Outdoors North: Autumn often arrives cloaked in mystery


“Who’s gonna play this old piano after my last bow,” – Ray Griff

There’s a color photograph of an old piano I’ve seen that looks black and white because of the instrument’s keys and dark wood frame.

The ashy, dust-covered keyboard has long been forgotten, with some of the keys splayed apart like fingers.

It’s one of those images that brings all kinds of thoughts to mind, mostly about how this much damage could have occurred to such a beautiful instrument.

No doubt there was water somehow involved, warping wood and bowing lines once straight and true. Maybe frost and ice were part of the story too.

I imagine an old, upright piano — perhaps too heavy or awkward for the vacating homeowners to move — left behind in a house somewhere out in the countryside.

As the house deteriorates and becomes dilapidated, so do its contents. The dwelling eventually becomes a grand Taj Mahal for mice, squirrels, bugs and other creatures -while at the same time, becoming a structure uninhabitable for people.

Amid the ruin, the piano that once was plinked and plunked by children begins to lose not only its tune but its supporting structure.

The effects of winter’s cold and summer’s heat and rains devastate.

I’ve seen places like that in nature too.

Much like the old piano keys, I’ve seen fallen logs shattered and broken into pieces that left wood warped, splintered and twisted.

I’ve been in spots where the power of Michigan’s inland seas heaved tremendous boulders incredible distances, or the force of spring river flows have suspended and rolled monstrous rocks downstream.

I imagine myself being outside in a tent during those events. I’d love to hear the sounds produced by these gigantic stones being unceremoniously dragged, tumbled and tossed.

When I lived out west, I spent a good deal of time studying the geology and geomorphology of the region. There too, clear evidence of nature’s powerful work was at hand from earthquakes, flooding and intense heat.

Beneath the earth, out of site, there is a spider webbing of fault lines and amazing subduction zones where tectonic plates are consumed.

It is almost too difficult to comprehend some of these changes that have taken place -literally the great mountains that have been moved to create the still constantly changing planet we’ve come to know ever so briefly.

The changes can be dramatic and overnight, like those brought on by mud flows, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.

Others, like the carving of U-shaped glacier valleys, V-shaped river valleys or the wearing down of mountains by the elements take almost a seeming eternity to occur.

October and November can be like that too.

In some years, October is a pleasant harvest type of an affair, with warm and glowing good times to enjoy with apple cider and pumpkin-spiced you name it. We think most then about the beauty of the fall colors and ride a lasting glow from late summertime on through these golden weeks.

It becomes a smooth and gradual transition to the starkness of the winter season – like driving on new blacktop.

There are also the years when the first snows of winter fall in mid-October and stay until springtime. These occasions often usher in the arrival of March’s autumn cousin, November, that can come through the door roaring like a lion.

Miss November’s tremendous storms can cause significant damage, so hungry and biting, eating away and undermining roads and pathways, docks and homes. The fall storms have also taken lives — sometimes sweeping those drawn to the spectacle of the gales and the waves into the icy waters, lost forever.

We never know which kind of autumn will greet us when she comes.

Either way, after the leaves are downed and the rains and cold begin to dominate the days, there is a deadness that sets in — one that recalls tree limbs bare, brittle and faded like old animal bones bleached by the sun.

The wind has an ability to slice through the tightest of buttoned jackets or sweaters then and the gloom knows all the best places to make me feel chilled inside.

When those days occur, where have those light, airy carnival days of summertime gone? Flown south on the wings of migrating birds.

What remains is a wonderland of the dead and dying. You can smell it in the leaves of the moist forests or taste it in the brisk breezes along the wind-blown shorelines. The rocks get colder and seemingly harder.

The ravens, jays and the crows sound louder at this time of year, with their squawking and sharp warning calls — “There’s a human approaching. Quick, hide in the bushes.”

However, there is also a silence that begins to pervade the scene at this time of year that I welcome. It brings with it a stillness that falls over the waters of the lakes and ponds, one that allows them to lie still enough to freeze and sleep, encased as ice, until springtime.

The air also turns cool, clean and refreshing before it drops into the deep freeze and snarls of winter. Evening silhouettes of bare trees standing tall and brave along solemn hills, bracing for another winter season to come are inspiring to see.

All these displaced things, and let’s not forget the oddity and harvest celebration of Halloween’s fading light, makes the autumn my favorite time of the year.

It’s one of the best times, if not the best, for enjoying an evening campfire, telling stories of spooks and ghosts, or just sitting and listening to the sounds and messages from within and without.

The hooting of owls, the noise of a distant pickup truck rolling over a rain-slicked road or a train whistle way off somewhere that excites the coyotes to howls — all part of a lonely and yet fulfilling time of the year.

We had an old upright piano in our house when I was growing up. I don’t how it got there, but it was there where I got there. I remember my sister and I practicing our piano lessons on it when we were young.

My mom used to play “Fur Elise” and other tunes. By middle school, more contemporary music sheets were finding their way into our house. I remember we used to play a lot of Christmas songs on the piano too.

By the time high school arrived, my family had split up and it was just me and my dad left in the house. The piano remained. My dad didn’t play. My early love of 1950s and 1960s rock-and-roll records had followed me into these years.

I recall pushing thumbtacks through the felt on the piano hammers to create a tinny, almost harpsichord-like sound. I used to play blues and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis licks that would have made my mom think I was destroying the piano.

Jerry Lee, who I have watched play close-up in concert on several occasions — especially at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood — had a song back in 1972 that asked that musical question, “Who’s gonna play this old piano after I’m not here?”

Among the lines of the song: “When that final curtain falls, someday lord it will, who’ll take my place on that stage, when everything is hushed and still? Who’s gonna touch these keys with feeling, really get to you? Who’s gonna play this old piano when my time is through?”

I have the album that song was on, which features a picture of an old, upright piano on the cover, with an empty piano stool.

“We’ve laughed and we’ve cried together, done a million shows. So, I kind of think like I have every single right to know who’s gonna keep this music going? Who will carry on? Who’s gonna play this old piano after I’m gone.”

In the case of Jerry Lee Lewis, no one.

Nobody will ever match the brilliance and style of this self-taught genius.

The old piano in our house was sold after my dad had moved out, not long before his last bow. The instrument would no longer stay in tune, maybe from a certain kid banging on it. I had wanted to keep it somehow, but it just wasn’t practical at the time.

I had to let it go. I wish I still had it.

Out here walking, the road is covered with red, maple leaves fallen from the trees. The air is damp and cool. I take a deep, satisfying breath.

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.


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