November 23, 2021

Fort Meadow Reservoir in fall.


When you arise in the morning, think what a precious privilege it is to be alive, to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

-Marcus Aurelius


It’s late morning when Waldo and I start out on the rail-trail today.  The days are colder, but not so cold that I have to dress in my parka – yet.  Still, I would have had to wear a jacket, if we had gone earlier, and I knew it would be warm enough I could go in shirt sleeves, and not freeze, if we waited.  It is now a tolerable 54 ℉ and a little chilly, but after a couple of miles, I will generate enough body heat so I’ll be comfortable.  It’s a little warm for Waldo; he seems to thrive when the temperature is in the low forties, but you wouldn’t know it to watch him.  He’s out of the car and bounding down the path, soon pulling at the end of the leash.  I only know that this temperature is a little more than he would prefer by past observation — he will have his tongue hanging out before we finish.

In about six weeks, at the winter solstice (December 21), the sun will be only 24.1 degrees above the horizon when it is at its zenith in Boston.  Now, it is nearly noon and yet it is still close to the horizon.  That means that shadows are long, despite the fact that it’s the middle of the day.  The sun shines obliquely on the trail, the trees, the grass and Waldo and me.  That makes the day cooler, but also less glaringly bright.  Fall days are beautiful, with bright reds, glorious oranges, and still some vibrant greens, but the lighting that shows off these colors is less direct, more subtle than in summer.  The shadows give everything more depth and contour as well, showing off the texture of an oak’s ridged and riven bark, or the grain in a weathered old plank on a rail fence.  This effect disappears on days with overcast skies that erase shadows, and everything seems very flat.  Once snowfall has covered everything, the reflected light from the icy whiteness also aids in removing shadows.  But today, it’s nice and sunny, the ground is clear and the visual texture of nature is palpable, adding to the artistic flair of autumn’s technicolor display.

The leaves of more and more trees are turning color.  The sumacs have gone past their bright red phase and are turning a dull brown.  Birch trees have already lost most of their leaves that are now yellowed and cover the ground.  Many of the maples have turned red or orange, although there are some trees that still sport greenery.  If you look carefully, you can find maple leaves that are in the process of turning.  Between the veins, the leafy flesh that fills that space, the venule, is bright red, yet the part of the leaf abutting the veins is still green.  The contrast in these colors, bright red next to vibrant green, is very striking.  I’ve seen birch leaves that have a more gradual color change from red, to orange, to yellow, then to green, all in a fractal-like pattern, that are gorgeous.  Many mighty oaks still hang onto much of their green, stubbornly in denial of the coming winter.

There are also white pine needles on the path.  They aren’t there because of fall — after all, they’re conifers.  But they’re not impervious to a strong wind and we had quite a storm, a nor’easter, a few days ago.  The pines themselves stand tall and green, seemingly unaware of, or perhaps uninterested in, the colder temperatures.  Yet their organs of photosynthesis are all over the ground like those of their cousins, the deciduous oaks, maples, sumacs, birches and all the rest.  Mother Nature exacts a price for her change in seasons and leaves and pine needles are fodder for her cannons of cold icy winds.

My attention shifts to Waldo, who wanders along the way, searching out every morsel of experience he can find – all the sights, smells, sounds, textures and even (yuk!) tastes on show before him.  It makes me wonder why I never noticed, really noticed, what was always there right in front of me all my life.  Only in the past few years have I been completely open to experiencing the beauty all around me.  Then I remember.  It’s like what Moat said to Jake Sully in the movie, Avatar, “It’s hard to fill a cup that is already full.”  My cup has always been so full, my attention turned elsewhere, my mind engorged with the demands of the moment, that I had little psychic energy for anything else.  Now, all those other things, career, bank account, things I own, superficial interpersonal relationships — the bread and butter of life in your twenties and later, seem so unimportant, almost irrelevant.  I am eternally grateful to Waldo for providing the impetus for me to find the world as it is.

And I now get to do it every damn day.


Big-tooth aspen leaf in late fall.

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