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FALL FOLLY

by Julia Sneden

We’re struggling with an unprecedented, summer-long drought and heat wave in my part of the country. So far this year, we’ve had more than sixty days of temperatures above 90°, and we’re something like 14 inches below average rainfall at this point. This is in an area where the yearly average is about 45 lovely, wet inches.

Fall in western North Carolina is usually long and beautiful, with vivid blue skies, colorful leaves, and crisp, cool nights. This year, however, the trees are so stressed from the drought that they began dropping their leaves in late July, and have continued slowly but steadily ever since. The tulip poplars, usually a bright yellow in the fall, are shedding dry, dun-colored leaves that resemble tanned leather. The few leaves still hanging on the dogwood trees are rusty and translucent, instead of their giving us their usual dark mahogany-to-maroon-to-pale-pink fade as the season progresses. Lawns look like excelsior instead of plain dried grass, because the individual blades are so sere that they’ve curled as they cured.

Given the extreme heat and the lack of rain, it’s surprising that there is anything normal about this fall. But within a week after the autumnal equinox, the hummingbirds disappeared from our feeder as usual, headed, one assumes, to Mexico for the winter. The goldfinches, too, performed their miraculous annual quick-change from Day-Glo yellow to olive drab, despite bright sun and more-than-balmy days. Apparently such things are triggered by earth’s tilt at the equinox, and not by weather.

Most surprising of all is that I find myself battling atavistic urges to start making soups and stews, and to put away summer cottons and haul out the woolies, although a record-setting 92° is predicted for today. Our nasal, blonde, “certified meteorologist” on local TV promises low 80’s by Friday, but that’s what she said last week, too. Believe it when it happens. (And “low 80’s” are certainly not normal for October around here. Daytime temps in the low 70’s or mid-60’s is more like it.)

Meanwhile, my hopelessly on-schedule body keeps preparing for winter’s blasts, hoarding every skimpy little calorie I ingest, and producing a crop of fine little baby hairs that by the end of October will be standing up in a ragged, half-inch forest atop my head. It’s the human equivalent of a dog’s winter coat, I guess. I know that I could slick them down with a squirt of hairspray, but these days I need every hair I can find, so I’m rather proud of them. I just wish I didn’t know that next April they’ll all wind up in my hairbrush, as my seasonally-tuned body keeps to its antediluvian schedule.

Mr. Darwin would surely shake his head over me, and consign me to extinction. There is no hope that I’ll manage to amend my internal mandates, no matter how staunchly global warming demands a change. I just hope the rest of the world, including future generations of humans, can make the necessary, swift adaptations to survive the rising waters and climbing mercury.

This weather has forced me to go through my recipe file, searching for long neglected recipes that will provide variety to my limited repertoire of hot weather fare. While I was at it, I decided to purge all those clipped-but-never-tried recipes I intended to make, once upon a time. I’ve also tossed out anything that didn’t rate at least a 9.5 on my family’s gustatory scale. If next year’s weather isn’t an improvement over this year’s, I think I’ll get rid of my soup recipes as well, and anything else that speaks of chilly winter nights. My body may not be adapting, but my kitchen certainly can.

I suppose I could copy Mr. Nixon, who is said to have set the White House air conditioners for a low temperature so that he could enjoy a blazing log in the fireplace even on hot summer evenings, but then, I don’t have the taxpayers footing my electric bill.

I am trying to keep my cool (or at least to achieve coolness) during this prolonged hot spell, but there’s something about serving salads and iced tea in mid-October that just isn’t right. It seems un-American. But as long as nobody turns me in to the Patriot Police, salads and sandwiches and iced tea it will be, at least until first frost.

But what if this becomes the year with no frost until January or even later? Will we serve popsicles and potato salad for Christmas dinner?

No: I think a line must be drawn. I’ve decided to take a stand at Thanksgiving. We’ll have our usual curried pumpkin soup, two kinds of potatoes, assorted hot breads, vegetables, and roasted turkey with stuffing, even if we have to keep the oven on for hours, even if the air conditioner can’t take the strain and implodes.

We can always serve Thanksgiving dinner outside on the picnic table.

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