Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
Autumn, according to the climate scientists, is shrinking as extreme weather reconfigures the scale and shape of the seasons. This will mean shorter and less robust autumns. While not the most dire of prognoses facing our planet, it stands as an apt emblem of the many varieties of loss we face.
Sitting on our porch on a quiet Sunday morning, a few days after equinox, it’s hard to believe in a future of anemic autumns. The sumac is turning red; the air is crisp enough to fold; all the signs of seasonal repletion are here – the ripeness and swelling and plumping and oozing (Keats is inescapable when it comes to autumn.). But isn’t the difficulty of believing in such a future precisely one of the conditions that make it more likely to come to pass?
On this day, the work of autumn goes on all around us. I notice the digger wasps gathering on the flat surface of a stone that abuts our porch. There’s a gap between the stone and the edge of the porch, and it’s there, in the gap, that the wasps seek out their winter quarters. While the birds fly south for winter, these wasps stay put and dig down into earth’s hidden places.
We watch them clamber on the stone’s mossy top, stirring in the sun with some vespine excitement. They’re a non-aggressive species. The males don’t sting. We never see them swarm; occasionally one lifts off on a solitary mission of reconnaissance or foraging. Then, all at once, they’re gone down the gap, under the stone, and the lively little scene is still again.
A bumblebee comes by and hovers around the gap. Maybe it smells pollen down there. Compared to the sleek ant-like wasps, the bee looks like a cotton ball with wings. Bumblebees are not the most adept of nest-builders and will look to freeload in nests built by other insects. The bee weaves back and forth over the stone, then braves it, flying underneath through the gap. A few seconds later it shoots out again and swiftly beelines into the distance. The colony makes short work of repelling intruders. The wasps have their business to attend to, after all; they’re busy with the preservation of their kind, which means the preservation of their queen. She will hibernate down there, while most of the males won’t survive the onset of winter. Come spring, the queen will give birth to the next generation of digger wasps, and the cycle will start anew.
We get to watch them for a few weeks, until they complete their work and are seen no more. The stone goes mute, with no hint of the vital doings below, in the underworld. Their autumn task has been to prepare for winter, and their descent reminds me that autumn is a season of depletion as well as repletion: the culmination of harvest gives way to stubble and first frost; the plenitude of harvest is stored as provision for the stringent time ahead. You can smell the transition from early to late autumn in the scent of orchards, an odor compounded of sweetness and decay. In late autumn we enter the hour of “the soft-dying day” (Keats remains inevitable.). Loss is one of the season’s keynotes: things dwindle and drop away; by the end of November, the austerities of winter commence.
Jonathan Shimkin, writer and editor, may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via his website: jonathanshimkin.weebly.com