Another October has come and gone and Dad was not here to see “October’s bright blue weather.” Even though he was born in January in the midst of a blizzard, I always thought of October as his month. Maybe that’s because not an October went by without him reciting Helen Hunt Jackson’s “October’s Bright Blue Weather.” At 88, when he had trouble remembering people’s names, he could still recall all eight stanzas of Jackson’s mid-nineteenth century poem, beginning:
O suns and skies and clouds of June
And flowers of June together
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather.
Dad loved poetry and he loved the outdoors. Most of the poems he memorized, the old-fashioned poems he learned as a boy in school, were connected to nature, gardens, or rural life. In April it was William Wordsworth’s “Daffodils“–”Ten thousand saw I at a glance/ Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.”
James Russell Lowell’s “June” heralded that month.
And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days…
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten.
September inspired the recitation of Jackson’s poem by the same name.
The golden-rod is yellow;
The corn is turning brown;
The trees in apple orchards
With fruit are bending down.
Still, it was “October’s Bright Blue Weather” that inspired him the most. He continued to work in his showcase garden, aglow with flowers and shrubs, from early spring to late fall, but he also took time to “leaf peep” on foot and in his car. His wedding anniversary was the sixteenth of October, and he and Mom usually spent it taking a drive and looking at the leaves. Mom was not an outdoor person, but even she was moved by the glory of October. Then, after 55 years of marriage, Mom died and Dad lived alone in his mountaintop home near State College until he broke his hip while out in his garden and had to move to an assisted living facility.
When he could no longer drive, my husband Bruce and I took him for autumn drives through the central Pennsylvania countryside. I especially remember an October day when I had planned to spend the afternoon traveling the gravel roads of Rothrock State Forest with him. But it threatened rain and we almost didn’t go. Just as we arrived at Rothrock, the sun broke through the cloud cover and the leaves glowed.
“I guess God knew that two nature lovers were out,” he said happily.
We saw no one during our two-hour drive in the forest, and I barely nudged the gas pedal, moving slowly enough so that he could identify the colorful trees and shrubs.
Dad and I shared a love of the outdoors, of poetry, and also of operettas. As a teenager, I would sit up until midnight with him, watching the old Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy movies on television. One of our favorites was Sigmund Romberg’s Student Prince. As we drove that October day, I sang Romberg’s “Golden Days“–a song of remembering the “golden days, in the sunshine of our happy youth.” And, indeed, Dad reminisced about other Octobers as he “oohed” and “aahed” over the spectacular color. Now that he is gone, a golden October woods reminds me of that “Golden Days” afternoon with him when the sun backlit a shimmer of golden, scarlet, purple, and orange leaves. And every time I look at our stream, I remember Dad reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Brook” whenever he drove up our road.
I chatter, chatter, as I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.
He was part of my life for 63 years, and now he is only a bright memory. Born in a poor, anthracite mining village above Mahanoy City called The Vulcan, he was the oldest of three boys in a working-class family that had always been connected with the coal mines. When he was four years old, his blacksmith father moved the family to Pottstown for a better job. But every summer Dad took the train to the mountains and spent weeks with his mother’s youngest sister, Mary Dresch, a high school English teacher.
Among his chores was the job of picking wild blueberries on mountains recovering from the clearcutting early in the twentieth century. Picking blueberries was something he enjoyed doing well into his seventies. When he lived in southern New Jersey with Mom and their four children during the almost four decades he worked as a chemical engineer for Mobil Oil, he took me and my siblings to his own secret place in the Jersey wetlands to pick highbush blueberries. When he retired and moved to his country place near State College, Bear Meadows was his favorite berry-picking spot. It also recalled his days as a student at Penn State from 1932 to 1936 when he often hiked from campus out to the “Tusseys,” as he called the mountains in Rothrock State Forest.
Picking blueberries at Bear Meadows meant wading through bog water and carrying a berry bucket. One day he lost his footing and his berries. By then our eldest son Steve, who had inherited Dad’s “berry-picking gene” through me, was picking with him and pulled him out. Dad went home covered with muck from head to toe and, as he always did, laughed at his mishap. My Mom was not amused and put her foot down.
“No more berry-picking for you. You are too old for that.”
Dad, ever the peacemaker, agreed, but his face always lit up when I told him we had been picking blueberries at Bear Meadows.
