Autumn’s Coin

The sun shone through gold leaves and brown on Saturday afternoon. Huge tan platters, slightly curved inward, rustled and skittered down from the sweet-gum tree outside my office. It sheds bark first, then large leaves that catch the wind and rustle and dance across the yards when the wind is right.

The light has shifted, slanted and clear. Summer’s smoke and dust have faded away, leaving sunlight with an edge and a golden cast to it. Or is it the gold and yellow and tan and crimson in the leaves that tint the passing light? We’ve entered the season of weakening sun. I can go outdoors bare headed and in short sleeves and not crisp. Oh, I’ll still burn if I’m not careful, but not instantly. The light and milder heat feel good in the crisp air. The sun blesses instead of punishes. It provides energy, encourages hurry—harvest is ready, now is the time, the fields are golden and the late fruits are ripe. Gather what you can, while you can, in the fat weeks and months before winter.

Not everyone loves the falling leaves. The community tabby picks his grumpy way between the largest of fallen leaves. He cannot sneak when every step crackles and crunches. The orange cat minces, one white foot carefully placed, then the other. He steps with great care among the brown. Or he clings to windowsills, edging along above the fray until the windows run out and he is forced to return to the ground.

People are busy. Some rake leaves, others mulch them in. At RedQuarters we wait for a generous carpet, enough to make the neighbors concerned about propriety and tidiness, then run a mulching mower over everything. One neighbor is out planting late-season flowers and hauling sacks of mulch. Another replaces brackets for Christmas lights, while promising not to put the lights up until Thanksgiving. House painters work down the street, touching up trim. Dad and I will wait for the last hold out of the trees to scatter its burden before we tackle the gutters. That tree’s leaves always end up in the gutters, even if we use gutter guards. It’s a plot, Dad’s certain of it.

A few birds have moved through. Waxwings and robins, the kites, all came and went. I saw a heron the other evening. The bats seem to have migrated south as well. I await the winter owl, the goldfinches and snowbirds. We have not had many geese yet. They might be waiting, or may have diverted to better-watered routes. Last month I heard sandhill cranes pass overhead. None since then, that I know of.

The light shifts, the sun slides south, the year turns. Orion’s heralds have appeared in the east.

Five Steps from Aldo Leopold

If you are interested in national parks and wilderness areas in the US, or in land restoration, or in hunting and nature writing, you have probably heard of or read something by Aldo Leopold. If you are involved in wetland or stream restoration or remediation, you know the work of Luna Leopold, Aldo’s son, and Dave Rosgen, who studied under Luna and who devised a way to describe bodies of moving water in ways that are 1) useful and 2) universal.

I was revisiting an older post recently and started counting back. I studied under one of Rosgen’s students. That makes me four academic generations from Aldo Leopold. Closer, perhaps, because my teacher met Luna briefly at a conference when my teacher was younger. My other grad school pedigrees trace back to Francis Parkman and Frederick Jackson Turner. If you are into environmental or western US history, this is sort of cool. If you are outside of academia, you probably consider this information slightly less useful than the TV remote is to a goldfish. 🙂

I happened to be shifting books around two weeks ago, and rediscovered my copy of Luna Leopold’s textbook on hydrology. It is a bit dated in some ways, but still very useful. After all, water still flows uphill toward money, or downhill after a rain, at a rate that varies with the surface under the water and the intensity of the rainfall. Streams still erode their beds (degrading) or build them up by leaving extra sediment behind (aggrading). Hillslopes still slide downhill if conditions are just right, and take houses with them. Unless someone changes gravity’s intensity, or the physics of water flow, certain calculation methods and rules of thumb remain valid.

Luna was the son of Aldo Leopold. Aldo wrote some of the best articles about landscape, wildlife, and how we see them, that I have read. His Sand County Almanac and Other Writings is a classic among hunters, naturalists, and people who like reading about landscapes and critters. If I could write like that, and see like that . . . Sigh. He visited the Colorado River delta while it still had a goodly amount of water in it. He also acted as a predator control officer for the forest service back when all wolves and bears were to be extirpated. Then he saw the results, and became one of the strongest advocates for wilderness preservation and predator conservation. He died of a heart attack while fighting a small wildfire on his neighbor’s property in Wisconsin in 1948. All of his five children became biologists or hydrologists. His ideas about conservation, stewardship, and “land ethic” provide a balance between the “use it all up” side (now long gone in the US) and the “don’t touch, humans are bad” end of the environmental scale.

