Rachmaninoff’s piano “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini” has a couple of dozen variations and many years ago I managed (with much practice) to learn just half of the easiest one.

It is, therefore, not surprising that I have not entirely mastered nature’s many variations on the seasons this year. I guess I’m fated to be no more than a devoted fan of the works of nature and Rachmaninoff.

At least the sheet music of the “Rhapsody” didn’t arbitrarily change with each playing.

Nature is not quite as consistent. I seem to recall a time when we could count on an unseasonable snowfall around the time of the August county fair, a killing frost in September and – often – a first snowfall when ill-clad costumed children hurried from house to house on Halloween.

Fall leaves had a regular schedule. Weeks before true fall arrived, a single branch of a cottonwood tree behind the ranch house would turn yellow as a first alert.

Sometime in September, gray ash trees and May trees would shed leaves with unseemly haste, even without a precipitating frost.

Then, like a slow-growing fire, low shrubs and some flowering plants would turn red. Then chokecherries (and, in a wet year, aspens) turned orange and gold, and finally the cottonwoods changed to yellow unless, like the aspen, they had a good year, in which case they added a touch of gold to the show.

September and October were the gifts nature gave us to enjoy before the frozen fingers, icy paths and short days to come.

Perhaps my memory is at fault, but it seems to me that nature has changed her tune.

In a sheltered corner of the yard, the last mound of ice from last winter finally disappeared the first week of June. It was 21 degrees the last day of September. In between, not a single inconvenient frost killed tomatoes, so the growing season, though short, still allowed onions, potatoes, tomatoes, raspberries and herbs to flourish. Crabapple trees had more apples than leaves and for the first time since 2008, the chokecherries (plump with unaccustomed rain) frosted, which is the final touch to make them richer and sweeter than any other berry in Montana.

The oddest thing was the snow patch on the mountain. It lingered into early September. The hills retained a bit of green, weeks after they should have been parched. And yet, the rain in the valley held off until the hay was up.

Frankly, it seemed as if nature was enjoying a laugh at our expense.

My only agricultural disappointment was a short catnip crop. I fear there may be some disappointed felines this winter.

And winter gave us a preview the last morning of September: 21 degrees. Luckily I’d harvested the last of the tomatoes the day before. The geranium pots had been brought inside to provide a bit of color through the winter, and nearly all the hoses were rolled up before the snow fell.

Of course, this may just be the early snowfall nature sends to tell us to prepare, so I suppose I should take heed. I have an annual list of things to put away and things to bring out. Despite the variations, I’m sure it will all be necessary in the months to come.

I’m fairly sure. I’ve had enough practice.

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Lyndel Meikle lives in the Deer Lodge area.


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