Tag Archives: autumn

The Healing Rain

Rain, finally

After a record-breakingly dry, hot summer, the rain has finally blessed us with the sweet scent of moist soil. Desiccated trees and shrubs, having finally enjoyed a long-awaited drink, are releasing oxygen-laden sighs of relief. You can almost hear their joy as they perk up their leaves one last time before settling down for winter’s quiet herbal introversion.

Raindrop on salmonberry leaf

Rain-drenched cedar branch

Our bird life is changing too. This summer brought to the Salish Sea an extraordinary number of Caspian Terns, whose daily foraging route seemed to take them directly over our house while they filled the air with their raucous conversations.

Caspian Tern checking me out (Lowman Beach, West Seattle)

Yesterday I caught a glimpse of one of the last terns soaring high overhead, perhaps giving his summer home one last look before he heads south to Mexico for the winter.

One of the last Caspian Terns of summer

I’ll miss the terns’ elegant soaring grace. But while the terns seek winter refuge in the Baja California area, others birds are arriving to seek winter refuge here, bringing their own voices and flashes of beauty to the turning palette of autumn.

Male partner of first Varied Thrush pair of the season

Some, like this Varied Thrush, will be with us all winter, sweetening the days’ ever-earlier dusks with their mysterious two-toned calls.

Others are just breezing through, like the warblers I encountered yesterday at one of my city’s large parks by the lake. My dear friend Nancy and I walked in spitting rain along marshes and swamps, catching quick flitting movements through willows and oceanspray. With their quick movements and leafy colors, the warblers were almost impossible to photograph, but I managed by sheer luck, a large-capacity photo card, and a bit of stubborn persistence to get a couple in focus.

Yellow-rumped Warbler with spider prey (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

Orange-crowned Warbler (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

The warblers are en route from Alaska and northern Canada down to Mexico. Bug-rich waystations like these wetlands are crucial to their survival, providing  essential protein, fruit, seeds, and shelter. It’s only because of intensive preservation and restoration efforts that these refuges still exist; not too many years ago, this land served as a naval air station. Collaboration among government, private companies, and nonprofits is transforming much of the military facility into a vibrant wildlife habitat and sanctuary.

We also discovered small companionable flocks of American Goldfinches making their way through the trees. This one made me chuckle with his decorated beak. I can just hear him thinking “What’re you lookin’ at?”

American Goldfinch, probably a juvenile (Magnuson Park, Seattle)

Just a few days ago, I’d had a similar flock at my feeder. A juvenile (on the left) seemed to be successfully begging from its parent—but perhaps the middle goldfinch was simply scolding her companion, since by now the young birds should be pretty self-sufficient.

American Goldfinches

Here at the end of September, young goldfinches gather in flocks of increasing size, chattering as they explore in search of the season’s abundant food. Goldfinches will be with us all year, though their numbers will gradually drop as autumn progresses and many disperse to new territories.

Season of abundance, season of change; summer’s treasures disappear and new joys arrive, some for a brief shining moment and some for a lifetime. Now is the time of transition.

This year’s September has been hard. Some loved ones have left us forever. Others’ light has flickered briefly but will return bright and strong. Some hover on the edge of darkness, and only time will unfold the rest of their story.

But as summer turns to autumn, with time’s horizon inexorably lowering toward winter, the darkening season brings the comfort of quiet. We light the candles for wisdom as we embrace both loss and love; we welcome those who bring their harvest gifts of color and their notes of hope: rain on the roof, a two-toned voice in the gathering dusk.

Varied Thrush



Feast of Fogamar

Fogamar, “of wind and abundance,” Old Irish for this season we call autumn. It’s the perfect word for our annual shift from daylong predictable sunlight to those interesting grays and shifting breezes, and the occasional convergence zone with its furious rains and towering charcoal cumuli.

