Autumn And Gravestones

[Sitting and thinking at Forest Cemetery, St. Regis Falls, NY.]

Now that there is six inches of fresh snow on the ground and the trees are bare and the world outside our picture window is monochromatic, I can admit that I miss the late summer, the coolness of autumn days and the color of the trees.

I’ll also miss my favorite cemeteries. The best time of year to roam the country graveyards has come and gone. I’ll have to wait until mid-summer, after the mud and the bugs, until I can go “graving” again.

Does it all sound morbid to you? Too melancholy? It shouldn’t. I enjoy old cemeteries where I can learn local history and make up life stories of those who are interred beneath my feet.

And I have a perfectly good reason to wander the burying grounds. I am a volunteer photographer for Find-A-Grave.com. I get requests from people who live in places like Iowa and Nebraska asking for a photo of their grandfather’s headstone, or a memorial to an aunt’s grave they will never visit…never have a chance to leave a flower or a penny on the gravestone. They reply in emails how glad they are to have such a photo. It helps them build their family trees on Ancestry.com or some other genealogy site. Or (as they have written), share the photo with a grandchild, son, niece or spouse.

I love doing this for these people. I ask for nothing in return, except for a simple “thank you”.

Every human has a story that tells of their lives, even those who have been buried 150 years ago. I’ve stood over the graves and photographed headstones of suicides, murder victims, children who lived two days and men and women who lived to their 90+ years. I’ve wept over the graves of people whose families could only manage a hand-made headstone made of poured concrete and wrote the name and death dates with their fingers.

So many stories. So many headstones. So many epitaphs. So much grief.

But, time heals those wounds…they say.

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Another Time Around

[Our front deck table.]

It all happened so fast. One minute, the flies fill the skies, the frogs croak down by the lake, the fan is kept on all night (a rare thing here in the North Country) and I spend my outdoor time swatting mosquitoes.

Tonight, we’re told of a frost warning. The fan is put away. The frogs are sitting out the cold weather deep in the mud. Our first frost, a few weeks ago, took care of the insects. I still find myself brushing away the spider nests, but their time will be over soon.

It’s about two weeks since the equinox. The first days of autumn are heavy upon us. The recent ceaseless rain has brought on some spectacular bursts of reds, yellows and scarlets among the deciduous trees. It’s the time of death and decay.

Or is it?

As I sit on the sofa and look out at the falling leaves, I’m remembering a very old Peanuts cartoon: Charlie Brown’s concern about that one last leaf that clung to a branch. I’m remembering the O. Henry short story, The Last Leaf…a deathly sick young woman lies on what may be her deathbed. The doctor tells her friend that she will…unless she had something to live for. The sick woman is watching the last leaf on a tree in the garden of her New York apartment. Her friend senses that the woman will die when the last leaf falls. The friend commissions an old artist gentleman to paint the leaf on the outside of her window. The last leaf never falls…the young woman lives.

It’s a melancholy story, but so is autumn, in a way.

[Beside our front walk.]

I took a walk around our property this afternoon. I noticed something that came as no surprise. It happens every year at this time, but it still takes you by surprise. When you think all is dying and rotting, you see new growth. Yes, something new is pushing through the wet soil like the crocus of April and the daffodils of May.

The fungi have taken over our lawn like daisies in June. They bring color to a darkening landscape. There, amid the fallen red leaves are white, brown and yellow mushrooms, not seeking sunlight so much (they’re not so big on photosynthesis), but are finding their food in the decaying leaves.

Soon, the first snows of November will put an end to much of we see.

But, rest assured that under the three feet of snow and the sub-zero temperatures, life goes on. The mice have tunnels, the future insects that will plague me next summer are holding out under the tree bark or in the mud of Rainbow Lake.

The frogs will be there too.

[All photos are mine.]

 

The Summer We Never Had Is Gone

“I see your true colors shining through…”

-Cyndi Lauper

Green is still the dominant color in the foliage around Rainbow Lake.  Each day, however, brings out a few hundred more leaves that have lost their Chlorophyll and are showing their true colors.

We’ve had our first frost warning on my weather app…and that was in late August!  Since we arrived home in late June from our six months in NYC, there really hasn’t been a true summer, a season like I remember from the 1950’s family camping we did at Raquette Lake.

It rained a lot.  The lows dipped into the upper 40’s F on many nights.

Our burning bush seems to provide the only imaginary warmth…it’s turning red.

I find a beautiful red leaf in the driveway.  I mark the days off on our kitchen calendar.  It’s only two weeks until the Autumnal Equinox…the official end of summer.

I stack our firewood and wait for a guy named Forest (really) to deliver another face cord.

I love the fall foliage, the scarlets, reds, yellows and the deep dark browns of the trees that have leaves that just simply die. Die without giving us a palate of hues that we will remember and take Instagrams of and email to our loved ones who live in just two seasons…summer and winter, like Alabama or Mississippi.

But, I’m sensing a growing melancholy this year, unlike the years past.  I just turned seventy.  There’s far more of my life behind me than before me.

I lay awake at night and think of things that might have been…and now feel that now they’ll never be.

