The record-shattering October chill, even as it was pilfering my bank account to keep the furnace stoked with kilowatt-hours, was stealing into my yard and ruining the riot of color I’ve come to expect.
I believe I am entitled to be a trifle annoyed about this.
The usual autumn explosion of eye-watering yellow that is our ash tree serves as that venerable canopy’s most illustrious contribution to the place.
(Although not its most comforting — the shade it casts on a torrid August afternoon earns that honor.)
There is no sight I relish more than sunlight bursting through the yellowing leaves in the late afternoon of a clear October day, an especially fetching combination of colors and textures.
This year I noticed, along about the middle of September, that on a few minor limbs the ash leaves had already taken on their autumnal tinge. This whetted my appetite for the show to come.
Except then, on a blustery day late last week, I stepped outside and heard a curious sound. It was a low rustling of the sort you sometimes hear in the deep woods when a deer, as yet unseen, is slinking through the foliage.
I realized, though, that this noise was coming from above, and specifically from the southwest corner of our lot where the ash tree dominates.
I looked up and noticed, for the first time, that the tree had shed a considerable percentage of its leaves.
More conspicuous, though, was the color of the leaves scattered about the grass, which was still a lush green.
The leaves were a dusty gray-green not dramatically different from the shade of the lawn, which I suspect is why I hadn’t noticed them before.
I walked through this scrim of leaves and the source of the noise was immediately obvious. The leaves were as crispy as corn flakes, and as desiccated. Even a gentle breeze set in motion the leaves still hanging above, creating a cacophony of scraping not so different I suppose, in principle if not in melody, from the way a cricket produces its chirping song.
I’m no arborist but it seemed obvious to me what had happened.
The previous few frigid nights had in effect frost-dried the ash leaves before they could reveal, in the absence of green chlorophyll, the yellow pigment so pleasing to my eye.
The temperature had plunged into the teens on three straight nights — Oct. 10-12 — setting a record on the first two of those days at 15 and 16 degrees, respectively.
My research (which consisted, as so much else does these days when the matter is of no great importance, of a brief Google search) turned up the not-terribly-interesting and also tongue-twisting fact that the particular pigments at play are xanthophylls.
(Each of the other colors that makes fall foliage so attractive has its own multisyllabic source.)
The realization that I would be deprived of the ash tree’s annual display disappointed me to a greater extent, I think, than I would have imagined had I thought about it hypothetically.
Those glistening yellow leaves, and the yearly task of raking them into pungent piles, marks the gentle passage of time as memorably, and reliably, as sweeping snow from the stoop or nearly dislocating my shoulder trying to coax the lawnmower into firing after its long hibernation in the cold shed.
The early hard freeze seems not to have had such a dramatic effect on our willows, the other prodigious leaf producers, so perhaps we will not be completely bereft.
But to me the slender willow leaves are a poor substitute for the robust ash leaves, which accumulate in a proper fashion, hiding the dormant grass as thoroughly as a heavy fall of snow.
I’ve noticed, since my discouraging interval in the yard, that the trio of frigid mornings similarly affected a number of other trees around town.
But fortunately many seem to have emerged with their xanthophylls and other pigments intact.
I have seen many weeping birches, which I must concede can put my ash in the shade, so to speak, that are near the height of their yellow glory.
Quite a few maples also seem to have endured the arctic onslaught.
This is soothing, but not completely satisfying.
I am left to wait for my ash to complete what this year is the grim process of shedding its leaves, and for the first snow to come along and dress up the drab branches that for one autumn never shined at all.
0 0 0
I wish no ill to the mountain goats that hang around Twin Lakes high in the Elkhorns.
But when I learned recently about how one of these animals came to its demise I couldn’t suppress the thought that this particular goat got what was coming to it.
The Elkhorns are home to the largest mountain goat population in Oregon, and Twin Lakes, a pair of tarns in a glacier-carved valley on the west side of the range, is the goats’ favorite place to congregate.
Because the goats are rarely hunted — the state sells just eight tags annually for goat hunts in the Elkhorns — they are far less skittish in the presence of humans than other large mammals such as deer and elk.
They are as a result far more annoying.
I’ve camped overnight a few times at Twin Lakes and, in common with many other backpackers, I had to frequently dissuade goats, with varying degrees of success, to quit nosing around the tent.
Wildlife biologists from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (ODFW) Baker City office have told me they receive occasional complaints from people about the persistent goats, and their nonchalance around people. I understand their concern — adult mountain goats of both genders are equipped with a pair of sharp horns capable of inflicting grievous damage.
Just recently Justin Primus, assistant district biologist at the ODFW office, told me that an Oregon State Police wildlife officer, investigating the report of a dead goat at Twin Lakes, found that the animal had choked to death on a nylon stuff sack for a backpacking tent.
This is unfortunate, but not surprising.
From what I’ve seen of the goats, their tastes aren’t especially specific. The animals appeared to be as inclined to nibble tender alpine grass as the less palatable concoctions of our chemistry labs. And gluttony, as history shows, tends to come to a bad end.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.