Autumn embraces writer in warm grasp


“Tell me who could make the clouds and make them move across the sky, who could make your mind and put it here to wonder why.” — Steve Forbert

In these autumn days, when the winds are twirling leaves across the dirt roads and the muddy pathways in multi-colored spirals, there’s a quiet peace and warmth inside me that soothes and heals.

It’s the kind of feeling that seems like it would follow me even if I walked a million miles away from home. It’s hard to explain, but I know it like I know my comfortable old boots, and it knows me too.

I know this sensation is there all year-round, but for some reason, it seems closer to me in these days of wither and resignation, when the air smells as sweet as pumpkin bread, sunny days are crisp and clear and the dwindling light plays fantastic tricks with color, shadow and shade.

I recall that even as a kid I always liked the autumn best.

There was a titanic tree that grew in the next-door neighbor’s yard, just over the dark, broken posts and rails of a wooden fence built long before I was born.

The older I got, the farther the branches of the tree reached over the fence, dropping piles of beautiful gold maple leaves into our yard each fall.

We used to rake the leaves into piles and then jump into them, or we’d ride our bikes through them or bury each other in them. For some reason, there is something comforting about lying under a pile of dry, dead leaves.

I remember raking up wet leaves too, but that wasn’t to play in, that was to help spruce up the backyard. I often found red worms under the wet leaves, which I knew would be great fishing bait.

I was reminded of all of this recently when I found a little red wiggler on the blacktop of our driveway. I had taken a couple of steps past it when I decided to go back to take another look.

I knelt with my camera and clicked a couple of quick pictures.

“It’s a heartworm,” I thought. “Cool.”

With the creature’s head and tail crossed at the ends the worm’s body had formed the shape of a heart. The worm was dead, killed by the frost, but what a poetic final bow.

I’ve been keen to notice of late the way nature arranges itself. I took another picture a couple of weeks ago of a crow’s feather, fallen pine needles and a few autumn leaves arranged together beautifully in a natural earthly collage.

I have also been intrigued by the relative roughness or smoothness, and varied patterns, of tree bark. This is the time of year I like to smell the resin from balsam firs on my fingers after popping one of the tree’s bark blisters.

I close my eyes and mix that intoxicating evergreen fragrance with the cool air, clearing my mind. It’s so concentrated, so precise.

The first little gray junco I’ve seen this fall reminds me it’s two months from today until Christmas. Time is a jet plane it moves too fast.

As beautiful as the fall colors are, I also love it when the leaves have fallen, and I can get unobscured views of so many things in the woods. That time of the season reveals a whole storehouse of secrets.

Naked limbs of towering oaks and maples throw up incredible silhouettes against the sky, especially at sunset. Walking through the leaves, the view of the steep, rocky hillside is clear down to the bottom of the canyon.

I can see the shining cataract now as well as hear its waters crashing over the rocks.

Old hunting camps and deer blinds are visible through the trees now. On certain hillsides, I feel like I could see forever. So many subtle shades of gray now.

These scenes and many more are all part of the rotating shift of seasons that deliver such delicious delights all through the year.

Each season is incredible in its own way. All are linked together in a circle with the ability of different elements to affect us in deep and meaningful ways.

To me, there is something special about seasonal firsts, the first snowfall, singing spring robin, blooming crocuses or daffodils, leaves turned red, summer thunderstorm, wild blueberries or ice on the river.

Lasts can touch me too, but I typically prefer beginnings to endings.

This time of year, the quiet seems easier to find, which helps me find more time for peaceful reflection. Sometimes, I’m starved for even a handful of minutes of slowed down silence.

Contemplation often remains simultaneously essential and elusive.

Time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream.

Along an old dirt road, the winter berries are blasting their bright red colors out to anyone paying attention. I could sit there all day just staring at them, they are so beautiful.

A bucket is lying in the fallen brown leaves, its sides are rusted clean through. It looks like a paint can, with a handle. I wonder who painted what with the paint that was inside? Maybe a house, maybe a barn?

Sometimes I think about the whole villages and towns of people who existed out in these cold north woods but who are now gone. I’ll bet they thought their familiar surroundings and way of life would always remain.

Five miles south of Paradise, how’d I get turned around?

I often like thinking when I’m out walking, especially along railroad tracks. Sometimes, I have deliberate things to think about. Other times, I’m just opening myself to find whatever is on my heart or my mind.

The long walk back usually seems shorter with new resolution or resolve in my step, fresh air in my sated lungs and peace of mind, nature’s tonic, a true panacea.

My boots just splashed through a mudpuddle walking here beside a secluded forest pond. A couple of crows bend and twist, rolling as they fly overhead.

Lilly pads and bent over cattail rushes float or poke through the surface of the water, disturbing what would otherwise be a perfectly clear and still mirrored reflection of Alice blue sky and shapeless gray clouds.

The image is framed by resilient autumn trees still holding their colorful, shimmering leaves this late into October. Even busted and bare branches of cedars and spruces shine with a stately magnificence in the reflection of the pond.

These are among the scenes I try to capture to hold in my memory.

It feels like they are trying to tell me something, perhaps many things. I think that I am always learning more, but still feel uninitiated, like I don’t speak the language or even know how to talk. Who are these people, what is this place?

I am a visitor to a magical land, with a camera in hand on a good day to collect what ultimately will prove to be inferior images of this wonderful world that enchants me.

I am a traveler on a two-track road leading down to a creek, with an old pair of boots and a bucket full of paint and a naturalist’s blind ambition, headed home with this real good feeling in my heart.

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.


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