There’s a flash of color this time of year and then the wait, sometimes long, sometimes short, until the first snow falls.

That brings on a whole new catalogue of memories and sadness.

Am I alone?

[All photos are my own.]

The Great And Silent Feast

I felt the breeze…

I stumbled on a tree root when…

Finally, we reached the pond…

yardleaves

Concentrate. Start over.

When I was a teacher I was often given the dubious privilege of “lunch duty”. A room, nearly the size of a gym, filled with 5th & 6th graders…or 9th & 10th graders and a hand full of teachers produced a noise level that made it impossible to carry on a conversation or to even think about the hour before you. Sometimes on days when I didn’t have duty, I would retreat to the faculty lunch room. Even there, teachers talked about the students, the administration or their Valium prescription. Still, no time to think.

As a last resort, I would take my tray to my empty homeroom and eat alone. It occurred to me that I would appear antisocial…but at least I could think.

Once, perhaps a decade or so ago, I found a guidebook to monasteries, close to our home in Manhattan, that opened their doors to travelers…like a B & B with stained glass. Mariam and I found one, run by the Episcopal church, on the western side of the Hudson River. It was a large estate-like building that sat high above the river in the Hudson Highlands. It happened that we booked our room on a “quiet” weekend.

No talking allowed.

During the meals, all I could hear was the clinking of forks and spoons on the china plates. A whisper here and there…but otherwise, silence.

I could think.

On October 7, Mariam and I with our friends took a walk on the Silver Lake Bog trail. The sky was azure. The foliage was at a peak. Brilliant reds, yellows, copper and scarlet leaves mixed with the green conifers.

pineneedles

[Even the conifers lose their leaves (needles) in the autumn]

I hung back and walked alone. I stopped to listen. The gently falling leaves sounded like a light rain. I looked around me and realized that I had walked into a grand feast, a forested restaurant, a silent meal.

And, I could think.

A gentle sense of melancholy overcame me…it’s that time of year that evokes death and endings and dormant life.

lichentree

[This once-living tree is now being consumed by dozens of organisms]

Nearly everything I looked at was in the process of dying…or already dead. What was alive was consuming what was dead. This was considered to be a fairly dry summer, but you would never have guessed that from that bog or our front yard.  I have seen more fungi this October that I can recall.  My copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Mushrooms was used more than the previous decade.  It is now well dog-eared.

fungusinyard

It was like watching “The Walking Dead” with the roles reversed. Of course I have lived a life-time of seeing this every autumn, but on that day, the Big Picture came into focus more clearly and gave me the urge to put all this into words. I was a witness to the Great Cycle of Life. I know it’s a cliché, but there it was, all around me. The ground itself was covered by a blanket of moss and lichen that were feeding and consuming the organic material. The dead logs, many cleared from the trail by a chainsaw, were helpless to resist the countless fungi, moss, bacteria and water that were breaking a once tall and stately beech or maple or oak into mere molecules.

mossylog

[A dead log feeds a number of organisms]

And, all this was done in total silence and would continue even under three feet of snow and ice and temperatures of -37 degrees.

mossyground

[The ground cover of moss and lichen]

In six months, a small spore, a seed, a dormant larvae of a black fly would begin to revive and then bloom and the green would return.

Everything goes somewhere.  “Matter cannot be created or destroyed…it simply changes form”.  I think that’s Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics…but I could be wrong.  I stopped being a science teacher a decade ago.  Most things return in the spring.  Some things take a longer time…but sooner or later it all comes around again.

The exception, I hope, is lunch duty.

 

Do You Really Want To Go There?

Dark Lane 4 Blog

It’s early Autumn.  The air is crisp.  The broad leaves of the oaks and maples are sharp and bright in the sun.  Against the darker conifers, the reds and yellows are more muted–less distinct and less joyful.

There is a lane.  It seems to possess a faint voice calling for you to follow to wherever it leads.  The fair-haired, blue-eyed woman beside you urges you to take a few steps into the forest.  Her white hand suddenly is gripping your right forearm.  Without words she is telling you to not take another step.

“We don’t know where this path leads,” she says with her eyes.  You brush a red leaf from her soft hair.  You look down the lane again.  Something is urging you to explore–to follow the trail to its end.  On your left, a woman with dark eyes and pale flesh takes your hand.

“Come,” she whispers in your ear.  “We can’t keep them waiting.”

You look to your right.  The fair one has a distressed look as she stares down the lane.  Her hand trembles.

Turning your head, you see your car parked miles away.  How can this be?  You’ve only taken a few steps into the woods.  A breeze picks up a few leaves and stirs them at your feet.  The branches of the trees begin to weave and roll and shudder.

There is a tug at your right arm.

“Let’s go back,” the fair one says.  “I don’t like this.”

“Let’s move on,” your pale lover says.  “It’ll be good.  I’ll see to that.”

You are unable to move.  You stare into the distance and wonder where it will end and how far the walk will be.  Will there be a pool of clear water?  A bower of red and scarlet leaves?  An old farmhouse?  Does the backdoor–the screen door, bang in the wind?  Is the spring rusty?  Are the rooms empty?

