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
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • 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...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • 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...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • COLD WEATHER CRAFTS
    Unique handmade gifts from the Gunnison Valley. Soy lotion candles, jewelry, art, custom photo mandalas and more. Check out the website and buy Christmas locally...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    North Cascades Institute seeks their next Executive Director to lead the organization, manage $4 million operating budget, and oversee 60 staff. Send resume/cover letter to...
  • 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...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • 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...
  • 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.