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Bill Meredith

(Nov, 2012) Fall drifted in gently last month. As I write this, we have had only one killing frost and no violent storms, and the maple trees are at their peak of fall color. Some trees… ashes, walnuts, locusts and the like… have lost their leaves, but most of us don’t miss them because they never get much color anyway. So life in Emmitsburg has been like Lake Wobegon…quiet, with time to reflect and let our minds drift.

Where I grew up, we lived on a hill. That in itself wasn’t remarkable; everyone I knew lived on a hill. But the consequence was that all of the local hills were headwater areas. When it rained, water ran down the slope until it reached a valley where two hills came together; there it created little streams which were big enough that you couldn’t jump across them in places, but they dried up a few days later, and even crayfish couldn’t live in them. There was a hierarchy that followed: farther down the valley the little streams would get bigger because they were fed by springs, and they would merge together and form larger streams… we called them runs… and those usually had enough water in them to form pools that only dried up if we had a summer drought. Still farther down, the runs came together to form "cricks" (city folks called them creeks) that contained flowing water the year round, and the "cricks" eventually merged to form rivers. The problem was that you had to go several miles downstream from our house before you got to a body of water of any substantial size; so I never got to go canoeing or learned to swim.

This has had two results. The first was embarrassing: when I entered graduate school, I got interested in fish and crayfish, and at some point I came to realize that I was probably the only aquatic biologist in North America who couldn’t swim. The second generated a sort of remorseful feeling of loss: I never had the experience of wasting a whole day by getting in a boat or inner tube and drifting downstream without a care in the world. Looking back, drifting is an apt metaphor for how my life has gone by, and I think I might have enjoyed it more if I’d really had the physical experience of drifting when I was younger.

I was cleaning out the greenhouse on a warm day a couple weeks ago when the leaves started drifting down from the ash tree behind the house. It was so quiet I could hear them when they hit the ground. Drifting is not a high-energy process that requires a lot of stressful decision-making. You could almost imagine a conversation between the Boss Leaf and his wife:

"I really don’t feel like doing anything today."

"Me neither. I’ve worked all summer and my chlorophyll is about pooped."

"Mine too, and I got this hole right by my midrib where that bug chewed on it…."

"Think we ought to call it a year?"

"OK by me… I’m about ready to jump. Just gimme a half hour or so to finish my abscission layer…."

And all of the other leaves look at each other and say some version of:

"There goes Him and Her. Think we should shove off too?"

"Guess so. I’m ready whenever you are."

A lot of drifting goes on in the natural world. The day before it frosted, I was out in the garden picking the last of the green beans, and I noticed a turkey vulture that had just found and updraft. It was drifting around in circles, going higher without flapping because the air was rising, and it drifted upward until it was barely visible to me. It could have seen me just fine from that altitude, but I was moving every minute or two, so it wasn’t interested; it was looking for something a little closer to being dead. It left the updraft and began sailing around randomly, scanning the countryside as it gradually got lower, and when it began to get too low it found another updraft and started rising again. I must have watched it at least 15 minutes, and it never flapped its wings. I thought for a while that if I had to come back in another form some day, drifting around as a turkey vulture wouldn’t be a bad choice… but then I decided the diet wouldn’t be appealing.

You can’t sit by our kitchen window for five minutes without seeing a squirrel going by with a walnut in its mouth. In some of the books I had as a kid, squirrels had a reputation for being industrious and working to store nuts for winter food, but my squirrels don’t look industrious; they look like they’re goofing around and having fun. My wife keeps several potted plants around the yard, and for the past month she has had a running battle with the squirrels because they seem to find the pots to be an ideal place to bury walnuts. If you watch the squirrels, you can tell the different age groups apart; the young ones go tearing about, dropping the nuts when they meet each other and get to playing, and scattering piles of dirt when they dig into the flower pots. The older ones are more inclined to drift along… I guess you can drift on the ground… in less of a hurry and saving energy, and burying their nuts in more secure places. Nature seems to have designed all of us so that we are better at drifting as we get older.

I have been hearing more tree frogs than usual this fall. It was a mild spring and the summer was wetter than usual, so maybe more of them survived than usual. You don’t usually see them because they stop singing if you get too close, and they change color to match the tree bark they’re sitting on. I don’t think tree frogs drift; it may be that I’m hearing them because my mind is drifting more than it used to.

Now that I think about it, it seems that most people my age spend more time drifting, at least mentally, than they used to. Maybe there is an evolutionary advantage to it; maybe people who aren’t able to drift a bit are the ones who get ulcers and high blood pressure and die earlier from heart attacks. It’s an interesting theory; maybe I’ll think about it this winter, if I have time. Maybe if we get a lot of snow this winter, I’ll just sit by the window and watch it drift down and fill up the driveway. Not many things are prettier than snowflakes drifting down from the sky. And when it happens, you can sit by the fireplace and think of spring. No need to worry about shoveling… if you wait a while, it’ll probably melt.

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