As I walk through “October’s Bright Blue Weather,” I think of Dad’s life and how it has affected mine. When I was a child he told enticing stories about his Boy Scout camping adventures in the “Fancy Hills” near Pottstown. I was enthralled and joined the Girl Scouts, hoping for the same outdoor adventures. Except for one time when our troop camped at a state park cabin for a week, we mostly cooked, sewed, and gossiped at Girl Scout meetings. Still, I persisted, and with Dad’s help I earned every nature badge the Scouts offered.
Dad bought me Chester Reed’s bird guide and a pair of binoculars and I was off in pursuit of my bird badge. I easily identified 40 species in the park below our house and the large tract of wild lakes and woodland at the end of our block. Even today, when I hear the song of a mourning dove, I can conjure up the park, and when I hear a wood thrush I remember my childhood home, tucked in an oak forest, where I sat in a screened porch and listened to wood thrushes singing. With more guides and Dad’s help, I also earned my tree badge and my wildflower badge in the nearby forest.That wonderful tract, where I spent my happiest childhood hours, morphed into an enormous housing development the year I left for college. When I returned home, I could not recognize my old haunts–gone were the woods, and the lakes were surrounded by houses. It was poignantly reminiscent of Dad’s confusion when he took us back to his old haunts from the 1940s and 50s near Pottstown, and found houses instead. We had to imagine, just as our sons had to imagine, the way their parents’ natural landscape had once looked.
Now, our son Mark brings his daughter back to his childhood home on a central Pennsylvania mountaintop and he too records changes–the valleys on either side filling up with homes and highways and shopping malls. Even the mountain itself is being gouged apart for an interstate in one direction and still another shopping mall in the other.
When Mark was a boy, most of the mountain still contained 100-year-old trees, but one by one the property owners around us had their land logged. A few were shorn of every possible tree; others had only those 12 inches and above cut, what foresters now deplore as “high-grading,” taking the best and leaving the rest. As they predicted, not much has grown up in their place and invasives such as ailanthus, Japanese barberry, and multiflora rose fill the empty spaces. In some cases, striped maple, black birch, and even red maple have also germinated, but the forest has not regenerated as it should. Blame it on an overpopulation of white-tailed deer, poor logging practices, acid rain, or even unknown forces. Whatever the reasons, the forest we had around us, except for our land, is gone and Mark, who was intimately familiar with the tree species on our mountain, has a difficult time convincing his daughter Eva of his loss. To her, the forest looks great. It’s the only forest she knows here. What memory will she hand down to her children? What will be there for them to see? As each generation passes away, memories of what once was pass away with them.
Remembering all this and more is probably an appropriate exercise for October. October–month of loss–is like a brilliant meteor that burns itself out. The nights are frosty; the days clear and crisp. Birds flee south ahead of the impending winter. From the ridgetop I watch raptors sail past and wish that I too could ride those updrafts with such grace and beauty.
In the woods I encounter flocks of foraging songbirds pausing to fuel up for their nightly migration. Day by day the forest is quieter. Chipmunks, wild turkeys, deer, bears, squirrels and other wild creatures harvest the acorn crop from our mature black, red, white and scarlet oaks.
Near the end of the month, I sit enveloped in the dark gold of several sugar maple trees that still hold on to most of their leaves as I cling to the last remnants of warmth and sunshine. Another year almost gone; another winter almost here. My life is ticking away faster than I could have believed possible when I was young.
I give thanks for my Dad’s life and for his love of the natural world that formed our strongest bond and I watch the leaves sift down around me, a golden carpet soon to molder so that more life can spring from the soil to which we all return.
When springs run low, and on the brooks,
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting…
“I wake and hear it raining.” So begins Mark Van Doren’s wonderful poem “Morning Worship” and so began many of my mornings last spring. Van Doren goes on to list the wonders of the natural world he would miss were he dead, praising all the “sweet beings” that he knows will outlive him–mountains, huge trees, turtles, sunrise, waterfalls, mosses, owls, trout, deer, butterflies, and more, the kind of list that anyone tuned to the outdoors can empathize with.
