A GOLDEN FALL
As I write this, record rainfalls continue in our corner of the Catskills, streams almost instantaneously re-flooding because the earth is so thoroughly saturated that it can absorb no more, furthering our own Catskills Monsoon season. Just when Woodstock’s Sawkill was finally starting to settle down to a more seasonable dark green - bam! - right back up to its flood- stage “Yoohoo” brown color, which it has been running at for most of the summer and, now, into the Fall. This situation has frustrated fishermen (and fish, too!) to no end - not only is it difficult (impossible?) for fishermen to catch anything, it is hard for fish to see their prey in these conditions, whether it’s Brown and Rainbow Trout looking for flies and grubs in the streams or Large and Smallmouth Bass hunting Perch and Sunnies in the ponds and smaller reservoirs. It must have been frustrating for the Great Blue and Little Blue Herons and the Great Egrets, as well (only a few Great Blues remain and some may even stay through winter). The effects of these conditions will last a while and affect every creature (including people) and plant in the area. If this is a result of Climate Change, this may become a new seasonal pattern. Let’s hope not.
OUR LOCAL RAINFOREST - One immediate effect of the incessant rains has been a “thickening” of the forest, creating what I call the Rainforest Effect, in which the woods seem to be not only thicker and richer in leaf and undergrowth but darker and denser, as well. This fits perfectly with the unending flood of fungi, spurred by constant warmth and wetness. One of the triggers for fall colors is changes in the light. Since we are past the Autumnal Equinox (9/22) - the official start of Fall - the sun is rising and setting further south on the eastern and western horizons respectively, bringing us shorter days with less light, and this is one of the triggers for leaf color-change, along with temperature. Usually, a lack of water is the third trigger for leaf-change (we’ve all seen trees change color early in dry summers) but not this year, though too much watermight account for the brown blotches on some leaves. As usual, and not seemingly effected by the wetness, Virginia Creeper is one of the first plants to turn, showing its myriad shades of red and yellow. Interestingly, Poison Ivy usually has changed to a dark purplish red by now but is not doing so as of yet. Beeches, Oaks and Hickorys are producing normal amounts of acorns, beech- and hickory-nuts, collectively called mast by biologists. Acorns are the most favorite of wild foods for Black Bears and the one that they need the most in order to fatten up for their long (hopefully!) seasonal nap to come. I don’t see much red coming out in the forest, probably like last year due to Maple Rust killing maple leaves. And sadly, since the White Ashes are dying from the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) there is a dearth of their glorious bright yellow. Many of the other trees are stressed now, as well, from unending wetness, so I think our autumn here in Waghkonk will be a more somber golden event, with the oranges of the Oaks chiming in with some added color. As if that weren’t enough bad things happening to our forest, some places on the forest-floor are already showing the effects of Jumping Worms (Amynthas). This is a very aggressive, invasive worm (actually all of our worms are non-native, but that’s another story) that thrives on the surface by eating the leaf-litter (also called duff) and leaving behind a bare forest-floor that looks like a huge dark mass of coffee-grounds. Our poor woods are under such threat now - let’s all do whatever we can to help reverse this trend.
FLORA OF FIELD AND MEADOW - Plants seem to be the first to be affected by the more subtle alterations in sunlight and moisture (maybe they're just the most obvious to the human observer), in turn triggering pattern-changes throughout the natural world. This year’s Mullein stalks are drying out, with new rosettes already coming up for next year. Goldenrods dominate field and meadow with their sunny mat and provide sustenance for late-season nectarers. Multiple Asters, some remaining Lupine and Joe Pye Weed represent the end of summer in open spaces. The various Thistles and Milkweeds are seeding now, delicate white parachutes drifting over the landscape.
FAUNA - I think we’ve seen the last Hummingbirds and Monarchs (what relatively few there were) for the season, with a few northern stragglers of both wafting through. Other autumns they’ve stayed longer but I understand - why bother with such fleeting sunshine and warmth? Many of us feel the same about now. Most Ducks and songbirds have migrated already, as well. Another, less-noticed migrator - Dragonflies - are still here, though in fast-dwindling numbers. Very interesting creatures, with a strange beauty - fast and fierce insect predators. The last - and largest ones - Green Darters, will probably leave shortly, some to migrate, some to encyst in wetlands ‘til next Spring. Good luck to all of our seasonal animal visitors in their epochal travels south. It really is amazing to think how far, and what obstacles and challenges they face, in particular the tiny Hummingbirds and Monarchs. In the coming season, as we walk through our dour winter marshes, meadows and woods, let’s remember their colorful summer avian and insect inhabitants, all gathered together in some warm, sunny clime. Maybe as we do so, they, in turn, are dreaming of our/their ancestral warm and sunny summer meadows in the north. Of our once-full Cricket Chorus, only a few Katydids remain and a lot of Crickets (most of whom will spend the winter in my garage) as they ever-so-slowlywind down their season - and with no more Tree-frogs to join them.
