I felt the telltale drop on my upper lip, thick and moist, and I knew autumn had come again to the land.
Never mind the calendar.
At our elevation and latitude the weather can impersonate fall, and quite convincingly, long before the equinox adds its official, celestial stamp to the matter. Conversely, the midday sun during the last week of September or the first half of October occasionally retains a goodly amount of the ferocity of July.
I rely on a much more organic symbol to mark the transition between the seasons.
Snot, to put not too fine a point on it.
When the wind blows keen and the mucus flows freely while I’m outside, but not suffering from the slightest hint of a virus of nasal origin, I must concede that another summer has passed beyond our reach.
This damp and slightly salty milestone happened while I was hiking under the brow of Bald Mountain through a section of national forest that the Cornet/Windy Ridge fire somehow spared when it carved its black path two Augusts ago.
The breeze was gentle but it came from the north and it bore the chill unique to a wind from that direction.
I was glad I had stuffed a stocking cap into my coat pocket but I wished dearly that I had also put in a pair of gloves. I pulled the cuffs down over my fingers and made do.
This sense, that autumn is truly ascendant, is for me a distinct one. It’s not merely the cold — August mornings in these parts can be plenty bitter, too.
But that chill is a flimsy thing, and you know, just from the scent of the air and the way the slanting early sun falls with a certain weight, that the goosebumps will smooth out the instant your skin is exposed to the light.
What I felt as I trudged along a dirt road, high on the ridge between the Powder and Burnt rivers, was altogether different. There’s an inevitability to the north wind in October that’s a trifle foreboding, a promise of frigidity which yields only to the fire and the furnace and the density of good goosedown.
I brushed my nose with a scrap of tissue and walked on, thinking of the snow shovel and the ghostly halo around a streetlight during a heavy fall of snow.
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The press release made for depressing reading.
The problems it outlined are familiar ones, and it seems to me that the more you read about a particular dilemma, without any indication that a solution is at hand, the more depressing it becomes.
The press release was from Oregon State University, and the topic was rural Oregon children who suffer from afflictions that seem paradoxical — they don’t always get enough to eat but they’re also overweight.
I’ve seen other reports with similar findings.
The consensus among the researchers is that rural kids, and in particular those from families with lower-than-average incomes, are more likely than their counterparts in the city to go without meals. But when they do eat they tend to gobble foods rich in fat and sugar but deficient in nutrition.
The logic is readily apparent — a person needn’t have a constantly crammed refrigerator to be obese.
But the OSU study, which was published in the journal Preventative Medicine Reports, delves more deeply into this phenomenon in that it examines not just food but also exercise, the two key factors, for most people, in determining their weight.
Researchers surveyed 144 families in three counties — Clackamas, Columbia and Klamath. The surveys, done in 2013, focused on families with children in Estacada, Molalla, Clatskanie, Rainier, Bonanza and Chiloquin.
The OSU team determined that 40 percent of the families were at risk for “food insecurity,” which means they answered either “sometimes true” or “often true” to either of two statements:
• “Within the past 12 months we worried if our food would run out before we got money to buy more.”
• “Within the past 12 months the food we bought just didn’t last, and we didn’t have money to get more.”
The researchers also queried the families about how, or whether, they incorporate exercise into their kids’ daily routines. The results showed that families at risk for food insecurity were less likely to have physically active kids.
According to Kathy Gunter, the study’s lead author and a physical activity specialist for the OSU Extension Service, the study suggests that children who live in poverty are more like to suffer from a lack of exercise as well as a lack of nutrition.
“We already know that food insecurity is associated with poverty, and we believe the same may be true for physical activity insecurity,” Gunter said in the press release.
I doubt there are easy solutions here.
It’s tempting to simply blame parents for being lazy or ignorant, but there are economic factors at play as well. Many cheap foods are also high in fat, sugar and calories.
Yet the exercise part of the equation seems to me quite a different matter.
Although some parents might struggle financially to feed their kids healthy meals, I think it’s unlikely that many face similar impediments to making sure their kids get out in the good air and skin their knees. This costs nothing except an occasional bandage, which is much cheaper than a Big Mac.
One of the classic modern clichés goes something like this — “why, when I was a kid we played outside instead of sitting on the couch fiddling with a smartphone.”
There is of course some validity to this claim. But I don’t believe technology deserves as much blame as it often gets.
We had neither computers nor cellphones when I was growing up but we did have the Atari 2600, and I’d wager that device, though it probably had little more computing power then a garage door opener, was as capable of captivating kids then as any app is today.
Yet when I was growing up in Stayton, a town not dissimilar from the six places where the OSU team did its work, pretty much all the kids I knew spent as much of their free time outside as in, and in many cases more time.
We had the scabs and the grass-stained jeans to show for it, and our parents seemed to think that was as it should be.
The distractions have changed and the pixels and megabytes have multiplied, to be sure.
But I’ll bet most kids today, if ordered to go out in the yard, would in no time be burning calories at a respectable rate.
And getting grass stains on their jeans, like as not.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.