By Hardy Jackson
Over the years I have had the opportunity to live in just about every region of our state and along the Florida Panhandle, which by right should also be part of Alabama.
Of all the seasons we celebrate, fall seems to me the most diverse.
Winter is cold and wet everywhere. Sure we occasionally get a little snow, but not enough to brag about. During cold snaps, some folks keep their faucets dripping, but most don’t.
Spring is glorious all over.
Summer is hot.
But fall? Fall is different.
I grew up in South Alabama, about 100 miles north of Mobile. Down there, native trees don’t turn — except for the sweet gum whose leaves get a little red-orange for a day or so and then they drop off. Live oak, water oak foliage hardly change color at all.
So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I saw the trees on the hillsides of North Alabama. The reds and yellows up and down the slopes were in stark contrast to forests farther south. North Alabama was what our elementary school teachers had in mind when we cut out colored paper leaves to decorate autumn bulletin boards.
And the leaves up there stay longer on the trees than they do closer to the coast.
Maybe it is because every fall south Alabama counties experience one or more of what old folks in old times used to call “September Gales” (also called “September Squalls” in some quarters, but not ours). These were not the pre-winter rains that come south with cold fronts and pound North Alabama’s poplar, hickory and maple leaves to the ground.
September gales come up out of the Gulf.
They begin as low-pressure areas that feed on the warm Gulf water. They pull up the moisture, then move north. Along the beaches the red flags go up as the system churns up the waves and rearranges the sand.
Then the gale moves inland.
Clouds roll up from the south and the wind picks up. The air turns heavy and humid. It starts to rain, warm and pleasant to walk in, if walking in the rain is your thing.
One came ashore recently. It dumped 8 inches of water on Gulf Shores and 12 on Destin. Upcountry creeks flooded. Wind was minimal, but pecan trees, which had only recently turned brown after a leafy green summer, let loose their foliage. In a few days they were bare, and it looked like winter in the orchard.
North Alabama got some of the effect, but mostly it was a South Alabama event.
Turning trees and September gales are not the only things that define fall in Alabama’s regions.
Fall arrives at different times.
Another old saying among old folks was “summer’s back is broken.”
It was an acknowledgement that the growing season was over and the dying season had begun. Cotton bolls popped open, hay needed cutting and corn was ready for grinding into meal.
It was time to prepare for winter.
Summer’s back breaks earlier in the foothills and hollows of North Alabama. In the valleys where they farm as intensely as they do down in the Black Belt, you can detect a sense of urgency, a need to get crops harvested and into the barn or off to market. Fall can come quickly, and winter is not far behind.
Many years ago I took part in a project sponsored by the Smithsonian Institute. “Barn Again” was an effort to document what they called “barn culture” – how barns in a region reflect the way of life there.
In Alabama it was pretty much what you would expect.
Up north the barns were big and often elaborate – stalls to keep animals out of the cold, lofts for storing fodder. Near the Tennessee line I saw barns made out of hewed logs and dating back a century. When cold weather comes those folks are ready.
Nothing like that down south — except in a small Baldwin County enclave that was settled by folks of German descent. They had built big barns back where they came from, so they built them big here.
Not so in the rest of lower Alabama.
On my family farm all we had was a corn crib.
When summer’s back broke, our cows began spending more time in the woods, protected from September gales and later from winter frosts.
We didn’t need big barns.
We were different.
So if you want to see how diverse deep Dixie is, travel it in the fall.
You can thank me later.
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.