I watch red oak leaves falling from above. I am archery hunting from a tree stand overlooking an open hard wood forest. Some of the leaves fall in a spiral pattern, slowly floating to the ground as if stuck to the edge of a vortex. Other leaves swing back and forth, swinging in a parallel end to end pattern on the way to the forest floor. I look up through the branches of the oaks, maples, birches, and a lone butternut. Through the morning mist I can see layers of clouds passing overhead moving from west to east. Sun rise was about an hour ago, its beauty hidden by the overcast morning.
The falling leaves trigger an explicit memory from my childhood and vivid images appear in my mind. I am about eight years old and I am sitting in a white pine about 50 feet off the ground holding on tightly as the wind blows the tree back and forth. To the east I can see the last leaves falling from a white oak tree and, like now, they fall in patterns that lengthen their journey to the ground. Despite the swaying motion of the tree, I remember feeling safe, alive, and most of all, content. The space between the bottom of my feet and the surface of the earth provides a buffer that is comforting.
The movement of a gray squirrel running through the leaves brings me back to the present. The squirrel hops over to the base of a large oak and digs through the leaves finding an acorn. He pops the acorn into his mouth and begins to scurry off to some hiding place where the acorn will likely be buried. As he scurries away I notice the squirrel has only half a tail; the result of a near miss, no doubt, from an encounter with a predator looking for a meal.
The squirrel no longer in sight, I look at the trees that surround me. The trunk of the sugar maple next to me has vertical ridges that remind me of a braided stream channel. The high ridges are dark in color, and the linear channels between the high ridges are light in color. A bright green moss grows along the top of some of the darker ridges, mimicking a forest along a stream bank. The white and black bark of the white birch in front of me has horizontal stripes, punctuated with little tears that make the lines look like the dots and dashes in the written form of Morse code. The onion skin like edges of some of the tears in the bark flitters in the breeze making a slight buzzing noise. The thick black and purple bark of a black birch to my left is torn and fragmented both horizontally and vertically, giving it a checker board pattern that is three dimensional.
There is much to see with so few distractions.
The floor of the forest is mostly covered with a thick layer of newly fallen leaves. A few evergreen woodferns and Christmas fern fronds struggle to stay on the surface so that they can photosynthesize until they are buried beneath a December snowfall. Most of the fallen deadwood trees lying on the ground are pointing in an eastward direction, indicating they were toppled by prevailing winds from the west.
My observations are interrupted by a rustling sound coming from the distance in front of me. At first I can’t visually locate the sound, and then, around from the back of a hemlock a red fox prances into view. The fox is very light on its feet, barely making a noise in the crispy leaves that litter the ground. His reddish coat blends well with the leaf litter background as he travels from north to south about 50 yards in front of me. I realize he is going to disappear off into the distance quickly, so I moisten the back of my hand with my tongue and press my lips against the moist area to blow a high pitch squeal that mimics a wounded rabbit. The fox stops dead in its tracks and looks directly at me in the tree. I am in complete camouflage and remain still. He cannot decipher me from the tree. It occurs to me that this fox may be responsible for the missing part of the squirrel’s tail. The fox slowly approaches the tree, smelling the ground along the way. As the fox gets closer I notice that its’ bushy red tail has a wide black band located along the bottom of the tail. The band runs the length of the tail from the back the fox’s legs to the white pointed tip of the tail and is a feature I have never witnessed on another fox.
The fox is not timid as it approaches my stand. I tuck my tongue into the corner of my cheek and make a clucking partridge sound. The fox’s head perks up straight into the air and it looks from side to side with great intensity. The fox checks the area to right of my tree stand, and then checks the area to the left of my tree stand. It looks back up the tree trunk at my hidden form and still does not recognize my human shape. And then, without notice, he prances off back to the exact trail he was on, presumably satisfied that there was no easy meal to be had.
Realizing that the day could not get better, and a repeat performance is unlikely, I begin my preparations to leave my vantage point in the tree. As I begin to untie my safety harness I look into the distance and an oak leaf lazily swirls to the forest floor and in my mind I am an eight year old boy again, feeling safe, alive, and most of all content.