Everything owes itself to the air in October and November. In any given field there’s a birch, maple or sumac that virtually refracts light, like a tree hologram, or like a live crystal with facets bending yellow, orange and red radiances inside the tree and onto the ghostly remains of milkweed, grass and goldenrod.
Not only conditions of light, but squalling blue jays, hop-flocking juncos and Canada geese. Where the dignity and nobility of the great geese originate, I don’t know. But when you hear 20 or 30 voices honking overhead, and see the streaming chevron headed south in slow, powerful wingbeats, then — at least to me — a chill comes made partly of cool air and partly of cool grace.
They summer from here north, sometimes up to topmost Canada, where they mate for life and nest on the ground, often on islands and muskrat and beaver domes. Their little families stay together for the year, until the next brood. They migrate south as far as 600 miles and the Caribbean, and tend to make the same rest stops along the way. In October they’re flapping and racing on ahead of the snow and cold, which is already settling over Canada and not long for Maine. As long as there’s brown meadow grass or stubble fields for forage, they stay. I’ve seen flocks resting in desolated corn fields in December before the snow and wind bullied them out and they headed off south. They’ve got the wings to go.
The geese’s wings in autumn. The declining sunlight stuns them, or rather, the light angling in from southwest and bouncing off their wings, almost like the echo of a voice, stuns who sees it. In my memory, which is increasingly cluttered by autumn after autumn, is a moment of crystal clarity in southern England.
It was October 1980; I was hitchhiking out of Poole in Dorset on a road beside a moorland field. The grass and heather were brown up the slopes; there were brittle fallen leaves everywhere, just like here but duller. There was no breath of wind and not a sound; the landscape itself was listening. Suddenly a V of geese rose out of the field. They ascended in silent unison with the silkiness of motion you imagine wraiths have. They climbed and climbed and then on some unknown cue all started honking. I watched them out of sight over the moor hills.
Where they were going I didn’t know. They were pretty surely Canada geese, already at the southmost limit of their British range. They were brought from North America to Britain in the 17th century for sport and decoration and afterward invented their own migration routes. It didn’t matter that their destination was unknown. In their ascent and the low morning light the autumns of England and New England converged there, at least in my apprehension, the way certain dreams mean something impossible to state or even think.
In October comes a certain slant of light that seems to rise up out of some unseen spot of time and gather itself, and head south.
Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected]. His book, “A Backyard Book of Spiders in Maine,” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.