Convergence-zone rain over Puget Sound

Convergence-zone rain over Puget Sound

When we first met our new home a few months ago, the air was lilac-laden, dizzying in its sweetness. The blooms were fading by the time we moved in at the beginning of August, and by a couple of weeks ago the tall shrubs were looking pretty bedraggled, with shriveled brown seedheads sticking above the brown-edged green leaves.

But oh, they are beloved by the birds. Continue reading

Gifts of Fogmaggedon

Carl Sandburg’s fog may come on little cat feet, but mine comes on the muffled blast of the ferry foghorn, telling me even before I open my eyes in the morning that our annual autumn mist has arrived. Here in Honnalee, the fog moved in 2-1/2 weeks ago: mysterious, atmospheric, giving presence to still air whose existence we usually no more notice than fish notice their placid water. Sunbeams filtering through foggy autumn forests inexorably pull my camera, with me attached, into the forest, and those first couple of days I danced around the park taking photo after photo of the moody woods and enchanting dewdrops.

Fog in Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Fog in Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

Dewdrop on cedar needles

Dewdrop on cedar needles

A few days later, the fog still swirling through the trees, I left to spend a week back home in Virginia at my high-school reunion, celebrating with dear friends from way back, then showing my father my old haunts in my college town. (Well, most of the haunts; some were better left back in the past along with my profoundly immature 20-something self.) The remnants of Tropical Storm Karen literally dampened both occasions, dumping her remnant Gulf Stream moisture on us all day, every day. But the joy of being with old friends and my beloved dad lit the days, and one afternoon’s sunbreak gave me a few bird-photography opportunities.

Northern Mockingbird Williamsburg, VA

Northern Mockingbird
Williamsburg, VA

Northern Cardinal Williamsburg, VA

Northern Cardinal
Williamsburg, VA

Do East Coasters realize how amazing cardinals are?

Anyway, as my evening flight took off from Dulles at the end, I was looking forward to returning to Seattle’s glorious blue-sky autumn days, the woods aglow with our brilliant yellow Bigleaf Maples and the occasional stunning red Vine Maple.

I woke up late the morning after, having mercifully been able to sleep off jet lag—to the sound of the ferry foghorn. Still? After a week and a half? No sun for twelve straight days, no sense of the changing light that tells time’s passing, just monotonous gray skies all day, not even a good storm to make it interesting. It would be 10 am, then suddenly 4:30 in the afternoon, time for a nap.

Lincoln Park beach in fog

Lincoln Park beach in fog

After yet an additional three days of this, even our eternally enthusiastic resident weather guru, Cliff Mass of the University of Washington, got grumpy. “Fogmaggedon!” he called our record-setting string of foggy fall days; a “boa constrictor” of an inversion. (As always, he has cool photos and diagrams – check them out.)

Cliff hightailed it to Eastern Washington to get a sun injection to his psyche, but I just stayed in place, not even venturing into the forest for a couple of days—which tells you something’s way off. I just couldn’t summon up the energy.

Then this afternoon, Rob called me a few minutes after he left for orchestra rehearsal. He’d reached the top of the hill near our house—and it was glorious up there, sunny and warm. The boa-constrictor inversion meant that at our house, 200′ above sea level and near Puget Sound, the air was cool enough to keep moisture in vapor form—but a mile away and 300′ higher, the sun had warmed the air enough to vaporize those foggy droplets. He could see all the way to the mountains.

Given this news, I couldn’t stand being indoors any longer. I grabbed my cameras and headed out. I got to the edge of the bluff just as the sun broke through near the horizon.

Color! Glowing yellow light through the trees! Bright orange leaves lining the soft red-brown path!

Path to beach, Lincoln Park West Seattle, WA

Path to beach, Lincoln Park
West Seattle, WA

I hadn’t realized how much I’d been missing color during the days of monochromatic mist. I raced down to the beach, suddenly full of energy, to immerse myself in the palette of post-fog sunset.

