If you add them up, I lived in Virginia’s Hampton Roads area for about eight years as an adult (plus a year when I was in fifth grade and Dad was stationed in Portsmouth). One thing I remember well is playing hurricane roulette in the late summer-early autumn period.
I also remember hurricane season in Corpus Christi, Texas and Tampa, Florida, but it wasn’t quite the same in those Gulf Coast haunts. The sense of near-perpetual summer was strong there, and the quality of the sunlight didn’t shift as much, right about the time hurricane season really got serious, as it did in Hampton Roads.
Interestingly, in heavily forested Virginia, it was the intensification of hurricane season each year that seemed to be the harbinger of fall. In my native Oklahoma, nature’s autumnal semaphore is the turning of the leaves. Further north and inland in Virginia, people would say the same. Turning leaves and frost; the return of the “blue northers”; the smell of wood fires after an autumn rain – those are the Norman Rockwell signs of fall.
But the smell I remember from Norfolk is the smell of salt air and howling wet winds, of ancient ash trees groaning in oddly lukewarm torrents, of dank leaking basements and cars and porches dug out from piles of sticky, discolored leaves and branches, of the dark, gray Atlantic and the deceptively orderly Chesapeake Bay slipping their bonds and flinging themselves in a briny paroxysm on human shores.
The sun is important to these memories. In the latitudes of the mid-Atlantic coast, its annual trek southward at summer’s end is becoming noticeable just as hurricane season is heating up. Northern exposures that were bathed in sunlight six weeks before are falling into shadow. Even at high noon, light begins to have a distant, melancholy quality. Tempered by shadows, it seems evanescent and overbright. Summer feels like a promise fulfilled, for better or worse, and once again moved on from.
Oklahoma sees the shift of sunlight at about the same time. There, the slant of light lends color to the expression “Indian summer.” The growing shadows look like fall; the sun – and of course football – make it clear to the empirical mind that the warm, summery days can’t last. But in early September, nature’s arrangements are still those of summer: humid nights, winds from the south, chiggers and June bugs and fireflies, and the smell of washed prairie and baked red earth.
In the Virginia Tidewater, however, hurricane season reaches its peak with the sun’s retirement to the south. Muggy, sun-dappled days give way to shadows and darkening skies, wild rushing clouds, nights of tearing winds and ominous cries from the sea. The tumultuous Atlantic turns from the deep blues of summer to its uncompromising winter gray – the hue sailors see when they have gone out of sight of land, the hue that says the sea means business, and that we edge close to it on white sands, and treat it like an amusement park, only at its sufferance.
In Tidewater in hurricane season, days of bright sunshine are crystalline and fleeting, pursued doggedly by shadows and winds. There is a rugged, jewel-like quality to a brilliant afternoon – and a sense of echoing familiarity, like the sounds of family footsteps, in the rhythmic rush of gray skies and danger. Gulls caw frantically before the storm hits, and then are gone. Humans, equally pragmatic, hit the Wal-Mart and nail up boards, put tarps over cars and boats and cut tree limbs. The Navy sends its warships to sea, a recurring sortie that always amazes the uninitiated: yes, the sailors take the taxpayers’ ships out to where it’s safe, and their families batten down the hatches ashore. And yes, the sailors hate leaving, and their families hate seeing them go, but most are used to it.
Today, in southern California, my main guide to the changing seasons for much of the year is the sun. It’s on the move now, heading south, lapsing into an autumnal slant that is beginning to deprive the cheerful north-side plants of light for big chunks of the day. By December, those plants will see almost no direct sunlight at all. But there is no other mental trigger proclaiming fall. The days are hot and long; shorter than in June and July, yes, but still light as late as anyone would want to work or play outside.
It’s when I see a storm like Hurricane Earl bearing down on the East coast, and think of the bracing sights and sounds of hurricane season in Hampton Roads, that I inhabit a daydream of fall on a September day. Fall is, after all, a season of remembered landscapes. In this one, trees sway in mighty winds, fevered air is curiously weightless and damp, and the past of a different world – when I wore a uniform and served presidents from long ago, when I called other houses home, when I and my family and shipmates were all much younger – seems shared with all those who know it’s autumn when hurricane season hits Hampton Roads.