I love to watch dust-motes floating in the clear, soft, forgiving light of Autumn, shining specks dancing. They drift over quieting ponds, past White-tail Deer with their new nearly-impossible-to-see winter coats and through now-golden meadows. The nights are cooler, bringing the promise of Fall and reminding us of what is just around the seasonal corner. Goldenrods abound, along with many different species of Asters, including the ubiquitous Dogbane and Black-eyed Susan. Also abundant are White Snakeroot, Wild Marjoram, Pokeweed and Joe Pye Weed, among others. They all provide much-needed sustenance to numerous migrating bird and butterfly stragglers, as well as our year-round, stay-at-home bees.
The Fall Equinox is past now. Our Ruby-throated Hummingbirds have departed on their epic 2000-mile journey, some intrepidly crossing the 500-mile-wide Gulf of
Mexico in one long sprint. The fourth (and longest-lived, at 6-8 months) generation of Monarchs are on their way to the mountains of Michoacan in Mexico for the winter. It is still a mystery to scientists as to exactly how either of these tiny creatures navigates unfailingly to far off lands neither has ever been to. I watch the first trees turn color on the peak of Overlook, knowing that this line (the Fall Line) will gradually sweep down the steep slopes into the valley itself, to be followed in a few weeks by the Winter Line, that will do the same, changing the multihued magic of fall to the more somber brown and grey tones of winter (trying to imitate the coats of wild deer, perhaps?). It’s almost like the Mother has shed, first her green, “peak-of-life”, leafy cloak, then tried on her fall Cloak Of Many Colors and finally settling for the wan shades of winter (this is the reverse of when the bright-green line of Spring oh so gradually makes it way up the side of the mountain in April). But I get ahead of myself. Fall is here.
And of course you can't discuss fall flora without touching on the amazing rainbow-spectacle happening all around us. Many think the leaves turn just because the weather is colder but that's only part of it. My understanding - and I'm only an amateur naturalist - is that it is a combination of factors that include changes in dryness, light and temperature, all of which generally come about right now as the sun gets lower on the horizon, shortening the days and cooling the nights. The dryness factor explains why sometimes - even in the summer - different trees will start to color if it is too dry and others (pines and hemlocks, for instance) will drop some of their leaves or needles. This is a great (and easy) time to identify trees in the forest, at least for the major species. Sugar maples range between yellow and orange hues. Red Maples will be their distinctive scarlet red and the White Ashes, purple. The different oaks turn yellow or orange (some dried Oak-leaves stay on the branch all winter, as do all the golden, desiccated leaves of the Beeches). I like to watch Overlook as it gradually colors from the top-down. At first you'll see a few colored specks on the summit, then as the days go by, her multihued cloak will gradually drape her entirely - nothing more beautiful! As I write this the higher Catskills peaks are pretty much at peak-color which normally means that in another week or so us folk down in the valleys will be bathed in a maxed-out, full-spectrum deciduous awesomeness. The down- side of this is that unfortunately we can eventually (in only a few years) expect to see less of the White Ash leaves turning color as the effects of the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) start to show (Google EAB for more on this). Speaking of acorns, while it was not a record mast year with tons of acorns on the forest floor, there are plenty for the Black Bears and White Tail Deer to fatten up on, with enough left over for foraging mice, Meadow Voles, Moles and Short Tail Shrews.
Triggered by subtle (and not-so-subtle) changes in light and temperature, an incredible transformation is occurring in our forestsbecause of amazing adaptations over millions of years to the seasonal cycles. Our hardwoods(Ash, Beech, Birch, Maple and Oak, mainly) have started their unprecedented migration.
Yes, migration - a migration-in-place. These trees, which up until recently were engaging in one form of alchemy - taking dirty air from the sky (with carbon in it), bringing it into the earth, removing the carbon from it, then releasing it as pure oxygen back into the sky (basically, scrubbing our dirty air, and creating life-giving oxygen in the process - all powered by sunlight and at no charge to us) - are now consumed with performing other feats of magic: transferring their very essence or lifeblood - their sap - deep down into their roots, safely below the frost-line until summoned once again by the advent of spring; as well as shedding their once-chlorophyll-filled leaves and using them to, first insulate their newly-sap-filled roots, then to make another layer of soil - voila! Phenomenal, true magic of the common, everyday sort. The hardwoods have done their job for this season - creating clean air, providing shade for untold forest creatures (and people) smaller plants and then - as their spectacular finale - bow down and deposit another future layer of soil. On the
surface of it (ha!), one might say that the trees can rest now, having seemingly finished their work for the year, but I’m not sure that the forest ever rests. In addition to the growing evidence that trees help each other when leafed out, warning each other of impending threats, they also have symbiotic relationships with different fungi that inhabit their roots and which help the trees share certain enzymes - from tree-to-tree - underground. I’m certain that this activity must continue - maybe it even increases - in the winter. Picture the bare branches blowing leaf-free in the wild winter winds, etching stark shadows on the sparkling snow, while down deep the sap is safely stored. The entire forest is connected through those vast roots, communicating its needs and exchanging nutrients amongst various members. Maybe this is the time when the
trees tell stories of vast amounts of nuts dropped or of fallen friends. I’ve dreamed with the forest and have had glimpses of what it is like to be The Great Tree-Tribe, a vast, inter-connected, multi-species, green and brown being that is literally the very essence of the Land, perhaps the greatest Steward of the Earth, with roots running deep and branches reaching high. Perhaps this is our ideal model for us to return to responsible stewardship of the earth, like the indigenous peoples. Now, the forest is preparing to hunker down into itself for the coming cold. If the forest keeps its dreams to itself in the winter, that correlates to Native Americans belief that the best time for storytelling is in the winter, when the ground is frozen, almost like they don’t want to disturb the sleeping forest.
We still have Bald Eagles in Waghkonk because we still have 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 and Raven clean-up crew. Many of the local hawks - like most of our birds - 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 Chickadee prancing around, full of life even on the coldest of days. The last few Monarchs are about to follow the Ruby-throats. 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!
VERY IMPORTANT SEASON
I generally try to avoid politics in Waghkonk Notes, preferring to just relate my observations and musings on the richness of the natural world around us. This year is different. The natural world - and us - are under grave assault from forces that care more for profit than for animals, plants and people. As of now, we live in a place where we still have the means to change that - by voting - and we must do so - our very freedom and our ability to protect this incredible land we live in demands it, so please VOTE. Vote your conscience. Please make sure your friends vote.
Thanks, All. Take Care,
“Ranger” Dave Holden
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