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Signs and Smells of Autumn

Bill Meredith

"Don’t waste time worrying that insects will inherit the earth.
They already own it."
               Tom Eisner.

(Oct, 2011) According to the calendar on my desk, fall began on September 23 this year. There was a time when this would have bothered me greatly, because when I was five or six years old someone… probably my grandmother… had told me fall always started on the 21st. It was a hard lesson to learn that, as the Apostle Paul might have said under different circumstances, when I was a child I understood as a child, but when I became a man I had to realize that a lot of what I had learned earlier was wrong. In that particular case, I didn’t have to wait until I was a man; it was probably in 4th grade that my teacher, Mr. Jefferson, taught us there are two times each year, one in March and one in September, when the sun is directly over the equator. These dates, he said, are called Equinoxes, and because it takes 365 ¼ days for the earth to go around the sun, they may occur as early as the 20th or as late as the 23rd of the month. He also told us that on the date of the equinox the day and night are the same length, which, several years later, I also had to learn is not exactly correct, because... well, take my word for it. It gets complicated.

The U. S. Naval Observatory assures me that, whether I understand it or not, Fall arrived on schedule. I knew it was coming. Katydids started singing several weeks ago to warn us that it was only six weeks until frost would come, and along the roadsides things started turning yellow in spite of all the rain. Soybeans began to ripen, and Spanish needles and goldenrod came into bloom. Seeing the goldenrod always reminds me of another factoid that I had to re-learn. As a child I was told it caused my hay fever, but when I got to college and studied botany I learned that goldenrod has large pollen grains which are too heavy to float in the air; most hay fever symptoms in the fall are caused by ragweed, which produces wind-borne pollen in inconspicuous green flowers that bloom at the same time as ragweed.

Although I knew fall was coming, I wasn’t ready for it. I planted two rows of potatoes in the garden last spring, and most of the vines were still living when September began. Then, after a hot summer, it suddenly got cooler, and the vines died. After Hurricane Irene went by and the soil dried out a bit, I got one row of the potatoes out of the ground; but we had nearly a week of rain before I could dig the other row. The result was that about one out of four of the remaining potatoes rotted.

That brought back memories. During the Depression years when I was growing up, potatoes were a staple in our diet; it was a rare supper that did not include them. We always planted several long rows of them along the edge of the cornfield. When September came, we had a horse-drawn plow with a wide, flat blade which brought them out of the ground, and the whole family then picked them up and loaded them into burlap feed-sacks. My sister, my two brothers and I each had the experience of poking a finger into a rotten potato, and we each had the same expression on our faces when it happened… extreme and utter disgust.

The nose is connected to the part of the brain that controls memory more firmly than any of the other senses, and it brings back scenes from childhood. Some of them are pleasant; when I smell chocolate milk, I can still see Miss Hill passing out half-pint boxes of it in the first grade. The oil they used to use on the floors of public buildings is rarely encountered nowadays, but in the days when it was used it always recalled the two-room schoolhouse where I got the first eight years of my formal education. Apple blossoms, new-mown hay, freshly plowed soil, shavings from a solid walnut board, and a thousand other scents bring their unique bouts of nostalgia. But then there is the other end of the scale of smell, where you find things like skunks, rotten eggs, roadkill, or soured milk... odors that should be listed on a scale of disgustingness. Unfortunately, I was not able to find "disgustingness" in my dictionary; apparently it is not a legitimate word in English. That is a shame, for if there were such a word, the smell of rotten potatoes would be at the top of the list of examples of it.

In recent years fall has added a new odor to the disgustingness category. Not long ago, the marmolated stink bug, a native of Asia, moved into the Emmitsburg area, where it found things to its liking. Its population exploded a couple of years back, and it decimated local orchards; then, according to my wife, last fall the entire lot of them crawled into our house through unimaginably small crevices and spent the winter with us. Most of them slept during the day, but at night they would try to entertain us by performing aerobatic stunts, flying exuberantly around every light in the house and occasionally crash landing in our plates at dinner. They seemed to lead a hazardous lifestyle. I heard my wife tell a friend that for a while in the late winter she was sweeping up a gallon or more of dead carcasses each morning. I have to admit that she has been known to exaggerate, but in truth there were a lot of them. The late Tom Eisner, who used to teach animal behavior at Cornell University, must have been thinking of stink bugs when he quipped that insects have already taken over the world.

When spring came the survivors moved back outside and disappeared, but they did not neglect their reproductive responsibilities; last week when I was mowing the lawn I brushed against a branch of shrubbery and a cloud of stink bugs fell out of it. They were of all sizes, from barely visible nymphs to fully developed adults. Their scent glands were fully loaded, and they are out there, waiting. I didn’t have the heart to tell my wife, but I think she knows. Yesterday when I went out to play golf, a stink bug had crawled into my hat and hid under the inner sweat band, and it got crushed when I put the hat on. By the time I got it out of there both the hat and my hair were fairly saturated with its assorted body fluids, and the smell was still there four hours later when I got home. Maybe it’s just that I’m getting old, but fall doesn’t seem as pleasant as it used to be.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith