“This is the season I often mistake/birds for leaves and leaves for birds,” writes U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón of fall. In the fall, a flock movement in the sky or in the trees can mean one or another kind of wonderful flying thing.
But autumn has now given way to winter, a season I once dreaded for its cold silence and lonely darkness. The birds have clearly become birds again and the leaves are no longer carried by the wind. Unless they have been blown by the wind, bagged, and carried away by the pernicious machinery of fall, the leaves now trail on the ground, protecting overwintering insects for spring. The fall tumult has calmed as the season of change settles into the season of rest. No katydids or crickets sing at night.
I miss the flying leaves, but I’m grateful for this peace and quiet. I am so grateful to the birds. Although there are fewer of them in winter than in other seasons, I see them better now. Not hidden in the cold branches, not muffled in the cold air, their echoing songs spread from the bare branches.
Traveling from bookstore to bookstore in October and November, I completely missed fall in my garden this year. Although I love the place I go and the dear people I always find there when I get there, I am not a whole-hearted traveler. I prefer my own little piece of land to almost any other in the world, and when I’m away I miss those who share it with me. How ironic to speak of the splendors of nature so far from my own wild neighbors! In Oregon, I realized I couldn’t call a single wildflower by name. Here, I even recognize them by the stems and seed heads they leave behind when winter comes.
But I was back in Tennessee by the time the cedar wax wings arrived, and it was as nice a return gift as anything I could have hoped for. The bells of their sweet voices fall from the treetops. Their pirate masks and casual crests stand out against an impossibly blue sky. I greet them with the same pleasure I greet the arrival of the black-eyed juncos scratching the leaf litter beneath the bare limbs of the oakleaf hydrangea. They will all disappear with spring.
Walking at sunset, unhurried by the fading light, is another gift of this season. At any other time of year, walking in the dark on a leaf-strewn path is always a bit dangerous. Wild creatures study us and know our habits, avoiding the places we frequent. They expect us to leave the world to them. In a warmer season, walking on a well-trodden trail as the park empties and darkness falls is to risk stepping on a snake, and I would no more like to step on a snake than a snake would not like to be trampled. In winter, snakes sleep.
Even awake residents feel closer in winter. It’s courtship season for great horned owls, and that’s why I prefer to be outside at sunset. The owls begin to call as night falls, first one then the other. I scan the trees, following the sound. As they are, if I’m lucky, I’ll see them in the shadows.
At home, the the wrens that nested in our clothespin bag last summer, returned to roost in their old nest on these cold nights. I tiptoe when I take the dog out after dark, because I don’t want to chase the little birds from their safe nests into cold darkness where the owls are waiting for them.
As soon as my husband hangs up the Christmas wreaths, the house finches arrive to investigate. Are they looking for food? For potential resting sites? Planning ahead for nesting season?
Impossible to say, but every spring these finches nest communally in my late neighbor’s arborvitae, where I can see them from my writing table. Along with the house itself, these trees will be demolished by a developer this week. I don’t particularly like arborvitae, but as I watch the demolition equipment arrive, I’m trying to think about where I can plant this native white cedar in my own yard. The finches will need a new perch for the winter, and I would hate to miss the maiden flight of all the baby house finches in the spring.
The demolition of a widow’s carefully maintained home, the endless delivery trucks circling the neighborhood, even arthritis in my knees – at another time of year I may find such irritants utterly demoralizing , but in winter I am filled with tenderness for the fools and the broken, for the contours of this tired earth. Darkness falls early now, but I don’t fight it. Late in the day, before my husband comes home, I sit with my book and my dog, and cherish the quiet. The earth is resting and I need rest too. In winter, I feel at home in the silences of the world.