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Column: Autumn overwhelms the senses

“The high rolling hills give it all in the fall; oh, the hard days are gone…now,” – Steve Forbert

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MARQUETTE — The hem of the resplendent gown of Madame Autumn moves slowly across the floor as she half-sashays into view, pulling with her a trail of rolling and tumbling multi-colored leaves.

Her enthralling dance begun, she hypnotizes and captivates everything with eyes to see and hearts to feel – the woodland creatures from deer to doves and me.

I feel as though I’m in a trance or a dream walking through the woods in the fall with so much for my senses to experience.

The obvious draw is the magnificence of the turning autumn leaves. That orange-red blush painted across the hills and valleys, contrasting with the craggy black bluffs and the blue of the twisting rivers and creeks makes me high.

The effect is heightened if experienced from a lofty lookout along a muddy trail somewhere, or from the top of a big hill on a snaking piece of cold, wet blacktop that trails off around a corner far in the distance.

For me, these are the days when nature’s grandeur is as thick and rich as chocolate pie. Though much is wilting and dying away, I feel a strong and vibrant enhanced sense of living as the temperatures drop and the cold and dampness begin to bite.

The chilled air seems to make my vision clearer, with no warm summer haze there to obscure the things I want to see – a scarecrow with a red neckerchief and a straw hat in a farmer’s field, the corn stalks brown, crows in the air.

Forty-two miles to nowhere, half a day’s drive back.

Gray, black and blue swirls of clouds roll overhead, constantly threatening now. Yet the sunrises, dusky and glowing, are tremendous in their pinks, purples, rose and slate.

The smells of woodland spices, wet leaves and rain are comforting treats, delicious and divine – sweet like apple cider, as satisfying as truth.

And still, there is an emptiness I feel – a longing to know and to go and to stay all at once. Perhaps it’s the pale ghost of summer out there among the trees, calling to me to come and play.

Like the shattered window glass that covers the floor in an abandoned house, my thoughts are all over the place, and in little pieces, while I try to conceive my next move. Back to the house, farther down the trail, here under the tree or out to the shore?

The hornets are done, their buzzing nest silenced. It sits, like some big gray balloon, waiting for the winds of winter, or a curious kid with a stick, to knock it down.

When I close my eyes, I hear the ticking of my watch. When I open them, the sound stops as my attention focuses elsewhere.

Like a new toy bought on credit, fall is the shiny and wonderful and magical thing we enjoy today and pay for once winter rolls around the corner.

The raspberry and blackberry brambles are bare of ripe fruit, while the bright mountain ash berries glow in spectacular orange, like the rose hips on the bushes along the riverbanks.

Fall is also a time when preparedness is front and center, with the raking of leaves and the shaking of trees to get apples down for crisps and pies. There’s salmon to catch and a freezer to fill before winter arrives with its kill.

And while there is so much to do, there is a definite sense of slowing down, of retiring sooner each day, like the evening sun. Gears grind and seize. The rain would rust them for sure – if I give it time.

My mind nudges closer toward the pile of books I have waiting in the upstairs study. I sense the numbing cold of winter can’t be that far off. Robins are flocking, soon to follow the white-rumped flickers, the loons and the cranes – all down south.

A thick and drooping burnt orange scarf of monarch butterflies hangs in the cedar trees waiting for the warmth of the morning sun. When it arrives, these ambitious travelers break off one-by-one to float into the heavens and across the big water.

More than a thousand miles to Mexico – never coming back.

Only the black eyes of the Susans remain along the concrete stairwell, outside the chipmunk hole. Their pretty yellow petals are gone, maybe down into the animal’s living room.

It’s this time of year I’m more likely to hear echoes, to see the resemblance of my own face to the gray and wrinkled bark of trees. Mysterious footfalls in the mist, leading down along the lake.

The bent and brown grasses strike elegant poses – so frail and faint, so beautiful and welcome, like a baby’s whisper.

The rivers are swollen with nowhere to run, their rapids and riffles are now quiet and slow. Outside the scolds of a blue jay and the racket of a squirrel in the underbrush, the forest is silent and still.

I really could stay right here forever under this tree, staring up to the sky. I love to see the branches, intertwined and bare and to feel the tree trunk sway, even with only a slight turn of the wind.

In the arms of this matriarch I feel like I would be comforted, fed and protected. Sleeping lightly in a groggy state, seduced by the autumn leaves, I think I could drift off into the deepest of sleep and dreams.

The squirrels could set up a game of cards on my chest and play the mice for the bag of salted peanuts in my pocket. The ravens could have the buttons off my coat and the frogs can take my wristwatch.

I would give this great tree the skeleton key to my heart.

But instead, the cold and damp dirt beneath my blue-jeaned rump tells me it’s time to get up to my feet. I must have blinked or something. I slipped up and the world slipped in, leading me back to the house.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.

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John Pepin is the deputy public information officer for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Outdoors North is a weekly column produced by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources on a wide range of topics important to those who enjoy and appreciate Michigan’s world-class natural resources of the Upper Peninsula. Send correspondence to pepinj@michigan.gov or 1990 U.S. 41 South, Marquette, MI 49855.

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