The harvester was cutting valleys through corn that had reached epic heights, despite a dry summer. Dust rose yellow-red in the sunset, as a tractor with a bushhog busily cut the ends of the stalks close to the ground, a final indignity for any cornstalks resilient enough to resist the rolling blades of the harvester.
Doves waited patiently on the powerline, gray-pink vegetarian vultures planning to snatch every forgotten kernel as soon as the pesky farmers would finish fixing dinner.
Yes, it was an afternoon in August, that miserable month, but someone had missed a memo or decided to have mercy on mankind. It felt, smelled and looked more like a September sunset.
I have been waiting on her since the first triple-digit day of summer; I realize we should treasure every day as a blessing and treat it as such, and I do, but by this time of the year I’m tired of slapping horseflies and I’m ready for the Month of the Golden Promise.
Some of my overachieving trees have a head start on the season’s change, shedding soft yellow leaves that have done their photosynthetic duty for the year. It will be a while before the others catch up. While the swamps of my beloved coastal plain will never have the color show of the edge of the piedmont where I grew up, much less the mountains, I look forward to that time in September when the early hints of change show up in the year’s leaves, like the first trace of gray in a beautiful woman’s hair.
September is often still hot and humid, and hurricanes have a habit of hitting our coast during the Month of Golden Promise, but I still love the ninth month, known by some Native Tribes as the Hunting Moon, the Corn Festival Moon, and the Harvest Moon. September was the time when the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash — ripened and were made ready for the long winter.
September is also the time when fish become more active. In freshwater, the temperatures cool just enough to make the bass a little busier, and the catfish come closer to the surface in curiosity after a cooling rain that doesn’t quite turn the land into a sauna as it did a month before. The Virginia mullet with the first blues and jack mackerel begin to run in saltwater, and oysters begin to make their last wills and testaments as they are one month closer to their final steaming, salty glory. I would never argue with my late friend, the fisherman-philosopher Hugh Howard of Hampstead, who said cold fish are the best fish — but September’s fish ain’t nothing to turn down.
September means the start of dove season, which is still my favorite species to hunt. Yes, I love deer, bear, turkey and hogs. When the fur is prime, I will enthusiastically match wits with coyotes and bobcats. If my various and sundry injuries allow it, I will happily wade through half-frozen water later in the year in the never-ending quest to rid the world of beavers and nutria rats.
But doves were the first critter I ever hunted, and they will always be my favorite quarry. It doesn’t matter that I’m on the back side of 50. I will always be 10 years old with a single-barrel and a pocketful of shells, trying to hide behind a handful of broomsedge on the edge of a cut cornfield as God paints a wild canvas with a September sunset.
I sometime wish that I still had a dog like my old Dudley or the Biscuit; both were the golden color of September. Dudley would hunt or retrieve anything, including doves, which somehow seem to keep producing loose feathers after they drop to a well-placed load of 7 1/2s. The Biscuit was just a good companion, at least until he got frightened and ran into the corn, returning with a sheepish look on his face and a smile in his green eyes.
I am usually a solitary hunter now; it’s not that I don’t enjoy the camaraderie of a dove field on an Indian summer day (indeed I miss it) but work and the world always get in the way. Maybe this year the Month of Golden Promise will smile on her devotee, and I’ll find myself in a party of fellow hunters who laugh, tease and only stretch the truth a tiny bit when the day is done and the birds are being cleaned and the guns are dirty and the dogs are tired and everything is almost perfect.
September is a time when I can once again eat like I have wanted to for months. There are family reunions, gatherings, church homecomings, revivals, picnics and festivals. The last of the ugly old forgotten heritage apples and the peak of the uglier pears are ready. The blackberries and huckleberries are long gone, but there are grapes for gorging and persimmons promising to share their sweetness if there’s an early frost and the possums don’t get there first.
There will be still be days when my shirt is sweat-soaked beyond redemption, and the first coffee of the day is still approached out of pure need, rather than desire.
But somewhere along the line, I’ll crawl out of bed of a morning and things will have changed.
Sometimes the change is gradual, barely noticeable for weeks, and sometimes it sneaks in during the night, announcing its presence via my wife’s cold nose in the middle of my back and old Toni Dog pushing closer against me on the other side. September’s kiss will touch the trees, and even the most stalwart oaks will begin to melt, dropping leaves and acorns to feed October’s squirrels and deer. The water in my favorite swimming hole will go from refreshing to bracing, and fishing poles will magically appear in larger numbers on the beachbound vehicles.
Whether it is sudden or slow, the September promise will be kept as always, and one morning even the sunrise will smell different, bidding goodbye to the summer and welcoming the fall, with the hint and hopes of winter still a long way off.
The stars at night will be sharper as the humidity fades into mushy memory, and the young of the year coyotes will gossip in the night, to the vocal disgust of the owls who have little use for the foolishness of kids.
The first bucks will begin rubbing the velvet from antlers grown thicker, longer and by a point or two as a reward for surviving another year. The spots will have faded from this year’s fawns, most of whom have started spending more time away from Mama as nature calls. The hounds will begin to get frisky, knowing that soon it will be time to go to work for real, whether they chase the aforementioned whitetails or the trash-talking coons who foolishly think they own the swamps.
September will keep her promise, and deliver the gold of the year, even though the treasure is never exactly the same. That’s one reason why I love her so much – she is a month of change, a month of harvest, a month of nature’s glory, a month of golden promise.