Such a strange time of year—the beginning of a holiday season, tilting toward gatherings of community and lights and feasting, even as, and of course because, the daylight is diminishing, and the natural world goes lean.
I can never tell exactly when it happens, I just notice at some point the area songbirds have finally gone. It doesn’t seem that many days ago I had a tree full of migrating robins and was hearing the single-note Keystone Cops whistle of the varied thrushes, throwing some sort of late-season territorial fit.
Suddenly I realize I’m down to Steller’s jays: three or four of them have moved in on the evergreens around my yard, hopping along the roof of my outbuildings, clearly taking possession of the newly vacated space. The flocks of crows that live down along the waterfront are also still in town, of course. And then the local pair of ravens, who normally live a bit north of my home, thought they had it going on: I would hear what sounded like the bark of a heron, or maybe a rattle, coming from the tops of the trees across the road from me, then see them jetting across the sky, peppering the neighborhood with still more prehistoric vocalizations. Until the salmon runs started to wind down in the upper north rivers—the Elwha, the Dungeness spit, the Skagit—and the local pair of eagles returned from their seasonal, opportune feasting.
Now we have a morning sky ballet: the ravens land, thinking they’ll spend the day in the treetops hassling the crows and jays—until a slow, large shadow drifts in, several thermals higher in the air, and everyone takes off: the ravens shoot back to woods a quarter of a mile away, and the eagles, they almost seem not to be moving, holding their casual cruising patterns in the thermals above the neighborhood.
My old dog is fading, though for all cognitive purposes she’s still in there: still delighted by touch, wild for meals and for treats. She just can’t get her back end to cooperate. So she sleeps much of the day, then totters around the house, looking for things the bird has tossed onto the office carpeting, or to see if she can shake me down for another biscuit.
Tonight I carry her out to the yard in a dry moment, after a week of rainy nights. I put her down on the grass and she stands there, frozen, as if she is unsure how she suddenly happens to be outdoors.
She lifts her head and sniffs the wind. For the moment she is reading the breeze, picking up what I cannot imagine, a chord mixture of dampness and earth and wet evergreen, and god only knows what else. I watch her sorting it all out, making mental notes, her muzzle quivering, creating narratives. Then she coughs.
She ambles to a different corner of the yard and another scent takes her attention until she bumps into the wiry branches of a now leafless thimbleberry. She pivots, unsteady on her back left, and gradually weaves her way down the hill to the bottom of the stairs. Going down the stairs on her own has been beyond her for some months, but up until a few weeks ago she would insist on making her own way up. Tonight she stands, waiting for me to come and carry her.
I look around for a moment, thinking of the Novembers when I was young. The Midwest landscape had its visuals down: the colors drained to pastel skies, thin blankets of November snow or maybe just heavy silver frost, but the trees were now empty of leaves, very stark grays and browns, blacks and whites.
One morning I was driving up country roads in Indiana to do chores at a small barn in Michigan. It was still dark but there was a beautiful sunrise, hot pink and deep purple at the horizon while three quarters of the sky was still night blue. Across the frost of a farmer’s field and against this sky, the thin trunks of his windbreak streaked up against the growing light: black trees, their empty branches still reaching up.
We do have the ability to hold two things in our minds at the same time, though it takes practice. Moments can be both sad and resonant. The impending season can be energized and busy, even as the earth around us is going dormant. The darkness comes early, but houses warm with lights and cooking and familiar voices now all contained together inside.
This being the time of year she died I will miss my mother, and at the same time feel my heart open at the memory of a late afternoon in December, just home from the airport, hours before dinner and the arrival of my stepfather from work: the two of us, glad and comfortable together, a pot of tea in the living room, the windows full of blue winter sky and reflected light from the Indiana snow.
The Pacific Northwest has an amazing ability to display several types of weather at once: wind in the sunny summer, cold mornings in July, rain falling under otherwise blue skies, or like tonight: after heavy rains for several days, I stepped out to hear water running down my eaves, siphoning heavily off the leaves and the cedars to find nothing more than a light mist falling. And I looked up to see stars—and off to the east, clouds, with the moon just visible behind them.
I carry the dog up the stairs and we come back inside.
It is a season of endings, and a season of warmth, if we reach out to it. If I let go of my mind and look around me, I get what I need. The natural world can read it all back to us.