Fog clearing at Lincoln Park beach West Seattle, WA

Fog clearing at Lincoln Park beach
West Seattle, WA

I’ve been doing a lot of research recently into animal vision and the science behind it. Although we humans have three kinds of color-perceiving cells called “cones” in our eyes, many other mammals just have two kinds of cones, so the world looks very different to them. For instance, here’s how a dog might perceive the Lincoln Park path and the Northern Cardinal:

Simulation of dog's view of path and cardinal

Simulation of dog’s view of path and cardinal

All this research has been fascinating—bird vision, for instance, is astounding—and I’ll tell you more about it in future posts. But it took Fogmaggedon to get me out of my head and back into my body, for my spirit to wake up once again to how utterly remarkable it is, living in a world shimmering with hue and tone and vibrancy and saturation beyond the imagining of most other mammals.

If it doesn’t last too long, the quieting blanket of fog can be a blessing, providing an introverted interlude necessary for recharging the soul, bringing its own magical depth to the world. But too-persistent fog—from atmospheric inversion, midlife crisis, depression, self-centeredness, busyness—keeps our spirit from joyous aliveness to the multicolored world. When the time comes for the mist to dissipate, we welcome the brilliant earth back, alive again, rebaptized.

Autumn grove Lincoln Park, West Seattle

Autumn grove
Lincoln Park, West Seattle


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Things that for some unknown reason threaten to breach the soft earthen dam of your heart within a half-hour space on a late autumn late afternoon

Pacific Dogwood berry clusters

Sunlight on fir needles after a soaking rain

Curling madrone bark dancing in the wind

Snowberries — tiny lamps in the dark forest

The gnarled base of an old camellia…

…arching tenderly over its three-year-old child.

Vertical moss garden, ecstatic after recent rains

Bigleaf Maple leaf ready to fall, having conscientiously done its duty…

…waiting to join its companions below, in their final glory.


Minding the Gap: Attention in the Quiet Season

The ringing cry of the well-fledged eaglet has faded; he’s off to his new territory. Young hawks are nowhere to be heard or seen. Gangs of adolescent Steller’s Jays still fill the nearby cedars with their raucous shrieks, and this year’s crop of Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches are still desultorily begging from their parents at my birdfeeders—but the parents aren’t paying too much mind now that the young ones are fully capable of feeding themselves.

Young Chestnut-backed Chickadee begging

Fledgling Chestnut-backed Chickadee in classic begging posture – note open beak and fluffed wings

It’s quieter in my forest: the leaves are yellow-tinged, the soil is dusty, the air feels just a bit spent. The stories have shifted.

Late-summer sunset, Lincoln Park

The waters are stiller too. Our summer birds seem to have taken off, and the winter migration hasn’t reached the Salish Sea just yet. A couple of seal pups have shown up on our shores (well-protected by our devoted and generous Seal Sitters), but the pupping season hasn’t yet generated its larger numbers of baby seals resting vulnerably on the beach, in easy reach of curious dogs and humans.

Seal on West Seattle beach, 2009

Seal on West Seattle beach, 2009

Many of the area’s college students have headed back to their campuses, summer camps are coming to a close, and families seem to be packing cars and kids for that last pre-Labor Day vacation before school starts.

The summer before I started college, my family moved to Europe. When it was time for me to head back to the East Coast in late August, my father came along to help me get settled. We unpacked my suitcases, set up my desk supplies, made my bed, found the cafeteria. Finally it was time for him to leave; orientation started the next day, and he had to catch a flight back to his job.

I remember so clearly our hug goodbye, then watching him walk away from me toward the rental car; I suspect he may have had a few tears in his eyes, as I did, but in our family you tried to seem strong. Off he drove, heading back to his regular life while I started my new one.

Now what?

I had no idea what to do with myself. My new roommate was off somewhere; orientation wasn’t until tomorrow; classes of course hadn’t started yet. I could start reading some of the philosophy books I’d bought, I guessed, but when I tried, the words somehow just didn’t click. I think I just kind of walked around, trying to pass the time until something organized happened. I wasn’t actively exploring with any kind of focus, simply drifting in this new setting.

