Losing track of the seasons? Find your bearings by heading outdoors
The calendar must be wrong. August? It can't be August already! Since March, the pandemic has knocked down one after another seasonal signpost, like the last day of school, baseball's opening day, the Fourth of July parades, and summer concerts. How are we supposed to know what season it is?
If it seems that we're wandering through the calendar year, dazed and confused -- well, in a sense, we are. I'm calling it seasonal orientation disorder, or SOD. OK, I totally made this up -- but I do know that lots of people feel disoriented since lockdown last spring. Not only are the months indistinct, but the weeks and days as well. When you hang around the house too long, every day is Blursday.
I have good news. There is a surefire cure for SOD. Treatment begins by heading out to the woods and prairie. Nature is right on schedule, and she'll realign you with the season in no time.
The first alignment is auditory. Listen. Cicadas are making a ruckus in the treetops. They're at their finest on hot sunny days when males are courting females in song. You may hear a variety of annual cicadas in the woods. Linne's cicada sounds like loud maracas building to a crescendo and then dying down. The Dog-day cicada revs up like an electric saw, and the scissor grinder cicada nearly pierces your eardrums with its intense, pulsing buzz.
At night, the August soundscape is dominated by katydids and crickets. The common true katydid is the noisiest of the nocturnal musicians. The incessant arguing among these guys sounds like "Katy did!" "No she DIDN'T!" "Yes she DID!" "No she didn't!" The harsh argument, however, is really a love song, one katydid to another. Male katydids are wooing females in song. When you hear katydids crooning, you know it's late summer.
Another sign of August is the mayapple -- because of course, a plant whose fruit ripens in late summer is given a spring name. Other fruit is ripening this month, too. Acorns fell prematurely in last week's crazy "derecho" storm. Walnuts and hickory nuts are visible in the trees. Black cherry trees are dropping sweet purple fruit by the bucket load.
If you watch birds, you'll learn from them that it's August. Robins are gathering in large numbers on suburban lawns and in the woods. Having raised their broods, they are no longer territorial, and like other species, they gather together before moving south. Flocking is typical at the cusp of fall migration.
The boldest proclamations of August are found in the prairie. Towering compass plants, graceful Indian grass, and the lovely blazing star add their exclamation marks to the grassland, today as in years past. A settler in Sangamon County wrote in 1818, "As summer faded, the bluestem prairies turned from green to tawny red and vermilion, tall goldenrod, sawtooth sunflowers, and black-eyed Susans stood proud in dense patches of bright yellow, and willow aster, prairie snakeroot, and tall ironweed added their touch of whites and violets," (from "Sugar Creek: Life on the Illinois Prairie" by John Mack Faragher).
At this time of year, prairie evenings are sublime. Spectacular prairie sunsets unfold when there are billowing clouds on the western horizon. Tall plants become silhouettes against the backdrop of fading light, and the insect symphony swells.
And speaking of sunsets -- the stars in the sky are the most reliable indicators of the season. Our star, the sun, is setting earlier and rising later due to the earth's elliptical rotation and the tilt of the planet. Though it happens slowly, this seasonal change is predictable every year, to the month, day, and minute.
Another highlight of August sky is the Perseids meteor shower. The Perseids occur annually in mid-August. We're slightly past the peak of the Perseids, but you can still see them through Aug. 26. For details on how and where to watch, check out astrobob.areavoices.com/2020/08/09/time-again-for-the-perseids-the-years-most-enjoyable-meteor-shower-peaks-aug-11-12/.
Whether you peer into the night sky, listen in the woods, or look at prairie wildflowers, you will know that we are smack dab in the middle of August. The key is to step outside, where nature realigns us with the seasons. What wonderful (and free) therapy in these disorienting times.
• Valerie Blaine is a retired naturalist, enjoying woodland mornings and prairie sunsets in Kane County. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.