At times I come to believe that most of what I need to know I can find in my backyard. At least most of what is important to know. This is simplistic; I realize that. But at 4:30 in the morning when Thor barks to let me know he needs to go out, at that time as I stand groggily at the back door I stare into a world still dark with night and I know that the season has changed. That is important.
Sixty short days ago 4:30 a.m. would have been a world bright with sunrise. Sixty days ago the birds would have been a full choir of song. Sixty days ago, in June, we would have been in the early days of summer. Now, August, at 4:30 a.m. the sky is still dark; Venus shines bright in the east. But the season has changed, and I know this no matter what the calendar says. I find this out in my backyard, and this is important knowledge to have.
A week ago I walked across the backyard in the early morning and felt a coolness, a freshness, a feeling that had not been there even a day earlier. And I thought: Fall is near. It would be in the 80s that day, and the afternoon would bring summer heat under a high sun, but the morning in the backyard told all one needed to know; fall was drawing down.
In the heat of August under clear blue skies and baking heat, autumn is coming and you can feel it in the air. You do not need to travel far. You do not need to consult almanac or online search engines. You cannot find a note of the season change in news reports of drought and summer heat. But step into the back yard at dawn, and you will know all you need to know.
You will know in those few minutes as the sun breaks the horizon and the air is still, you will know then that summer is at peril, that the days of heat are numbered. You will know that fall is coming hard and fast, and only a fool would suggest other. Or at least you cannot conclude different in the backyard at daybreak in August. The backyard is an open book.
In my backyard a family of chickadees comes to the feeder, the young birds thinner and unkempt. They flit from the cover of leaf to the exposed feeder and back again. Hummingbirds move in a blur. Goldfinch, the males bright yellow now, look for thistle and seed. The birds are nervous in this season, sensing the change. They are mostly quiet, as if harboring all energy for long flights ahead for those that migrate, or for a long, hard season for those that stay.
Our backyard garden is lush with green, a mix of vegetables and weeds. We pick beans daily. Tomatoes ripen, turn red. We eat them off the vine when they still hold heat from sun. They never, ever, taste better.
The dogs move quicker now, leaping off the back steps to run to the corners of the yard, where the leaf is thick and lilac is heavy with scent and mystery. They are hunting, every day, hunting for chipmunks or birds or toads or hunting simply for anything that holds sweet scent or moves in the shadows. They run, noses tight to the ground, in the tall grass at the edge of the yard.
In the hour after dawn on a day this week the dogs are frantic with excitement, pawing and digging along the edge of fence where we never cut the grass down. Thor uses his paws to move all that is in his way. Riika dances on light feet, seeking the source for whatever scent she is on. I watch and wonder at what they must scent, a world that we cannot pretend to understand so far removed we are.
Thor is particularly focused on a length of metal fence pole lying in the corner of the backyard, digging at it, moving it with paw and jaw. The sharp sound of toenails on metal rings in the quiet of the yard.
I set down my cup of coffee, my quiet moments to relax thoroughly disjointed by the dogs, and walk across the yard to Thor and the pipe. By now he has it clamped firmly in his jaws and is dragging it. It is 8 feet long and he’s having some trouble. I lift the pipe to show him there is nothing there, but when I look into the end of it I am face to face with a terrified chipmunk that has, foolishly, sought refuge there.
There is an instant when the chipmunk and I face off across perhaps 8 inches of pipe and summer air. Its eyes are bright in the shadow of the pipe. Thor pants with excitement; Riika watches with eyes equally bright to the chipmunk’s. I carry the pole to the other side of the yard and set it down. The chipmunk risks everything and races from the end of the pipe, a flash of brown stripe and terror, the dogs hot on its tail
It escapes, the chipmunk. It outraces the dogs to the fence, and is out and gone as they slam into the mesh.
The dogs take this all in, standing at the fence, panting with the exertion of it all. Then they relax and pad back to the grass to lie down. It is still morning; there is plenty of day remaining.
The day is shorter now. Less sunlight falls on the garden. Shadows on the edges of the backyard hold longer, return sooner. Heat of afternoon rises, holds, begins to fall in evening shadow.
I sit in my backyard. The sun slides down in the west; shadows lengthen. It is cooling faster now once the sun is low; afternoon heat fades quickly. On a good evening we may hear the sound of nighthawk in the dusk. Once darkness falls, bats fly their uneven flight across the smudge of sky. There will be stars on a good night, the Perseid meteors a week ago, and late this month a second full moon of August will rise; blue moon.
In a few weeks, September. And with September, autumn. I lean back in the chair in the waning light and look across the backyard. The yard is still; quiet. No birdsong this evening. My backyard tells me of season change. For now, that is most of what I need to know; for now, that is very important.