“Another season has flown,” wrote Lois Nestel, the Museum’s founding naturalist and director, more than three decades ago. “We watched its passage in the flight of warblers appearing from nowhere to feed and move like phantoms, ever southward. We saw it in the gathering of flocks of restless robins, in drifting parachutes of milkweed seeds and swirls of falling leaves. We heard it in the strident notes of crickets and in the droning of great slow bumblebees on the last frostbitten flowers. But most of all we saw it in the wedges of geese winging across the autumn sky. Summer rides their wings and with them it will vanish to return only when they come again to herald another year.”
Some things never change. This fall I watched those same flocks of birds, drifting seeds, and swirling leaves. I took a net to the cold-hobbled bumblebees and gathered specimens for use in our next exhibit. And, on one deep-blue evening, as a glorious pink sunset shot through the clouds, a pair of geese swung down out of the tentative stars. Their wild honking sent a chill down my neck, and I let the kayak paddle rest while they dipped lower and lower toward my bow. Powerful wings sent ripples scooting across the lake’s glassy surface, and then lifted the geese back up just long enough to reach the far, dark shore of the lake, where they vanished. As I turned to paddle home, a half-moon sent its own ripples across my path.
Lois continued, “It is difficult to explain the feeling of nostalgia, of longing, yearning, created by the sight and sound of flying geese. What sound turns eyes skyward more surely than the calling of wild geese? The eyes follow their passage and as the voices fade and forms become receding, wavering motes, we turn again to everyday affairs with an inward sigh of vague, unexplainable regret.
“Summer has gone, and we deplore its passing. But the transient, delicate beauty of flower and leaf is not lost forever; it is simply laid aside temporarily to be superseded by other beauties, different but equal. Falling leaves disclose the graceful structure of trunk and limb as lacy networks against the sky. Leaf-darkened woodlands are once again open and airy, and one can see deep within places that a short time ago were walls of green.
“Birds’ nests, once well hidden, now hang openly on naked branches, revealing by their architecture the nature of the builder. The nests of hornets and the cocoons of the great moths are also exposed to seeing eyes.
“With summer’s ending, nature has not closed her book but has merely turned the page, and the stories written on the fallen leaf and snow are as thrilling and delightful as those written on summer’s green page.”
Among the seasonal changes of field and forest, humans set about their own complementary autumnal routines. I don’t have a fireplace or woodstove, so I content myself with smelling other people’s morning fires on my way to work. Then at home in the evening I bundle up in a down vest and put a flannel bag full of rice, heated in the microwave, by my feet. Lois had a much nicer way to keep her toes warm.
She wrote, “The now familiar energy crisis has many connotations; most of them unpleasant, but for me there is one very positive aspect, based as much on sentimentality as on practicality. This is the swing back to wood as fuel and the accompanying sight and scent of woodsmoke.
“Especially on chilly evenings there is something very comforting in the sight of smoke rising from neighboring chimneys and the fragrance of different kinds of wood mingling on the frosty air. This is nostalgia time, for one of the treasured memories of childhood is walking home from school in the winter twilight and seeing across the snow-covered fields the lamplight glowing softly from kitchen windows and smoke rising from chimneys—the first warm breath of home fires with their promise of warmth and security.
“It also meant, of course, wood boxes to fill before dark: one for the kitchen stove, another for the living room heater. For in those days, wood was not a supplementary fuel, but the only fuel. Now, again, woodpiles grow in back yards and the crack of the splitting axe rings through the air.
“Blue-white smoke rising from chimneys not only speaks of warmth and comfort within, but tells wind direction and strength and, to some degree, the atmospheric conditions. In years past this was my only barometer.
“For many, wood is not just a supplement to ease the burdensome expense of gas or oil. A few have gone all the way and reverted entirely to wood as fuel. Cooks are learning once again the satisfaction of soups and stews and bean pots simmered long and slow on a wood range and the comfortable sound of a teakettle singing on the back of a stove.
“There is a saying that wood warms you twice, once when you cut it and once when you burn it. I think a third warmth could be added—the deep heart-warmth that glows like embers within and rises like smoke on a still day to gladden all surrounding souls.”
Happily, those who are lucky enough to have fireplaces kindly share the sight and smell of their woodsmoke with the rest of us.
Special Note: Emily’s book, Natural Connections: Exploring Northwoods Nature through Science and Your Senses is here! Order your copy at http://cablemuseum.org/natural-connections-book/. Listen to the podcast at www.cablemusum.org!
For 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Come visit us in Cable, WI! Our new exhibit: "Better Together--Celebrating a Natural Community" is now open!