Aldo died in 1948. Luna died in 2006. Last I heard, my teacher is still around, as is Dave Rosgen. You can buy Aldo Leopold’s books today, and I encourage you to do so. They are great writing, even if you don’t agree with all of his philosophy. He and Loren Eisley are two of my favorites, although they are very, very different. (Eisley gets . . . Odd. And metaphysical, and strange. But his poem ‘The Innocent Assassins” and some of his essays on night and darkness are fascinating.)

Peach-Colored Sunrise and Skittering Leaves

Autumn arrived on Sunday week, by way of a two-round cold front. First came a wind shift, from southwest to northeast. Then colder, wet skies full of low-hanging clouds and rain. Autumn is fully here, at last.

I woke early Sunday morning and half-napped after taking care of the cat. I’d left the windows cracked open the night before, because the high had been in the low 90s F, and the wind wasn’t supposed to get too strong overnight. The more fresh air that gets into the house, the better it is, to an extent, and I prefer to be a little cool at night. So I heard a few traffic sounds, drying leaves rustling on the northerly breeze, and the burbling trill of sandhill cranes. That caught my ear and I sat up, listening hard. Cranes? Surely if I heard anything it would be geese. No, the sound came again, passing northwest to southeast. Cranes, calling with that distinctive ancient sound as they passed overhead in the pre-dawn hours. Which suggested that the front might be stronger, and closer, than forecast. I got up, petted the cat for the third time, and hurried out to stroll.

A few tiny spitters and drips of rain blew on the rising wind. Low clouds, shredded and torn by the wind and the mixing air, hurried overhead, red-tinged in the city light. I could see glimpses of higher clouds to the west and east, with clear skies retreating to the south. As I walked, the clouds thinned and changed color. Soon they glowed the warm peach-pink and old gold of sunrise. Color swept the sky, stronger to the southeast and west than in true east or north. Peach became pink, then white grey as the first round of clouds passed. The tiny drops and hints of rain didn’t grow any stronger, at least not for a while.

Big brown leaves hissed and clattered across the street and driveways, chased by the wind. The sweet gum trees had begun shedding earlier, first their bark, then their big curved leaves. Now they shapes danced away on the wind, bouncing as they traveled. The big crescents of locust seed pods clattered down to the ground. They didn’t need the wind’s help to fall, they weighed so much, laden with seeds. The neighbors would be out that afternoon, raking them into something like a pile. At least those that the squirrels or the rising wind didn’t send to visit neighbors or into the street.

That afternoon, the light strengthened and shifted. Hard light shone down through the first brown leaves. Only the sweet-gum and locusts had begun turning, although the Bradford pears and oaks hinted at the possibility. The hawthorns, berry-heavy and crimson, glowed, leaves long gone as is their wont. Blue skies full of autumn light arced over the world. The lingering sweet-gum leaves looked almost gilded, the sunlight turning them and everything else faintly gold. The autumn sun has a quality, I’m not sure how best to describe it. Gold, almost hard-edged, but beautiful and almost gentle. Even on warm days, something is missing. Summer’s ferocious lion is tamed, mellowed with the aging of the year, softer. Clear light, free for now of smoke and dust, angled more and more from the south, bathed the afternoon, bringing out the best in the day. Even the rising north wind could not ruin the sweet moments.

Come late afternoon, dark northern skies had flowed south. Heavy clouds covered the sky, rain-laden clouds, their burden wrung loose by the twisting wind. Darkness and rain came together, heavy with a few bursts of lightening and snarls of thunder. The “equinoctial storm,” perhaps, although it came later than usual. This entire year has been off-kilter, so why not the traditional storms as well? No heavy weather here, just the token flash and grumble of a cold-front driven storm line buried in stratus, a reminder of what had come before.

