Fall wildflowers

wildflowers copy

Sometimes, it’s not just where you take a trip, but when.

You can be too young to appreciate something or too old to partake.

When I was young, I loved the spring flowers, from the first jonquils that burst through the last snow on the lawn, to the wake robin in the woods. Nothing could compare with the speckled salmon color of the pinxter flower hanging over the stream, dripping dew in the early morning from the long, bowed tongues of its stamens.

All up and down the East Coast, the bright red stars of fire pinks grew along paths and blue spiderwort grew under the shade of trees. When they came out, the Eastern Seaboard seemed to be waking from its frozen sleep and taking its first deep stretches of the year.

After that, the seasons seemed anticlimactic. Summer was when leaves were turned to dry Swiss cheese by hungry insects. Fall was when those leaves dried out completely and fell off. Back then, I didn’t trust anyone over 30, either.

But a single road trip through northwestern New Jersey changed that for me. As I drove up the Delaware River in October from Philadelphia, north past the Water Gap and into the Kittatinny Mountains, every field was a paint box.

There had been a death in my family, and I had just gone through a divorce. After the formalities, I drove along the river, looking for some quiet.

In its northern parts, the Delaware is not much of a river; it is just a broad, shallow, stony-bottomed stream with a sandy bluff on one shore or the other, depending which way the riverbed turns.

The Kittatinnies are not much in the way of mountains, either.

But along the roadsides, the bobbing orange heads of black-eyed Susans mixed with the midnight blue of ironweed.

There is something different about the fall wildflowers, something weedier, something more insistent. Their vegetable smells and sticky white sap are less immediately pretty, but they have more character: They are grown-up.

Perhaps, too, it is the drier air of autumn, the mixed stands of plants, blending goldenrod with Queen Anne’s lace, bull thistle and hawkweed in a Pointillist stew of color.

Anyway, that’s how it seemed as I drove by the railroad yard in Port Jervis, at the point New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania all meet. The old yard was grown over in asters.

There were millions of them in the open acres of the yard, each with its yellow disk surrounded by blue ray flowers. Intermixed were all the other fall flowers: the yarrow, boneset, coneflowers and chicory left over from midsummer.

And in the weedy field, even the spring flowers were represented, not by their blossoms, but by their fruits: the burrs; seed pods; milkweed down and nightshade berries.

There was yet no frost in the air, but you could see it coming in the overgrown fields that grind in the breeze with the peculiar sound of weeds.

I am now 64 and this is not a story about flowers.

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