December Exposure

by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1998. All rights reserved.

Where once there was a shroud of green, bare limbs of willow and elm stretch into a grey sky. The leaves are gone as well from the apple trees and maple, from the thick stands of alder and cottonwood, and from the aspen, ash and hawthorne.

Fencelines once lost to syringa and gooseberry have reappeared and the rocky outcrop along the riverbank is visible once more.  Brown ribbons of road wind their way along the edges of the corn field, now reduced to stubble.

There comes a time late in the autumn when all is exposed. After the foliage has fallen from the trees and before the first layer of snow, there's usually a week or two of nakedness.

The spikes of goldenrod and stands of wild geraniums are grayed and flattened by black frosts and pelting rains. In the pasture, the tall fescues and perennial ryegrasses are matted and bending low.

Nests of magpies and tanagers cling to the high, pendulant branches of the elms and poplars. The homes of squirrels, which look like large leafy basketballs, lie in the crotches of the cottonwoods. Grass and horsehair nests of warblers can be found in the willows along the riverbank.

Homes and outbuildings are more visible too. There's a new pole barn going up across the river; its skeletal frame rises above the frosty fields like some monument.

Along the irrigation ditches there are piles of dirt where woodchucks made their dens last spring. In the pasture, the pathways of voles and mice are everywhere in the semi-frozen turf, radiating from burrow to burrow in a maze of interlinking lanes.

Barren Tree

At the edge of the wheat field, a narrow deer path leads away toward the dark spruce wood on the ridge near the horizon.

The purpose of lanes and roads is made more apparent this time of year. You can see where a four-wheeler's tracks lead to a favorite fishing hole, or how a winding lane climbs the ridge to a timber cut.

Late afternoon in late autumn the sunlight has a peculiar quality. Something about the angle of its glare seems to magnify and unveil. The hills across the valley seem especially close and distinct. The farmhouse across the highway and down beside the river seems very near. The bare limbs of the trees stand out against the sky like detailed etchings on a lead plate.

Stripped to our base elements, the browns and greys of this season show us what's been hidden, both in ourselves and others.  Unfinished projects, unfilled promises, unflattering reflections. It is a revealing time, a revelation and an embarassment, and fortunately it is not long before the snow comes to cover up these disclosures.

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