Ruth Rudner
Ruth Rudner

David Muench's National Parks


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Early morning. The air is cold, sharp like crystal, almost palpable. After two days of rain pouring down in hard sheets, of rain slashed by long, jagged lightning bolts that seemed to pause mid-strike, as if wanting to make a point, of rain obscuring the mountains, this morning is brilliantly clear. It is the end of summer, the change of seasons, the brittle, sparkling, adamant arrival of autumn.

Two young bucks, one a spikehorn, one with two-point branching antlers are sparring just beyond the deck, butting heads in front of the glass doors on the west side of the house. I doubt either would have a chance against any mature buck, but I suppose this season is a practice run for the autumns to come. Besides, who knows, maybe all the big guys will be so exhausted by December that there’s a chance for youth. Beyond them, beyond all the land in sight running from here to the Tobacco Roots, the mountains are covered by new snow and bathed in alpenglow. A full moon hangs on the sky just north of Hollowtop, at 10,604 feet, the highest mountain in the Tobacco Roots.

I want terribly to open the door to photograph the deer, the mountains, the moon, but the deer would take off in an instant if I did, and I would have thrown away the privilege of being present in order to have a permanent record of a moment in time.

Not a good trade-off, I think. Of what use are permanent records when the cost is the loss of a moment? Is a permanent record some sort of hedge against time? Do I lose the moment in order to have eternity? This is not always an appropriate subject when your husband is a photographer. David feels that in the instant the shutter clicks is the capture of the moment between past and future. Perhaps there are things couples simply shouldn’t discuss.

Later, when I go out for my usual morning walk down the hill just east of the house, around the corner and along the gravel road to its end at 287-- the road from Three Forks to Virginia City-- the air is still crisp. I dress in layers, pull my hands up into my sleeves like a turtle retreating into its shell. I read yesterday about a turtle whose tears are sipped by butterflies. What would make a turtle cry, I wonder. And why are no butterflies interested in my tears?

Frosted, the grasses in the fields bordering the road glitter like diamonds. Where sun hits, frost melts into droplets. The droplets, too, sparkle. A hawk’s wings flash like silver as he passes in front of a rising sun. The water in North Willow Creek, replenished by rain and the tapering off of irrigation, shimmers.

In the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness last Sunday, on the trail from Storm Pass Lake to the pass itself, the larch were beginning to turn. Foliage close to the ground, where autumn happens first in the Rocky Mountain West, was deep red, bright yellow. The sky moved from white clouds in blue space to a deep, gray cover. And back again. A week earlier, in the Tobacco Roots, a man with a rifle over his shoulder and a pistol in his holster came up behind us at the top of the Branham Lakes trail. Not quite hunting season, but he was having a practice run, getting used to the weight of all his gear. I remember my father’s eagerness come autumn, to be out in the fields with his dog, the hunt a reckoning of the season’s urgency.

There is a poignancy to autumn. Perhaps there is to all extreme beauty, but autumn, I think, gets under the surface of thought, of life. Seasons are inevitable, of course, and all of them will return forever, but autumn signals a coming end. (Just because it does it yearly does not make it less poignant. Does anyone get used to endings?) It clothes that end in beauty, in color, in wind. It forces us to pay attention. Basking in the golden heat of Indian summer, we feel how ephemeral the days are. How ephemeral we are. In the choice of using the moment to photograph the deer, the alpenglow, the moon, or simply being in that moment, I am reminded to stay awake, to be present to the earth before it is wrapped in snow, hardened in frost, laid away for long months of early nights.

My parents both died in the depth of winter. A lot of people do. While we have little conscious choice in the matter, it seems an appropriate act of nature. The time of cold purity, of deep silence, the time when the earth sleeps. So, am I moved by autumn because it is the one last, magnificent moment before death? Do I find autumn poignant because I relate it to my tiny human dimension? Or is its poignancy outside of me, inherent in its beauty, its own character?

I’ve felt autumn in this way since I was a child. My father raked the leaves on our lawn and my brother and I jumped into them, scattering them. Kicking through leaves on the sidewalk so they would fly up and fall again seemed a wonderful thing to do. I wondered if leaves falling from trees, twisting and turning on the wind, all brilliant colors against a grey sky, minded letting go their trees. Wandering the golden fields around our house, I felt the tenderness of autumn, felt endings I could not yet imagine. I wonder if, as children, we know all there is to know.

There are endless songs about autumn. In my mind I hear them all as acknowledgements of the ends of things, as romantic and sorrowful as autumn itself. So I went to YouTube for corroboration. Instead, listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing Autumn In New York, I found myself caught up in the glamour of autumn. True, this ultimate song about New York is tinged with longing, but the longing is for New York, not for all that is lost in the dazzling end of the year. It’s a song all New Yorkers know is theirs. Moving on to Neil Young singing Harvest Moon, I only wanted to dance. When I got to the Doors and Indian Summer, I was listening to a love song, an innocence still for Jim Morrison, hardly a paeon to sorrow. At least the Mamas and the Papas singing California Dreaming acknowledged the darkness of the end of autumn, but their fantasy was of leaving it rather than entering in. What I needed if I was not to discard all my theories about autumn as just some writer’s fantasy, was Frank Sinatra singing September Song. I was right. That did it.

Copyright © 2013 Ruth Rudner