Autumn on the high plains of Western Wyoming is like spring in reverse. It's certainly just as fickle. One warm afternoon, from the vantage of a hammock, I'm admiring golden cottonwood leaves quivering in a warm breeze. The next day I'm sitting by a fire inside and watching as snow assaults those leaves and sends them flying. Although winter usually approaches more gradually, this year it hit like a sledgehammer. But despite that, I'm not the only Westerner who likes to say that fall really is our favorite season.
It's easy to love fall when the sky is perfectly blue, when the fields, shrubs and trees are subtly shifting from shades of green to tan, auburn and gold. Migrating bluebirds flash a color that matches the sky as they hopscotch along the fence posts. Honking geese rehearse their V formation overhead.
Toward the highway, I can see loaded cattle trucks raising dust as they move cows down from the high country. The last fragrant cutting of hay is baled and stacked, and I've harvested the last of the potatoes and carrots from the garden. Firewood is chopped and piled neatly near the house, but there aren't enough fallen leaves to rake yet.
When the satisfaction of the harvest from fields and gardens can be savored and the tough work of nurturing them is over, fall is for spending an afternoon watching the local six-man team play football. It's great for going hunting or for just taking a walk.
Where I live, near the public lands of the desert and mountains, hunters come out full force this time of year. They sport camo outfits or Day-Glo orange hats and vests. Weary and scruffy, they gather at the café for breakfast after pre-dawn hunting trips, or for dinner after a weekend up in the mountains. Some are lucky enough to sport a set of deer's antlers or a bull elk's rack outside in the truck, and it's common to see the stiffened legs of game animals protruding from the back end of a passing pickup. Once, I even saw the hapless carcass of a bear strapped across the roof of a car. In the distance I hear a rifle's pop. Antelope are in season around our place; I should probably wear orange as I walk along this rural road.
After that early snow, fall's highlights faded fast. A scrim of clouds now obscures the sky's pure blue and dims the sun. Frost-parched leaves hang limp from branches. The irrigation ditches that once flowed full of spring snow and June rains now trickle, icing over in pools where a blue heron and a few ducks tarry. Supple grasses of summer have begun to rattle in the wind, and the stubble of mown fields crunches underfoot. A skunk waddles along, searching for a winter hideaway. In our barn, feral cats that gorged on gophers in the fields all summer gather again, expecting a handout.
It's time to remove the horse's shoes and put him out to winter pasture. It's time to store lawn chairs in the shed. Suddenly, leaves seem to rain down on the pasture and yard. Some will blow into the next county in coming weeks, while the rest form a protective blanket here. The aroma of wood smoke drifts from our chimney. There's a nip to the wind, a warning of true cold to come.
Trying to pin down what I'm feeling as autumn wanes, I think of the 19th century poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson. "Looking on the happy autumn fields," Tennyson found "tears rising in his heart" and "gathering in his eyes." There is a sadness about autumn. I remember hot summer afternoons lolling in the shade with a good book, the earthy smell of ripe tomatoes in the garden, the conversation of robins, meadowlarks and finches, the laughter of visiting grandkids exploring the pasture and tree house. Spring was about arrival and anticipation. Summer was all about being in the moment. In autumn, we look over our shoulders and reluctantly say good-bye.
The clouds lift after fall's first snow revealing the Wind River Mountains, luminous in a layer of white. They remind me of the coming winter's challenge: how to balance coziness with cabin fever. Still, that familiar rhythm of the seasons -- the cycle mirrored in our own lives -- is somehow reassuring. Autumn signals that nature is changing as it should, and if this is the natural order, then surely, we will also make it through to spring.
Marcia Hensley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in Eden Valley, Wyoming.