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Fall Along the Fencerows.

This was a column I wrote for the newspaper a few years ago. Whenever autumn arrives, these are the things I think about.

The caterpillars are on the move.

On my way home today, I almost ran over one of the brown, furry “woolly-worms” as it inched across the road in front of my car. I swerved to let it pass unharmed.

Dad and I used to hunt for caterpillars in the late summer when I was little.  We drove the country roads near our house looking for the fat, fuzzy “willy-worms,” as I mistakenly called them.  I held a large glass jar between my bare, shorts-clad legs, its metal lid punctured with knife holes that would allow air into the jar.

Dad drove very slowly, windows rolled down, the smell of earth and grass and fencerows wafting in the air around us. When we saw a caterpillar in the road, Dad stopped the car and I jumped out.  Holding tightly to my jar, I ran to catch the caterpillars as they slipped over the tarry, pebbled roads.

I picked up their brown or black or caramel colored bodies and watched in awe as they hastily curled into balls on the palm of my hand.  Then I carefully placed them in the jar and Dad and I continued our caterpillar journey.

When we got home with a full jar of wiggling, furry caterpillars, we searched for the perfect place to set them free. Picking a spot near the house, we took the lid off the jar and gently placed them on the grass.  Our intention was to have a yard filled with butterflies in the spring.  To do that, we needed a yard full of caterpillars in the fall.

I imagined walking across the yard one day the following spring and finding myself enshrouded in a cloud of butterflies.

Just as they did when I was little, the traveling caterpillars tell me that summer is almost over and autumn is waiting to make an appearance.

Autumn is my favorite time of the year.  That was not always the case. When I was still in school and had to worry about tests and classes and homework, I dreaded autumn, which represented only one thing to me then—the beginning of a new school year.

Grandma always said that it seemed like once the fourth of July arrived, summer was pretty much over.  She would make this announcement each year as we ran barefooted across the lawn, clutching sparklers that glowed like fairy lights in the hot, evening air, their brightness rivaled only by the fireflies swirling around us.

“School will be starting soon, girls.”

Bobbie and I would stop our firework dance and protest.

“Don’t say that.  Don’t say that,” we wailed.

But there were other signs, too, besides our grandmother’s maudlin prediction that told us summer was ending.

There were two commercials on television that almost made me weep when I saw them.  The commercials, one for Country Time Lemonade and the other for Cedar Point, played only seasonally in late July and throughout August.

The Country Time Lemonade advertisement featured kids riding bikes down country lanes and old people gathered on wide front porches with sleepy dogs at their feet.  A deep voiced announcer advised us to take one more afternoon bike trip going nowhere; to spend one more day doing nothing; to enjoy summer (and, of course, a big glass of lemonade) before it was gone.

The Cedar Point commercial juxtaposed roller coasters in summer with the same rides in winter.  Smiling, screaming children were shown flying around a roller coaster track, sun and blue skies behind them.  Then the screen would flash to the roller coaster covered in snow, sitting idly, hibernating and dreaming (we supposed) of June.

Bobbie and I hated those commercials as much as we did Grandma’s Fourth of July warnings.

There were other clues around us, though, in the fencerows and ditches that served as harbingers of summer’s passing.

When I was a child, there were still plenty of fencerows lining the back roads.  Wooden posts strung together with wire fencing served as the boundary between a farmer’s fields and the weed filled ditches lining the roads.  In those border areas between road and field, there would be young trees and wildflowers and animal homes.

It used to be common in the fall to see pheasants moving through the fencerows, where they had nests, to the fields where bits of grain lay scattered during harvest time.

Sometimes on moon-drenched nights red foxes would slip into view, their sharp, pointy faces staring out from the chicory and Queen Anne’s lace lining the ditches.

I gathered bouquets of brilliant blue chicory and the filmy Queen Anne’s lace, never realizing that they were weeds.  I thought they were beautiful.

Grandma used to read poetry to me from a book of children’s poems.  One poem that we both liked by Mary Leslie Newton was titled, “Queen Anne’s Lace.” Recalling the poem as I wandered the fields, I imagined all kinds of stories as I gathered the gossamer plant.

Queen Anne, Queen Anne, has washed her lace

(She chose a summer’s day)

And hung it in a grassy place

To whiten if it may.

Queen Anne, Queen Anne, has left it there,

And slept the dewy night;

Then waked, to find the sunshine fair,

And all the meadows white.

Queen Anne, Queen Anne, is dead and gone

(She died a summer’s day),

But left her lace to whiten on

Each weed-entangled way!

There was one fencerow on the way to my Uncle Donnie’s house that we always watched for.  Perched atop a wooden pole was an old boot.  We wondered who put the boot there and why they left it.  I always wanted to wade into the ditch and retrieve the boot, but Dad would not let me.  He told me I’d have nothing to look for if the boot was gone. It would be transformed into just an old boot once it left the fence post.

One day when I was older, after Uncle Donnie had died, we drove that road and the boot was gone, too.

Sadly, like the disappearing boot, much of what used to be in fencerows has gone, too, as houses are built and farm fields disappear.  With the fencerows have gone the pheasants and the foxes.  City people want neat and tidy, bug-free roadsides.  The ditches get mowed and sprayed.  The wildflowers fade away.

Along the fencerows, in the autumn, we used to find bittersweet.  Dad knew certain places where the glossy orange-berried vine grew.  He would go and cut some for Grandma and she would hang it on the front door and around the house.

Dad can’t find bittersweet anymore in his old haunts.  The fences it used to wind around are gone.  The chemicals on the ground have destroyed its roots.

Grandma is no longer here to look pleased and amazed at Dad’s discovery.

Autumn seems bittersweet without trips to gather armfuls of the twisting vine for our matriarch.

And still autumn is the time of the year I look forward to the most.

Joe and I met in the fall and were married in September.  Just the thought of autumn makes Joe smile.

“We met then,” he always says, as if that explains everything.

I love the smell of burning fireplaces and the sound of crunching leaves underfoot.  I love to see scarlet and gold trees highlighted against a sky so blue you almost have to squint to shield your eyes from the vividness.

I also love the fact that I do not have my autumns interrupted by school any more.

A tree in the front yard is changing the color of its feather shaped leaves already.  Copper leaves drift down to the ground and lay like bright coins around my birdbath.  Floating on the water’s surface, the leaves, like pennies in a fountain, seem to represent wishes.  Perhaps the secret wishes of the birds.

Buses as orange as the falling leaves slip along country roads, picking up children still dressed in the shorts and sneakers of summer.

In all the excitement of football games and school activities and preparation for winter, some might not notice that summer has passed away.  As the cricket chirps die and the caterpillars disappear into cocoons, some might not realize that autumn has replaced her sister, summer, along the roads and lawns.

As I listen to the crickets’ songs, I will mourn summer’s passing even as I welcome autumn.  For like everyone, I only have a finite number of summers, a limited amount of Junes, Julys, and Augusts.

But, like the caterpillars, I have many roads to travel before my summers are ended.

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