Fall: Memories and lessons of October

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My father has been gone for 40 Octobers, a victim of the cigarettes that hooked him while he served and earned a Purple Heart in World War II.

Memories of the times we spent in the woods and walking country roads may explain why October remains one of my favorite months.

He set me on a path I’ve been traveling my entire life. That’s why October speaks to me.

When my daughters were old enough to walk with me in the woods, I felt it was my turn to teach and inspire.

My dad always said the purpose of our autumn walks was to collect hickory nuts, his favorite snack on cold winter nights.

As I look back, though, I suspect (or maybe hope) this was just his way of spending some time with me.

As we walked the dirt roads near our home in the country, he taught me the trees he knew — hickories, walnuts, oaks, sassafras, maples.

Fall

He’d marvel at the predictable synchrony of the fall colors.

His favorites, the bright red sassafras, sumac and dogwoods, brightened our October outings.

If he were still here, I would explain that the timing of nature’s fall festival is set by day length and fine-tuned by temperature.

I’d explain how each species’ biological clock responds uniquely to autumn’s progressively shorter days.

At the appointed time, chlorophyll, the pigment that makes plants green, breaks down and allows other pigments to express themselves.

The yellows, reds, oranges and browns turn a sea of green into a rainbow of colors.

We’d study the grand old snags — skeletons of once massive trees — and marvel at how life teemed in a body that had been dead for years.

On some days, a red-tailed hawk perched on the highest branch and scanned the field below for a naive cottontail.

A few times we noticed a screech-owl watching us from the safety of its roost cavity.

Yet, as much as he enjoyed the theater in the snag, my dad couldn’t help but wonder why someone didn’t cut them down for firewood.

If Pop was still here, I’d explain that ecology had finally caught up to his gut-level appreciation of those old dead trees.

I’d explain that we now understand that trees live on for decades after they die.

Insects invade the bark

Woodpeckers eat the insects and excavate nest cavities. Then other cavity-dwellers — woodpeckers, bluebirds, rat snakes, spiders — move in.

Eventually, the tree rots, crumbles, falls … and recycles its nutrients to the soil.

My daughters were born six years apart, so I had two opportunities to share with them my love of nature.

When they were each about 10 years old, I began to explain how shorter fall days trigger the biological clocks of trees, insects, chipmunks, groundhogs and migratory birds.

I explained that photoperiod is the only absolutely reliable clock to which plants and animals can set their own. It is an unerring standard.

Year after year, millennium after millennium, autumn days grow shorter as winter approaches.

Trees drop their leaves, birds head south and other animals fatten themselves for the winter.

Come spring, the days grow longer. The cycle of life begins anew. Without fail.

My daughters came to understand why I never cut a snag for firewood, and why I provided nest boxes for cavity-nesting birds to compensate for too few natural cavities.

And they understood why I sometimes intentionally girdled a healthy tree to create a new snag.

We collected nuts, too — hickory nuts, acorns, walnuts. We’d take them home and save them for winter.

On frosty mornings we’d crack a few as we sipped hot chocolate and put them out for woodpeckers, nuthatches, titmice and chickadees.

Children

Yes, October speaks to me. It told me to teach my children, just as my father had taught me.

And now there’s a new generation to teach.

With three grandchildren, two boys 6 and 4, and a little girl who turns 1 in December, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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