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Encounters: Back in the United States, October 2019: Part 2 – Nature

November 27, 2019 by

This is part 2 in a series. Read part 1 here.

There is no better place to spend the autumn than in the northeastern United States. Even though climate change seems to have delayed and muted the colors of childhood memory, they were stunning nonetheless after seven years in the Australian bush. Staying near New York City for a couple months, Grace and I savored a twice-daily walk around a small lake, counterclockwise in the morning and clockwise in the evening, to catch the best angle of sun highlighting the tapestry, leaf by leaf.

For us it was a season of rediscovery, of reconnection. “In October, a maple tree before your window lights up your room like a great lamp. Even on cloudy days, its presence helps to dispel the gloom.” Agreed, John Burroughs! But the fall colors that define the season do not encompass all facets of autumn in this region. For fall is a time of change; a flow of birds heading south; a glorious culmination of abundant summer harvest pivoting toward the coming of winter; a bittersweet tinge of longing that it last forever, and knowing it won’t.

It is precisely because autumn is so sensory – you see it, hear it, smell it, touch it, taste it – that writers and poets glory in its manifold richness. Poet Bliss Carman, for instance: you feel October as it “calls and calls each vagabond by name.” My favorite autumnal flower is the wild aster: masses of “frosty asters like a smoke upon the hills” or lone clusters of deep purple with golden centers alongside any stream. Asters serve as sentinels at the doorway of the season; their appearance heralds the start of this most magical time of year.

According to Burroughs, the “most precious things of life are near at hand, without money and without price. Each of you has the whole wealth of the universe at your very door.” And if “the scarlet of the maples can shake me like a cry / of bugles going by,” as Bliss Carman writes, then a stand of maples reflected in the water shakes doubly.

fall colors reflected in a lake

The secret to observing the natural world, Burroughs said, lies in the “capacity to take a hint.” It is not so much what we see as what the thing seen – or heard – suggests. One morning we heard the harsh cawing of crows at one end of the lake. A birdwatcher will catch the hint and start looking for the owl that the crows have spotted.

Rounding a bend, a flurry of feathers morphed into a Great-horned Owl disturbed from its nighttime roost by the boisterous mob. The bird flew a short distance to a limb overhanging the water where its large body and feather-horned head were perfectly silhouetted against the brightening sky and rising mist. As we continued our walk, the crows were still busy dive-bombing the owl; the bigger bird just twitched a feathery tuft now and then in annoyance.

Over the years this lake has been refuge to many a passing migrant, and we noted an unusual pair of ducks one September morning. They were American Wigeon, travelling south from their breeding grounds across the Canadian border. With numbers estimated to have declined some 65 percent over the past half-century, their presence graced our day.

A few weeks later we found ourselves retracing the wigeons’ flight, driving north through New York and into Vermont to spend the evening with friends near Middlebury. The road took us between two iconic mountain ranges of the northeast: the Adirondacks to the west and the Greene Mountains to the east.

Here the colors were at peak, with all the leaves still on the trees. Rushing mountain creeks kept us company for long stretches of time, a welcome sight to our eyes so used to the severe drought covering New South Wales, Australia. As we left Vermont heading east to Auburn, Maine, our route took us along the northern slopes of the White Mountains within a half hour of Mount Washington. We couldn’t resist!

At 6288 feet, the peak is the highest in the northeast. Given the time we had available, the only way to gain the summit was to join a line of vehicles up a road that climbs some forty-six hundred feet in multiple switchbacks. We left the tree-line at forty-four hundred feet while the road continued, ever more steeply, with no guard rail or natural barrier between us and the valley below. A harrowing ascent, but definitely worth doing once!

mountains

Maine is a state I’ve flown over a number of times, always wishing for the chance to explore its vast expanse of wooded hills or its coastline immortalized in Robert McCloskey’s classics, One Morning in Maine and Time of Wonder.

It was here that Rachel Carson worked for years, gaining insights into coastal ecology that later appeared in her groundbreaking books; it was this shore, too, that inspired The Sense of Wonder. And while our route took us south of Carson’s summer cottage, we managed an early morning pilgrimage to the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge south of Portland.

Here the sandpipers were so intent on using this migratory stop to tank up on energy that we literally had to watch our step; ditto with the American pipits foraging among the seaweed washed ashore. Across an inlet, sheltered by a rocky outcropping, a raft of Common Eider rested on the gentle billows. Being part of this scene seemed a fitting tribute to Carson, who was at once a mentor, a naturalist, an eminent scientist, a lyrical writer, and a woman of indomitable courage who stood down the mighty captains of the petro-chemical industry of her day. Walking the beach, we felt her near.

shoreline

Our final stop was the Boston Public Garden, close to the heart of many a grown child for whom Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings stirred the beginnings of a life-long love of all things avian. No swan boats this Sunday afternoon, but the bridge and island, surrounded by many pairs of Mr. and Mrs. Mallards, were just the same. So were Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack.

bridge in Boston

statues of ducks

Our journey in nature began in July in the middle of the country, at the Trinity River Audubon Center in Dallas where Grace and I saw our first Painted Bunting – arguably the most colorful songbird North America has to offer an Australian birder. And it ended along the Atlantic Coast, honoring the lives of two authors whose work endeared the natural world to millions. Good on you, America.

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photograph of Bill and Grace Wiser

Bill Wiser

Bill Wiser lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales. His daily activities include teaching and pastoral work...

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