* * * * *

Late August, the quiet season: major transitions are about to happen, but their germination is still deep underground. These days I find it easier than usual to stay home and write rather than exploring the forest, since there’s a new hush; fewer birds draw my attention. When I do walk in the woods, I need to pay a different kind of attention than usual. Huge raptors no longer clamor from tops of trees, easy to find and observe; instead, humbler creatures whisper from the thickets.

It’s a latent time that invites a different way of listening. A season for special mindfulness, to notice what’s absent rather than what makes itself obviously present, to hold closer to heart the softer sounds and senses: the quiet ‘pik’ of a small Downy Woodpecker making its way around a hidden snag, the lingering warmth of a father’s recent embrace.

Soon enough the fall bustle will begin. Classes will start, Buffleheads will cluster off our shores, flocks of Common Mergansers will bring autumn elegance to the Salish Sea with their tuxedo black-and-whites. For now, though, a passing peace prevails.


It’s been pouring rain for two solid days now. Last night I kept waking up to listen to the drumming of rain on our roof, the wind humming through the trees out at the bluff, a lively air-river whispering something I couldn’t quite make out.

Soggy fall is a welcome respite after the exhaustingly beautiful bright summer, full of activity fueled by the knowledge that the perfect sparkling days won’t last long.  But now forest creatures are stuffing themselves nut-chubby, huddling wetly under dripping cedar branches, wiggling out of the saturated soil in search of pockets of aeration. A hummingbird braves pounding raindrops the size of his eyes to suck sugar water from my feeder.

This sense of “it won’t last long” is everywhere these days. A thick yellow carpet of cast-off bigleaf-maple leaves sends up a gentle glow from the forest floor.  The irises that were a housewarming present have gone to glorious seed, their brilliant orange berries brightening the kitchen window. A photo taken by a friend shows me for the first time that the top of my head is growing gray.

As winter nears, trees concentrate their efforts on their roots, branches, and buds. Their showy leaves, which have been so helpful in spring and summer in turning sunlight into tree food, now become a drain on the trees’ resources. If you look closely at the stem-ends of the fallen leaves, you can see their abscission zones: the cutoff area formed when shortening daylength triggers chemical changes that keep nutrients from reaching the leaf, weakening it so that it drops off. The tree needs to release its leaves to conserve its energy in the challenging season of winter.

Abscission zone in Bigleaf Maple leaf

I know the feeling. I’ve loved my active, out-in-the-world life and my career as a professor. Academics’ time of rebirth isn’t spring, but fall, when new students sprout in our classrooms and we start the annual cycle of the school year, watering and fertilizing our promising young seedlings throughout the winter months.

This fall, though, it feels like time for abscission, for cutting out and letting go of the things that don’t feed my roots. I need my nutrients now for writing, photography, time outdoors that feeds my intimacy with my beloved natural world. My roots need to grow more deeply into the soil, to tap new nutrients and to brace better against winter storms.

Because it won’t last long, this life of mine. Genetically, I’m likely to last well into my 90’s and perhaps even beyond. But the shadow of Alzheimer’s always lurks, and weakening bones, and fading vision: the gifts of body and mind that we give back one by one.

This is the season to choose soil over air; soul over show. Because now is never long enough.

Birding from the Bedroom

As you know, excellent birders rise before the sun and tiptoe quietly into nature to set up their spotting scopes and get their cameras and tripods ready to start clicking at first light. They’re rewarded with sparkling photos of remarkable birds with soulful eyes, splashed at just the right angle with the golden light of dawn.

But I’m not one of those. I sleep in and have quiet time with my cats and my journal, do my stretches, eventually wander down for breakfast. I usually get around to loading up my gear and making it out to the park about the crack of 10 am. That’s when the air’s warmed up a bit so that insects are moving around, so birds can find them and I can find the birds…but mostly I just like to move slowly, to enter the day contemplatively.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was stretching, I was chastising myself for being so slug-like, since it was a rare lovely day for this time of year: sunny and mild and alluring. I just knew that somewhere deep in the forest a beautiful early bird was catching a particularly picturesque worm, and I was going to miss it.

