By David Hawke — Judging by the pile of coats, jackets, hats, boots and gloves just inside the door, I'd have to say that we are smack dab in the middle of autumn.
Two days ago, it was warm (baseball cap, light jacket, garden shoes), then it rained with a cold breeze (rain jacket, rubber boots, waterproof gloves, sweater, same baseball cap) and today we have a killing frost (winter jacket, same sweater, warm gloves, toque and winter boots) and forecast for tomorrow is warm and sunny (good thing the jacket and garden shoes are still handy).
This jumbled pile of outerwear is an icon, a symbol of where we live and how we cope. Icons are, for me, touchstones, important when they appear as they let me know exactly where I am in time, something a calendar can't do with its never-ending list of what has been done to get ready for tomorrow, the next day and the day after that.
Natural icons, or signs of seasonal shifts, have become a series of markers for me, a way of confirming that, despite my preoccupation about being two weeks late with a report, Nature has carried on. It's calming, indeed reassuring, to know that other things are progressing just as they should, even without me.
The number two autumn icon is a flock of Canada geese, their huge V-shaped formation pointing southward. Often we hear them before we see them, and the anticipation makes one almost giddy as we wait until they break over the tree line, flying straight on, ever southwards, leaving us behind here in the soon to be frozen portions of the province.
A few weeks ago, when the goose migration was in full flight, our family had gathered by a campfire in the backyard, a quiet time before bedtime. The harvest moon had just risen, glowing bright and huge as it climbed upwards and away from the tops of the distant maples. Suddenly a flock of geese fly by, perfectly framing the moon between their two flanks of the V. Wow. Way cool.
Autumn icon number three is a tad more subtle yet causes me to stop, stare and smile every year. White-crowned sparrows migrate down from northern Ontario, and they pass through our region just as the raspberry leaves are displaying their wonderful hues of maroon, burgundy and brown. On a crispy morn just after sunrise, to see these birds with their jaunty white caps and stealthy attitude of sneaking through the raspberry brambles is a sign of autumn in its glory.
The fourth iconic moment (at least on my 'bucket list' of fall signs) is when a blue jay flashes across the yard, pulls up from its flight and lands on a branch still resplendent with yellow maple leaves. The icy blue and black plumage is a striking contrast to the warm shade of yellow that provides the back drop. A sharp cry and it's gone, flitting back to the woodlands in search of beech nuts, acorns and other autumnal delights. That image just screams Ontari-ari-ari-o!
Number five is the one day that, as you walk along the leaf littered trail, the leaves are just dry enough to mark your passing with a swish-swish-swish. I've found that not every autumn produces such a day — a day when the sun shines, the air is dry, and the leaves are down in enough abundance to catch your boots. Often the leaves are wet or not thick enough to make that wonderful swish-swish-swish-swish as you amble along. T’was such a day yesterday and it was wonderful!
In the fall of the year, male ruffed grouse become a tad brazen, a bit of bravado creeping into their usually shy demeanor. They tend to strut along roadways and sit on thin branches overhanging walking trails, they stand on fallen fence rails and fan that fabulous tail so that every bar of brown and black is displayed to perfection. These are the males, and they are fooled by the length of day and dampness in the air, thinking it must be spring, and therefore it must be time to woo the lady grouse!
But the lady grouse are not fooled by icon six, these strutting and oh-so-sure of themselves males; no, they just wait quietly in the leaves until you almost step on them and then explode in a roar of noise and flapping feathers, leaving my heart racing in a manner that should please any physician.
Icon seven happened late this afternoon, as Julie and I walked the farm trails, savouring this extended autumn season. As we wandered back to the farmhouse and crested a rise of the land, the sight before us arrested our steps.
Hundreds, nay thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of blackbirds were flying overhead in a well-organized and very steady stream. From the north horizon to the south horizon they went, chirping encouragement to each other, flying in a formation that barely allowed for much lateral movement, a solid black stream of grackles following the leader to points south.
Some years they land and forage our beech woods, other years they settle in huge flocks into recently harvested corn fields; this year they simply flew on by, taking almost five full minutes to clear the sky. Old stories of passenger pigeons suddenly come to mind.
Yep, fall happens, at times way too fast for us mere mortals to grasp. So, look for the signs of autumn, the icons of the times, those touchstones that mark the passing of another year.
Dave’s Notebook: What a glorious autumn we are experiencing! We still have lots of yellow (or better said as "gold") in our valley. Tamaracks are overlapping with maple... most unique.
© 2021 David J. Hawke