MIGRATION-IN-PLACE - Perhaps the most surprising of local migrations is that of plant and tree as they - each in their own way - hunker down for the season ahead. Yes, virtually all of these leafy beings devote as much of their energy, planning and time to preparing for the coming of winter as the animals do. Only their preparation, their “migration” (more subtle and initially hidden) is vertical, not lateral, as they gradually move their precious life- blood, their sap down into their root-systems, safely under the freeze-line, not to be brought back up into bole, branch and twig until the light and temperature signals of spring. The forest is “brilliant”, not just in its coloration, but in its planning for this because it waits to bring its sap down until it has laid a new layer of insulating leaves onto the ground above to also break down over the winter into more soil to nurture itself. In addition, by removing leaves and sap from branches, the branches are much less vulnerable to breaking and freezing in wild winter weather. Very efficient adaptations. That’s how all beings survive in nature - through adaptation. I submit that modern humans have a lot to learn from this - as all native peoples already know.
EQUINOX - We are now past that seasonal balancing point. The days are gradually, yet steadily, getting shorter, and the nights longer, as we slip towards winter. I wouldn’t dare guess what this winter holds for us but I do know that everything has changed. We can’t trust any o the old “markers” (there is no more “average”). Maybe once upon a time you could depend on the Wooly Bear caterpillar or the length of horses coats, but no more. Even the Farmer’s Almanac gave up on the old method that was based on seasonal averages, depending themselves now on the National Weather Service for reliable guidance. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get a chance to dry out and the leaves will color nicely (always the optimist here).
FOREST AND MOUNTAIN CHANGES - From the Balsam-capped peaks of the High Catskills to the Southern Hardwood Forest of the Beaverkill, Esopus, Little Beaverkill and Sawkill Valleys, those creatures who aren’t going south for the winter are busily preparing for the ensuing cold and darkness. As we humans are splitting and stacking firewood in preparation for winter, many of the wilder sort are busily storing food, whether a White-tail Deer, Wild Turkey or Black Bear eating Beech-nuts, Hickory-nuts or acorns to put on winter-weight for the difficult days ahead or Chipmunks, Grey and Red Squirrels gathering and stashing the same mast for later use - it’s a busy time. Birdseed is like candy to Ursus Major and therefore it is best to not hang out bird-feeders until bears have bedded for their winter nap (later and later in recent years). The general rule is when (and if) we have a long period of cold and darkness. Just to be sure, check with the DEC.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS - Though I love Fall, the passing of Summer is bittersweet. No more days of endless light. No more Dragonflies, Fireflies, Hummingbirds and Monarchs. No more cacophony of bird and cricket chorus. The time is past when we were inundated, overwhelmed even, with every life-form - overhead, in our face and underfoot - aptly symbolized by the very thickness of humid Summer air. No more sandals, shorts and tank-tops and even then feeling overdressed. But that’s the great thing about the four seasons - one barely gets a chance to get tired of one season before another comes along. I’ll adapt - I always do. I put my straw hat away and broke out my heavier Stetson and it feels good already, same as getting used to keeping a jacket or vest handy. Still, this is such a dynamic, transitional time here that it is best to dress in layers - even October can be warm. The Great Wheel of the Year is turning, friends and the seasons roll on. As I’ve mentioned, there is so much - both good and bad - going on in our world - locally and world-wide - that sometimes it feels like its all hard to keep up with. Part of this, of course, may be that we are all constantly flooded with information - perhaps too much so. Yet I believe that we all have to persist in our drive to be informed, to do the right things, to work hard to fix what is broken and to forge ahead to make the world a better place for ourselves, our kids, our grandchildren and those yet to come. After all - it’s up to us to make the world a better place - nobody is going to do it for us - and I believe we can. Thank you all. Please have an enjoyable and safe Fall (?).
“Ranger” Dave Holden
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