There are those who prefer to live in warmer climates, where the cold winds of winter never blow. During the last two exceptionally frigid winters back home in Ohio, I certainly daydreamed about what it might be like to live in a place without ice and snow. But while I can see the appeal of living in a land of eternal summer, there is something about the change of seasons that I know I would miss. When you have spent the summer months in Northern Michigan walking on the shores of a vast body of water like Lake Michigan, you experience the season vividly – and you sense the season drawing to a close as well. The angle of the sun and the shortening days, the changing colors of the tree leaves and dune grass, even the movements and behavior of the animals all signal that the season is coming to an end.
For some reason, despite its gradual approach, when it arrives, the end of summer always catches me unprepared. One moment, it is June, with weeks of the season spreading ahead far into the future, and then suddenly it is September, and autumn looms. It is not as if there are no warnings that summer’s days are waning, it is just that the season cycles through so quickly there is barely time to register its passage.
The signs along the lakeshore were there all along, and unmistakable. As the summer progresses, the afternoon sun shifts each day a little bit more to the south. Sunset creeps earlier each day as well. At the end of June, the sun doesn’t set until well after 9:30 pm but by early September, the days are shorter and the nights are longer. When we first arrive at the beginning of the season, the trees have barely leafed out. By the Fourth of July, the trees’ thick canopy provides a deep shade cover. By the second week of August, the maple trees are already shading red, yellow, and orange around the edges. By late August, many of the trees are showing their fall colors, as reflected in the picture at the top of the post.
The farm produce available traces the season as well. In early June, when we arrive to open our cottage, the seasonal offerings in the Farmer’s Market in the village are limited to asparagus and strawberries. By July 4th weekend, sweet cherries are available. And a little bit later, the apricots appear. In late July, the blueberries are ready. In early August, a farmer sets up a Sweet Corn stand on the road leading into town, opposite Charlie’s Marina. It is an honor system, you put the money in a coffee can beside the corn rick. You can get peaches as early as late July, but the best peaches come later, in mid-August. In September, the apples are ready. With the apples, there is apple cider and also cinnamon doughnuts. The pumpkins come in after that. And then comes the first frost.
The woodland creatures clearly sense the changing seasons as well. In August, the monarch butterflies begin traveling through, on their way from Canada to Mexico. I have always been told that it is only the monarch caterpillar that eats the milkweed plant, but I always do seem to see monarch butterflies alighting on to the milkweed in the dunes on the beach. We also see migratory birds that only appear for a few days in late August – plovers, terns, and warblers. For some reason, later in the season we hear the whippoorwills and owls more frequently at night as well. The woods are full of the sounds of late summer, the whir of the cicadas and the buzz of the grasshoppers.
A lot happens over the course of the summer. When we first went down to the beach after we opened our cottage in June, we found that a boggy spot had formed over the winter at the base of the first dune. There were millions of tadpoles swimming in the bog. As the summer progressed, the tadpoles formed into tiny, tiny leopard frogs. I built a sand causeway around the bog so that it was possible to walk to the beach without disturbing the frogs. By late July, after a hot, dry spell, the frog population had declined but there were still quite a number left. They seemed to like to sun themselves on the surface of the causeway. Soon enough, the frogs will venture further away, as they seek out promising places to hibernate for the winter.
The summer season in Pentwater, Michigan reaches its crescendo in mid-August, when the village hosts its annual Homecoming Festival, marked by a parade through the village streets and, in the evening, fireworks off the channel breakwater. The festival usually attracts quite a crowd, and the weather for the event was particularly delightful this year. The state park beach, about a mile south along the lakeshore from our cottage, was packed, as depicted in the first photo below. Yet even though the pleasant weather continued on for several days, the crowds quickly left and the village was quiet again. The second picture below was taken a couple of days after Homecoming.
The village has a quiet, peaceful feeling after Homecoming. It is a little known secret, but the nicest time of the year comes right after the high summer season has ended. It is pleasant just to pedal around the village on my bicycle, looking at all the beautifully maintained houses and cottages, their front porches arranged in careful tableaux, with little settees and stools, flowering plants, and bunting.
I usually stay behind a few days after everyone else has left, to spend a last few days and to close up the cottage. As I lock the cottage door for the last time and drive away to head back home to Ohio, there is a feeling of sadness that it is tempting to call elegiac. But that is not quite right because of course it is not goodbye forever, it is just goodbye until next spring. The sadness has an element of mellowness. Before I leave for the last time, I always walk down to the beach for one last look. I try and absorb everything in that last look, the sound of the waves, the feeling of the wind, the seagulls flying overhead.
For some reason, during my final visit to the beach for the season, I always find the tune of the Jazz Standard “Tenderly” playing in my head. There are a lot of great versions of the song but the version I like best is George Shearing’s solo piano version. I posted a video below of Shearing playing the song. I recommend cueing up the tune and listening to the music while you look at the pictures below.
Season’s end is not elegiac, it is mellower than that. It is not goodbye forever; it is just until next spring.
More Pictures of Pentwater, Michigan
Scenes of early autumn — a field of goldenrod
In the Manistee National Forest
On the Lakeshore