A September field. Photo by Dana Wilde

The end of August never got here until September this year.

Sept. 3 and 4 last week, in the aftermath of Ida’s rains, were classic mid- to late-August days. Cool air, so clear and dry you could see right underneath the maple, oak and basswood greenery into their blackshadow late-summer selves where autumn is peering into its inevitable future, and striking your heart.

Before the past five or 10 years, these first-of-the-year days appeared in middle to late August. I remember one Aug. 30 in the 1980s walking the Eastern Promenade in Portland in a phantasmagoric trance of clear, sharp air, rose-hip thickets sprouting red caps and bells, jokes in the briar. Out beyond, wind-corrugated water, dark-green August islands with telescope-white strands on shore.

September brought another phase of fall. One Labor Day afternoon about 50 years ago playing golf on links in Naples under blue-black louring clouds and patches of brilliant cobalt sky, a clear, cold gale blowing my ball off the fairway and abusing my knuckles. Cold not unheard-of, then, for Labor Day which was a date-marker of the unofficial beginning of fall, even for meteorologists. Frost not far behind, as we’ll see in a moment.

Then came climate Y2K, and while I was uneasy about mellowing winters in the ’80s and ’90s, there was a moment in, I’m thinking, 2002 when it seemed like traditional September was finally off. I was walking across campus in Orono to my first class of the semester – sweltering. This kind of heat right after Labor Day already seemed not unexpected. Forever before that, it was startling and anomalous.

This year mid-August was nowhere to be seen until September. It was hot nearly all month, with 90-degree days in the final week and nighttime temperatures so warm for August that there were two mornings where it reached 70 degrees before 8 a.m. here in Troy. When that happened 40, 50, 60 years ago, it was an anomaly. Now it’s just everyday “summer weather” to youthful TV meteorologists. This was the second-hottest summer on record in southern Maine. Hottest ever was 2020.

I remember September frosts being usual, but haven’t seen one here in Troy in years. If you look for evidence further back, you find out you are not exactly crazy to think this. Henry David Thoreau’s journals, 170 years ago, register frosts nipping on the heels of August regularly, just as I’ve witnessed in Maine:

On Sept. 28, 1860, he notes “what you may call a black frost.” On Sept. 25, 1858: “A smart white frost last night, which has killed the sweet potato vines and melons.” Sept. 23, 1851: “the fences this morning are covered with so thick a frost that you can write your name anywhere with your nail.” On Sept. 20, 1855, the “first decisive frost, killing melons and beans, browning button-bushes and grape leaves.”

Sept. 21, 1851: “severe frosts last week.” Sept. 18, 1854: “I see the potatoes all black with frosts that have occurred within a night or 2 in Moore’s swamp.” Sept. 14, 1859: “Yesterday was very cold with NW wind — & this morning the first frost in the garden killing some of our vines.” Sept. 10, 1857: “Fields generally killed & blackened by frost.” Sept. 7, 1857: “Our first slight frost in some places this morning.” (One hundred and thirteen years later to the day I’m playing golf in a crisp autumn gale.)

On Sept. 4, 1859: “cooler weather & frosts in the latter part of Aug. & first part of Sep.” Sept. 2, 1859: “The pontederia [pickerelweed] leaves are now decidedly brown — & this may be the effect of frost since we have had some considerable in low places.”

Then we have (and remember, this is in Massachusetts, 2 or 3 degrees of latitude south of Troy, Waterville and Augusta): Aug. 31, 1855: “First frost in our garden.”

And just for good measure, on Aug. 12, 1854: “The wind is autumnal and at length compels me to put on my coat.” The high temperature in Troy this Aug. 12 was 90.

A few examples do not make a pattern, but it’s more than that. To me, you have to work at it to miss what’s happening. There are no doubt still patches of September frost here and there in central Maine, but they’re scarce. At our house we no longer expect them until October. It’s overall significantly warmer here now than it was 170, 50, 40 years ago. And the reason is an accepted fact of science: Climate change triggered by greenhouse gases supplied from burning carbon is warming the whole Earth, including New England.

Even if you’re a non-scientist, the bald facts are right before your eyes, not to mention in scientific papers and carefully researched news reports. And, I’m thinking, right in your heart if you just listen.

Without immediate adjustments to the way we live, August plowing over into September, and September into October will be the least of our kids’ and grandkids’ and great-grandkids’ worries. I don’t know about you, but I love those unborn generations already. I want them to live and thrive, not struggle and suffer through fall after fall of summer swelter and its floods, fires, droughts and hurricanes that in some places are already turning into wars and famines.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His new book “Winter: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” is available for pre-order from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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