That sweet autumn air


As darkness comes earlier to western Colorado, summer’s stillness gives way to a restless fall. The skunks start chemical wars, mountain lions assassinate kids (of the caprine variety) and bears burglarize fruit trees in our own backyards. These are signs of a changing season, one where my colleagues are all victims or gleeful voyeurs of a great unrest among wild things.

Bears mark their return by pooping next to trashcans and in the graveled allies where fermenting apricots and pears perfume the cool mornings with a hint of Bacchus misbehavior. The historically feared and ever-beloved editor of HCN's op-ed columns, Writers on the Range and Heard Around the West, Betsy Marston, spotted bear scat on the trail up to Jumbo Mountain. “Is it okay to bring kids up there still?” she asked. “Keep them close,” the office replied. Betsy once wanted me to write a column about why there are so many squawking birds in the trees around town. That was in the spring. The summer’s been quiet, but I wonder what sort of frenzy we can expect from the birds now that the fruit is brewing and the sunflowers are bursting with seeds.

Then, there are the smaller mammals frenetically gathering food for winter storage. They’re rustling in the thickets of tall weeds along my shed. The pile of yard scraps looks dead and decayed, but it moves and scratches and whispers when I pass it. For two mornings, Associate Editor Sarah Gilman lost sleep when grumpy skunks sprayed her dogs in the middle of the night. Housedogs don’t have to work for their winter survival, so skunks already resent them, but when they interrupt skunks’ house hunting and remodeling, there’s only one ending. If your dogs get sprayed, a mix of dish soap, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide works well. Just keep it out of their eyes.

High Country News headquarters also reflects the aging summer and the wilding fall. We gather for sliced melon in the common area during the afternoons. Giveaways of gigantic squash and cucumbers from people’s gardens occur almost everyday. And next door at Homestead Meats, the local rancher’s cooperative, hunters haul in their fresh-killed elk in the heat of the day for a quick butchering. About 15 carcasses hang in Homestead’s meat lockers. They’re hiring butchers now with knife skills fast enough to process over 550 animals during the fall harvest.

"Goats and llamas are being killed in the area; the mountain lions are hungry,” read Craig Childs’ Facebook post (he's a local author and HCN contributing editor). Twenty-two comments streamed in afterward. “We heard the ‘mountain screamer’ nearby last night,” said one. “I had cows come running home last night to get in the pen…yes actually running!” professed another. A commenter from southwestern Colorado said that a good crop of mountain lions the past few years coupled with new goat farmers who haven’t learned how to protect their stock is getting a lot of goat kids killed. All anyone sees of the predator, as Craig wrote, is a “blonde flash and tail curled into a question mark.”

One evening after work, my neighbor was leaning over her balcony aiming a telephoto lens at the top of an electrical pole. A great horned owl sat on top. It swiveled its neck and stared at my little boy and me as we walked up for a closer look. I suspect the uptick in rodent activity had the owl a little giddy as it scanned the graveled alley from its hunting perch. We pulled a few ripe tomatoes from the garden and fed a grasshopper to a wolf spider near the front porch before walking inside for the evening. Outside, the critters were having a damn good time.

Neil LaRubbio is the editorial fellow at High Country News. His Twitter handle is @VictorAntonin.

Photos provided by Neil LaRubbio and Tennille Vanvleet.