By James McGuire
A few days ago, I decided the dog and I would investigate a new area on our morning walk.
The place I chose for this exploratory adventure was a series of overgrown and long-fallow farmland acres, bordered by a little creek and its riparian woods, located a half-hour west and north of our usual haunts.
It’s now officially autumn. Another summer has slipped away. When autumn arrives I constantly find myself drawn toward a daily habit of minor rambles—and practically any excuse or rumor is sufficient to get me out of the house and into the woods or fields
When I parked my vehicle in the weedy pull-off along the rural backroad, my first thought was that I really ought to be going squirrel hunting rather than dog walking. It just felt like one of those made-to-order mornings for a bushytail mission. Greeting the dawn while sitting on some log-top seat—down in the hill country. A steep, forested slope, old-growth trees, and a good overview of a nearby patch of hickory nut trees.
Maybe some other morning…
Now, both the dog and I were eager to begin our current ramble.
The strip woods bordering the little creek was cool, quiet, and inviting. Dew sparkled everywhere.
The overhead leaves were still mostly green, though duller, more matte and anemic. A few were already showing definite hints of yellow and gold and russet.
I did notice several maples sporting orange streaks, plus a swirl of Virginia creeper that twined in first-blush maroon up a nearby snag. And at the edge of the thicket, before we’d entered the woods proper, a patch of sumac already bore leaves dressed in brilliant crimson.
The signs are in place; hints and intimations. While widespread autumn color is not yet here, it’s certainly on its way.
There wasn’t any path paralleling the little creek. But the trees were large and mature. From spring through summer their canopy created a deep shade—gloom aplenty to discourage rampant undergrowth. So our way was open and easy—no path needed. We ambled along through this park-like grove.
A quarter-mile later, the woods thinned to just a few trees directly along the banks, as old, neglected farm fields pushed close.
Here there was a pathway, of sorts—at least what looked to be a faint game trail winding through the dense growth.
Daisy Dog and I left the creekside woods and began cutting across a series of vast, overgrown fields. These huge, long-fallow wild meadows—once likely planted to corn or soybeans—were now the province of a dense, almost head-high tangle of weeds, mostly goldenrod. A kingdom of the richest yellow through which our narrow, almost-invisible path snaked.
For half an hour we followed this restricted lane, enclosed between walls of goldenrod. The only break came when the path crossed an old fenceline with its brief border of scrubby mulberries and Osage orange.
Though it felt a bit close in the weeds—warm and stuffy—it wasn’t a boring trek. In fact, the weedfield was decidedly prairie-ish in character.
There were little patches of Jerusalem artichoke, common sunflower, and yellow wingstem to alleviate the monotony of the goldenrods. The occasional lingering ironweed added a dash of purple, while glorious clumps of New England asters shown like jewels of blue.
Crickets trilled by the dozens. A few southbound monarch butterflies fluttered overhead. And a rusty-green praying mantis reared at my outstretched finger from a mullen stalk.
I expect the highlight of Daisy’s walk occurred when a startled cottontail squirted from a nearby thicker clump, practically underfoot, made a half-dozen quick zig-zag hops down the middle of the vague trail, then dove into the opposite wall-like weed border and disappeared as quickly and completely as a jumping bass reentering a pond.
Daisy was comically nonplussed. So startled she didn’t know whether to give chase or dash behind me for protection. In the end, she simply squatted, tail drooped and mouth open. The perfect picture of a momentarily but thoroughly discombobulated pooch.
Why didn’t that bunny simply dash deeper into the weeds on it’s original side of the trail? Was that insouciant powder puffer baiting my dog—trying to tempt her into giving chase in order to lead her into a local version of Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch?
I dunno. But after words of gentle reassurance, we moved on.
For me, the best thing had to be the waves of goldfinches winging up at our too-near approach. Ten, twenty, even thirty birds per flock, arising in quick flurries from the dense, predominately goldenrod thickets.
Hundred of goldfinches put to flight as we traversed each field. I’ve never seen anything like it! The birds scattered upward like handful after handful of bright yellow coins tossed into an autumnal blue sky.
I was both astonished and delighted and stood transfixed as each successive flight took wing—caught up by the sheer incredible spectacle of so many cherry little goldfinches. As always, I admired anew their bright yellow bodies and the way their wings, tails, and caps were trimmed in jaunty black.
Goldenrod seeds are high on a goldfinch’s list of preferred foods. Since the only flocks of goldfinches we flushed were adjacent to the trail, it’s reasonable to believe the entire field must have been equally stuffed with feeding birds who paid us no mind whatsoever.
What an amazing thought!
Nature writer Hal Borland says autumn is the prime time for little journeys. Short hikes, half-day excursions, small explorations just down the road or across the nearest hilltop.
That old countryman nature scribe called it right—at least it’s true for me. Now is indeed the time for getting out, taking in the sights, savoring the changing season.
Don’t miss out on enjoying some of the finest days of the year! You just can’t beat autumn’s little adventures.
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