Outdoor Adventure: Nighthawks signal time of change
I see the season change on the wings of nighthawk. Above; evening sky. Pale blue now as dusk comes down and there is movement against the sky; nighthawk swoops and rises. Then another; another. A dozen; a second dozen; a dozen dozen in the day’s last hour. Swooping and diving, rising and falling, riding the unseen waves of summer heat up, up, up; then down in a long sweeping drop.
Drifting south, always south, the great flight of birds. They are on the move on this late summer evening the dozen dozen and more, moving to the south, hundreds of them as if fleeing something to the north, fleeing the season change that looms over the horizon, unseen but ominous like distant thunder in dark cloud. On this eve the nighthawks move, a wave of birds that spread across the sky like a drift of smoke, silhouetted against the thin evening light; dark birds, moving quick, going south.
They are silent tonight, as if the task at hand, the migration flight, requires a single-minded attitude purposeful and determined. We often hear them on a summer night, sounding their shrieking call as they dip and dive, chasing insects, flying a crooked line like bats; both incapable of straight line flight. The call of the nighthawk is the sound of summer nights as it splits the darkness as if the sound of star or moon. But tonight they are silent. No call tonight. These birds without sound moving south,
Nighthawk’s wings shaped like daggers cut the air like a knife, clean and fast and without sound. Silent they fly, like spirit birds.
And in the sight of the scores of nighthawks all in flight, drifting south, inexorably south in the gathering dusk of an August day, in the gathering dusk of summer itself, in that sight I see the change of the season.
Two days later I pick blackberries under a high, hot sun; humidity rises with the heat. August. Late August and the heat of summer is still here. But it is a waning heat and with the sight of the blackberries I can see the season change for blackberries are the late berry, coming on as summer turns for fall. To find blackberries ripening is the see the season change no matter what the temperature, no matter how high the humidity. I can see the season change in the black glint of blackberry on the vines.
Blackberries speak silently of change, reaching fullness as days shorten. Food for bear and grouse; find the red leaves, the red lanterns Aldo Leopold called them, find them he said and you will find grouse.
With all due respect, I rarely find grouse in the berry patch but this year, when things run late, perhaps the grouse will linger there.
I pick berries with the stoic patience that one must have for picking berries is nothing more than piece work done in the field; one berry to the bucket, another; a dozen and then another dozen and then a dozen dozen and more.
Berries are as multi-faceted as a bugs eye, gleaming as if ebony; overripe, they fall to the ground when I brush against the canes; I see them littering the ground in the berry patch yet still enough remain on the branches to fill bucket. And more.
Beneath the thick berry leaves another world; shaded and cool, dark in the light of day. The ground is peppered with fallen berries.
In the thick of it all the strata of berry and leaf, mottled light and color; green leaf, black berry, red leaves mixed in. I wonder to myself: Is there any other time save for autumn that red is so much a part of the world?
Above it all the high reach of blue sky; the white cloud drifting on the wind like nighthawks in flight; silent.
In the red of the berry leaf I can see the season change; in the black of the berry I see the same; in the yellow of the milkweed leaf is autumn, is change.
I see yellow of milkweed; long, gracefull leaves. Is it my favorite plant? I love the richness of the summer green leaves; wait for fade to yellow; look forward most of all to pods breaking open and seed riding the late autumn breeze. When I come back to the hunt shack after a day in the woods the low sun to the west lights the milkweed pods as if afire and it remains with me as a strange memory of deer hunt. When I think of deer season in November I invariably think of milkweed in the afternoons slight.
On this late summer day deer hunting is far away but the milkweed signs the season change.
On Monday morning, Labor Day, I feel the change, feel it in the air. The soft, mild evening before is gone now; a cool wind blows from the north; trees shift and sway. The air is cool and fresh and changed now. We mark Labor Day as a season change and on today it holds true for the air is autumn air where only a day or two before it was pure summer, undeniable August no matter what the calendar noted. On this day, Autumn. I can feel it.
The next morning I open the door to a cool sunrise. The dogs come to the door, noses working, ears up, eyes bright. Fall is their season; autumn is their time. I tell them that if feels like hunting season and then they push past me into the backyard, running across the wet grass of dawn as if they were lighter and faster today than a day ago, running into the dawn, yes, but running into the new season as well.
I see the season change come again later in the week as I pass a small lake thick with wild rice. Two trucks are parked off the blacktop, tail-gates down. In the rice I see the snaky path where canoe pushed through the rice, see the talk stalks of rice bent with the wind, bent also with the weight of the rice. I see the head and shoulder of a man in the rice, standing in the stern of the canoe, leaning on the long push pole.
In front another sits and I see the rise and fall of the sticks he uses to strike the ripe rice to the boat. The sticks are long and tapered and thin like the wing of the nighthawks. In the late afternoon light is see the rise and fall of the rice picker’s tools and it reminds me of the rise and fall of nighthawk in flight.
When I pass again the men are at the road and I stop and ask of the crop and they tell me it is a good year and they show me the rice on the bottom of their canoe and in that I see the change of the season. The sun is dropping and the light seems golden over the lake and the rice.
Night comes earlier. The sky is clear and what heat there is will fade. I stand in the backyard and tilt my head up to the sky but there are no birds in flight this night. The nighthawks have gone. The sky is empty. The season has changed.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800.