Image  I saw my first fallen leaf yesterday. A spade-shaped cottonwood, of that signature spring green, its serrated edges were rimmed with gold. The first visible sign of autumn.

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.


Drama in my Back Yard

Photograph of a Red-tailed Hawk en ( Buteo jam...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Glancing out my back window, I saw a hawk – I don’t know what kind, but he was HUGE – quite close to the house, making a meal of a pigeon. As I watched, a cat, not a lot larger than the bird, came into view at the back of my property. He strolled up onto the woodpile, had a look around, and spied the feeding raptor.

Suspense – what would he do? To a cat, birds are prey. To a hawk, a cat might be prey. How savvy was this cat? Not very. He glided back down the woodpile, angled away from the hawk to allay any suspicion, circled out of sight behind the shed, and then crept along in its shadow.

Interestingly, cats seem to have better hearing than hawks – about then I made a noise that caused the feline to stop and crouch, while the bird seemed to hear nothing, even though he was much closer. There was nothing wrong with his vision, though. Catching sight of his stalker, he grabbed the pigeon and flew to the top of the fence, fanning his beautiful striped tail.

Cat hurried to catch up, standing at the base of my benches, considering whether to jump.”Don’t do it!” I’m thinking.

Turns out the bird was at a disadvantage – the pigeon was caught in his left talon. He kept shaking his foot to dislodge it, and finally did. Great, I thought, now he can fly away.

This bird was not one to run from a fight. He circled the neighbors’ garage and landed in my aspen tree, Cat tracking him carefully. They faced off. I wondered which one I was rooting for, and got ready to dash out and break up the fight . How I thought I’d do that against two essentially wild and armed animals, I have no idea, but nobody was getting killed or maimed on my watch.

Into this hushed moment, cat crouched, gauging the distance to the branch, hawk impassive but battle-ready,  I had a chance to really look at them.


cat (Photo credit: Kenny Teo (zoompict))

Of similar size, both were grey and tan, with strongly barred tails, tan chests, grey heads. The feline had leopard-like spots on his back, the raptor had brown spots on his chest. The cat had striped sides, the underside of the hawk’s wings were similarly striped.They were mirrors of each other – twins!

After a few seconds, the bird, who always had been the one in control, flew off, and the cat trotted back to the woodpile. Soon each will have forgotten the confrontation. But for me, it has taken on a mystical significance, as if  their meeting were kismet.

Boys, Baseball, and Life

Baseball practice was underway in the large grassy field at Sandoval School last evening. The coach, a short, spare man in chinos, a tee shirt, and, of course, a baseball cap, pitched to squirts a few feet away. “Squirts” was the only word for them, little guys no older than six or seven, maybe even five, barely comfortable in their own bodies yet. In turn, they caught, or tried to catch, the ball, threw it, as if they were in the far outfield, to another guy, who tossed it back to the coach.
Captivated by their boisterous enthusiasm, I stopped to watch. By the time they’d each been through twice, I had their measure.
There was the stocky one in the green shirt, who let the ball land at his feet, and threw way wide. It didn’t stop him from trying, or from having a good time.
The one in orange also had a good time, shouting the loudest encouragement to his teammates, but he really wasn’t keeping his eye on the ball. He caught it well enough, but didn’t seem to care much that his throw was short. He’d turned around to head to the back of the line before it even reached the catcher. He was there just for the fun. Nothing wrong with that.
Another little guy knew the moves and already had the grace of a born athlete. He held his glove like he knew what to do with it, and when he caught the ball – no surprise – did that sort of backward dance some outfielders do, before using a powerful (for a six-year-old) overhand to land it neatly in the catcher’s mitt.
Then there was the one in white. When his second turn came round, he went into a low squat, knees wide. Coach let loose a volley of Spanish, the words floating away from me on the breeze. I thought maybe he wanted the kid to straighten up, but no, he was just talking about style, and every boy from then on imitated that stance.
“He’s the one to watch,” I thought.
The three or four competent players will do little league, maybe high school teams, then they’ll give it up. My green-shirted friend is having fun now, but sometime soon he’s going to realize this is not his métier. Judging by his build, he’ll be great at wrestling or football. Orange Shirt could probably be good if he chose to be, so the question is, will he decide it’s worth it?
My born athlete is a cipher. He has the raw talent. If he wants to, he can be great, but it all may come so easily to him that he never feels challenged. In that case, he may not reach his full potential, joining the competent boys in short careers.
But the one in white had paid attention last week, and knew the drill. Like the athlete, he made a perfect catch and a perfect pitch, though he put effort into it. You could see he’d practiced. He already appears to take pride in his skill, and already wants to do better. Sure, he was yelling and horsing around with the others, but he also careful paid attention to his pitch, and to the catcher’s moves as he caught and tossed the ball to Coach. He has what it takes to succeed, in this or any other field.
I guess parents, teachers, and coaches sum kids up in this way all the time, then try to help each child in the way that will work best for them – suggesting football for Greenie, maybe special tutoring for the ones with talent but little motivation. Non-parent that I am, it was new to me, and interesting, that you could guess so much so quickly.
Then I let it all go to just watch. I’m not in any leadership role; it doesn’t matter whether I’m right or wrong. I found myself smiling at the sheer American-ness of the scene, with its bright green swathe of grass and the soothing repetition of the practice – pitcher – boy – catcher – pitcher, the excitement radiating from these someday champions. Spring and baseball! I could almost hear the crowd in the bleachers.