Autumn Recalls Octobers Past

Blogger’s Note: This originally ran as a column in Tuesday, October 7, 1997, edition of The Pioneer daily newspaper, Big Rapids, Michigan. This week, the boys have their bows out, and I’m protesting the snow today by blogging about the autumns I miss.

October! and the trees are turning red, gold and topaz. Already cool breezes tug loose the gaudy vestments and scatter them in piles ’round the ankles of tall aspen and unsuspecting maples. The sumac, embarrassed, has blushed deep red — overnight, it seems.

Only the oak maintains its dignity — its greenery turns drab brown and rustles almost the entire winter through. Only after many long nights and cold days, when the first breath of spring tickles the topmost oak leaves, does the stoic tree shake loose its crumpled hood and prepare for new leaves and sunshine.

Used to be this time of year, just about the time my feet had learned the flagstone path to my morning classes and my digestive tract had readjusted to browning lettuce and red meat substitutes, I’d catch October on the wind. A good nose — a nose hunting autumn — could pick it out, somewhere above the stench of diesel exhaust fumes and ginkgo berries. (Ginkgo trees, so I’m told, filter pollutants out of the air and drop them to the ground in these concentrated flesh-colored packets, which, when stepped on, make you wonder who brought the dog and forgot the scoop. Popular with cities; not so much with pedestrians.)

Acorns! The smell must’ve blown in from East Rock, because squirrels in the city ate pizza crust and stale bagels. And the crisp smell of dry leaves tripping over the wind and each other, and I’d be halfway home and in the woods, hunting deer with bow and arrow …

In a city like New Haven, at a school like Yale, where every meal featured a vegetarian entree and people could say things like “turkey bacon” and not stumble over the contradiction, hunting was foreign to many students. The idea of climbing a tree to ambush a deer with a bow, a half-dozen arrows and a skinning knife was both terrible and fascinating … it also earned you a wider path down down a crowded sidewalk.

Even students who enjoyed red meat often found the idea of killing a wild animal appalling.

“How can you kill an animal and then eat it?” the would ask.

“How can you eat an animal and not kill it?” I’d respond, but they do not want to know what comes before the pink foam tray and cellophane.

At Yale it was always death that took the spotlight. It makes sense, I suppose, in a land where guns are used to shoot people and (sometimes) paper targets.

Looking back at past dining hall discussions to Octobers spent hunting, it seems the focus was never death, but the wide variety of life.

I remember piling into Dad’s rusty blue pickup in the wee-hours before dawn, feeling my way up the tree to my stand, and strapping myself in and dozing as the cold seeped through my coveralls. I remember starting when an owl a few short yards away and invisible in the darkness questioned my presence in the tree. I remember the stars fading, the breakfast arguments of ducks in the swamp around me. Somewhere a splash — a beaver slaps its warning on the surface of the water. Then footsteps.

Crunch.

Eyes strain into the grey light. Stumps stop short and stare back; ferns move like deer at the farthest edge of sight.

Crunch.

It’s right behind me, but I don’t dare look.

Crunch. Crunch.

It’s a red squirrel, moving one hop at a time through the dry leaves beneath the tree.

I relax, exhale, and I’m spotted; he chatters the news to the entire section.

I remember sitting in the treetops with chickadees flitting about my hat, thinking back on my beagle, Ranger, and Dad’s old red ‘coon hound, Jack. I remember porcupines and hawks and my kindergarten teacher walking her dog past my tree. I remember watching two bucks square off beneath my tree, and shooting at and cleanly missing both of them. I remember other deer, as well, and I remember, in six years of active bow hunting, never taking one.

In fact, in all my years of hunting, I have taken only one deer, and have fingers enough to count the number of partridge, rabbit and squirrel I’ve harvested. What I’ve brought to the table, instead, are stories and memories of animals quicker and more clever than me. If the the thrill was in the killing, I’d have quit a long time ago. Instead, I’ve at last come home to October’s breezes and the chance to return to the woods. And I can hardly wait.

Halloween Less of Mayhem, More of Magic

Blogger’s Note: This originally ran as a column in Tuesday, October 27, 1998, edition of The Pioneer daily newspaper, Big Rapids, Michigan. Our oldest was 11 months; he’s almost 11 now. Time flies, but as I drove home, I looked west to see the orange skies behind bare-bones trees, and got that old feeling again …

I spent the best Halloweens on Littlefield Lake in the woods between Barryton and Clare. Back then the neighborhood was less densely populated and surrounded on all sides by woods — mournful willows, tall creaking poplars, dank cedars with their long toes awash in swamp water — and Halloween night fell black as coal. The winds tossed harried handfuls of leaves high into the air; clouds blew like smoke across the sky and bare tree limbs rattled like old bones.

We all trick-or-treated together — hobos and monsters, clowns and devils. Usually my sister and I would head down the hill at dusk to the first stop; from there our motley troop would gain members until four or so stops down the way, just as darkness was setting in, we’d be marching 10 to 15 strong, going from house to house snatching candy treats from little old ladies with bluing hair and kindly old white-haired men (the result of our frightful appearances, no doubt).

Our parents followed a block or so behind, talking amongst themselves. Jack-o-lanterns grinned like skulls from nearly every porch, casting flickering shadows on the walk, and eyes wide with anticipation, we could hardly keep from running house to house.

There were those stops along the route we came away with a handful of change, or an apples, or raisins. There were those houses that sat quiet and dark, oblivious to the dread crew marauding the subdivision in search of food.

But we treated ourselves to what was given, and never tricked — unless it was to run ahead into the bushes to frighten stragglers and our parents. No TP, no window-soaping, no flaming bags of doggie-doo — our mothers were just behind us, and the final trick always belonged to them.

Halloween, for us, was a pinch more of the magical and very little mayhem. Even the fake blood and weapons were kept to a minimum — our costumes were often created at home, and violence and gore were rarely themes.

As you might imagine, then, it saddens me to see more and more families (Blogger’s Note: And schools!) celebrating “fall festivals” and neglecting Halloween. It may be a holiday founded in paganism; it may be frightening, what with the ghouls, the goblins, the “slithy toves” and the “frumious bandersnatch,” but ultimately, it is one magical evening for youngsters — like Christmas, a night when the impossible can happen.

So, with a son not yet a year old and with too few teeth for Milk Duds, I can feel Halloween come creeping. The pumpkins are carved, the candles lit, and my eyes are wide once more.