Autumn is here. Along these wind swept barrier islands that we call the Outer Banks, seasons are not marked by dates on calendars. In our world, where climate is moderated by things like the Gulf Stream, the Labrador Current, and of course the greatest thermal mass of them all, the ocean, such abstractions as dates hold little sway over the natural cycles along this sandbar.
Instead, we mark the passing of seasons by more tangible means. The arrival of blue fish and stripers is one sign. Another is the spotting of humpback whales breaching beyond the outer bar. Ospreys leave, while peregrine falcons return. Scores of birds begin to make their way down along the islands. Some, like the tree swallow travel in flocks of thousands. Others, like bald eagles are simply following the ducks and other waterfowl. Swans begin to break up the silence of the night with their cooing as they fly in by moonlight from lands far to the north. Indeed, we play witness to some one hundred thousand of these tundra swans as that migrate south with the wild winds of the north to their wintering home of eastern North Carolina.
The great migrations that characterize the transitionary season that lies between summer and winter, are only one facet of this change. Persimmons, those sweet gooey fruits that when unripe will turn your mouth inside out from the bitterness of their tannins begin to fall from the trees. The sea grapes, Scuppernongs, Muscadines, and fox grapes ripen at the onset of fall, and are a distant memory by the end. Live oaks begin to flesh out with their mast of acorns, bringing with it the winter feast that will sustain wild horses and deer a like through the coming winter.
Autumn is a time when the loblolly pine, wax myrtle, white willow, northern bayberry begin to turn brown from the salt in the air. Salt, that grand orchestrator of life on these barrier islands, announces its arrival in large quantities from the burning of leaves, the film on our windshields, the rust of our cars, the taste on our lips, and the smell to the air. It is the winds of coastal low pressure systems that are once again allowed to form at these latitudes, freed at last from the all-powerful dictator of our summer patterns of weather we call the Bermuda High, that brings with it the salt of the ocean.
On our tables, arrays of seasonal foods begin to appear. Hard clams, in the form of littlenecks, cherrystones, and chowder appear without warning. Clam fritters, clam casinos, steamed clams dipped in salted butter, clam chowder, clam bisque, fried clam strips – the bounty of our estuaries begins to pay dividends in shellfish. Local oysters begin to make their way back into our dinners, as does all thing red fish and blue fish. Striper, fileted, wrapped in bacon, and baked with potatoes and onions become a regular occurrence. Speckled trout and winter flounder, its what’s for dinner.
Ours is a culture that stands along the edge of the sea, inextricable from the ebb and flow of the cycles of the ocean and nature. Ours is a culture that marks the revolutions of the Earth by what we see, feel, smell, and taste. When the osprey, that greatest of fishermen, known by hundreds of different names the world over, worshiped by native cultures throughout the Americas, at last leaves the nest from which I have watched the drama of his and her lives unfold over the previous two season, I know that Autumn has arrived.