But not the first sign. In the pagan calendar fall begins on Lammas, August 1, with the first harvest, and lasts until Halloween. Shakespeare used this way of reckoning when he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which takes place on the Solstice, our first day of summer, but the ancient midpoint for a season beginning on May Day and ending on August 1.
My response to the friend who first told me about this was ‘no way’. Fall doesn’t begin until the leaves litter the sidewalk and the heat is gone. Labor Day has to be past, and school well into the year (when I was a kid Labor Day and the beginning of school were nearly synonymous).
“Pay attention,” he said. “You will see that autumn begins with first harvest.”
The next year I paid attention. And he was right. There is a moment in early August when my garden feels the shift of the season. Yes, the lettuce bolted long ago, and I have been harvesting tomatoes and basil for weeks. But suddenly all the plants reach a crescendo, a final fullness. The carefully spaced rows give way to a riot of foliage. The eggplants literally leap off the plant at the slightest shake; the onions burst through the earth to show white heads; the fennel sprouts wheels of yellow flowers that quickly go to seed; the pumpkins, while still green, put on a final growth spurt.
It’s not only the garden that knows. The light knows. The air knows. That harsh summer sun, while still just has hot – we are in the dog days of summer after all – loses its edge in August. Its light takes on that thick, honeyed hue that is one of the delights of fall. Its heat lies less heavy on the air, not a hammer, but a torrid caress. No matter what the temperature, I feel that I can breathe.
The equinox, in just a couple of weeks, will bring us to the halfway point of the season. So this, the first leaf, is not harbinger of fall; it is just the welcome next step in a process already underway. I have been watching for it since I felt the weather turn, weeks ago.