Outdoors North

Nothing is as certain as change in forest

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

“Summer days and the summer nights are gone, I know a place where there’s still something going on.” — Bob Dylan

Returning to this quiet corner of the forest, it was clear pronounced changes had occurred since the last time I had been here, only a few weeks prior.

The Canada columbines that had bloomed in profusion along both sides of this chalky white-cobbled roadway had faded. Their dainty pink and yellow flowers were gone, fallen with the delicate petals of the wild roses along the cold creek.

The guard had changed.

It was late spring the last time I was out here. It was summertime now and things were already shifting — out with the old and in with the new.

Many of the grasses had gone to seed, while the fishing paths were choked with tough green vines, branches and leaves, heavy and sagging.

With the columbines out of the picture, the roadside landscape was now painted with yellow daisies, black-eyed Susan and the lavender blooms of milkweed. All were attracting bees and butterflies — beautiful orange monarchs and fritillaries.

Though rains had fallen for a few days, heavy at times, the warm breezes were drying things out quickly, punching up the chance for fires, especially in the eastern half of the peninsula.

The warm wind and the sunshine sure felt good to me. I think somewhere down in my bones there’s still a chill or two left inside from last winter.

In an open space, old tree trunks blackened at the hands of a wildland blaze decades ago sit tired and dusty in the sun.

The fields are also flashing white and yellow ox-eye daisies and orange and yellow hawkweed, though some of these blooms too have been shriveled and drooped by the sun and the season.

Like the hawkweed is kin to sunflowers and the columbine to buttercups, the white-and-black trunked quaking aspen trees along the edges of this free-feeling open expanse are related to willow trees.

As I’m walking down this dirt road, I recall an old cowboy song I learned as a kid, through my dad, whose favorite singer was Eddy Arnold.

The tune is called “Where the Mountains Meet the Sky” and it appeared on Arnold’s 1963 collection of western cowboy songs titled “Cattle Call.”

This is one of the first albums I remember my dad owning on 8-track tape, along with “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” by Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass.

Over a horse-clopping rhythm and a soft-stringed guitar, Arnold’s smooth baritone voice sings.

I’m gonna ride, ride, ride, ride down that dusty trail

To the land of sweet enchantment where hardship don’t prevail

I’m headin’ for the blue horizon

Where the mountains meet the sky

Gonna saddle up my faithful pinto and bid the boys good-bye

I’ll say, “So long,” to mom and dad and tell sister not to cry

‘Cause I’m headin’ for the blue horizon where the mountains meet the sky

I’ve always liked the song, along with several others on that album, including “Cowpoke,” “Leanin’ on the Old Top Rail” and “Jim, I Wore a Tie Today.”

Arnold’s “Cattle Call” title track was one he revived from earlier recordings he’d done in the 1940s and 1950s — it was a big hit song. By 1963, Arnold’s records would showcase the “Nashville Sound.”

Like his label-mate Jim Reeves, who was killed in a plane crash in July 1964, Arnold’s producers added smooth pop strings — as opposed to fiddle — to his records, which helped score him new crossover pop fans and numerous hit records like “Make the World Go Away” and “What’s He Doing in My World.”

Critics called the sound “countrypolitan.”

It’s almost oxymoronic to me that a cowboy album would contain those smooth background arrangements and strings. But it’s weird, like the thought of mixing grape jelly and smoked sausage, it works.

There was more than one cowboy album in those days that found favor with fans.

Marty Robbins’ “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” from 1959, was a top 10 album on the pop albums chart in the U.S. The album included the classic “El Paso,” the best-known song of the singer of “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation,” which had hit No. 1 on the country charts a couple of years prior.

The album was so popular, Columbia Records issued “More Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs” by Robbins the following year. As is the case with many sequels, it didn’t fare as well as the original.

While I was reminded of songs, the woods around me were noticeably quieter than my recent spring visit and the sounds were different.

Most of the songbirds — those that don’t produce more than one set of chicks in a season – had already hatched and fledged their broods. No need now for the males to sing to announce territory or attract mates.

Like their cheery, songs of spring, their brightly-colored plumage was also now muted.

Replacing their parts in the afternoon chorus were the clicking sounds of grasshoppers, my boot heels in the gravel and a horsefly buzzing and snapping its way across the inside glass of my windshield.

There were still some birds in voice, like an indigo bunting that didn’t want its picture taken, at least no close-ups, a very talkative brown thrasher and the bug noise of clay-colored sparrows.

I saw Steve Allen on television once talking about how if you hear a word you’ve never heard before, and learn what it means, chances are good you’ll hear it again in the next 24 hours. I think it’s like that with clay-colored sparrows.

Once you hear that sound and realize it’s not a bug, you hear them all over the place.

The hillsides here are pocked with the burrows of badgers and woodchucks, the skies wide and clear. Raspberries on branches are green, but it won’t be long until they ripen.

Though it’s hot and humid out here today, like a summer day should be, these scenes I’ve seen and sensed are my first indication that nature is moving things forward swiftly, shortening the days, dipping us toward cooler times ahead.

That reminds me that summer is a long sought after, but short-lived, season here.

I’ve still got that cowboy song stuck in my head, as I drive slowly down the road.

When my round-up days are over, and I’ve said my last good-bye, I’ll be up in the blue horizon where the mountains meet the sky.

Editor’s note: John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.