Most of the woodland trees have lost their colorful fall plumage and the prairie grasses are nodding, golden-brown heads in the meadow.
It happens every autumn, of course, that a natural urgency pushes me to prepare for the coming winter. It feels good to keep busy doing the things that will help to make me more comfortable when the cold comes! This year’s nice fall weather was a big help when it came to getting a good supply of firewood stacked outside the back door. I’ve done most of the garden work I intended to do and the rest can wait until spring. I like to leave most of the dried flower heads for the winter deer.
The windows are washed and won’t look this clean again until spring. A few that rattled in last summer’s breezes are now sealed tight. My “home” is a survivor. Built during the Civil War as a one-room rural schoolhouse, it endured some years of challenge as a tiny dairy barn, but it never gave up. Decades ago, it took me in and allowed me to patch its several wounds and install a hot black heart—a Kickapoo Stove Works wood stove. A masterwork of coziness. The whole structure still needs paint, but if I function this well after 150+ years, I’ll consider it victory.
It’s been a pleasant, almost normal fall season here in the heart of Wisconsin’s Kickapoo Valley and yet there seems to be a growing uneasiness on the land. After spending the better share of my seven-plus decades mostly outdoors, I have come lately to feel instinctually (and from comparisons of my annual field notes) that things just aren’t as harmonious as they should be. Maybe my instincts have gotten as arthritic as my fingers, but I‘m a spectator to a variety of unexpected alterations to nature’s ancient schedules, as well as to her many dogged wonders. You could say that I’m in the front row.
The robins that are migrating through the valley in small flocks seem to be right on schedule. The turkey vultures left a couple of days ago; guess they didn’t care much for the nippy nights lately. The temperature read 34-degrees F at twilight. It was going to drop into the twenties, I thought late yesterday, as I looked up to see two brown bats silhouetted in flight against the darkening sky. I couldn’t remember ever seeing a hunting bat when it was this cold, although I have seen them hunt in January and February when temps rose into the forties. Just another thing that seems out of whack.
From one-hundred yards up into the woods comes the raucous sound of furious, fast-beating wings. The wild turkeys are going up to roost in the tall maple trees. I look forward each evening to hearing the turkeys going to bed. They cluck and chup to each other and move around until they get comfortable. The same thing they’ve done every night for my 20 years here, and in the same place. Those tall maple trees and the turkeys know a lot about each other.
I was surprised to see a couple of juncos on the sixth of October. I’ll have to check my notes to see if I’ve ever seen one earlier here. By the fifteenth, there were lots of them—still early, but I’m not complaining. It’s been over a month since I’ve heard the bugling calls of the sandhill cranes. There are still a few around, but many have left the Kickapoo Valley early this year. A number of Canada geese remain, too—family groups joining together to form flocks of fifty or more. Their pleading calls always make me tilt my head to watch as they pass over. After all these years I still would like to join them, just as I wanted to when I was a boy and flying looked to me like the greatest thing to do.
While poking along on my evening walk, I spotted the silhouette of a large owl gliding across the valley at a distance of about 300 yards. He landed out of sight in a stand of oak and cedars a quarter-mile away. In a minute, he called out from his hiding place, “hooaw,” letting his mate know where he was and she responded with her higher-pitched “hooaw!” She’s the larger of the two, but not by much, and both blend in with their surroundings, inconspicuous, until they give that call, “who-cooks-for-you? Who-cooks-for-you-all?” (The barred owl.)
The woodland path that starts ten yards behind my house takes me a hundred yards steeply uphill to the west, then leads me horizontally toward the south for two-hundred yards where I find myself nearing boundary between hardwoods and prairie. I’m not the only one who’s been using this path lately. I come upon several places where a white-tail buck has pawed the ground down to the dirt. Several small bushes and trees showed the damage from the antlers of a buck doing mock battle.
It’s mating season for the white-tail deer, and I’ve enjoyed watching their courtship antics from the house. Lots of moving deer as the bucks follow the does around and around the valley. Sadly, they are all vulnerable when they cross the road while they’re in this seasonal lovesick swoon. Drivers, please slow down and keep your eyes open, day or night, this time of the year!
The path takes me down to and through the meadow. I pass the late-autumn flowers that have gone to seed and lost all their summer green. I crush the brown head of a yellow cone flower between my fingers and lift the spicy prairie scent to my nose.
The large, almost–black heads of the purple cone flower have long since lost their pretty petals, but seem no less beautiful in their last days of the season. The tall, majestic stalks and see pods of the baptista take the prize for the most original example of fall prairie art. The pods separate easily to reveal the rows of round black seeds lined up like little peas in a pod.
The dainty blue flowers of the stiff gentian are among the very few blossoms still to be enjoyed in the meadow. They have survived three hard frosts and still they put on a gorgeous blue show for old eyes to behold.
These Driftless region autumn days are some of my favorite of the year. It’s sad to see them fade away, but I know that what goes around comes around again. I plan to be around the next time it comes around, by taking things one day at a time.
As a Wisconsin youngster, Dan was always outside working or in search of adventure in the woods, prairies, and creeks that bejewel the southern half of the state. He still is. Living for decades without electricity or plumbing in a “restored” one-room rural schoolhouse built when Abraham Lincoln was president, Dan keeps a close eye on the goings-on of nature on his 35-acre slice of woodland and restored prairie in northern Richland County.
With hundreds of wildlife drawings under his belt and stacks of phenology field notebooks that stretch back almost as far as Dan himself, he has since 1972 published his column “Down Nature’s Trail” in local print weeklies (and online) to keep his urban fans up to speed with Wisconsin’s wild side.
Born a few months before Aldo Leopold died, Dan was mentored in falconry by Aldo’s star grad student, Frances “Fran” Hamerstrom, and has even slept a time or two in the Shack back in the day. At the time of this writing, he is nursing an injured barred owl back to health, careful to work daily on the raptor’s physical conditioning, as Fran taught him.