Hearth and Hillside

We who live in this mile-high place guard our summers like crown jewels, savoring every June morning like an emerald, and each August sunset like an amethyst chased in gold. As summer wanes, it’s like the last pour of a fine wine, or the trickling grains of a magic hourglass. Yet here we are in autumn, which is an even briefer season with a magic all its own. By the time these words reach the press, we’ll have had another snowstorm, and autumn will be a few steps farther along on its hike toward year-end.

Friends send us photos of blazing foliage in other parts of the country. We wince a bit, because the thudding snowfalls of early October along the Beartooths turn almost all our foliage the color of a paper bag. But here and there, mostly in the river bottoms or in some protected coulee, there is a spectacular tree. Brilliant waxy yellow or wine red, it casts a litter of confetti into the blue sky. Any glimpse of color, whether it’s a dogwood branch, a rose-hip, or a sheaf of grass turned copper orange in the afternoon sun—it’s all set off by a landscape precisely the color of a mule deer. The sounds are different too—more apparent in the new stillness of fall. When the dog barks down the road, it’s clearer.

The old truck shifting gears on the highway, that’s different too. Out in the field and the forest, the birds are softer, more tentative—but to our new ears, just as audible. I remember a walk in the woods one afternoon years ago, when I stopped among the pines. As I heard the chickadees whispering, I just wanted to be there, listening. I closed my eyes for a moment and felt the softest brush of something on my cheek. I opened them and saw that a chickadee had landed on my shoulder. A few seconds later, he was gone. And so it is with autumn. For most of us, this is a time of quiet, of hunkering down, of home-making and homecoming. It will soon be gone, replaced by the happy frenzy of the holidays. November is a time to savor.

There is perhaps no better feeling than to have a warm place by the fire while it grows cold outside, and to have few moments to think the longer, deeper thoughts that autumn allows. The horizon is swept clean, opening the world up for us to reach beyond ourselves. If we step outside around 8 or 9 p.m., we see the Big Dipper on the northwest horizon, just about perfectly level, brimming with enough stories and legends to last all winter. Looking up at all that magnificent geometry in the dark vault of heaven, it’s hard not to think about divine architecture. Autumn gives us a better glimpse of where we fit among all the angles and intersections of the cosmos. As the frosty stars slowly churn, and great wheel of the year moves inexorably toward the end of the year, I think of the great nature writer Hal Borland, who found so many ways to express how we fit into nature’s vast mystery. About autumn, he wrote, “Year's end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.”