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COLUMN SIX: In autumn, the day rules

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO The VOICE I n each season there is a best time of the day to take a walk. Winter owns the night. Most people rise and go to work before the sun has fully emerged, and return home after it’s already dark.
The beaver won this battle of the beaverdams, but arguably lost the war. SAMUEL PICCOLO PHOTO


In each season there is a best time of the day to take a walk. Winter owns the night. Most people rise and go to work before the sun has fully emerged, and return home after it’s already dark. Snow reflects back the glow of the moon or the shimmer of a distant streetlight, and so it always looks brighter than it actually is. Springtime is right for morning strolls. The beginning of the day is suitable symbolism for the beginning of new growth. In summer, the evening is a blessed relief from the heat of the day, and it’s the only time that you’d really want to go walking anyway.

The daytime is autumn’s.

Whether it is mid-morning or mid-afternoon, the sun always seems to be on the wane, the shadows always seem to stretch towards the east.

I have gone for many walks out in the forest behind my family home; the most memorable were in the fall.

There was an apple tree behind the neighbour’s garden. It was short and stooped—even as a child I could reach nearly to its top—but its fruit was crisp and tart. The neighbour didn’t apply pesticides to anything in his yard, so at least half of the apples fell to the ground, worm-ridden, where they lay in the grass. We would toss them in the air and strike them with old tennis racquets.

If the apple was one of the softer ones, it would explode at the moment of impact, spraying bits of pulp and juice all over the striker and his surroundings. If the apple was more firm, the racquet’s strings might instead dice the flesh into thin rectangular prisms that dropped to the earth, ready for the deep-fryer.

The game’s only real rule was that the apples couldn’t be good ones, picked from the tree, even though it was a rare year that all of the worm-free fruit would be picked and consumed. Usually, come winter, there were still a few shrunken rejects, encased in ice and hanging from desiccated stems.

A few years ago a moose named Bullwinkle, in Anchorage, Alaska, took to eating apples that had been left on the ground, fermenting. It takes a lot of alcohol to get a moose soused, but they have big appetites too, and Bullwinkle became known for drunkenly stumbling around town. He once dragged his five-foot rack of antlers through a set of Christmas lights. Maybe our little game saved a few deer from DUIs, or worse, on Canboro Road.

There are other distinctive sights in autumn. The chalky white of a birch’s bark clashes strongly with the fading greens and encroaching auburns of the leaves around it. Dead trees, ones whose lifelessness might be concealed in a leaf-less winter and obscured in a blooming summer, can no longer hide. During a blustery blizzard, their roots loose in the ground, these lame ducks might finally come down.

If they aren’t left to rot, they might be dragged out by a tractor and pushed through a sawmill. This fate, that of their trunks, is not a pleasant one to anticipate, but it is no doubt preferable to that of the branches, which will be clipped and thrown on to one of the brush-piles that lie waiting for one glorious blaze.

Trees do not all lose their leaves at the same time. Some of the leaves of pear trees blacken and shrivel before the fruit is even ripe. A dry creek-bed is covered in ruddy maple leaves, the kinds that people wax and then place between the covers of an encyclopedia, there to forget about and only remembered the next time that something is to be flattened in the same volume.

Out behind our house, in the woods, little ridges of cultivated land are just visible in the distance. Everything but the last of the pumpkins has been harvested, and even of those there are only a few orbs left on the vine to fatten to peak in-edibleness.

Further on, away from the creek, are the beaverlands. One of the animals remade a few acres of the forest a couple of years ago, leaving the land spotted with stumps gnawed into sharp tips. The beaver must have been trimming her teeth on most of the larger logs, because she didn’t pull them over to the dam. Or perhaps she worked in stages, first chopping and then building, and had erred in judging how much wood would be needed.

Either way, the dam was a massively successful infrastructure project— too successful. All the trees previously standing in the pond’s path saw their roots waterlogged and were soon incapable of keeping themselves upright. The beaver was evidently unable to remove them, and so the pond became mired in branches and trunks. Without rain these past months, it has become a swamp, unnavigable to anything in the water.

The beaver is not around to be concerned by this development. This spring she was found dead, crushed beneath one of the trees that she had chewed through. It was not clear whether this accident occurred while she was working, of if she had taken a break and was merely passing by one of the half-finished jobs when a gust blew it on top of her.

In the months since, the forest has slowly begun to regain control.

Saplings that would have previously been prohibited from thickening are growing taller, more confident. The tracks of other animals are imprinted into the mud where they descend to drink: a raccoon’s star-like paw, a deer’s labial hoof. With each of my steps, tadpoles—the conservative few who delayed their transformation for one more year—shoot from their hiding spots, moving en masse and giving the impression that there is a current to the water.

But there isn’t. The dam is still holding. Next spring, or the spring after that, there will be a big rain, and a drip of water will slip through that beaver’s mud.

Soon enough, the logs will rot and the rest of the dirt will be pushed apart. The trees will grow back and the banks will again be overgrown. The stream will return, just like before. At this time next autumn—or maybe the next—I will walk here again, and the smell of wild mint will be stronger, and the oil that sits on the surface of the water will be washed away. Unless, of course, another beaver moves in first.