I love writing about nature, and I haven’t made a professional excuse to do so in some time. No more waiting. Below are two riffs (one silly, one passionate) on this, the season of change.
The Grey King
He sits atop a plywood kingdom, shrouded on all sides but one by a tangle of branches and leaves. His throne is a pile of sunflower, safflower, and other seeds. Around him, slate-blue upstarts flutter, flashing tiny crests in agitation. They chirp to one another, a contingent of about half a dozen always in contact and always in motion, but he pays them no mind. (Why should he? They’re smaller than they look and they hardly look very big to begin with.) His only concern is in his tiny hands. One seed after another, plucked from the hoard and held to his mouth where it is systematically disassembled and devoured. The usurpers — newly banded together against the coming winter — stop to scold the king on occasion. But that is all they do, and even their scolds are weak. Surely he hears them, sees them, but he offer not so much as a twitch of his luxurious tail to the interlopers.
On another day, he might face more suitable challengers: the blue knaves great crests and a greater vocabulary of screeches, screams, and other sonic weaponry with which to drive the king away; a mass of brown peasants so numerous as to convince him to move on with their incessant pestering; there is even a gentle, peach-colored fellow who occasionally startles the king into retreat (by accident or intent, I do not know).
Indeed, on most days, The Grey King does not get to wear his crown. There are many other grey beasts vying for the same kingdom and it’s nutrient-rich treasures. To say nothing of the dark-haired colossus in worn-out clogs that sometimes comes stomping up to the kingdom in a terrible huff, sometimes bringing a fresh bounty to replenish the kingdom’s coffers.
This morning, though, the usurpers eventually lose interest and fly away in search of an easier meal. The colossus is at work. He reigns in peace.
The Fires of Fall
“Oh, it’s peak foliage season!” says the family I just made up, “We’d better go to the mountains this weekend or we’ll miss it!”
A day trip is planned, sensible snacks are gathered, and the minivan rolls out right on schedule to enjoy the quintessentially American experience of nature: a long drive through pretty scenery. They think — have been told, really, by constant updates on foliage conditions from local weatherman Rainn Rivers — that this day, this weekend, this tiny slice of time is their one chance to capture the particular natural magic of this changing season. They’re missing a crucial dimension. Without it, their perception is rendered flat, a JPG to be be shared on Facebook in an album full of pumpkin spice lattes, decorative gourds, boots and scarves (so, so many scarves).
To appreciate fall, one half of the pair of unique extended transitional seasons we receive as a reward for our membership in the upper-middle latitudes of New England, one needs time. A raging fire glimpsed for a moment is nothing but a flare, a flash of light and heat soon forgotten. The fires of fall are all the more dramatic, all the more captivating, if one watches them kindle and spread, engulf the landscape, and dwindle as the final flash of vibrancy gives way to first brown, then white.
Some of the first things to go — or the first things be noticed by me, anyway — are the vines snaking up the trunks of trees. Their leaves burn red, and suddenly a symbiotic relationship is laid bare. That towering oak is an unwilling host for some Virginia creeper’s quest to reach the same sunny heights as its host without spending the energy to build a trunk of its own.
The first noticeable clusters of fire burn, ironically, around water. In marshes and swamps and the wet soil surrounding ponds, water-tolerant red maples grow. Their name is not a mistake. They catch easily and are often ablaze before other trees have even felt a lick of the flames. Driving down the highway, or wandering the trails in a park, there’s a brief window in fall where sources of water are tagged with big red flags.
It’s not long before the rest of the trees begin to catch. My dendrology is rusty, and I don’t have the chops to note when each individual species turns once the fires really begin to spread, incorporating sun-bright burst of gold and eventually browns and oranges to round out the full palette of this creeping combustion. Soon thereafter, “peak foliage” hits and no tree is spared, save the conifers who have and ever shall be green. A trip to the mountains is not only breathtakingly beautiful, but reveals the varied patterns of the two competing tree types in our transitional latitudes. The battle lines between the two are laid bare, and you can see that the conifers have the high ground but the deciduous trees are making a good effort. In some spots the two are interleaved almost perfectly, in others there are isolated stands of verdant resistance amid the fires and pockets of smoldering flames hemmed in by green. There’s a story here, one you and I may not be able to read, but one with deep roots in nature and history.
From where (and when) I write, our two big backyard sugar maples haven’t even begun to turn. A few large maples less than a block away are just beginning to ignite, their tips of their uppermost are candles in the the twilight hours. A mystery tree hovering over the back corner of our home has begin to drop mottled yellow-and-brown, banana-shaped leaves into our yard. My father complains, sweeps, complains again, sweeps again. It’s fall for sure, even if our particular weather man says peak foliage hasn’t quite hit eastern Massachusetts yet.
Too soon — always too soon — the winter will come.With it, change will settle into constancy; what is now dynamic will settle into a death-like trance.
Until then, I’m going to warm my heart and mind with the fires of fall until the last leaf gutters and winks out.