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It’s mid-October in Wisconsin; with the rigors of winter only weeks away there’s a poignancy in the sun’s midday warmth. I keep wishing for just one more day, one more week of it. The garden plants that have survived the first frosts have a wilted, hangdog look. The air, when you stop to listen, is full of small squeaks and whistles and trills; the redwing blackbirds have moved inland off the marshes, ready for their migration south. The yard is full of their gossip and movement, like a busy departure lounge. The shrub next door glows an impudent raspberry. My trips to the grocery store, the dentist, are punctuated by blazing galleons. The trees are giving themselves up to the air, becoming pure, incandescent light as they die, steeped in all the suns of their lifetimes.
Those trees who didn’t have their day in spring—the maples, the mulberry, the ash—suddenly take center stage. I have a nagging sense of impotence in the face of such searing intensity. I can’t bring forth the names of the colors that have lodged in my bones. They resist translation into speech, though I stare intently at particular leaves and loiter on street corners near my favorite trees, hoping I’m not alarming the residents. “What color is this?” I ask my artist friend hopefully one day, holding out a gingko leaf. He examines it and shakes his head. “It’s gingko-leaf yellow”, he says.
Wisconsin winter teaches us so much about deprivation, weariness, endurance. Before that, though, there’s Halloween to celebrate, to tide us through the oncoming cold and death. The trees don flamboyant disguises as tropical plants; they speak to us of mangoes and pomegranates. This year there are a lot of rakish two-tone trees, some with green leaves below and blond above, others dusky vermilion on top, as if singed by a giant broiler, and auburn below. The Norway maples start bleaching from the outside of each leaf in. The chlorophyll begins to run, like a stain in the wash, and the leaves grow paper-thin and mottled, with green wrist-bones.
Standing in the yellow woods at dusk, I hear a great horned owl, tentative and throaty, like an alto recorder. The last crickets are trilling, a few grasshoppers rasping, a woodpecker drilling. At this time of year, the trees actually glow. If you study a leaf, you have the strange sense of staring at muffled light, like a Chinese lantern. The streets resist darkness, even after sunset, thanks to the strawberry-blond trees.
There’s a magnificence in the trees’ last gesture, like doomed aristocrats before the guillotine. They scatter their riches out to the crowds in armful after extravagant, golden armful, a last fling of color. Then they step out of their beautiful garments, strip down to grey essentials, and retreat to their roots, like zen monks, bald, still, simply there. Brown imprints of leaves persist on the sidewalk, some smudged, some perfectly clear, until the snows fall and cover them. In spring, when the ice melts, they will still be there.