As the fall colors of 2017 slowly dissipate, melting into the Catskills landscape, they gradually change into the more somber tones we associate with winter. Sort of like a fire, if you consider midsummer the highest fire-flame, then how you might see the embers fade, almost as if the fire is going out. Luckily for us, the fire of life in the earth never really goes out, but just hides in plain sight, hidden under bark or deep in root, waiting for warmth to return. It’s almost like a fire that has been well-banked to keep the buried embers hot to wait for spring-time, the season of life, for them to be stoked back to warm, vibrant life.
Winds of seasonal change blow across these ancient hills, lifting dry leaves from their now sapless branches, momentarily making a swirling leaf-devil, before depositing skittering multicolored little beauties onto bench, window-sill and doorway. Fall has come to our corner of the Catskills. This wind can be a cold blast from the north or its warmer, southern-born cousin. It can pierce hastily-donned, long-misplaced warm clothing or it can gently caress the skin with its reminder of lost summer warmth. The winds of Fall have their own unique character, whether from the north or from the south. Either way they serve to remind us that much colder times are just around the corner.
There is no season that quite compares to a northeast autumn, for not only do we have an incredible full-spectrum, multihued leafy pageant to gape at, all of us oohing and aahing as if we had never seen it before (and, in truth, each Fall is unique and amazing in its own right). Sometimes Mother Earth cooperates and warms October up just a bit for us, which is happening as I write these words. It's like we live in a wonderful fantasy-land (we do), a bright colorful world that is also comfy and warm, allowing us to walk in the woods in short-sleeves, kicking leaves (I think I have the beginning of a poem here!) and all with the extra advantage of no black-flies or mosquitos! The only insect-life to speak of now are the last few butterflies - Sulphurs and Whites, a couple of stray bees and Ladybugs, as well as crickets (some of which will survive part of the winter in my garage, forlornly chirping from a corner) and the very last few Katydids, not giving up and being very persistent, almost in a desultory fashion. Like the ultimate child that will not go to bed. The last of the Blue Darter dragonflies have finally departed for their unknown migratory location. Yes, we'll still find an ant or two under rocks and an impending warm-spell will bring out more stubborn insects, happily fooled by the brief seeming return to summer. Of course, this occasion will make our wintering small-birds: Bluejays, Cardinals, Chickadees, Juncos, Sparrows and Wrens very happy to have more to feast upon, allowing them to put off their winter diet of berries and the like.
THE FALL FOREST
I wonder how the forest thinks about the impending winter. I say it that way because I believe the forest is one entire being, each tree just one part of it. I think trees always communicate, whatever the season, through their roots, which are all intertwined - just like how their (our?) lives are. That wind I mentioned before, as it races through the trees, stripping them bare of this year's leafy bounty, it is helping the trees, or, perhaps over untold millennia the forest has learned to adapt to having the wind help them shed their dried parts, blowing them to the forest-floor, where first the leaves protect the roots from the worst of winter's cold, then they become another layer of soil for the following season. Pretty darn smart, I'd say. Also, very egalitarian, in that you'll notice that a Beech probably doesn't care if Maple leaves help mulch its roots, nor does the Oak-tree reject the Ash-leaf. I wonder, though, if maybe the hardwoods are not happy to have the more acidic needles of Cedar, Hemlock and White Pine bedding over their rootlets.
And keep in mind how important the roots are, preserving the trees vital sap safely underground for the duration of winter. Because the sap is no longer in the branches this allows their limbs to survive the coldest time, when any sap left in a branch or twig would freeze, causing it to split and probably die off, its pith exposed. Another brilliant aspect of this is that the branches are much more flexible without their sap, allowing them to bend and bow with the onslaught of the fierce winter winds yet to come. Luckily, for now, we only have the gentle fall breeze to bounce around this years dried crop, scraping along the ground, catching on stick or stone. Or was that the sound of the feet of the Little People, as the traditional New Year (All Hallows Eve, Samhain) approaches and the Gate Between The Worlds opens ever-so-gradually, just a crack and just enough for Visitors? Hmm.
We still have Bald Eagles in Waghkonk because there are still fish in the reservoirs and streams. That will probably change as the fish disappear but they have surprised us by spending part of the winter here the last couple of years. Most of the region's eagles end up congregating on the Hudson in winter, fishing from ice-floes. If it gets cold the local Black- and Turkey Vultures will head a little further south, leaving the myriad dead Grey Squirrels on the roads for the Crow clean-up crew. Many of the local hawks - like most of our birds - will also migrate south but we usually have a good population of wintering Red Tails and Red Shoulders here. Why not? After all, they've got a plethora of small rodents to work on. I always look forward to seeing the stalwart little Black Cap Chickadees prancing around, full of life even on the coldest of days. Haven't seen a
Hummingbird in days now (female Ruby-throated at left). I'm sure they've migrated. Absolutely amazing creatures - for many reasons. They are totally fearless, not afraid of larger birds at all, standing up to them in a heartbeat. Speaking of heartbeats, their little, tiny heart sometimes beats an astonishing 1,260 beats per minute! What an efficient metabolism they have. They are able to fly non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico to their wintering-places in Yucutan - 500 miles! - and points south. Another intrepid little local migrator is the incredible (and endangered) Monarch butterfly, able to fly from here to wintering-sites in Mexico - a phenomenal feat of navigation and stamina. Fortunately, we had more Monarchs in the area than the last few years and all of us who love them hope and pray this situation keeps improving. For more on these fantastic little migrators visit www.journeynorth.org and www.spiritofbutterflies.com. The summertime joyous cacophony of the Cicadas, Crickets and Katydids - our own "cricket-chorus" - is almost past (though we'll find crickets in basements and garages most of the winter). There are only a few left and their song is gradually getting slower and slower. One benefit of cooler weather is less and less Black-flies and Mosquitos. No complaints there!
Yep, it's undeniable now - winter is approaching. All the signs are here. Everyone of the animals and plants are each dealing with it in their own way, some migrating to warmer climes, some preparing to hunker down for the winter. I think it is so interesting that the adaptation of most plants in the northeast is a kind of "migration in place". They shed all of their leaves, using them to create more soil and as insulation for their roots, which will soon contain all of the plant's life-blood - its sap - stored safely below ground, under the frost-line, 'til spring-time, when it all starts all over again - amazing. Our biggest population of large mammals - people - doesn't have the options the wild animals do. Yes, we can migrate south (and some do) but most of us will simply add more warm layers, turn the thermostat up or put more wood on the fire. And like all the other creatures - big and small, animal or plant - we'll hunker down and try to stay warm and out of the wind as best we can. If summer is the time for us to "make hay" to do, do, do, then this is a time for us to contemplate what we did, did, did this past year, how we grew and learned, and also it is a time for us to reflect on how we can do better during the next revolution of our planet around its star. I hope you all have a healthy, warm and safe fall and winter. Thank you.
Take Care, "Ranger" Dave Holden
(If anyone wants to go on a walk into this autumn splendor, please call me at (845) 594-4863, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please visit either of my Facebook pages - Dave Holden or Woodstock Trails, as well as my great new website- www.woodstocknytrails.com. Thanks again.)