Earlier in the month, Dorothy Grant and I were commiserating about hot weather and maybe the big rain maker that was chugging along would break the heat for a while. Alas, it wasn’t the one, although it did drop temps from 104 F to 84 F, which was a welcome change. The rain was even more welcome, for those who got some.
The big August system came in last weekend up here, and dropped things from the upper 90s to the upper 60s. For high temperatures. That’s the sign. Indeed, temperatures have stayed below the 30-year average for the past week, and seem to be remaining low. Oh, they’ll bounce up again in September, because they always do during the Tri-State Fair (just like it used to rain during FunFest every May when that was still held), but the worst seems to be past.
The August Norther, or Grey Norther as I sometimes call it, is the first really strong cold weather system to come down the plains during late summer. It starts as a wind shift, from the common southwesterly winds of summer, the dry, hot winds from the desert. Instead the windsock swings around to the north and northwest, sometimes northeast. Moisture comes in as well, the humidity creeping up from bone-dry to slightly damp. People start looking north, and checking the weather reports from places like Guymon, OK, and Dalhart Texas, up to the north of us. If they start getting cool, with light rain (or sometimes with heavy rain and storms), and Kansas and Colorado are also cool, then you know what’s coming. People with weather joints like my hands grit their teeth, because it hurts. Change is coming, even if we can’t see it and we don’t get restless like we do in thunderstorm season.
Clouds begin to mass on the northern skyline, low and dark or towering and ferocious. Either way, the cold air flowing south down the plains churns up the air, making clouds and scattering moisture over the landscape. Sometimes it is a cool, steady rain that lingers for hours and soaks everything slowly, perhaps flooding low places if things are just right. Otherwise it is a snarling, crashing storm line that drenches the world and sends streams out of their banks as low-water-crossing signs start to go under water in town and the usual places have street flooding. The rain is always welcome in August – nothing is ready for harvest, the winter wheat has not been planted, and the cotton and sorghum are still growing. Ranchers like the rain because it gives the grass a boost to start it growing again, or to keep it growing.*
The next morning wakens sluggishly as low clouds cling to the world, hiding the sun. The wind has faded a little but cool or even cold air continues to ooze down from the north. Instead of the 90s, 50s and 60s dominate the temperatures. Light drizzle may fill the air. It won’t soak you through, but it chills you if you don’t have a windbreaker or light jacket on. Joggers rejoice, and dog-walkers brace as old dogs gain new life from the cool air. The smell of dust is gone, replaced by mist, perhaps by the scent of drains in need of more flushing. Your glasses spot up, especially if you face into a cool, water-rich wind. Hot, spicy tea tastes very good when you come back indoors, lightly damp and a touch chilled. You can open the windows and let fresh air in without baking or getting dirt blown all over everything. The world looks greener already.
The clouds might burn off, thinning before revealing the sun. Or they might win the battle, hugging the ground and hiding the sky. People hunt for jackets long ignored. No one complains, though. The cool air is welcome. This past weekend didn’t bring as much rain to town as people had hoped, but other places got a gracious plenty, places that missed the previous round. Everyone relished the coolth. Not until two and a half days after the first clouds raced in did the sun appear, too late to heat the day.
Three days in the 60s and 70s, followed by humid, cool mornings and warm but not baking afternoons, that’s a sign. Summer’s back has been broken. The worst is past. Heat will return, but not the weeks of water-stealing desert wind, not the nights so warm the land just simmered in the darkness as people sweltered. The days grow shorter. The sun has moved far enough south that sunbeams peep into my office windows in mid-afternoon, still muted by the leaves on the neighbor’s tree, but present.
The seasons always turn. Everyone knows that in our heads. But when June fades into July bakes into August, our hearts need a reminder that the rains will return. Cooler days will arrive, easing the strain of summer. The Summer Triangle is moving farther and farther west each night, and Sirius has begun to appear in the east. Autumn will arrive. Our hearts know that now. The richest part of the year, the cool, prosperous time of harvest and warm spices and good things.**
Summer’s time is past. The wheel turns.
*Depending on what kind of grasses you have. The native grasses are “warm season” and start later in the spring, then keep going during summer and go dormant fairly early. Cool-season grasses like to die in summer, and thrive in earlier spring and the autumn.
**I’m leaning on tradition. Wheat harvest here is in June, cotton can stretch into December, but the fall seems like harvest because of the fair and other things. Winter can be lethal out here, but autumn is the time everyone waits for.