Burton on the Bay
Vol. 9, No. 40
October 4 - 10, 2001
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What’s Ahead?
Looking for Signs in Caterpillars and Almanac

O suns and skies and clouds of June
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather.
— Helen Hunt Jackson, 1830–1885.

Ah, October, when the early morning frost targets the pumpkin, when the air not only cools but is dry and bright — though often with nippy breezes. And, let’s face it, this year it’s a relief to bid farewell to September, which I fear will henceforth be remembered more for terrorist acts in New York and Washington than for its invigorating mornings and shortening days.
Of course, if you’re a fancier of the verse of Omar Khayyam, you might better appreciate:

And he that will to bed go sober
Falls with the leaf in October.

That sure sounds like Omar and his jug of wine, but truth is, it was penned in 1639 by John Fletcher some 506 years after the Persian poet, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher headed for the place in the sky he so often wrote about.

Still, in October the leaf doth fall. We see it all around us as the flowering plants of summer lose their colors and wither, many to be replaced by mums. October, ’tis said, is the month of change. Reality sets in; gone is the warmth, though the sun is bright. For some, the furnace will periodically send warm air through ducts that only last month whisked cool temperatures from the air conditioner.

Signs of the Time
The change is noticeable indeed up here on the shores of Stoney Creek in North County where the first day of the new month arrived with a decided chill. Change isn’t regrettable if it quickly cools the waters of the Chesapeake to school up the rockfish, sea trout, white perch and bluefish for the traditional fall angling bonanza. ’Most every cloud has a silver lining.

The tall black walnut that reaches for the clouds in the back yard sends mixed signals as I try to predict what winter will be like. I like to think limbs loaded with nuts are nature’s way of carrying squirrels through the winter; few nuts mean they won’t need the extras from now through February.

This year, the green nuts are of ordinary size and moderate, at best, in number — though scant on a second tree, an offspring of the original. Maybe that means a normal winter, or perhaps a tad better in temperature.

Thus far, I’ve yet to see a caterpillar to give it a visual check to determine whether the black or the brownish red stripes are the widest. So what choice do I have than rely on the 204-year-old J. Gruber’s Hagers-Town Town & Country Almanac?

The Conjecturor’s Column tells us the persistent El Niño of the past two years seems to be dying out. No rerun is expected in the near future, so we can look for weather to turn a little cooler, which it did in summer, but let’s not hope this trend carries through our winter. Oh, yes, precipitation, we’re told, will be close to normal. So much for hopes of a white Christmas.

And while we’re on the subject of Christmas, the prediction is fair and very cold. For several days before the holiday, it’s figured to be cold with either snow or rain, so maybe there is a chance for the white stuff to be on the ground — at least out there in Hagerstown. Or is it Hagers-Town?

The 64-page almanac has a new editor this year, Charles W. Fisher, Jr., a sixth-generation descendant of J. Gruber and also the son of a friend of mine who until recently lived on the banks of the Battenkill, my favorite trout stream anywhere, and located in my home town of Arlington, Vt. Senior retired last year, and a few months ago he moved to Florida, which makes me wonder whether he had inside info on a second consecutive brutal winter and headed south.

With his very long and sloped, unpaved driveway several miles from the old home and studio of Norman Rockwell, I guess he can’t be blamed for trying to escape the snow-plow fees, then the sticky if not impassable going in spring mud season. But, me, I’d rather be housebound on the banks of my Battenkill than set up shop in a distant state where October is like most any other non-winter month.

Squirrely Behavior
October up here on Stoney Creek has me stepping lively in the back yard. Though the green walnuts aren’t big, most are at the top of the tree this year — and a 100-foot drop can make them a formidable projectile. The squirrels don’t seem to mind the extra climb to get their stores for winter. I see them all the time with a nut in their mouths.

The other day, with 2E, my white long-haired cat on my lap, both of us taking in the early fall at the garden on the east lawn, I did a little research on mast preferences for bushytails. This squirrel had a walnut in its mouth, but it paused when I gave the usual “tsk, tsk, tsk” call to alert one that a peanut is available. It stopped and looked at me.

I held out the peanut as both 2E and the squirrel watched. 2E is docile. It seems she would rather watch the wildlife in the yard than pursue it, and the rabbits and squirrels have become accustomed to her as long as she is nestled at my knees.

This squirrel had other concerns. Is a peanut in a hand worth a black walnut already in the mouth? Frozen on its haunches, it stared at the peanut in my outstretched hand, undecided what to do. I sent forth a few more tsks, then again.

Finally, it set the walnut down carefully, edged in close, took the peanut from my hand and scampered up the catalpa tree to eat it. 2E and I waited to see if it would remember to come back to get the walnut. Several minutes later it did come back though not for the bigger nut. It came directly to me for another peanut. Obviously, squirrels know it’s easier to get the meat of a peanut.

From another squirrel research observation, let me also report that the two stub-tailed squirrels living hereabouts — and reported of in this column last summer — are in the process of growing full tails. They had tail ends like a bobcat — I know not what happened — but both now have tails of half-length — and fully furred with an abrupt end — and still growing. This will add balance when they jump from limb to limb over the winter.

Thus far, the almost white squirrel with the orange underside and belly is still around and remains the consummate beggar. It will come within a foot of 2E to take a peanut. It gets enough of them that I have yet to see it with a walnut in its mouth.

Time’s Toll
Missing this year at the Burton ranch is the bright red of the burning bush, transplanted from the home place in New England 20-some years ago. At this time of year its brilliance highlighted the front lawn, but this summer most of the leaves withered, branches turned brittle — and what few leaves remain are a dull green.

I am losing an old friend, and now the hunt must begin for a replacement. What, might I ask, is an introduction to October without a burning bush in full autumn colors? It might not alert one to what winter will be like, but the turn from green to red sure let one know when summer was over, no almanac needed.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly