By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
As the hours of daylight become blatantly shorter, the journey of seasons moves quickly towards the Great Sleep of Winter. Despite the prolonged drought, Ozarkers everywhere enjoyed a most spectacular fall color display. In all my years of living in the Ozarks, I can’t remember a fall as beautiful as this one. But now that the Autumn show is over, the curtain is coming down in a torrent of swirling leaves and piling up in huge ankle-deep drifts that blanket the earth in gold. And yet, the falling is far from over. For even now, the leaves cling to the remnants of their arboreal lives – resisting their eventual future as rich dark humus and rattling their final farewells at the slightest breeze.
As fall bids its slow farewell, the nearness of winter has become serious business for all living creatures. Each moment of sun-induced warmth is inhaled and savored as if it were life itself. Down in the meadow, a few hardy butterflies flutter busily over the last of the blossoms as gangs of bees hum and buzz in the fragrant, pollen-rich asters. The spring peepers, normally quiet this time of year, have responded to some unknown event and have been whistling softly down by the pond in harmony with the last of the chirring crickets. Squirrels scurry about, burying every acorn they can find beneath the carefully laid mulch in the flower beds.
This morning we woke to find the world sparkling with a gossamer layer of frost. It reminded me that I have been meaning to check on the ripening of the wild persimmons. With my warm coat on and my mug filled with hot coffee, I set off towards the meadow. Once in the short grass running down the center of the long wagon-trail ruts of the driveway, I looked back to see my footprints in relief against the frosty dew.
At the edge of the meadow the long, dry grasses shone golden in the morning sun and incredibly long strands of spider’s silk drifted through the air as young spiderlings ballooned off of trees and shrubs in search of new territory. I cut through the meadow and down the long, narrow trail leading past an ancient oak tree whose massive branches nearly swallow the morning sky.
Turning right up the faint deer trail and into the long field grass, my shoes and the bottoms of my jeans are quickly soaked through. I stop to take in the scene. Off to one side I can see several flattened patches of grass devoid of dew where the deer bedded down last night. All they left behind them were silvery hoof prints in the shimmering grass trailing off towards the trees. I breath deeply of the timelessness nature of the meadow knowing full well that I will never again see it looking exactly like it does at this very moment.
I follow the same route that the deer took out of the meadow and within minutes the grass ends abruptly and the woods begin at a hedge of bare, frosty-purple black raspberry canes. Deep within is a large, crudely woven nest of sticks and dried grass perched precariously between two delicate twigs. Though now abandoned, this nest marks the birthplace of the yellow-breasted chat, whose mimicking calls are but a summer memory. The fading trail skirts around the thorny canes and in a low spot opposite the old, overgrown pond ringed with cedars, stands a large thicket of persimmon trees.
As I enter the shelter of the slim, tall trunks, the sun suddenly evaporates behind a drifting cloud. The wet leaves smell like earth and stones and hidden mushrooms. I look down at the slick layer of leaves beneath my feet and note a few stray, mushy persimmons. These must have just recently fallen, for I can see the scat of creatures that have thus far enjoyed the early ripe fruits.
The persimmons are just beginning to ripen now, but they won’t be really sweet until we have a few more hard frosts like this one. Once that happens, they will begin to fall in earnest and I will return here to collect as many of them as I can before the other residents of this place eat them all. Looking up, I am pleased to see hundreds and hundreds of bright orange globes dangling on the impossibly thin branches of the nearly leafless trees. In my mind I plot my return and dream of the wonderful flavor of these impossibly sweet orbs. And just as I think this thought, the sun suddenly reemerges from behind a cloud, setting the fruits to glowing like festive holiday lights.
As we make our way into the depths of the Great Sleep, there are so many wonderful things to see and places to explore. If you haven’t been out in the woods for a while, fall and early winter are among the best times to go for a hike. But when you do – remember to walk slowly and quietly. Stop and sit a while as you absorb the sights and smells and sounds of these wonderful Ozark hills. Touch the earth. And let it touch you.
If you long for the country life or love the outdoors, you will appreciate this beautiful and inspiring book. Set in the rugged heart of the Missouri Ozarks, A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted memoir filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Available in print and eBook through the Show Me Oz bookstore.