Outdoors North

Trees open door to inspiration, education

John Pepin, public information officer, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

The falling leaves drift by the window, the autumn leaves of red and gold. — Jacques Prevert

Having pulled the curtain back, an early morning found me looking sleepily out the bedroom window, past the red-and-pink cobblestone patio and the green grass, overgrown, wet and drooping in the yard.

The tree trunks, colored black, gray, red and white, stood silent, bent in their varying forms of posture, just like people.

Some were young and stood up straight and tall, others slouched. Some were twisted and hunched in odd forms. There were some older trees with roughed and scarred bark, bent over, with their “arms” reaching behind to the base of their backs.

Several trees stood together in a crowd, upstarts with pliable frames, their tops chattering with the slightest breeze.

Then there were the giants, the tallest and the strongest, with hundreds of years under their belts. These were the trees least likely to buckle from a blow delivered by a sharp north wind.

On this quiet morning, there was no wind at all.

That fact was what made what I was about to witness so magical and mysterious.

From the top of a mighty maple, some type of signal was apparently issued that caused a wonderful silent tumbling of yellow leaves. They dropped like tears from a face to the ground below.

There were dozens of these leaves, with beautiful yellowy hues that ranged from goldenrod to saffron to mustard to spice.

Time seemed to step aside to let this singular moment take place for this one tree, this tremendous forest emperor.

It was as though the other trees were bowed and hushed as this occurred.

Then, almost as quickly as I noticed this, another tree off to my right started to do the same thing, yellow leaf “tears” dropped to the ground like water tumbling from the head of a watering can.

I had never seen anything quite like this before.

Though the leaves were falling, I didn’t have the feeling that this was a sad occasion. In fact, quite the opposite. It was as though the leaves all decided to drop at once.

Maybe they wanted to deprive the wind of any opportunity to toss them to the skies, tear them in two or send them rolling dizzily across the wet pavement into the path of passing cars and trucks.

Maybe they all agreed to take the plunge at once, like kids jumping into the ice-cold water off a summertime dock.

I thought it might have been a graduation of sorts, like when all those happy students, in their colorful commencement robes, toss their mortar boards into the air, smiling and cheering.

After that, like autumn leaves, some stick together in one pile. Others tumble out of sight, where they are forgotten. Some catch a current and ride that wave to new places they could have only glimpsed, but never imagined they would ever reach.

Some get hung up on the way down and end up not far from where they started.

I think I might fit in somewhere in the middle, with attributes of all of these, but never once as magnificent as a colored autumn leaf. Though I will admit that during winter I have often felt as though I didn’t have enough light or water for photosynthesis.

Within a few moments, the leaves stopped falling as quickly as they started.

The next day, a visitor showed up on our doorstep.

Much like an autumn leaf herself, in shades of reds and golds, she blew in from way out west — down New Mexico way — arriving via Houghton Tech in search of higher education.

She brought with her a knowledge of molecules, membranes and methods of desalination. She needed rest and relaxation.

This was her first introduction to an eastern autumn. On her three-county local drive to our house she stopped to see the snow piling up on the colored tree leaves and the needles of the pines.

“I’ve never seen that before,” she said.

She got out twice to take pictures.

A traveler who has seen international destinations, she said the drive was one of the most beautiful she had ever experienced.

Anticipating the coming winter cold, she needed a jacket. We took her to shop for one. She picked out a fine coat with faux wolf’s fur, thick down filling and an adjustable hood, the kind able to take a real bite out of any wintry wind.

After a downtown lunch, we took her to a place we knew where the fall leaves would be thick enough to walk through, a place down by the old dam. Behind the steel gate, we walked and talked.

She made an impromptu collection of maple leaves, yellows with red veins, deep crimsons with splotches of gold and even some green-yellows with interesting patterns.

The smell of the leaves wafted up from the ground, intoxicating us and making my head swim. It felt like being in love.

We then traveled over an old, backwoods road, through deep, muddy puddles crafted over the past few days by the rainmaker. Stopping to look over a bridge rail or two, the water was high and racing noisily on past.

In an area shaded cool with spruce and its forest allies, we stopped to sniff the sweet, sticky balsam fir sap, which smelled like some strange, but not detestable, cologne when mixed with hand sanitizer I had in the car.

Deer crossed the road in front of us on several occasions, each pausing briefly to maybe get a glance at us. Maybe the attraction was our fellow traveler new to these wild and rugged shores.

A fisher also crossed the road, but he or she apparently had no time to stop.

I heard a few big shotgun bangs echoing through the woods at a distance, coming out of the uplands where I would ride with my dad and mom hunting for “partridge” back in the golden days.

Back at home, out in the yard, we sat around a stone fire ring, built with rocks we’d collected earlier in the year.

It was a cold night, but the flames from the fire warmed us gently. We sat in camping chairs, talked and sang funny songs. Tomorrow, she’d blow back north.

As the wood crackled and popped, tiny embers were cast upward toward the high canopy of the mighty maple.

I looked up to the branches. There were still plenty of leaves hanging there, waiting to fall. I could see them in the firelight.

I wondered then, and I’m wondering now, if I will ever see anything again like the falling of those golden autumn leaves.

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.