The fleeting, glorious beauty of one autumn day
Dawn brings promise. Morning air is warm and soft and you say to yourself, “Last weekend of September and this is a gift.” It’s been warm all week and sunny. Leaf has turned; yellow and orange and red. Sun lights up leaf and forest and the air seems a thin haze of spun gold.
All week we’ve watched the color rise and spread; to look at the land is to look at glory and wonder. We had hunted on Wednesday and now on Sunday morning we go again, the two dogs and I. It is warm and humid and Riika does not do well in heat and humidity, do not so even before she has taken on the burden of years. We go, regardless, Thor and Riika and I, go as we have done for a decade, more, on the days of autumn glory.
We hunt for an hour and a quarter and the dogs flush 4 woodcock in that time. The woodcock rise on their stubby wings and dodge the leaf and branch. I never fire a shot. At best I catch a glimpse of the woodcock, small and brown and absurdly shaped, an odd looking bird at best.
At times they will rise straight up and in that present a moderately easy target. More often than not they will level off and fly fast, or seemingly fast for they blur in their winged dash among the thickets where they find comfort.
It is not an outing gone bad; hardly that. To be in the woods on a mild morning in late September with the sun on the rise, to do that is reward in and of itself and in that any time is well spent.
At home I feed the dogs and they wander off to nap. I work around the house but I am distracted by the beauty of the day. At noon I toss the work gear aside. The Packers-Bear game is underway and that means only one thing on this day: The roads will be free of traffic and it is time to ride.
I pump the tires on the bicycle, settle in, ride. There are no cars on the street; none on the back road that leads from town. Ten minutes out and I’m on a little-traveled-on-a-good-day road, blacktopped and smooth. The temperature is moving toward hot; it was 75 when I left home.
Along the sides of the road are trees in their full. To ride on a warm day with fall color surrounding one is to know what riding is all about. Spring days are a joy; the season alive and the air is filled with promise. Summer rides are a relief; the breeze in your face cools and comforts in days of heat. But fall rides on a day when the temperature defies the norm and the fall color is all around, those rides are truly special.
I turn from blacktop to gravel and ride on, over the roads of county forest that rise and fall and turn and meander through some of the prettiest county I can imagine. I see grouse, two of them, surprised by the sight of a rider on bicycle. I stop once to chat with a hunter, again to visit with a couple walking their dogs: “Packers are up at half” he tells me, “but it’s too nice to stay inside”. I know what he means.
I ride for two and half hours and my legs ache by the end; I’ve not ridden that far for a long while. But never do I have second thoughts. It has been a day of wonder and glory.
Then it all changes as you know it would. Then the cool air comes in and the clouds draw down and you feel the loss of the days of late summer, those days of the past week when the sun rose high and warm and the color was bright. Overnight you go from late summer optimism to early autumn reality and you say to yourself, “I’m glad for that Sunday because we may not get weather like that again until June,” and you are warmed by the thought of that Sunday.
Midweek we hunt again on a morning heavy with cloud, and cool. It is better weather for the dogs and they bound from the truck with wild enthusiasm. We push into thick cover and in the first 25 minutes flush 8 woodcock and one grouse. I fire ill-advised shots at woodcock flitting in the brush and do not feel bad for missing them, all except the last which was a bird that I should have killed.
The dogs move in the thickness and in the shadow of the heavy cover on a cloudy day they look black and mysterious, movement and form but indistinguishable at times as the birds that rise are not clearly formed in the line of sight in the thick leaf of early October.
Now, on this day, the trees have begun to drop leaves. When I brush against the spindly trunk of a small tree the leaves rain down. Where a week ago yellow leaf shone bright, on this day the trees stand gray and flat-colored and the branches show thin and spindly and bare. It is the time of leaf fall.
Nothing bears the heavy weight of finality as much as the soft touch of the fall of an autumn leaf. The free fall from twig; the slip-slide drop through golden light of October; the drift on breeze; the landing in the forest floor duff. One more leaf, atop a layer of leaf, above the remnants of decayed leaves from a year ago. One more leaf fallen. But never to rise up. On the ground now. Forever.
October leaves are as July fireworks: A spark, a blaze, a flash of color, a moment of glory. Then gone.
An autumn leaf falls with irreversible drop of gravity but carries more than simple leaf fall, carries with it the season, the time of year, the turning of time to the cold and harsh winter. Nothing carries finality like a leaf, nothing save perhaps the fall of bird to shot.
On this day we see the solemn fall of leaf, the loosening of leaf from tree and the downward spiral to dirt and decay and in that fall the passage of the season. You cannot be in the woods on a day when the leaves fall and not realize the turn of the summer season and of the early fall season and know that the world has turned toward frost and cold and snow.
There is none of that on this day; no frost, no snow, no harsh wind. There is only time in the woods on a day when the air is cool and the memory of the glory day only a few days before is now just that: A memory. The memory may comfort us but the reality of a cool day wakes us to what we have and what we will have going forward.
On this day we hunt for an hour and a half and then drive home on a day of flat light and somber color. I feed the dogs; they find beds and sleep. I make breakfast, brew coffee and sit in the kitchen. I think of days of color and warmth that are now gone and of birds in the thickets gone to flight. And I think of leaf fallen to ground like a page torn from a book and how, like a page gone missing, all has changed.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800. To comment on this story, visit StarJournalNow.com.