Adopting his optimism and joy, especially on rainy days, I set out to praise what I thought of as our Irish spring. Half a century ago, when I was a teenager, I spent a wet Easter week touring Ireland with my parents and three younger siblings. We had only one rain-free morning and that was at Galway Bay. The rest of the time it rained, sometimes hard, sometimes soft. Occasionally we experienced what the Irish call “a bright period,” when the drizzle almost stopped and when the sun almost broke through the lowering clouds. We quickly learned why Ireland is known as the “Green Isle.” I have never forgotten the brilliant, almost surreal green that blanketed the rural landscape.
Ireland was de-forested centuries ago and thus did not have the many shades of green I saw in our forest last spring. Those shades included the ten greens I found in a box of 64 Crayola crayons. Between the prosaically-named blue green and green yellow, were forest green, sea green, asparagus, [true] green, granny smith apple green, yellow green, spring green, and olive green–a list that fell far short of the medley of greens adorning our forest.
The cold, wet weather also held all the vegetation in its tender, gauzy state, and for weeks I felt as if I was walking through one of Claude Monet’s impressionistic paintings. In the rain and fog the trees in our forest seemed larger and more awe-inspiring. What was usually mundane morphed into the mysterious.
It was what Pennsylvania botanist and ecologist Paul Weigman calls a “soft spring” because wildflowers bloom and prosper in such weather. The weather also lengthened their growing season. The bright yellow disks of coltsfoot and pink and white blossoms of the fragrant trailing arbutus bloomed on and on in prolific glory throughout most of April. Beside our stream hundreds of purple trillium flowered for nearly three weeks. So too did the long-spurred violets. The tiny white blossoms of mitrewort lasted a month.
Other wildflowers, such as hepatica, clintonia, Indian cucumber-root, pink lady’s slipper and jack-in-the-pulpit, sent up luxuriant leaves but not many flowers. Since jack-in-the-pulpit “decides” whether to bloom based on the previous year’s weather, I attributed its lack of blossoms to the drought of 2002. Perhaps the other species had been affected similarly by the previous dry year.
The many rains and protracted cold of early spring also lengthened the blooming time for several shrubs and trees. For much of April the lime-green, puffball-like clusters of spicebush blossoms brightened the understory along our stream while the soft red, yellow, and orange flowers of red maple trees dominated the overstory. Shadbush dressed up our forest for weeks on gloomy, gray days with the white of their delicate, five-petaled flowers that trembled in the slightest breeze. Not only did they bloom longer than usual, but blossoms covered every tree, from tiny saplings to full-grown, forty-foot-high specimens. On some of the trees, the flowers opened first, then the clumps of soft, reddish leaves beneath them, while the flowers still bloomed.
According to The Plants of Pennsylvania by Ann Fowler Rhoads and Timothy Block, this species of shadbush is Amelanchier laevis because it has leaves with a distinct reddish hue that open while the flowers are still blooming. Popularly known as smooth shadbush, it later produces dark, purple-red, sweet and juicy fruit. The other species of shadbush growing here–A. arborea–has leaves that remain folded during flowering and produces dark red, dryish fruit. The most familiar of the eight shadbush species growing in Pennsylvania, it is the earliest to bloom and is also called serviceberry and Juneberry. Both species grow in rocky woods, bluffs, and upland forests.
The rain also made it difficult for pollinating insects to do their job, and the lowbush blueberries and huckleberries on our powerline right-of-way produced few fruits. Even though on one sunny day I smelled the acrid, cloying odor of blooming wild black cherry tree blossoms, not a single fruit developed. The many forest-dwelling solitary bee species that pollinate them must have been discouraged by the weather.
Unfortunately, some insects thrived in the wet spring, namely flies, gnats, and mosquitoes. Hordes of them hatched by mid-April, so watching birds on the rare nice days meant fighting off the insects as I tried to focus my binoculars.
Butterflies, on the other hand, were late and sparse although on one sunny morning I watched a red admiral nectaring on our old wild apple tree blossoms amid a frenzy of bumblebees and honeybees. By the afternoon it was raining hard again. Other butterflies, such as tiger swallowtails and monarchs were at least two weeks later than usual. This two week lag held throughout the spring and summer for many returning birds and blooming wildflowers as well. Even the goldenrod blossoms in late summer were two weeks late.
