Outdoors North: Autumn echoes of days gone by

“Sit by my side, come as close as the air, sharing a memory of gray,” – Phil Ochs

The sun coming up over the trees sent a mellow feeling moving through me as warm as the sound of a piano. I’m sure the tree branches were cold though, encrusted in snow and frost and ice.

The past few days of gloomy skies, stiff winds, sinking temperatures and snow were seeming to all melt away with just these few short moments I’ve been enjoying the morning sunshine.

Birds, largely silent now with the diminishing daylight of these late October days, seemed to be delighting in the sunlight too. Their movements appear to be quicker today than they were just yesterday.

Instead of holding still and tight on the leeward side of trees, where the blowing snow hadn’t collected, a white-breasted nuthatch was hopping ably up and down the trunk of a bare-branched maple.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the leaves on this tree were flaming red and shimmering. Standing nearby, a paper birch was in similar condition, though instead of scarlet, the birch leaves that had glowed so brightly were golden yellow.

It’s the time for jack-o-lanterns, warm apple cider, trick-or-treating and the shadowy veil between fall and winter to be torn down on All Hallows Eve.

I remember being fascinated with fall as a kid.

My bewilderment continues.

The whole process seems like a magic trick to me, where you know there’s something going on behind the scene, but you can’t see it – can’t figure it out. Then seemingly and suddenly, the entire countryside is blazing in glowing colors.

Like a fire, the display burns on. I can almost hear the crackling sounds.

Then like a flame that fascinates and engages as it shows off its flickering and swaying oranges, reds and yellows, it disappears into a wisp of smoke.

How can such a wide-reaching and magnificent display fall to the ground in a matter of a few short days – like the drop of a magician’s hat.

It’s almost shocking how all of this occurs.

The oak trees were one notable exception.

This year seems to have been a banner year for these lesser-lauded contributors to the vibrant colors of autumn. I recall glorious oak leaf colors – a symphony of browns, reds and almost magentas – throughout the days of fall.

Their leaves clung tight to their branches, while the leaves of the maples, birches, poplars and cherries had fallen to the ground, where they were being raked up in yards across cities and towns, floated on the surface of dark, meandering streams or sat resting for the winter on the forest floor, some lying flat on their backs under the browned and curled leaves of bracken ferns.

That was until yesterday.

Strong winds pushed up into the region from the south shook the magnificent oaks, cutting their leaves loose, sending them rolling and tumbling through the skies. In large numbers the leaves collected atop the crusted snow.

In the early morning light, they looked like a flock of dead blackbirds forced down from the skies by a tornado or some other catastrophe, with the sharp-cut edges of the oak leaves resembling the bent and broken edges of bird wings.

A few days back, I walked along the frozen edges of an inland lake. Beneath the surface of the still waters, I spotted a fishing lure snagged on the end of a sunken stump.

A shadow of what may have been a wispy doppelganger floated across the water to the shoreline. It disappeared into the trees.

Did I see someone? What was that?

When I find something like that fishing lure, it sometimes feels like I should be able to turn over my shoulder and say to the angler, “Hey, you forgot something.”

But there’s never anybody there.

That’s an aspect of late autumn or early winter that I find haunting. There is a definite vacancy about everything. Most of the summer birds have taken their songs and gone away, leaving the forests and meadows largely silent.

The dropped leaves and the sweet smells of the woodlands around me certainly seem to evoke a sense of conclusion and, in some way, desperation.

It’s like everything is done and over with. On the chilly winds that slip between the rushes, I can hear the echoes of days gone by – spent like a summer love.

I think those things lead me to be more reflective this time of year. It’s not something I set out to be. I think I am in awe of all the dramatic change before me, the silence, the missing, loneliness and the dying of things.

The Zombies were having fun. The party had just begun. The guests included Wolfman, Dracula and his son.

All this change so swiftly can make my head light. While summer and fall have decidedly ended, the curtain on wintertime will soon been lifted, exposing all kinds of new sights unavailable at other times of the year.

Still, this morning’s sunshine creates a longing in me for those warmer days of the not-so-long-ago past. I turn my cheek toward the southern skies to soak up as much of the warmth and brightness as I can.

The sunshine is one of the fastest cures for cold, and the reclaiming of spirits sunken low, that I’ve seen. The sun gives light and life to the world that I think I can feel, even down to the molecular level.

I feel that most though, when it’s gone.

The comforting warmth lulls me into a false sense of summertime, which presents a cold reality when the dreary days again circle overhead and all around.

It’s odd to me though, that rainy, dark and cloudy skies bring a profound comfort too -but it’s a different kind, one of growth, rebirth and exorcism.

But it’s the dim, overcast days that stretch for a seeming eternity that drain my lifeblood away, like the desert heat dries up the Russian thistles until they turn to tumbleweeds and blow away.

Rolling and tumbling, like those oak leaves in the sky.

Sunshine on my shoulders almost always makes me high.

The snow that has fallen here recently kind of snuck up quick on a lot of folks, including me. I still had a few bulbs I wanted to get planted, a tree or two to trim up before the winter storms and a couple of other little things.

The day after the first night the temperature dropped into the low teens, I was instantly reminded of one of those little things I had not yet gotten to do. A copper pipe on the outdoor spigot split near the top, sending water spraying across the back deck.

I think nature itself might have been overtaken by the early snowfall too.

In some places, I’ve seen the leaves of low shrubs and bushes still green, covered in a white, lacy doilies of snowflakes. I’m thinking now about the snowflakes school kids used to cut from folded paper.

The morning sun might have heard me thinking or talking to myself about how great it looked and felt. Perhaps embarrassed, it ducked behind some clouds that rolled in dark and tragic from the west – as clouds this time of year are wont to do.

Dark shadows crept across the scene toward me, enveloping me while shading the sunshine. It was great while it lasted.

I got enough feel good out of it to turn my boots down a two-track road, part snow-covered, the rest overlaid with a thick coating of dead autumn leaves.

I feel like walking until I hit the railroad tracks and then the river and then the highway. There’s another dirt road on the other side of that where a lot fewer people go.

It’s on that road I really want to be walking, sifting thoughts and the signs of nature into a blend of fine fall remedy that I can drink all the way up.

By the time the sun sets, I hope to find myself resting around the rim of a fire.

Waiting for another shoe to drop, here on the downside of autumn – the upside of the blues. I’ve been to sugar town. I shook the sugar down.

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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