by Fred Wooley, contributing ACRES writer and former caretaker of Wing Haven, pictured.
Every fall we all set our clocks back, but we each approach the extra hour differently, some sleeping in, others simply appreciating the luxury of extra “found” time.
I see autumn as a slowing of pace, the perfect time for us to take note of nature, to take stock of what happened during the busy growing season. We breathe easier in cool fall air and even stop to consciously breathe in the smell of fall leaves.
Years ago, when I was starting as a park interpreter, many asked if I aspired to “go west” to work at one of the big national parks. But the answer was no. I’ve always felt at home in the Midwest. I’ve found many areas out west arid— even desolate, compared to our lush woodlands, verdant wetlands, colorful prairies, and diverse oak openings.
Grand Canyon? Amazing, yes, but I’ll take our ACRES Robb Hidden Canyon for a near-home visit, thank you very much. The Sequoias are impressive, but the big trees of Bicentennial Woods are no seedlings! A rushing mountain stream that looks good in an outdoor ad has nothing over the cascading waterfalls of our own Hathaway Preserve at Ross Run.
After months of spring-summer’s tunnel-like wooded trails through deciduous forests, I find comfort in this lushness and growth “opening up.” We are awed by autumn’s changing colors, but it’s just as satisfying for me when falling leaves open up new views, distant views, views no longer hidden. Even on familiar trails, we see things differently.
As we gaze down Robb Hidden Canyon’s deep ravines, we again get a feel for topography. It’s a different preserve than just weeks before.
As days shorten, changes begin. By mid August, walnut leaves are beginning to yellow. In September, Virginia creeper’s red-maroon flames lick up against gray tree trunks. By mid October, even evergreens get into the act.
Most every fall, I get inquiries from people who think their white pines are in trouble: “My pines—there’s something wrong! They’re turning yellow and losing needles!”
I assure them it’s all normal. Though “evergreen,” the needles are not evergreen forever. Each year about a third change color when their chlorophyll leaves, and then they drop. A few brisk autumn winds later, this wonderful gold-green mix of needles forms a gold carpet beneath boughs that are, once again, all evergreen.
The spring and summer business of bird breeding is behind us now. Baltimore and orchard orioles traveled back and forth to the jelly feeders in our yard all summer, but we could never find their nests. These birds are in the Deep South now, picking bugs from tropical trees. When the leaves fall, we hope to locate the orioles’ pendant, grass and fiber ball nests that swung hidden in the thick canopy of summer.
In fall, we can slow down and visit our favorite ACRES preserves. Days of planting, watering, weeding, picking and preserving are over. Mowing slows, outside projects are done, it’s our time again. If you walk slowly, you can search high and low for this year’s nests. Notice newly gnawed holes in trees you’ve walked by before. See how familiar woods are different now that they are open for greater scrutiny and study.
Fall is my favorite time to get the lay of unfamiliar land, so make a point to pick a new ACRES preserve to visit for the first time. You may well return when winter’s blanket covers an even more open landscape. Things really slow then for nature, but not for us.