Outdoors North: Gray days abound

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Journal columnist

“The summer days, summer nights are gone; I know a place where there’s still something going on,” ­– Bob Dylan

On this very late fall morning, with time oozing and slumping toward the afternoon, the sun is so lazy it doesn’t seem to have lifted much at all over those shadows of dawn, still seemingly gathered along the horizon — like a curtain fallen to the floor.

It’s another one of those overcast, bleak days of December when the sun starts sagging and drooping out of the sky above, almost as soon as it gets there.

The daylight of these days continues to shorten as time inches closer to the winter solstice — the day when the shortening grinds to a halt and the sounds of mighty gears creaking and biting echo through the cosmos.

The big seasonal clock will then reverse itself and start adding minutes to the length of days. As unlikely as it may seem, it is a deliberate move toward springtime.

But for now, keeping the gray days from getting inside of me and getting me down can be an almost full-time occupation. The grayness is enveloping and permeating. It seems to be of a cold and wet nature, dank and heavy.

Several years ago, when I was making a documentary film about the making of “Anatomy of a Murder,” people asked me why director Otto Preminger didn’t make his 1959 classic courtroom drama in color.

Preminger, who filmed the entire film on location in the Upper Peninsula – a first back then – had intentionally used black and white for a couple of reasons.

One was because his film sought to elevate the grayness that lies between good and evil, right and wrong and within the human condition. Second, with the season for the story said to be autumn or spring, Preminger wanted to capture the grayness of the region he saw when he arrived.

To him, the entire countryside looked as though he was seeing things in varying shades of gray only.

Today seems bland and gray to me too, like if you poured a bottle of black ink into a clear bottle of milk and stirred it all up. I often notice how the appearance of the landscape on a given day can be reflected in my disposition.

Stir in the blues of a seemingly endless pandemic and the grays and the blacks and the whites all get mixed up so well I can’t tell where I start, and they end.

A few days ago, I was riding along a country road in the late afternoon, when a barred owl flew out across the road, just a few feet ahead of the hood of the car.

Though typically considered a bird possessing cryptic coloration that helps it blend into forest scenes, especially those of mixed woodlands near water, the mottled brown colors of this bird exploded against the gray backdrop all around me.

It was a magnificent sight to see. The owl’s wings were outstretched wide and the bird turned its head in my direction as it lifted its right wing briefly, adjusting its flight path, as it glided across an open space beyond the roadway.

A few deer seen scattered in fields alongside the road produced a similar effect, as their brown coloration appeared to jump out of the grayness, or gray and white snowiness, everywhere else.

Oddly, there is something that seems fitting about this time of the year being gray all around. As the year winds down, and its events coagulate in my mind, I try to find overall themes or lessons taught over the past months.

Over 50 years ago, in 1967, a group called the Will-O-Bees released a single on Date Records called “Shades of Gray.” The song was one of many gems written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.

Later that year, the Monkees recorded the song and issued it on their “Headquarters” album. I was just a kid back then, but the tune instantly became one of my Monkees favorites.

Though the Monkees’ music had an affinity for adapting sounds of other 1960’s bands, their version of “Shades of Gray” was very different than the upbeat Vogues-sounding recording done by the Will-O-Bees.

It was somber and sparsely produced. The lyrics have always stuck with me. The singer compares how simple the world was when he was young to the complexities of the present.

It was easy then to tell right from wrong

Easy then to tell weak from strong

When a man should stand and fight, or just go along

But today there is no day or night

Today there is no dark or light

Today there is no black or white

Only shades of gray

I remember when the answers seemed so clear

We had never lived with doubt or tasted fear

It was easy then to tell truth from lies

Selling out from compromise

Who to love and who to hate,

The foolish from the wise

The song still resonates with me. I listened to both versions today.

Walking outside, I am thinking about all the pretty wildflowers lying asleep beneath the snow and the dirt. They are biding their time for the days when the sun will be rising much higher into the sky and staying there longer.

Ice has begun to form in thicker fashion over a lot of the smaller lakes and ponds, while still only tentatively on the larger bodies of water.

The rebellious currents of creeks and streams resist being captured in ice for as long as they can. So far, they remain wild and roving.

Crouching at the edge of a campfire a couple of nights ago, I heard the footfalls of an animal approaching in the darkness, just beyond the firelight.

I continued to tend the fire, its warmth lending me a good deal of comfort.

I never saw the animal, but by the curious nature and closeness of its approach, I judged it to be a fox. The sound was too soft to be the hooves of a deer. I enjoyed knowing another creature was drawn to my fire.

With the night sky overcast and grayish-white, it remained much lighter than the dark, star-filled nights I always hope to experience.

Beyond the footfalls I heard, and the crackling and snapping of the fire, the night was very still and quiet. No wind. No sounds at all. Not even a car or a train singing off in the distance.

This solace was comforting. It made the fire seem warmer.

It was an occasion I made certain to note. Many of my days have been blending one into another, for months now. It has made it more difficult to feel the difference between a Monday and a Thursday or even a Sunday.

I find these days make me sleepy too.

When the sun does poke through the clouds, it is a glorious thing.

It makes me want to find a place on a southern slope to sit to soak up the light and the warmth. I wish I could store up that sunshine like a battery stores energy.

On the most wonderful of summertime days I often think about how great it would be to be able to bottle up just one of those days and then release it on a dreary February day.

Today, I plan to walk down along the road to the shoreline of the lake. Even in the grayness, the cool and clean air is heavenly to draw inside of me. I will climb the rocks to a favorite overlook.

There, I will spend a good while looking out over the lake, the ice and the frozen trees.

Somewhere in mountains of Mexico right now, there are monarch butterflies floating on warm breezes in the sun. The birds of our summers are there too, or in similar warm places farther south.

I will hold the promise and excitement of their eventual appearance here within these northern landscapes in my heart, like the earth holds those wildflowers, waiting to bloom.

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.


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