A SEASON OF GATHERING

AUTUMN is here at last, and now my wife and I can go back out into the woods.The woods in autumn are better than any other time of year, by our lights. The days are cool and sunny, the sky blue, the nights clear and starlit. Everything seems more plainly visible in autumn. After the year's first frost, the pesky mosquitoes have been chased off, and the people you would normally find out in the wilderness with you - some of whom can be pesky, too - have begun to dig in at home for winter. We look for a sign. When we see squirrels by the roadside, their cheeks stuffed with acorns, that's when we know it's time for us to go. The autumnal forest is many things to us. Life in the natural world of the Northeast - specifically the vast Adirondack region in upstate New York, where we go - takes on not only an awesome, fiery glow that we love. There's also a special energy that we find - like a moth drawn to a flame - almost beyond our capacity to resist. This is the season of gathering. Animals gather food to survive the winter or for their migrations, and people like us want to experience the woods alone together for a few days and nights, far from both the humdrum things and excitations of everyday life, gathering our own food for thought as if preparing for another kind of winter - a period of isolation from nature as we retreat indoors. Amid all this energy, I feel a sense of subtle distinction out in the woods in autumn. "There is not that profusion and consequent confusion of events which belongs to a summer's walk," wrote Thoreau. "There are few flowers, birds, insects, or fruits now, and hence what does occur affects us as more simple and significant." I sometimes like to compare autumn to a poem because its elements are like a poem's words - moving, essential, spare. Autumn is also for me a kind of return to a familiar place in my mind. "Our lives are like rooms," the poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote, and "most people come to know only one corner of their room, one spot near the window, one narrow strip on which they keep walking back and forth." The woods in autumn are a corner in my life that I return to each year, and though I know it well it always feels new. The elements, the mood, are much the same, but - like a rereading of a certain poem after a year's expe rience - I have something new to bring to it all. More wisdom, perhaps. Certainly another year's age. And as I age, these trips into the woods seem to become more meaningful. The forest in late autumn is like total recall of the elemental forms of itself. Wind soughing through bare trees is much of what's left after summer's "profusion" and "confusion"; it's much of what will remain through winter. It is a kind of mirror of what we find, sooner or later, in maturity - a final absence of illusions. The woods always go back to that state - as we always go back to the memories that made us who we fundamenta lly are, no matter if we are aware of it or not. So there is a kind of kinship between us and the autumnal woods; not so much the bond of shared experiences, for we in the modern world are so far removed from life in the woods. It's more a common intimacy within a larger realm beyond experience, something like the primeval silence of the world, which in the Adirondacks - by an effort of human will through the past century to curtail the ransacking and allow rejuvenation - has in a small scale been preserved . I think we must be a strange sight, my wife and I, walking through the woods when no one else but the deer hunters are stalking about. When we happen to meet up with one or two of them, they invariably ask us what we're doing, glancing all the while around our backpacks looking, I can tell, for my rifle. "Not hunting?" they ask, somewhat confused. "No," I say, "just looking." I think they can relate to that, but I can't be sure. It might seem to them a bit senseless to be out there in the cold - we've be en out some nights when the temperature has dipped into the teens - only to look around. But for us, on our trips into the autumnal woods, it's the looking that's important. We are not hunters; we are gatherers. The pleasure of watching and hearing a leaf tumble gently to the earth, and through that, the discovery within ourselves of some clearer sense of being, are what we want to bring back home.

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