A recent trip through the Pine Barrens to and from Cape May abruptly demonstrated that identifying fall is not a matter of temperature or even of light.
No matter how much I learn about photoperiod and its effect upon plants and birds, there's another reality that is inescapable, particularly in New Jersey.
We're not called 'The Garden State' for nothing.
Even though it was early in September, my drive demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are in the middle, not even the beginning, of autumn. The signifiers of this new season happen to be crops.
Most shocking was mile after mile of corn the color of late October. You know those clusters of corn stalks and leaves used for Hallowe'en decorations? That pale, that stiff --even, we might say, that grotesque? That's what I passed, mile after mile, in central and southern Jersey.
The second most shocking, although this is not a chronological report, is that cranberries in bogs around Chatsworth, --the Heart of the Pines, Cranberry-Central-- (this is where Ocean Spray gathers its berries) are RIPE! Not just a few of them. MOST of them. White ones are already rare.
Soybeans are usually a hearty almost Irish green, reassuringly so, as corn stalks begin to fade and crisp. Soybeans on my southern journey had leaves as gold as wild grape will soon be, as gold as coins. As though Midas had whirled through those fields.
Here and there, swamp maples were scarlet. I am not ready for these hues!
Some sensitive ferns, under the pines, are already bitter brown.
Here in Princeton, we know from the Mounts of Terhune Orchards and our local media, that this is an exceptionally early year for apples.
The culminating blow came in fields off 532 West, as I reluctantly neared Route 206, ending that wilderness quest. Something huge and bulbous and orange was evident in farmfields to my left. No. It couldn't be pumpkins. Not that large, not that ripe. No.
I of course went into Russo's bountiful Farm Market, --at the corner of 532 and Carranza Road. The Russo Family were assiduously finishing their arrangements of pumpkins -- of all sizes, from tiny to gigantic. Of many colors, even white.
Bins of apples also awaited. The concluding note is that I have now bought first Jonathans. Long ago, a poem of mine won a prize, (in California, where I think they're robbed of seasons.) It ends
"I shall go home
slice autumn's first tart apple"
I have autumn's tart produce in my refrigerator. Too soon. Too soon.
Last year we had snow in October. This year, we have ripe pumpkins and full apple crops in early September.
I went south for bird migrations. OK, I know they do that because of shortened photoperiod. I am well aware that this miraculous phenomenon signifies autumn.
Yes, I had a day of 30+ American bald eagles at Cape May Bird Observatory's Hawk Watch Platform. Even more astonishing, 268 American kestrels. As a non-birder friend challenged, afterwards, "O, not 269?" Well, no. They have professional, even legendary counters at the Platform. I was privileged to spend the preponderance of two days with these pros. It's not as though the birds would be traveling, if summer weren't over.
I had obviously been in denial about the inevitability of fall.
Until those pumpkins.