But then a movement in the hawthorne outside my bedroom window caught my eye, so I grabbed my camera from the next room and took a look.

Warblers! Beautiful bright warblers like avian flowers, hopping among the bright green leaves and red berries, lit by the low sun, not three feet from my bedroom window. I had to look up one of them whom I hadn’t seen in years, yellow with a dark eye mask: a Townsend’s Warbler, probably pausing—undeniably picturesquely—on his way down to Central America.

Townsend's Warbler

I spent most of the next hour taking pictures of the Townsend’s Warbler and then the Yellow Warbler who showed up next, with an occasional shift to the other window to try to catch the Red-Breasted Sapsucker and Downy Woodpecker who were working the huge Atlas Spruce to the west.

Townsend's Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Slugdom had finally paid off: a two-warbler, two-woodpecker morning without even leaving my bedroom…now that’s what I call excellent birding.

Townsend's Warbler

Stories in the Quiet

The sudden movement of a small shadow, cast from behind me by the morning sun, alerts my birdey-sense and I look quickly around in hopes of spotting a warbler or flycatcher. But it’s simply another yellow leaf tumbling through the backlit canopy.

Drops on autumn leaf

These days, the slightest breeze releases another fluttering cascade of dry leaves, withered or faded or simply tired, and the forest floor is starting to rustle with its annual autumn carpet. I’ve had to learn not to look up at every little sound. It’s Aug-tober (as the West Seattle Blog recently dubbed this season), when our trees are parched by the same sun we winter-soggy humans so treasure around here, and we get that sad-sweet feeling that fall’s flittering around the edges.

I still see the occasional flycatcher, and was lucky enough to spot a warbler last week. The pileated woodpecker family has also appeared a couple of times recently.

Pileated Woodpecker family: Father at top, daughter middle, son bottom

But the woods sure seem quiet these days: no hawk whistles or wildly chattering little birds raising the hawk alarm. No eagles, who’ve been pretty scarce around here since they gave up on their nest this spring. Even the conversational little nuthatches and chickadees seem to have turned down the volume a bit as they forage around the just-ripe blackberries.

So I have to find my stories in other ways. A walk along the trail below the hawk nest takes me past the branch about three feet above my head, where after swooping low over me, one of the young hawks perched for perhaps half an hour, grooming itself while I watched from a distance of no more than eight feet or so. Oh, and up there in that bare snag, that’s where I saw all four young hawks perching and tussling early one morning — and over here on the ground near the flicker hole is where we found all those flicker feathers, their owner taken to feed growing nestlings. Stories define places.

Sagas in stones

“You hear the rocks sing?” asked an older friend of mine incredulously when I told him that I’m fluent in both reading and hearing rock language. It’s a soft-spoken language for sure, but one rich in time and place if you know how to be attentive to it.

Each rock tells its own unique story, some of them covering billions of years; you can read it in the particles and the way they’re arranged. And yes, there is music in the rocks. The arrangement of atoms in a quartz crystal —

Artistic rendering of silicon (gold spheres) and oxygen (glass spheres) as connected in a quartz glass. Not quite a strict mineral structure, but almost, and so beautiful!

— can be represented mathematically, and math can be expressed musically; so I think of a crystal as a harmonious chord, and a rock as a song with lots of congruent chords, and a landscape as a symphony in stone.

Symphony in Stone: Olympic Mountains at sunrise, from West Seattle

Anne Whiston Spirn writes eloquently about the “language of landscape,” and I’m a strong believer that we’re born into this language and can learn its dialects wherever we go.

So here’s a truth about natural history. Every creature whose life you follow for a moment or years, each stone you hold in your palm to savor its smooth heft, every place you live into like Rilke’s questions, becomes a story or a song in your library.

Thomas Huxley famously said that “To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or seaside stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall.”

But once you’ve absorbed these tales, their faces are always turned toward you, the forest becomes a library, and every walk brings them whispering from the woods. Maybe quiet places have an advantage, after all.