The unsubtle signs of autumn

Leaves and daylight falling, cell signals rising, crazy deer, edgy people

The leaves are falling, the days are shorter, and it’s getting colder — an annual process that affects behavior in plants, bugs, animals and people. Fewer leaves means better cell phone reception and no annoying gnats and mosquitoes. But the transition to autumn also triggers the deer breeding season, bringing with it increased risk of deer-related car accidents, and the shorter, colder days also affect people, sometimes triggering depression.

Shades of the season behind the Kramer Building in Washington.
Shades of the season behind the Kramer Building in Washington. | Rappahannock News

“Less foliage means better cell phone reception,” County Administrator John McCarthy explained in an interview this week. He referred to what radio transmissions experts call “foliage attenuation,” wherein cell phone reception improves in the fall as the leaves die off, and worsens when the leaves grow back in the spring.

Sheriff Connie C. Smith — in an interview via cell phone — said that cell reception has increased in several areas in the county as the fall season comes into full swing. For example, during the summer there were only certain spots on Richmond Road where Smith could use her phone; she said she now has coverage all the way from Ben Venue down to Newby’s Corner. Smith added that there are some other spots in Sperryville and near Flint Hill where her deputies now get good coverage.

During the Tuesday afternoon interview, Smith drove past a deer on the side of the road, which inspired a conversation about the increased risk of deer-related accidents at this time of year. She blames the rut (the breeding season for the white-tailed deer) for the often-erratic deer behavior drivers are witnessing on county roads.

“Every time we work an accident, people are just destroying their vehicles,” Smith said, warning drivers that at this time of year the deer usually travel in groups of three or more. “You may have three or four does that run across the road in front of you, and people think that’s it, and then here comes the big buck and you’re hitting him — and you’re usually talking about $8,000 to $10,000 worth of damage when that happens.

“So I think people need to be more cautious,” Smith added. “They need to drive slower — especially at night — and be aware that the deer are lurking on the side of the road.”

The Farm at Sunnyside biologist Sam Quinn notes that, besides mosquitoes, deer cause more deaths than any other animal — deaths related to crocodiles and sharks don’t even come close. He’s also noticed more opossums and skunks this year, which he thinks relates to the 17-year reemergence this spring of various protein-rich, defenseless cicada broods.

On the bright side, most of the biting insects that haunted our summer barbecues are dying as the temperature drops. Quinn said that most insects can’t function below 40 degrees, so they lay eggs to over-winter underground or inside plants, to hatch in the spring.

And that’s why the stink bugs come inside our houses when the temperature starts to fall. Quinn said that stink bugs come from the same range in eastern Asia as the “nasty weed tree,” the invasive Ailanthus, or Tree of Heaven. The two invaders have an ecological association, since the stink bugs evolved to nest in the hollows of those trees to over-winter.

“Now here, they’ve realized that houses are better,” Quinn said. “So now they’re just living in our houses, just waiting. They’re not mating with each other, they’re just sitting there being quiet.”

As though the idea of a house full of stink bugs isn’t depressing enough, the shortening of the days and the approaching holidays may also trigger a form of depression, called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), that, according to the Mayo Clinic, occurs at a certain time each year, usually in the fall or winter.

According to WebMD, although experts are not positive of the exact causes of SAD, it may be caused by a lack of sunlight. Lack of light may upset your sleep-wake cycle and other circadian rhythms. And it may cause problems with a brain chemical called serotonin that affects mood.

“There are many things that change our hormonal output,” said Sperryville psychotherapist Barbara Adolfi, adding that people with bipolar disorder are most likely to be profoundly affected by the decrease in daylight.

“For example, when we’re stressed, we move into the sympathetic nervous system, and get into that fight-flight mode. And when we’re relaxed, we go into the para-sympathetic system, that leads to creativity, problem solving, clear thinking, a sense of well-being. And so if people are sensitive and their brain chemistry begins to change with the lack of light, that’s when you begin to get more stress and more anxiety and more depression.”

Adolfi suggests light-therapy treatment, for those feeling blue this autumn, a way to treat SAD by exposure to artificial light.

She also blames the “holiday blues” for fall season depression.

“It’s not just the darkness, but it’s also the sense of whether a person is connected or not connected to community, to family, etc.,” Adolfi said, warning everyone to avoid creating false expectations, both positive and negative, for the approaching holidays.

“You have the power within to create a fulfilling holiday season,” she said. “Make sure you’re connected with other people, in community groups or spiritual groups, doing community service for those who are less fortunate, all of those kinds of things. Don’t overspend, don’t overeat, don’t over-drink. Keep your exercise up. And maintain realistic expectations for the holidays.”

And watch out for deer!