Transition from summer to fall means ‘stragglers’

John Pepin, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

In the mists of an early morning, the thought occurs to me out here amid the desolate quiet that soaks into everything like varnish, that this is the season of stragglers.

The beautiful butterflies of orange, yellow and burnt orange have all flown, so have the black-throated blue warblers and most of their allies.

Next will be the loons, any day now.

I am already desperately missing their soothing, though eerie, night songs that I perhaps took for granted over these past few months.

I really tried not to let that happen. Each time I heard one of those sounds reverberating across the cold waters of the lake, I took note of it. I stopped what I was doing to listen and appreciate that there was something, “somebody” out there to hear, know and connect with.

And yet, here I feel as though I didn’t appreciate them as much as I should have.

Maybe it’s the way they leave that helps me feel that way.

One night I hear them and the next night I don’t and the night after I don’t.

Just like that, they’re gone until springtime.

The space being vacated by the loons is being filled by the now more easily heard songs of far-off barred owls. Way back there in the woods, maybe a mile away or more, I can hear them at the edge of the limit of my hearing.

Even the barred owl sounds forlorn, perhaps because he isn’t going anywhere.

Like me, he will be left behind.

His hollow sounding song of question seems more desperately asking “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

Yes, it’s the time of you missed the bus and what are you still doing here?

I remember that feeling from back when I was a young kid.

For me, it was an aching feeling deep inside.

When I was in grammar school, we used to play outside in the early morning and on break for lunch before the bell rang summoning us back inside to classes.

I remember, especially in the springtime, when the weather was warming up and the snow was melting. A lot of us grade-schoolers were fascinated by floating toothpicks downhill atop the snow meltwater that was running alongside the street, against the broken concrete curbing.

We would also spend hours both at home in our neighborhoods and at school using the sides of our winter snow boots to push and drag up slush to build dams to temporarily stop the water flow.

We were amazed with the simple activities of watching the water build, undermine and ultimately wash out our dams. This would send tremendous flows gushing down toward the storm sewer located at the corner of the street.

Sometimes, these pursuits were so captivating that some of us — like me — wouldn’t hear the school bell toll. The realization of what had happened may have taken seconds or minutes, but typically came over me slowly and frighteningly.

Suddenly, I would snap into the realization that the loud din of kids yelling and talking and otherwise playing around me in the recess zone had stopped. We played between two orange, wooden horses that temporarily blocked the ends of one block of North Street.

The only sounds I could hear were my heart pounding and around me, the water running down the road, the wet stomping of boots in the slush and a couple other kids uttering now foolish sounding proclamations focused solely on our dam building activities.

Once the realization struck, it was dramatic.

Terror would hit all of us simultaneously as one of us would say in a worried tone, “The bell rang. THE BELL rang!”

“When,” someone would ask as we began hurrying toward the big door of the schoolhouse.

“I don’t know.”

“Everyone else is gone.”

Oh, the long, shameful run-walk up those steps, in wet winter clothes no less, to be branded a straggler – perhaps even to our parents – which we presumed could only have meant a certain death too terrible to even contemplate.

And yet, here I sit having survived it and lived to talk about it.

That slump in my gut when I am late for something is a gnawing that even comes to me in my dreams. I still dream occasionally about being in a classroom with my homework not finished or my studying for the big test not having been done.

A particular recurring dream I’ve had is about being in college and, after weeks of not reading the textbook, skipping class and falling way behind, I realize that I have missed the deadline to drop the class without penalty.

I must now speed read the textbook tonight to try to get a passing grade on the final exam tomorrow morning.

This schoolhouse history of mine and those dreams about being late likely keep me ahead of schedule almost always. I can’t stand to be late for things.

In addition to those straggling behind, there are things purposely left behind.

Bird nests come to mind immediately.

The intricate nests once sewn and fashioned from grasses, spider silk, leaves and other materials are left to fill up and overflow with winter’s snow.

In most cases, the secretive locations of the nests, sought out carefully by the nest builders, become clearly visible to all once the autumn leaves have dropped.

I saw a big bald-faced hornets’ nest today in a bush overhanging a tiny pond. The placement seemed ideal to keep away disturbance by passing animals and yet easy to access for the hornets.

In winter, the remaining hornets in the nest die and the mated queen looks for a secluded place to hibernate for the winter. So, the nest largely becomes a tomb.

In an opposite manner, bear dens become occupied during wintertime. The sows will emerge in spring with newly born cubs in tow.

There are some creatures that are kind of undecided what they will do and rely on the whims of weather and the ebbs and flow of ice cover on lakes and streams.

Bald eagles and some duck species are like this, the more ice that covers waterways, the farther south they move following open water.

Soon, there will be people exhibiting this same behavior.

These “snowbirds” will pack up and head south to Florida, Texas and Arizona where miniature pockets of residents, or flocks, from this region gather to wait out the ice and snow cover here at home.

In the springtime, they will return with the robins.

Personally, I think nature itself might have a soul, and if it does, I think it exists in the passage and pageantry of the seasons. It’s a grand display on parade of all the magic nature can muster – all the way around the seasonal calendar.

To me, it was all meant to be experienced fully.

I imagine it must take a lot of power and might to do something as consequential and dramatic as change one season to another.

Mother Nature seems to do it easily and effortlessly.

There are straggling plants left behind in the woodlands and in my gardens. Some are still adorned in numerous, though faded and drooping, flowers first bloomed weeks ago. They are left out of step with the changing season.

It’s time to fall.

I don’t understand my inherit feelings of being left behind or straggling here in the autumn time. I can’t put any precision to the ideas of who or what might have forgotten me and moved on or away.

I think it’s more a type of temperature change, like when heat moves out of something dead or dying, leaving a coldness that eventually freezes.

There’s an absence that is palpable and real that comes with a withering cold. Perhaps it is not those past seasons or friends or lovers or relatives who have left me behind, but I who left.

The warmth fades and chills and I look to find an extra shirt to wear, or a sweater or a jacket. I stack wood and prepare for wintertime fires to come.

Hail the changing of the season, Nature’s sleight of hand again on display with the stragglers, the left behinds and the remains here together, like ghosts, walking the land from here to there, our charge to bear witness.

EDITOR’S NOTE: 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.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today