On certain autumn afternoons there is a brief passage — if you are lucky you may get ten minutes to appreciate it — when the sun has drifted low and the afternoon breeze has calmed and the light reflects off the surface of the river as from a mirror, doubling the trees and the intensity of their lingering color, and the earth gives the illusion of brightness. The season and the hour have so muted the wood’s palette that the russet of late-hanging leaves calls louder than crimson in June. The sudden splash of gold away downstream beckons like summer’s lost oasis. But the bare arms of sycamore and ironwood make a stark fence against it, and it recedes from my approach — the light, the afternoon, the year. The vestigial warmth of summer dissipates like a mist; winter seeps from the earth and fills its absence.
A heron perched on the broad limb of a birch snag fluffs against the rising chill and eyes the river dourly. He does not share whatever pleasure I glean from the dusk of a day and a season. It is a luxury to appreciate such sad beauty, the privilege of one heading home to a warm house and a hot supper. Cold fish and a drafty tree make less comfortable lodgings for aesthetic contemplation — or a convenience-store hot dog and a sleeping bag on a concrete sidewalk. Mine is the pleasure of extolling the benefits to mankind of our mortality without serious fear of meeting it any time soon. The river runs on, but I’m gone before twilight, home to upload my photographs and make a pretty frame for winter in words. It’s what we have while we’re here, and the gift is that we can make a gift of it.