or A First Time for Everything
Oh, what a confusing subtitle: we haven't even gone anywhere yet, and already we are off track. To clarify, this is not the first time I have been excited by the sight of birds, even though I am not a bird-watcher. I may not spend my days standing in dense woods looking with binoculars up into the tops of thickly foliaged trees for a tiny brown speck of avian life with a distinctive eye-ring, but if birds conveniently come and present themselves, I am happy to admire them. Every year at about this time, some of my favorite birds pass by, and the first sighting of the season is always cause for celebration. Actually, it's not the sight that's so moving at all. It's the sound—but we're getting ahead of ourselves again.
I've been thinking about the difference between "autumn" and "fall" for no better reason than that...well, frankly, for no particular reason at all. When writing I usually prefer "autumn"—I like its look on the printed page, its sound, and the fact that it isn't focused as wholeheartedly on leaves as "fall" is; besides which the bonus little "n" at the end is just so charming. Perhaps because the preferred word here in the US has changed over the years from autumn to fall, autumn always seems to suggest the antique to me in ways that resonate fittingly with the year's aging. On the other hand, I love that "fall" is really a verb. Fall and spring are such active seasons, when we move rapidly from growth to sleep or back again to growth; it's only right that they should both be represented by verbs. Summer, on the other hand, may look like an active season, but it's not a season of change in the same way. It is a season of surface activity that window dresses only one primary event: the growing season. And winter—the other noun season—is of course a time of lying fallow and of rest.
For some reason I've been especially aware this year of the little events of fall. (Maybe that's a useful distinction between a verb and a noun season: the difference between activity and events. Summer has lots of activity but very few events; fall has less activity but events a-plenty.) I've been aware of all of the lasts, certainly: the last hummingbird, the last basil harvest, the last use of the swamp cooler, soon the last early morning coffee on the patio, and hopefully the last of those endless "waterbugs." But more so all of the firsts: the first wolf spider seeking shelter indoors, the first moment that it's cool enough to plant garlic, then flowering bulbs, the first golden cottonwood leaf, the first time I reach for a jacket, the first lighting of the furnace pilot, soon the first frost, then the first killing frost, possibly someday the first snow. All of these mark the progress of the season until we find ourselves knee-deep in autumn.
But my very favorite first, the one I start anticipating from the moment the rabbit brush blooms, is the first time the sandhill cranes fly over. Thousands upon thousands of them winter here in New Mexico, whether along the Pecos River at Bitter Lake Wildlife Refuge or on the Rio Grande, most notably at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge but even here in Albuquerque at the Rio Grande Nature Center and the Open Space Visitors Center (and anyplace they can find a cornfield in between).
Festivals—weekend-long, even week-long—mark their arrival. We love our cranes. (Correction: those of us who are not farmers with cornfields love our cranes.) Their call—a kind of creaky purr—is one of the most wonderful sounds I know of (if you choose to click the sandhill cranes link above, be sure to listen to the recording). To hear it from dozens of throats at once and then look up and see these large, graceful, delicately-boned birds circling hundreds of feet overhead, glinting silver in the sunlight, riding the thermals to gain altitude, or flying in a slow-winging V (with none of the frantic flapping the geese engage in), is to become homesick for the power of flight. When I hear them leaving in spring I am always smitten hard with wanderlust; hearing them arrive in fall, on the other hand, is a kind of homecoming. It is lovely to live in a place where autumn signals not only the departure of life but also its arrival; I suspect, however, that the appeal of the cranes lies also in that homing signal, received just as the days are closing in and the temperatures are dropping and the neighbors light their first piñon fire of the season and we all want to be nestled someplace warm in any case. At such a time, anything that radiates "homecoming" is bound to be welcomed with fervor.
I heard the first cranes last weekend.
Now it's really fall.