Now it is late October and a walk in the woods has a different feel to it. The days so far have still been fairly warm but night-time temperatures are lower, and the plant life is here to testify to the fact that change is on the way.
Many leaves are spotted, or yellowing, or turning orange or red, and some are dropping to the woodland floor. The tupelos are the first to go. Shed leaves silently twirl to the ground, where they join last year’s batch, mostly decomposed. There is a muffled quality to the air, as if in a chamber. Soon our footsteps will be rustling through a layer of their dead bodies, and that sweet fermented musty smell will permeate the air, perhaps with a whiff of wood smoke from a nearby house. We encounter, too, the macabre eruptions of mushrooms- the ultimate symbol of decay; they are everywhere. And the delicate fronds of the ferns are crumbling.
Something about this time of year always puts me in a somber frame of mind. Perhaps it is the shortening of the days- I took my 6 AM outdoor shower in near darkness this morning. Perhaps it is the weakening of the sun’s rays as they hit the earth more obliquely. Perhaps it is the quieting of the town as the majority of tourists have left, and the fall crowd seems to celebrate in a more subdued manner. And surely it is the number of friends I have lost this year- good friends, whose departures make this earth an emptier place. And more seem to- more do- leave every year, as I grow older.
So I enter the woods with a heavier heart, a greater need for solace.
The natural world has always been my benefactor, just by being there. The trees observe my needy self with a muted indifference: that is the essence of their kindness. They teach me patience, acceptance, context: they teach me resolution (what is more resolute than an oak?). It is something about their long lives and their slowed-down metabolism. The natural world has always been my instructor, and its truths exist beneath the level of words. Now I am learning that the leaves are shed but the trees remain; the trees die back but the woods-if left alone- remain. The trees that die make room for saplings, patiently waiting their turn to grow up into the light. I will not always walk this path, but others will.