Is there a house at all?  If not, why the road?  All roads lead to something in this forest.

You’re frozen with indecision.  You want to go forward and you want to run back to the car.

What about your lovers?  You look from left to right.  There is no one there.  Was anyone ever there?  Are you awake?  Is this a dream?

You look back at your car.  It is not in sight–there is no car.  Looking down, you see there is hardly a path.  It’s all overgrown.

A woman’s voice calls to you.  It’s a song–so very sad.  You’ve heard this lament before.  Nothing good can come of this, you’re thinking.  Nothing good.

It’s never good when you’re alone–in the woods when the sun begins to set.

When A Leaf Dances A Snowflake Will Soon Fall

Leaf1

I’m sitting on the front deck of our house which sits on a small rise above Rainbow Lake.  It’s late September in the North Country of New York State.  The trees are oddly out-of-tune with the season.  Some are brown, dead and waiting to drop to the ground.  Some are just hinting at the blast of hues they will splash your color receptors with–in a few short weeks.  And, some trees have ignored the short daylight and the 41 degree evening temperatures.  They are holding their chlorophyll until some command from the Horai and, they too will reveal their true colors.

I’m sitting on the front deck, breathing through my mouth and trying not to cough.  I am just getting over a mild case of pneumonia that I seemed to have picked up while traveling to my high school reunion.  My chest is feeling clearer and my temperature is roughly normal.  I’m sitting here wearing a fleece vest–but that’s nothing new.  I just took it off three months ago after wearing it pretty much since this time last year.

But I’m not doing nothing.  I’m watching a leaf dance.

It’s movement caught the corner of my eye as I took out a bag of recyclables.  A tiny maple leaf, part brown, part red and patched with black is caught at the end of a long strand of spider web that reaches from the roof to within a few inches of the floor boards.  Don’t even try to see the gossamer thread, its invisible as far as I’m concerned.  For me, the leaf is dancing its gentle pirouettes on the air.

That’s why I’m sitting on my front deck.  I’d be napping if I had not seen the leaf and I would be missing this special private recital.

Just now, I hear a skein of Canadian Geese flying westward.  Their honking has interrupted my silent concert.  It has led me to think of the passing summer–and the approach of the cruel and harsh months of ice and cold.

Winter usually begins without warning.  In the Adirondacks, it could come on the next cloud–it all depends on your elevation.  Here, beside the lake, it comes with seeing the first snowflake.  Usually heavy with moisture, the first flakes are soft, pure and slow to reach the ground.  Unless you find pleasure in winter sport, it’s a rough road until the Big Melt.

But, soon, if a strong wind doesn’t take my leaf away, a snowflake or two will collide with the leaf and adhere to its surface.  Then another will join–and then another.  The weight will cause my leaf to break its attachment to the thread and fall to the deck.  It’ll get swept away by new winds and then rot into the soil, under inches of snow, in our yard.

I have to go inside for a box of tissues now.  I wonder if the leaf will wait for me?

I doubt it.  The leaf owes me nothing.

Leaf2

Is This Really Happening?

JulyColorLeaves

It’s 5:01 pm on July 23.  Thirty-two days ago was the summer solstice.  It’s 64.9 F.

I’m standing on the back deck of our house at Rainbow Lake.  I’m chilled.  I have a thin blanket over my shoulders like a cheap superhero.  It’s one of those free “blanket” covers they give you on long distance flights.  (I didn’t take it without asking).  There is a cool breeze coming off the lake.  To my left, the leaves of the Aspen tree shake and flutter in the wind like each leaf is held to the branch by a gossamer thread, ready to break.

All around me I am seeing green.  I can see tiny slices of the lake water through the trees.  We’ve decided to not trim away the vegetation.  It’s cuts down on the view but is better for the ecology of the shoreline.

It’s July 23.

Seventy-two hours ago I was slowly walking down 5th Ave. in New York City.  The temperature was 95 F. and the humidity was at least 176%.  I couldn’t breathe.  I was just told I had a viral bronchitis thing going on.  Wrong place to be with a chest issue.  Ozone alerts were in the red.

My eye picks up something out of the ordinary in the mid-distance to the lake.  Something a mere four meters from where I stood on the deck.

I’m looking at a dozen or so maple leaves that have turned red.

Is this really happening?

I just put the snow shovel on a nail in the garage only several weeks ago.  I just swept away the spider webs from our kayaks and took them to the dock.  And yet, I’m looking at a harbinger of autumn.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love autumn.  I love the scarlets, yellows and reds…and the cool, bug free weather.  But…

It’s July 23.

I don’t even know where my swimming shorts are stored, but I never lost sight of my green fleece vest.  I’m not wearing it now.  It’s in the laundry after eleven months of constant wear.  I thought it was time for a wash.

Is this maple tree a genetic mutation?  Did lightning strike it while we were away?  Is someone playing sick joke on me?

I’m leaving the deck now and going back to my Rand McNally Atlas.  I’ll flip to Florida.  I’ll put my finger on Fort Meyer.  I’ll bet the maples haven’t begun to turn red there…yet.

After all, it’s July 23.