As warm temps rule, falling leaves whisper ‘autumn’
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
On a quiet autumn day the sound of leaves: falling. In the falling, the measure of the season turning. The leaves patter as if rainfall but in this autumn the rain has been scarce and the leaves rattle on dry forest floor. A single leaf drifts to gravity’s pull, ticks on the duff below. Another. Another. Then countless leaves all giving up to the early darkness and the end of their time, giving up to the free fall of leaf to ground.
We walk on the fallen leaf, leaves parched as tinder, walk and take in the scent of leaf and the spicy air and hear the shuffle sound of the leaves drifted as snow.
Look upward at the thinning leaf cover in the trees above; watch a leaf break free, spiraling, riding the breeze then, snick! as it lands on the ground. Watch the leaf and you watch the season. Hear the sound of falling leaf and you hear the change, as defining as the high cries of geese moving restlessly southward. Leaf fall; season change. Elemental. Simple.
Irrevocable, for the fallen leaf will never again rise above the duff of forest floor.
Comes a day when you lift your eyes to the tree that blazed in gaudy color a few days earlier and that tree is now bare and the thin branches skeletal against the October sky and the change has dropped so fast that you did not see it happen. You walk in the downed leaf dry beneath your boots and wonder where it all went, the season that seemed not to end but now, in the leaf on the ground, has passed.
The season ends not in thunder but in the whisper of leaf settling to ground.
This has been a vaguely unsettling autumn in the Northwoods. Temperatures in September were above average; 70’s dominated, day after glorious day. The hard, killing frost never came. The last day of the month hit 81 degrees; the average for that day is in the mid 50’s. October rolled in and kept the steady pace of warm days and cool but not cold nights.
It has been pleasant, those sunny days and temperate nights. But underlying it all has been shadowy unease; things are not as they should be and even as we basked in September warmth, even as we felt a warming sun in October, through in all of this the leaves fell and the season changed and the high branches of the trees became bare. And on a mild October day you realize that the color of autumn has gone and you feel a deep loss.
There should have been a dawning with frost by now, a sunrise that lit up the day over a landscape of finely etched ice crystal and air that was cold but invigorating, a day that woke us to true autumn. We should have had a pewter gray afternoon with a windblown drizzle that had us pulling the collar high on our jacket, knowing that in that chill was a reminder of change and in that the knowledge was that fall was slipping away.
Not this year. The season seemed to stall and in that there is an edginess, no matter how lovely the fall afternoons and how relaxing the time at dusk.
Waterfowl hunters stand, talk, tell of calm days and no ducks on the wing, no migrating birds from the plains and lakes of Canada, no flights of the northern birds that move in waves to the south, riding the storm winds. Near two weeks into October now; no flocks on high ahead of the weather, moving fast, moving with purpose, signaling a turn of season.
Near two weeks into October and the woodcock have not moved in and the deer laze in the fields and the grouse hold tight in cover and there is no hard frost to set the stage for the urgency we usually feel by now. Mid October nears and leaves cover lawns but raking in 70 degree warmth seems a larger chore than it should, raking best done in a day of some chill so that the mere act of raking can warm oneself. Raking and wood splitting both the same; suited for cooler weather.
There is an expectation that by now we’d have days of lowering temperatures and chilly nights for that is what we expect and that is what moves us, those crisp days, moves us and energizes us and helps to give us meaning in our days. We find comfort in a bracing fall day when a cup of coffee carries heat and satisfaction in a manner it does not in summer heat. We wake to a lawn white with frost and complain about it but in seeing it know that fall has come, on schedule.
This season, this year, it’s been different and in that difference a shadow of doubt that things are not quite right and in that a puzzlement that will not fully lift in the light of another warm day but will linger as a morning fog lingers in the shadows.
It will change, we know it will. Cold days will rise and the hard frosts will fall. The heavy green-headed mallards will drift out of gray skies and the woodcock will flutter in and, come late, the swans will cry wild in flight for they are the last to migrate. The oak trees will give up their mahogany leaf; tamarack stand bare. It will all change, change in the hard winds from the north.
For now the days remain mild, the nights cool but not cold, the skies blue, the sun warm. For now the leaves pile in windrows on lawns and streets and the vegetable gardens stand worn and broken. For now we do not feel the true restlessness of late fall.
And for now we can, perhaps, still stand in the quiet and hear the sound of leaves falling one more time.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.