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Swan Song of the Leaves Oct 30 09

This is the time of the last of the leaves. As I write, a deep low pressure center is moving out of northeast Minnesota into Ontario, dragging with it a steamy plume of unseasonably warm, moist air and high winds across the Great Lakes region. It is the inevitable leaf-stripper of late October that denudes the trees, leaving them standing as forlorn black silhouettes against the gray sky to await the coming winter. The swan song of the leaves is the sound of the wind.

It certainly isn’t the call of swans. The mute swans we have here in Michigan are aptly named. They make very little sound unless you get too close to them, in which case they let you know in unmistakable terms. In the millpond along the Paul Henry trail out by Middleville, the swans have found a haven and have been busily increasing their numbers. The mature birds are splashes of breathtaking, snow-white incandescence that light up even a dull October afternoon. But the first-year adolescents have a beauty of their own, a composite of chocolate feathers against the emerging whiteness of adulthood.

The younger swans were patrolling the waters and the older birds were busily preening themselves as Lisa and I set out on the Middleville trail the other day with our cameras. Lisa was out to photograph the swans. I wanted to capture the last bit of color before the winds took it.

Not that there was much color left. It’s amazing how swiftly the fires of autumn finally fade and die, leaving only stray sparks to remind us of the blaze that lit the maples, the oaks, the sassafras, and the poplars. Two weeks ago the forests were in their glory. Today, a solitary vine of green, gold, and brown leaves trails through empty branches like a stubborn memory.

Let me not forget the willow thickets—first to leaf out in the spring, last to fade in the fall, clusters of gold amid the somber cattails and wetland grasses. Then there is the watercress, green the whole year round in the flowing current of the streams and backwaters. And on moist, wooded hillsides, the gnarled branches of the witch hazel are festooned with spidery, yellow blossoms, just in time for Halloween.

Yes, there is still color to be found as the autumn fades. Very little, to be sure, but it is there. Even the oaks, whose subdued, rusty-red hues render them as maiden aunts against the flamboyant maples at autumn’s peak, retain their leaves long after the party is over. When December snows mantle the forests, the brown-clad oaks are a reminder that the world has not been reduced utterly to black and white.

Walking back toward the car, I came upon a lone milkweed pod hanging from its stalk like a perched bird, its seed parasols trailing out of its side like silky plumage, waiting for the wind to catch them and carry them away. As the embers of the autumn wink out, as the swan song of the leaves sings its blustery melody, I think: today, somewhere out there, that handful of milkweed seeds is spinning along on the gale, bearing with them the life and promise of a spring not yet seen and a summer yet to come.





Written by Dave.