Pacing the transition to winter

The leaves started turning color in earnest right around the 20th of October this year, then they sprinted through. By Friday the 25th the colors were near their peak, and incessant rain that Saturday afternoon through the night knocked much of the maple canopy foliage to the ground. Maple Grove was filled with people that Sunday. The floor was carpeted yellow and orange, with Carex jamesii sticking its mop-tops up through the fallen leaves. Moonseed leaves were blue-green, wild ginger was frozen at mid-senescence, leaves with a light yellow margin. An entoloma mushroom had been kicked loose and lay stipe-upward. Maple leaves were lodged in the splintering xylem of a decapitated ash. Dark green leaves of black cherry seedlings were more common than I had noticed previously. A single zigzag goldenrod still bore yellow flowers in the leaf axils.

We had snow that last week of October, Tuesday night on and off through Thursday. On my walk in through the Arboretum’s East Woods on the first of November, about half of the leaves were still in the branches, and the trees were tithing onto the fresh snow. The bright yellow maple leaves stood sharp against the sky as the sun was rising, and ones that had fallen were glowing against the snow like the wind-exposed edge of a smoldering oak log. Squirrels had been excavating the trails haphazardly. Their marks were everywhere. A dozen geese flew low overhead toward the west. A twelve-inch diameter red oak had tipped in the few weeks since I had walked the northwest end of the woodland trail. Was the snow so heavy that it dragged it down, full of leaves? Following the trunk to its roots, I flushed a woodcock from the ditch where it had been standing. The bird hummed through the woods at half-sapling height and settled down out of sight. Woodcocks follow the worms northward in the spring; I imagine they follow them back southward in the fall, and there were certainly active worms beneath the snow and leaf litter that morning. Juncos buzzed around in the shrubs. Robins flocked in the treetops.

By the weekend the snow had melted. Before doing so, it managed to knock more than half of the leaves to the ground, and the yellow sugar maple leaves on the snow had settled to the soil’s surface. The ground was a mottled yellow carpet that rolled beneath the trees and sloped down to ravines that I haven’t noticed since the wildflowers started to catch our eyes in March. That’s eight months of treating the landscape as just a substrate for beauty, soil and leaf litter as canvas and gesso. Now, who has the last word? The skeletons of jewelweed were knocked to the ground. The wood nettle leaves, frozen, hung like rags.

It’s the middle of November now and we have had snow again for a week. It is eroding irregularly. In much of Maple Grove, there are patches of snow only, white against the quiltwork of leaves being wearied into the soil by the frost and damp. Snow piles on shelves of turkeytail fungus and secludes itself in the bark-fissures of fallen logs. Along the long north-facing slope climbing up from the main section of the Forest Preserve, it coats the forest floor more evenly, displaying the leaves of the trees standing above it. One area is a pond of sugar maple leaves that three weeks ago were bright yellow and fleshy on our late October snow, but are now turning ochre, dry but not yet desiccated, curling upward at the edges. Another portion of the woods is peppered with flat, leathery red oak leaves. Beside a colony of Carex jamesii, someone has scraped the snow away in an area nearly the size of a piano bench. There are no footprints, and it does not look like a person’s work. Are squirrels collaborating these days? The snow is just damp enough to capture squirrel prints in near-perfect relief. It is not the thin skid of snow particles that capture every claw and pad detail, but that may be blown away by the first big wind, but the wet casting snow, the snow that hangs onto prints in enough detail for you to learn from them and ask questions. The squirrel stopped here for a moment: was it sitting up straight? Was this one running for food, or running from a coyote? The snow records and conceals by turns.

Yesterday afternoon1 was sunny and warm, between the high 30s and low 40s. The evening before, about 5 p.m., the dog and I had watched a great horned owl calling from the canopy tree stripped clean of its leaves at the north edge of the forest preserve, behind the houses. He was perhaps 30′ up, but with the leaves gone, I could see him lean forward as he called, stretching his body into what I imagine is a near-optimal configuration for maximal volume and pitch. Animals are clever that way. Friday afternoon, a flock of perhaps 100 sandhill cranes had flown southward over our house. Now, as we walked in about an hour before sunset, there were white-breasted nuthatches and hairy woodpeckers, squirrels and red-bellied woodpeckers barking. Elmleaf and zigzag goldenrod and calico aster are holding onto their achenes. White snakeroot has dropped its fruits, and the phyllaries remaining are recoiled and twisted like the arms of starfish in slow movement. Dehisced halves of willow herb capsules were twisted alongside the skeletons of bur marigold, whose seedheads were mostly shattered. Basal leaves of black snakeroot and cauline leaves of blackberry were still green, and of course so were the Eurasian honeysuckle.

At about 4:30, a pair of great horned owls started calling back and forth to each other. Brooklyn got particularly agitated, and we accelerated around the loop toward home. Two black squirrels chased up nearby tree trunks. They were smaller than I remember, and I wondered whether they were this year’s young. As we came down the north-facing slope toward the trail out, the snow and the scattering of red oak and sugar maple leaves made it feel like Thanksgiving time in upstate New York. In the distance, a siren was singing, and alongside it I thought there might be coyotes. Brooklyn and I listened, but neither of us was certain.

I have read sections of Sean Borodale’s beautiful Bee Journal over and over this past month. I’d like to share a dozen of his poems with you, but I’ll leave you with this one, “3rd December: Notes”:

Listen to the rain, the rain, the rain, like the wings and legs of bees walking across bees, like the lyre of a thought, a whole possible instrument of insects.
Listen to the rain, more rain, treadling earth to the sodden cold wet spun heads of this room, pacing the winter to and fro…

We are pacing back and forth into winter ourselves this year. We do it every year, and every year looks different.

1 16 Nov 2019

Plants referenced:

[photos linked here]

  • Carex jamesii – James’s sedge
  • Acer saccharum – sugar maple
  • Menispermum canadense – moonseed
  • Asarum canadense – wild ginger
  • Prunus serotina – black cherry
  • Solidago flexicaulis – zigzag goldenrod
  • Solidago ulmifolia – elm-leaf goldenrod
  • Laportea canadensis – wood nettle
  • Symphyotrichum lateriflorum – calico aster
  • Epilobium coloratum – willow-herb
  • Ageratina altissima – white snakeroot
  • Sanicula odorata – black snakeroot
  • Quercus rubra – red oak