Showcasing the DNR: The autumn unsettling

Share or view as webpage  |  Update preferences

- Showcasing the DNR -

An October snowfall covers the colorful autumn leaves on Deer Lake in Marquette County.

The autumn unsettling

“Somewhere along the high road, the air began to turn cold,” – Bob Seger 

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

With the autumnal equinox fading fast in the rearview mirror, the shift in the cosmic scene and the arrival of the new season seemed abrupt, like a curtain dropping or a door slamming shut – likely the door to summer.

The dazzling colors of fall went, in no time at all, from a few splendid splashes here and there among the greenery to full blazes of fiery oranges, yellows and reds across the entire span of the countryside.

The autumn chill and the drizzling rains arrived. It won’t be long before they produce a constant presence, moving us all down the wet, cold and leaf-littered pathway that leads to winter’s first snows.

On high hilltops and ridges, where the winds of recent storms shook and rattled the mighty maples and oaks, the limbs of trees were stripped bare.

Skeletal in their appearance, and especially prominent this early in the season, these branches rise to the skies from the canopies of brightly colored leaves like the bony hands of starvelings.

This is the time of the year when I feel the most like a ghost of shadows and decay, with the wind blowing right through me. I walk across the land in trudging steps or float over the meadows like the evening mists.

I swirl. I twist. But, I’m no phantom or wraith, returning from beyond the grave for some maniacal vengeance.

I just want to be left alone to dissolve into the shadows of these bare trees and the last trailing warmth of the summer wind.

Sit me down in the tall, yellow grass along the riverbank, where I can watch the slow turns of the water’s current. My heart can rise and fall there.

When the nighttime comes, I will remain here, waiting for the howls and hoots and the undiscernible sounds of the night crashing around out there in the woods.

Last night, I tumbled out the back door, sometime after midnight. I realized immediately I had blundered into a nocturne performance already underway. The next few moments would leave me wondering what might have started the whole thing.

Not far back in the trees, past the woodshed, a great horned owl was hooting softly, but repeatedly. A response came echoing back from another stand of trees even closer to me. Two birds.

There is something about being able to hear something alive and so close by and not being able to see it that heightens all my senses. I ducked inside the house for my flashlight, but I still couldn’t see anything more.

I kept listening. It was exquisite night music.

I wondered where these birds have been. I haven’t heard them at all on other nights recently. Then, suddenly, here they are in the woods out back, just off the green sphagnum moss and cut grass of the yard.

It wasn’t long before the sounds of these owls were joined by those of two more. These were barred owls – one that gave eerie whistling squeals and shrieks and another that hooted the familiar “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” rhythmic series.

I wondered what was happening in the space between these four birds, out there in the wet and foggy blackness of trees and fallen leaves and logs, towering ancient rocks and the trickle of rivulets.

There weren’t any stars to see. The cloud cover brightened the skies enough that if an owl had perched atop one of the many trees around the yard, or the roof or chimney top, they would have been seen easily enough with the naked eye.

Way back in the soundscape, past the occasional car that spattered its way down the rain-slicked road, there was another sound. This was another night noise that had been triggered by something.

Like the owls of both brands, coyotes – which always seem young – yipped and howled into the cold air, no doubt expelling steam from their mouths and noses.

I stood thinking about these creatures that sound off some nights and not others.

A couple of days earlier, I watched a partridge put its head down and trot across a gravel road. Nearby, the grade dipped and dropped, taking me around corners to the bottom of a spectacular gorge.

I had only traveled this way once before. That was years ago, before the mountain road had been ripped open and washed away by yet another storm. The road is still closed, up there, but I could make it to the river.

I stood on the concrete span built just after World War II. I looked downstream for a little bit, snapping a few pictures. But it was the view upstream that captivated me, as it had the last time I was here.

The scene reminded me of the wide rivers of the western states that roll and rumble downstream to their outwash plains, beneath the foothills of any number of stately mountain ranges.

Here, the river was wide and not too deep. In several places it had been split and braided. Splintered gray slate and other dark-colored rocks covered the river bottom. There were reds and oranges here too.

It felt good to be here to smell the water and the air, and to hear the wonderful rushing of the water over the rocks. Soul music.

A campground just downstream of the bridge was full. A sign warned of the potential of flash flooding. Not today. This looked like a nice place to camp. Someday, maybe, I’ll camp here at a time when the catbirds and the vireos would be more likely to be my neighbors.

Climbing back out of the gorge to those hardwood stands along the rim of the canyon, I could feel an unsettling. It was a disturbance or longing.

I think it had to do with more time, but in the world today it could have been any one of a hundred or thousand different things.

“I just want someone who can laugh at the fact that there ain’t nothing funny,” Tonio K. said that.

“I’ll let you be in my dream if I can be in yours,” Bob Dylan said that.

A couple of cars raced passed me on the road, rushing to get somewhere.

A few more miles up the road, I turned off to a narrow back way that led to a dam over a not especially wide river. Behind the gates, the blue-tinted water reflecting the skies opened into an expanded basin flanked with trees cast in fall color.

I want to find a mountain trail that winds high up over switchbacks up to a saddle. There I would sit for hours listening and thinking, trying to keep quiet inside to see what was there for me.

The rain or nighttime wouldn’t move me. Not even the snow. I’d like to sit there for maybe a week, just watching and wondering, learning and growing.

Right next to the pine seedlings, the rocks and the mountain flowers, I’d stay.

After that, I suspect it would be easier to return down the path to the blacktop and the concrete, the high lines and the buildings and cars.

With my heart and my mind filled with all good things, I might be able better face the bells and buzzes of those ubiquitous distraction machines, prompting and poking and forcing one daft and unnecessary intrusion after another.

Some place out there now, the owls past my yard are huddling under the cover of the trees roosting quietly in the afternoon light.

I think I might go for a walk to try to find them.

I don’t know what I want from them. Maybe to see them in the daytime after not being able to at night.

Most of the backyard is covered in fallen leaves. There aren’t many apples this year.

I have too many questions and not enough answers. The season shifted quick beneath my feet. I’m swept and left swirling in the wind, tumbling, like one of those leaves taking one last dance on its way to the ground.

Check out previous Showcasing the DNR stories in our archive at To subscribe to upcoming Showcasing articles, sign up for free email delivery at

Note to editors: Contact: John Pepin, Showcasing the DNR series editor, 906-226-1352. Accompanying photos and a text-only version of this story are available below for download. Caption information follows. Credit Michigan Department of Natural Resources, unless otherwise noted.

Text-only version Showcasing Story - The autumn unsettling

Autumn: An October snowfall covers the colorful autumn leaves on Deer Lake in Marquette County.

DNR COVID-19 RESPONSE: For details on affected DNR facilities and services, visit this webpage. Follow state actions and guidelines at

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is committed to the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state's natural and cultural resources for current and future generations. For more information, go to