Autumn is the squirrelly season Essay: Fall is a time of retreat, decay and death, but it's also our most spectacular season. Why that is, only nature knows.

October 16, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Whoever engineered this universe certainly thought of everything. Imagine, giving squirrels bad memories! It is, if you will excuse the expression, a god-like stroke of genius. For were these rodents as mentally retentive as the rest of us (Ahem!), our inventory of black walnut and oak trees and other monuments of the forest would have shrunk long ago, and as a consequence, our inventory of squirrels as well.

Squirrels, as everybody knows, love acorns and black walnuts. At this time of year they run about frantically collecting these delights. They store them in trees, under logs, in holes in the ground. You can watch them in their panicky search. It is just one of the many signals from nature that this rock we live on has tilted its northern pole away from the celestial furnace it depends upon, and has begun taking those of us who live up in this hemisphere into winter's dark.

The sunlight, the slanted way it comes through the trees, the look of it at dusk, gold shining through water, tells us this is happening. And so do the squirrels. They know exactly where we're going, and so they prepare for it as best they can. In fact, they over-prepare, which is a good thing, for as winter wears on, the squirrels will forget where they stored about 80 percent of those provisions so assiduously collected during these autumnal days.

Most of their caches will go unvisited, says Leo Rebetsky, a naturalist out at the Oregon Ridge Nature Center off Shawan Road, who has watched the squirrelly collectors at their work. Those neglected seeds will sprout, grow into mature trees, produce more food for more squirrels. And so the world turns, just as the soap opera says.

This has been a strange year. The winter was halfhearted, and spring nothing much to remember. The drought was the most salient natural event of summer. Then there was the autumn's curious reluctance to present itself for inspection.

By late September its absence had become a preoccupation in certain quarters, by early October a full-blown anxiety. Someone suggested that since fall had not appeared, or precious little of it, someone should be sent out to find it. Guess who got volunteered.

The naturalist Wendell Berry wrote that since human beings removed themselves from nature such a long time ago, we cannot re-enter it. All we can do is go into the woods to observe, and read whatever signals nature decides to send by which we might understand its processes. Some of these signals are plainer than others.

The creatures

We can see, for instance, evidence of the autumn in the rut of the deer. The males mark tree barks with their antlers, alerting all interested females: Girls! We're here!

There are, of course, the squirrels, and we know what they're about. We can see chipmunks digging winter chambers underground, padding them with leaves. Like squirrels, chipmunks enjoy black walnuts. Unlike squirrels, they hibernate, and thus keep their winter food safely with them, under their mattresses, so to speak.

Snakes slither under rocks. Insects, too. Some butterflies just stop in a quiet, sheltered place, an abandoned house, and go into a trance for months. Turtles dig into the mud. So do crabs. We cannot see this, but we know they are doing it.

Birds become fewer in number, and in variety. Most have flown off, and these days we have to make due with the unmusical crows and blue jays and cardinals. They are nice, but want a little subtlety in their coloring.

In the north the arctic fox gets its white coat. Other animals closer to us -- the ones that will be awake all winter -- grow longer hair. They get fatter. They do not contrive this. It just happens.

Other things are happening, mysterious things. One, which we might feel if not see, is the process of inversion that occurs in deep lakes, such as the one at Oregon Ridge, which is at least 40 feet to the bottom.

Each spring and fall the water from the top of such lakes descends, and the warmer water in the depths rises. This is enabled by a peculiar property of water, which unlike other liquids which get progressively heavier as they freeze, actually gets lighter. Without this property, lakes would freeze from the bottom up, and life in the lake would be dramatically diminished.

"Some people have called this a lake taking a deep breath," said David F. Brakke, a lake expert, or limnologist, who is also dean of Towson University's College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. "Nutrients are re-circulated and oxygen that might be depleted in deep waters circulates."

Heavy water

That water -- the Earth's most ubiquitous substance -- is &L designed in this way may be even more impressive in terms of creative ingenuity than the amnesia of squirrels.

If one is in search of a bashful and retiring autumn, the obvious place to look is the woods. And the obvious thing to look at is the foliage.

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