Monday morning, Orion and the Seven Sisters glittered down, fresh-washed and hard in the hours before sunrise. They hovered just past the zenith, winter’s heralds. The morning smelled clean, and crisp, with a tease of smoke in the air. Come Friday, the fatty-rich perfume of piñon would arise from chimneys to proclaim the first frost’s coming.

The year turns, the stars pass in silent order. All is well.

Monarchs and Swallowtails 2.0

It’s that time of year.

Ours are on fennel.

Alas, the giant butterfly bush (Buddleia) in the front yard succumbed to age and hard winter weather.

Fair use from: https://gardenerdy.com/butterfly-bush-care-maintenance/

We had a lot of swallowtail caterpillars back in the summer. And the cardinals ate all of them. However, Mom spotted a few second-round caterpillars recently, and moved them to a dense stand of fennel, well hidden from cardinals and jays.

Ansel Oommen, budwood.org. Black Swallowtail Caterpillar. Used under Fair Use for non-commercial usages. Image from:https://www.invasive.org/browse/detail.cfm?imgnum=5560093

The monarch butterflies came through a few weeks back, in late August. This is early, and they didn’t linger. The main migration seems to have shifted east this year, although that might be due to the lack of rain in the few weeks before they appeared. NM and CO dried out a little before we did, and were hotter, so that might also have encouraged the shift. Plus we didn’t have much that the monarchs cared for. They were all next door, pestering something red and fluffy (not a Buddleia) at the neighbor’s place.

The Mississippi kites, which arrived late this year, departed about the same time. The cicadas went silent last week, more or less, and the crickets are not as numerous as in August. Spiders have begun moving into the building at Day Job. We’ve had a few cool fronts knocking the temperatures down from the mid-upper 90s to our seasonal average lower 80s, but nothing really huge, yet. Those came through in August. We are also dry, even for this time of year. It is as if a switch flipped. Last week was hot and muggy, this week is warm and dry (from upper 60s F dewpoints to upper 40s dewpoints).

Orion is at the peak of the sky when I go out at 0600 to walk. The year is turning, will we or nil we. I want cooler weather. I’m a little worried about a repeat of Snowvid 21, or the October storm of last year. But there’s nothing I can do to change the weather, or to stop the change of seasons.

I am peeved about the Buddleia, though. I have yet to find a replacement as hardy as the big yellow one in the front garden. And the big purple one in the back took quite a beating from the cold this past winter, and June’s heat didn’t help.

*shrug* Welcome to gardening on the edge of a high desert.

Howdy, hawk!

A lady Merlin.

For some reason, allll the other birds were really quiet. The dove on the birdbath didn’t move for a good 15 minutes, until the merlin departed.

It’s been a busy week for urban wildlife. LawDog’s avatar stopped by to visit.

I zoomed way in, while standing away from the window. I didn’t want to spook the fox. At first I thought it was the neighborhood not-a-stray cat, but the ears were too big. So I put on my glasses. That’s not a red tabby cat.

Scratch one Dove

So, I was wandering past the window last week, and lo and behold, someone else was getting breakfast. Apparently a hawk was hunting over bait, as they say, and got one of the large, slow, and often dim whitewing doves.

I apologize for the image quality. I just had my phone, and couldn’t brace against anything to get a better shot through the window.

Signs of the Times

Some of the trees have started turning yellow. That’s a hint, along with the brilliant orange hawthorn berries. The robins are hanging around, watching the hawthorn tree. Then they’ll strip it clean – while ignoring equally ripe trees in other yards. I have no idea why.

It’s now in the mid to lower 50s in the mornings, although afternoons can still poke into the 90s. I actually needed a jacket the other morning. We’ve gone over a week without running the air conditioner at RedQuarters.

At least two dozen buzzards were circling as I headed to work on Tuesday. They all headed south. They over-summer here in one of the old, very high-rent districts, much to the chagrin of the home owners. Apparently having a vulture rookery in your yard does not improve property values, or help neighborhood morale.

Sign on a local café: “I had my patience tested the other day. It came back negative.” I know that feeling.

Sign on a local church: “Remember the black-eyed peas we ate for luck at New Years? When are those supposed to kick in?” AMEN!