Subtle seasonal certainty

By Jim McGuire

Contributing columnist

I’m often amazed at how easily our perceptions can be effected by the slightest deviation from the norm. Al it takes is just a tiny alteration, the merest variance or irregularity from what we expect to see or hear or feel, and our notion of things abruptly goes chugging off in an entirely new direction.

Not always the right direction, mind you. Such sudden impressions are often nothing more than whims or bits of wishful thinking. But they can also be moments of profound insight.

A few mornings ago I was ambling along a familiar path which leads through a high and wide shelter-belt buffer of upland woods bordering the Stillwater River. Lots of maple and hickory, oak and beech, with plenty of understory species such a redbud and dogwood and pawpaw to help thicken the mix.

I’d paused on the brow of the hill to look down the steep slope at the translucent jade ribbon of water moving below. White-trunked sycamores gleamed along the streambank, and I thought — not for the first time during my walk—that I really ought to have gone fishing.

It was while musing thus that I became aware of the soft, velvety rustle as a light breeze coursed through myriad leaves overhead. An unmistakable voice, one I recognized…whispering in its elemental language of coming change.

In early summer the lush green leaves of the deep woods trees are supple, resilient. A gentle morning breeze produces hardly any sound. Later on, however, those same leaves age, dry out a bit, stiffen, and a similar breeze instead causes a soft clatter.

Certainly a most subtle sound difference. Interpretive mistakes can be made. I freely admit I might have been partly influenced by the fact the doorway thermometer I’d checked as I left the house soon after daylight registered a measly 58˚F. There was also the silvery dew which crystallized every delicate spiderweb along the trail. And finally, during the first half-mile of my ramble, there’d been thick, shimmering blankets of luminous mist hovering like disembodied spirits above the river’s successive pools.

Indeed, any one of those things could have factored in, influenced my mood … which, in turn, biased my inference of the wind-stirred leaves. Well, maybe. Though I’d like to think I understand enough “tree talk” to know the difference.

Time is like a circular river, eternally flowing, always moving along that endless corridor we attempt to chart with clock and calendar, and by tracking such celestial events as solstices and equinoxes. Wheel-within-a-wheel cycles which bequeath our seasons.

Yet calendars and astronomical alignments are only mileposts in this eternal circular journey. In spite of days which seem exactly like those preceding, time and landscape never remain in stasis.

From the perspective of a day, week, or even a month — this change usually remains invisible, imperceptible, too subtle to notice, too tenuous to mark with certainty. A delicate passage, slight and elusive.

Yet there are times — infrequent occasions — when subtlety gives way to portent. Occasionally we manage to catch a fleeting glimpse of certain not too distant horizons.

No, I thought to myself, it was more than just the sound of wind in leaves, cool early-morning temperatures, dewy webs, or a foggy stream. There was genuine seasonal change afoot — noticeable clues I’d blithely ignored.

Splendid purple-magenta ironweed spattering the old field up the road from the cottage. A single clump of royal New England asters where the two-lane crosses an abandoned railroad right-of-way. Scarlet leaves now intermixed among the green in an adjacent patch of sumac. The first of the goldenrods. Plus walnuts which have recently begun dropping like green missiles, bang-thumping off our parked vehicles to litter the driveway.

Yep, seasonal signs for sure!

Summer will continue to reign for another month. What I heard in those overhead leaves was only the inklings of things to come — an offstage, sotto voce utterance, muttered from behind the curtain’s veil.

August is still in control. Yet in spite of days which seem exactly like those preceding, time and landscape never remain in stasis. Nature’s balance is not one of calm equilibrium.

In that brief moment my perception changed. A vague sense of restlessness was stirred. I sensed a hidden alteration — the certainty of forces vast and important working just beyond my personal horizon.

And it’s message, while faint, was nonetheless manifest…time’s circular river continues to merrily carry all of us along, toward a seasonal change waiting just around the bend.

Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at

Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at