Rites of Autumn: The Midwest in the Fall

September 28, 2011 1 comment , , ,

Usually, when people think of the Midwest, they think of a flat, boring, rural place, covered in corn and soybean fields – way too hot and muggy in the summer, and way too cold in the Winter. Well, that’s about half right. There’s really lots of urban areas, and even some elevation changes (Wisconsin, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Minnesota, Southern Ohio). Though by and large, the Midwest is pretty flat.

Summers are oppressively hot, unless you live near the Great Lakes. Mosquitoes bite, cicadas buzz and keep you up at night, and electric bills skyrocket from keeping the house or apartment air-conditioned.


US map, midwest

Winter is just the opposite. “Winter,” in Chicago is pretty much from November 19 to April 15. If not longer. Snow on Halloween (October 31) isn’t uncommon. We’ll have days where the cold bites your face, and days when the snow drifts up to 2-3 feet… which is preferable to freezing rain, ice, or sleet. It does have its charms, but there’s a reason lots of people from the Midwest seem to find their way down to Arizona or Florida during the winter. We even had “thundersnow” last year. Yep. It is what you think it is…

But the happy medium is glorious, glorious fall (about from September 15 to November 15th). All the leaves on the deciduous trees turn brilliant shades of yellow, orange, red, gold, and purple before falling. There’s a chill in the air, which if you’re a husky gentleman or lady, feels just about right. Jackets and hooded sweatshirts get brought out of the closet and dusted off.

The wind whips a little harder off the lake, the water gets too cold to swim in, and you can occasionally catch the smell of wood burning in someone’s backyard fire pit. The light changes as the leaves fall of the trees, and the shade of the green, then orange/yellow/gold canopy gives way to the skeletal branches of the leaf-less late fall trees.

autumn leaves

Baseball and soccer seasons end. Hockey and basketball are a few weeks away, but as schools go back into session, Friday nights become alive with the cracking of high school football helmets and the cheer of the crowd. Saturday sees schools across the nation fixated on their local college team, and the second week in September on Sunday, the National Football League, the most popular sports league in the USA, begins regular-season play.

Families will have tailgate parties at games, get together at someone’s house, or get together at a local tavern to watch their favorite team. The Midwest is home to the Bears, Steelers, Browns, Packers, Vikings, Lions, and Bengals, some of the charter franchises of the NFL.

The game was popularized by collegiate play in the Midwest, with universities such as Notre Dame, Michigan and (The) Ohio State leading the charge. Michigan and Ohio State have played each other almost every year since 1897. Plenty of people in the Midwest don’t care for football (it is often a dangerous, and violent game), but it marks the change in the seasons just as sure as the leaves falling off the trees, or geese flying south for the winter.

American football

The local foods change. Tomatoes and cucumbers are replaced by pumpkins, squash, and beans. Maple syrup becomes available in late autumn (made by boiling down tree sap. 40 gallons sap yields 1 gallon syrup), as does apple cider (raw, unfiltered, apple juice, sometimes served hot with cinnamon). We stuff ourselves on candy, dress up in outlandish costumes, and carve pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns during Halloween.

We eat Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and stuffing on Thanksgiving (and the Lions and Cowboys always play football). The brightly-adorned, bombastic holidays of the summer (Memorial Day, 4th of July) are replaced by darker-hued holidays in the fall. Bonfires are lit, not just because they’re pretty, but to actually stay warm.

old  postcard, football and turkey

Other parts of the country may share in similar traditions, but the difference is the weather, and the proximity to the foods and produce that are traditionally eaten. I can pick pumpkins at my grandma’s farm in Ohio, and even see wild turkeys along the road. I grew up with a maple tree in my backyard.

Football, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and bonfires are all meant to be enjoyed in the chilly autumn air, as the days get shorter, and the nights longer… when the leaves are falling from the trees making a soft swish as you walk through the grass, the winds kick up, and you know there’s still a month or two left until the snow starts to frost the landscape, and winter finally arrives. No place is fall better enjoyed, than in the Midwest.

jakc-o-lantern

***All images are from Wikimedia Commons***

 

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About the author

Sean Oliver
My name is Sean Oliver, and I'm a project manager for Language & Culture Worldwide, a cross-cultural training and consulting firm. We also offer a full suite of language services. I have a BA in Anthropology, with a focus in Archaeology, as well as a self-designed minor in Sex and Gender Studies. I grew up in Ohio and have traveled extensively, moving to Chicago during the Summer of 2002. I have no intentions of living anywhere else; Chicago is one of my favorite places on the planet. I feel most at home in America's MidWest, though it's good to get out and see the world every now and again. I write mostly about American culture, drawing attention to the vast differences between Americans across ethnicity, class, gender, generations, etc.
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1 Comment

  • Sounds nice… coming from the UK (and especially a part of the UK where the winter seems to last for about half the year) I love the fact that where I live now in Turkey has 4 distinct seasons. My only gripe is that the happy medium lasts for literally about 2 weeks!