green grass at the edge of the pine forest and wished them bon voyage. Good luck, you boys come back when you're bigger, and remember it's a jungle out there.
Hognose mamas normally bear four or five infants at a time. I wondered if a couple of babes might still be wiggling around the terrace unattended. On the way back to the house to investigate, passing beneath the large Persian walnut tree that sits next to our gardening shed, I heard another pistol shot and finally discovered the source - the walnut tree was prematurely letting go of its annual bounty of nuts, a release that normally comes in early October.
This particular green-hulled nut bounced off the shed roof with a loud crack and also nearly bonked me on the head. I guess they don't call it fall for nothing.
Little or No Autumn
On the other hand, given a record number of days of 90 degrees or more and no appreciable rain since mid-July, you don't have to be Ike Newton to understand we've had little or nothing resembling traditional autumn.
East Indian summer, perhaps, or maybe a taste of southern Sudan. But in my garden patch at least, save for squirrels throwing pine cones and prematurely falling walnuts, there are precious few signs of welcome autumn.
I've seen only one grandaddy long legs, for instance, a telltale sign that cool weather is on the doorstep, and he didn't appear particularly sure of the matter. My wife's robust tomato vines pretty much played themselves out two weeks ago and were standing like a musky forest awaiting the ax.
The last of the daylilies and Orientals had come and gone, and half my imported Maine hosta beds had gone yellow from the record heat and drought, impervious to watering. Only a few scraggily spider plants and impatiens were brave enough to bloom on as summer ran well past its lease.
An elderly gardening friend once told me we have seasons to teach patience and remind a body that everything changes. But this year, as my modest terrace garden expires I find patience running dangerously thin. Yesterday, I phoned my daughter at college in Burlington, Vt., and found she was wearing a sweater and had the first head cold of the year, drinking warm chai tea.
"How's the weather?" I asked.
"Rainy and cold." Sniff, sniff. "Yours?"
"Endless summer." I added, "This is the time I really miss New England - September in Maine."
"You used to say April was when you really missed North Carolina," she pointed out - implying, I guess, that a fellow is never fully content wherever he has landed.
She was right, of course. Come late March in Maine, I mentally ached for the sight of dogwoods in bloom, violent green fairways, erupting azaleas, the scent of cut grass in Carolina.
"It's a version of the same thing, reversed seasonal deprivation syndrome," I said.
She asked me what the particular symptoms were down here. I told her it involved involuntary dreaming of rainy and cold, a snapping hardwood fire, a nice smell coming from the kitchen, college football on the tube. I'd even take the head cold at this point.
She laughed, then sniffed. "I remember how you used to rant about the heat and drought in Maine, too. Remember that old beech and the way you used to yell at the weather man?"
How could I forget? Most people's impression of Maine is that it stays cool and green as an alpine lake all summer, but that's rarely the case. I learned from a meteorologist that few Eastern places are more prone to periods of extended drought than the fabled Pine Tree State.
If you live on a hill, as we did, you become an inveterate weather watcher. Our well was 600 feet deep, but that scarcely reassured me come late July when the skies seemed to shut off the spigot and the summer temperatures soared to 90 or above.
In the cool of morning, banded garter snakes snoozed on the dawn-warmed rocks of our front stone wall. By afternoon the heat drove them back indoors.
Over two decades, we endured several punishing droughts and terrible heat waves. By mid-August my grass was typically brown as a November field, and almost everything but a few rugosa beach roses, Queen Anne's Lace and wild yarrow offered anything much in the way of seasonal color.
The tourists scarcely noticed, because they were too busy heading to the beach or to bargain shop at L.L. Bean. I was half convinced the local weather guys were on the payroll of the Chamber of Commerce. They always seemed too happy to report it would be another "perfect sunny day with temps in the low 90s - perfect beach weather!" I would yell and shake my fist at the kitchen TV.
But maybe I shouldn't talk about that. The insensitivity to gardeners who resided on hilltops was simply beyond belief. A lovely old American beech tree stood in the yard just off our side porch. I used this tree to site our house, and every year we strung Christmas lights in its widely spreading limbs.
One year we threw the switch and our 3-year-old son thought he saw an "elephant angel" in the lights, a pacaderm with wings, flying into the November night. That's why we called it the Elephant Angel tree.
One mid-August when we were dry as a bone, the tree suddenly turned yellow and dropped every leaf in the span of three days. I phoned a tree expert ,who explained that beeches did that when they became stressed by heat and drought, owing to their unusually shallow roots.
The next summer was even worse. The tree gave up its leaves by middle July. I worked like the devil to save it, draining my well to try to keep it going. The tree died and we had it cut down. I planted a dawn redwood in its spot, drought-resistant, supposedly the oldest tree species on earth.
Despite that tree's demise, I suppose I got spoiled by September - for that was when the rain came back and the days grew shorter but refreshingly cool. The grass greened up and needed mowing again, wildflowers sprouted in the field grass that ringed our forest property. We had pheasant and wild turkey eating in our yard again.
The garter snakes were thrilled, too. One September morning I walked over to my office and found a Gordian knot of newborn garters horsing around in the grass by my barn office door, a true sign of a garden's good health.
Every year about now, someone phones to let me know they are escaping to Maine. Within the past two weeks, two different couples - friends from here who don't even know each other - announced they planned to head that way.
As usual, we gave both sets of travelers a list of favorite haunts and directions to the grand old sea captains' houses of Bath and our favorite lobster shack on the docks at Five Islands; to the best breakfast joint on the Portland waterfront; to Rockland's wonderful Farnsworth Museum, which houses the Wyeth family paintings; to Moody's Diner, where you might see Stephen King or David McCullough having lunch; to several favorite joints on Camden's postcard harbor.
Two evenings ago, again at dusk, I was where I usually am at that hour - our terrace - when the phone rang. One couple was in Damariscotta, heading to our favorite pub in that beautiful seaside village.
"So how's the weather?" I dared to ask.
"Just wonderful," said Jim. "Sixty degrees and just what we needed. The leaves are just changing - real fall up here. Hope we have it there when we get back."
I told him that just might be the case. Even as another hot night and a full moon were rising over the Sandhills, rain and much cooler weather was mercifully forecast for the weekend.
When I turned on the hose to give my fading garden a brief shower, yet an-other baby hognose was wandering around. He played dead, and I carried him to the back of the yard to join his siblings. With fall on the way, it was nice to hear those walnuts thumping the ground in the dark.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of Pine-Straw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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