The wild creatures, like me, took advantage of every “bright period.” After one wet morning in May it cleared at noon. As I wrote in my journal:
Sixty degrees and a little sun is a big blessing. Walking up Laurel Ridge trail at 2:00 p.m. I ran into a large aggregation of grunting, chasing gray squirrels–close to a dozen in two separate groups. Lots of squealing and derring-do leaps. Once a squirrel hit the ground. I assume a couple females were in heat.
Two days later, after still another rainy morning, it stopped by early afternoon, and I walked down our road. Immediately, I experienced a sensory overload–sounds, smells, and sights of water flowing down every small hollow, filling up our stream and creating miniature waterfalls throughout its mile and a half passage to the Little Juniata River. This brand-new, scrubbed-clean world so permeated my senses that it blotted out all sounds of our technological society.When I reached Waterthrush Bench, it started raining again, but I put up my umbrella and walked to the bottom of our road to admire the tallest of the waterfalls. Then, still under my umbrella, I returned to the bench to drink a leisurely cup of tea.
Finally, I resumed my walk and watched a pair of common grackles, undeterred by the rain, flying above the stream. About two-thirds of the way back up the road, it stopped raining. By the time I reached the fork in our road–one leading to our deceased neighbor Margaret’s old home, the other to ours–the sun emerged.
I sat down on a large, flat rock seat, listened to a singing scarlet tanager and watched a sodden woodchuck cross the road. Sunlight sparkled on the wet leaves and I felt as if I was living in perpetual April. An Acadian flycatcher sang its explosive “wee-see.” A chipmunk scampered close for a look at my seated form, and a doe grazed along Margaret’s driveway, moving slowly toward me.
Suddenly, I was buzzed by a male ruby-throated hummingbird zipping back and forth low over my head. For a minute I wondered if he would strike me or if I was in the middle of his swooping courtship flight. But when I turned slowly toward him, he flew off. My movement also startled the doe and she moved nervously up the slope and out of sight.
The animals, like me, were taking advantage of the brief sunshine. Within a few minutes the sky had turned mostly blue, and the sun suffused the forest with golden light. By the time I walked the last quarter-of-a-mile home, there was not a cloud in the sky. The sunshine lasted for only an hour, though, and then, just as quickly, it clouded over once again.
Even on the morning of my National Migratory Bird Count I awoke to a four o’clock thunderstorm. But an eastern phoebe started the chorus of birdsong as I lay in bed and before breakfast, despite the light rain, I counted 19 species, including a yellow-breasted chat in the barberry hedge and a Baltimore oriole in a black walnut tree.
The rain stopped and I set out quickly for the Far Field. There I found two singing cerulean warblers, two male scarlet tanagers, the first indigo bunting of the season, and a flock of white-throated sparrows. Best of all, on a whim I pursed my lips and made a pishing sound and a silent Canada warbler emerged from the Far Field thicket. By then the sky had darkened and thunder rumbled ominously so I rushed the mile back home, reaching it just as another storm struck.
I sat glumly inside, my species’ list at 38. When Bruce told me he had to drive into town, I hitched a ride down to Waterthrush Bench and sat in the drizzle listening to a singing Louisiana waterthrush. Later, I joined Bruce at the bottom of the mountain and in a misty rain, we walked along the railroad right-of-way as birds sang and called–rose-breasted grosbeaks, American redstarts, a least flycatcher, and yellow warblers. Once I looked up and watched a pair of chimney swifts sailing overhead.Later, as we sat eating lunch in the kitchen, I looked out the window at two white-crowned sparrows eating dandelion seeds. They were species number 48.
After a short rest, I was out again, this time over on Greenbrier Trail, and wonder of wonders, it had almost cleared. Many more birds were out in the seventy-degree weather and I had some memorable views–of a silent, black-throated blue warbler, a worm-eating warbler, and chestnut-sided warbler–and was serenaded by dozens of red-eyed vireos and ovenbirds.
Throughout the day, in rain and in sunshine, I counted 11 singing wood thrushes, eight black-throated green warblers, three hooded warblers, and five black-and-white warblers. Most of my birding was by ear and I was grateful that I still have sharp hearing. Altogether, I counted 57 species and 224 individual birds.
What a privilege it was that day and every day, rain or shine, to be outside, enjoying the beauty around me. Like the poet Van Doren, I am keenly aware that I am “Listening, living, (Oh, but not forever, Oh, end arriving).” An Irish spring, after all, was better than no spring at all.