Heading out of fall's impending darkness

  • Pepper Trail

 

One day in October every year, I leave my home valley and make a pilgrimage up into Oregon’s Cascade Mountains.  I am not seeking enlightenment, exactly.  I am seeking simply light.

My birthday falls on Oct. 10, long enough past the fall equinox that the ever-growing darkness of autumn can no longer be denied.  Every day the sun rises later from behind the valley’s eastern wall, and every day it drops sooner behind the black ridges to the west.  During the lengthening nights, summer’s stored-up heat leaves the valley and radiates toward the stars, which glitter ever more brightly.  Our tawny-shouldered hills shiver in the morning breeze, and the day always comes when the sky is filled with vultures, rising up on the last weakened thermals until they reach the north wind that carries them away to California, summer’s ragged soldiers in full retreat.

Soon, I know, will come the rain, and then the snow.  Soon, the serious dark.  This end of nature’s year is also the end of my own -- another birthday, another milestone of my mortality.  In the bleak gray October dawn, it can be hard to take.

At the same time, I enjoy melancholy, and autumn is my favorite season. Yet, before I embrace that dark, I need one day of perfect light, light reflected off a forest of brilliant autumn leaves. This can’t be found in my town, where the dominant hardwoods are oaks, whose leaves turn, at best, a somber orange-brown, and where the blazing color of the occasional non-native sugar maple or box elder seems garish and forced. So on a weekend near my birthday, I point my battered Subaru up the Crater Lake Highway, higher and higher, past the last town, past the last dam, into the towering, almost black conifer forests, where the Rogue River runs cold.

For about 50 weeks of the year, this great mountain forest of Douglas-fir, hemlock, and pine is dark green, a place of shadows, large silences and puritanical sobriety.  But sometime in October, all is changed, and the huge trees seem to step back as the humble hazels and maples at their feet begin to glow, and glow brighter, and finally blaze with the intimate incandescence of candle flame, until the mountains are filled with a light unlike any other -- warming, piercing, purifying and breathtaking.  This is the light I come to seek.

A trail runs along the river here, and this is the route of my pilgrimage.  A hundred feet back into the forest, the sun-loving little hardwoods are shaded out, surrendering the spongy ground to mushrooms and deep-forest herbs like vanilla-leaf and pipsissewa.  There, the dark conifers remain in shadow.   But in this brief season, they merely provide a black backdrop to the brilliance of the hazelnuts and vine maples that line the riverbanks, spreading their leaves in the sun that fed them all summer long, and now illuminates their dying glory.

The hazelnuts grow in dense thickets, and are so beloved by the squirrels that in all my years of hiking through their groves, I have only found a handful of their nuts. It is a mystery how they replace themselves. Their autumn leaves are delicate, first turning a subtle yellow-green, and at their peak attaining a yellow whose translucent pale purity rinses the air with cleansing light.

Vine maples are far more flamboyant.  Even as they begin to turn, their star-shaped leaves glow a deep golden yellow, and with the advance of frosty nights, they flame into scarlet, a color the hazels never dare to attempt. The brightest maples always seem to be at the water’s edge, where their colors are stirred by the restless river, a fluid rainbow carried away past the towering conifers, which appear to lean forward for a better look, but say nothing.

I walk through these wonders wide-eyed, and as I breathe, I feel nourished by the light, literally fed until my stomach grows full, electrified until I tingle to my fingertips. This magic never fails, a gift of nature as reliable as the turning of the earth itself.  After my day in the forest of light, I return homeward strengthened and prepared: ready for another year, ready for winter, ready for the night.

Pepper Trail is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News(hcn.org). He is a biologist and writer in Ashland, Oregon.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -