For the Birds Radio Program: Labor Day

Original Air Date: Sept. 1, 2003

Labor Day always seems a sad occasion for Laura.

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Labor Day

Labor Day is one of the saddest of all holidays for me. It supposedly celebrates the American worker, and the labor movement that finally forced companies to pay their workers a living wage, which also allowed companies to prosper as more and more people could afford to buy their products, but Labor Day celebrations are more separated from the original meaning of the holiday than perhaps any other holiday of the year. Most of us don’t even think of the American Labor Movement when we think of Labor Day Weekend—for just about everyone, this is simply the last weekend of summer before we return to our labors. Autumn is a beautiful season, and so we certainly could think of Labor Day as the first weekend of fall, but trees are still green, days can still be hot, and we’re three weeks from the equinox so it’s somehow more fitting, albeit more sad, to think of Labor Day as an end rather than a beginning.

Kids start school the week, sometimes the very day, after Labor Day. For them, Labor Day weekend marks the end of freedom and fun for another year. I started producing For the Birds seventeen years ago, when my youngest child Tommy was a baby. Five years later I did a program about walking him to kindergarten for the first time, saying goodbye and watching him walk away into a whole new world. This year he’s headed off for his final year of high school. That’s exciting and wonderful and sad, and the magnitude of emotion grows as Labor Day approaches.

Labor Day Weekend is also a time of goodbyes for those of us with kids who go away to college. Saturday my daughter and her two friends returned triumphant from their bicycle trip around Lake Superior, and the very next day we were loading up her things and taking her back to Ohio. The Welcome Home banner and balloons danced in the brisk autumnal wind as we drove away to yet another goodbye.

Birds that were gathering and preparing for and even starting migration in August get far more focused and serious about it as September begins. On August 29, I had at least seven hummingbirds coming to my feeders. On August 30, I had two. It’s absolutely true that Labor Day weekend marks the end of the hummingbird season in the northland, but it’s equally untrue that Labor Day weekend marks the time when you should bring your hummingbird feeders in for good. Those hummingbirds that had a late start—babies from late nests, adults with minor sicknesses or injuries that slowed down their fat buildup for a while—these hummingbirds will migrate as soon as their bodies are ready. But with night temperatures in the 40s and flowers drying up, there is less and less food for these stragglers. Our feeders can provide a critical stopover right when one passing through most needs it. I try to keep my feeders up and with clean sugar water through September, even though most of the sugar water is wasted. I’d rather waste a few cups of sugar and a few minutes of my time than let even one weary hummingbird passing through go hungry.

Trees are abuzz with chickadees and warblers, and blue jay flocks are passing overhead—why does this seem sadder than when the exact same thing happens in May? In May, leaves are just budding, the trees a soft, luscious green filled with promise. Warblers fill our backyards en route to their breeding grounds—even after spring migration, when they’re gone from backyards in town, all we need to do is drive a few minutes into some woods to see them and hear them in full song. Now the leaves are ragged and worn, pretty much done with their job of photosynthesis for another year. When the warblers disappear from our backyards this time, they’ll be gone for good. And so on Labor Day we say goodbye to them, and to our children, and to summer. And we remember and believe that if we take good care of this little planet and make our homes a welcoming, nurturing place, they’ll all return to us once again come spring.