October morning (tone poem)

Out for a walk before breakfast, I quickly miss my hat. The sky is clear, & as the light increases, the leaf color in the understory grows more & more distinct. Whenever I pause, the clouds from my breath rise straight up. It’s as if I’m sending smoke signals – but what is the message?

Just as I reach the top of the ridge, the sun comes up. There’s a sudden honking of Canada geese from somewhere a mile or two away: a small, local flock, I imagine, has just crossed paths with the sun at this very same moment. I look carefully to the right and left of the growing blaze of light above the horizon. The valley fog forms a parallel ridge system: ghost mountains, thrown into high relief. When I turn away, blue dots appear in my field of vision on either side of wherever I focus my gaze.

The sun at sunrise doesn’t rise; it descends. From the crowns of the oaks it seeps down limbs & trunks. I follow the moss-covered trail between shining columns, wade through streams & pools of soft, golden light. Saplings already in their autumn colors seem lit up from within. I feel as if I’ve stepped into a Maxfield Parrish illustration.*

To the west, the mountain’s shadow draws a straight line across the fog. Below in the darkness: a train whistle, cars on the highway. Above: a layer of white. Then the crest of the Allegheny Front shining in the sun. Then nothing at all.

By the time I get back, the sun’s halfway down the field. Fog streams from the barn roof. A nuthatch taps in the top branches of a walnut tree.

Western Pennsylvania botanist and photographer Paul Wiegman, in a post to a botanical listserve, writes:

The color change is beginning at the highest elevations of Allegheny Mt., Negro Mt., Laurel Ridge, and Chestnut Ridge, and the lower elevations are still green when viewed from a distance. From within the forest the changes are low to the ground with the ferns and herbaceous vegetation, and some of the understory trees.

Given these two notes, it appears that fall starts from the tops of the mountains and creeps to the lower elevations at the same time it begins at ground level and slowly rises into the canopy.

Cold October morning.
The katydids get started
well before noon.

A chorus of chipmunks
up & down the ridge:
mine mine mine mine mine mine mine.

Cold morning.
A forest full of spiderweb silk
& only the sun to trap.

“All this, here, overpowers everything,” Tom Montag wrote yesterday. “When you see just how beautiful the world is, all of a sudden it swallows you up and there is nothing left of you to send home. The place takes you and you’re gone. All we can write are love letters or suicide notes.”

He’s talking about watching the waves at Keweenaw Bay on Lake Superior. But it could be almost anywhere, I think. And what if one is already at home? To whom should we address our letters then?

Earlier, as I sat outside drinking my coffee, I noticed that the first hole had appeared in the wall of foliage across from my front porch: a small spot of pale blue among the yellow poplar and birch leaves. In a few weeks I’ll have my view of the horizon back.

But it’s folly to think that when the trees are finally all bare, things will become – you know – somehow clearer. Because isn’t this how one pictures a revelation? Brilliant. Brief.

In between there’s green, there’s brown, there’s November gray. And yes, for you fans of clarity, there’s baffling white.

This morning it seems
suddenly remarkable
how every shadow leads
to a particular bush, to some
tall trunk. I stand
like a tracker lost among
a profusion of paths, squinting
into the sun.

*E.g. (That would be me on the left.) Amid much awfulness, “Dream October” actually isn’t too bad.

This is a contribution to the Ecotone wiki topic Plants in Place.

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