Beginner's Mind

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." - Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


It's autumn in northern New England. As we have our own personal "signs of spring" (for me it is the return of the red-wing blackbirds), we also have our signs of fall. The most obvious signs, of course, are the changing of the leaves. The trees stop producing chlorophyll, and the underlying colors appear. But this is a too-obvious indicator; after living here almost 15 years, it's smaller things which shift me into an autumnal mood.

The first sign I notice is the sound of geese flying overhead, on their way to their wintering grounds. I hear them much more often than I see them. On a cloudy day, they are way up in the clouds. Sometimes they fly at night. It's a wonderful sound, and though it means winter is not far off, I never get tired of it.

Another sign is the migration of Monarch butterflies. Watching them flutter and glide, I have a hard time imagining the fragile creatures flying all the way to Mexico. That they find their way is even more impressive. Perhaps when you only need to know one direction, you get pretty good at it.

This morning, sitting on the back deck with a cold drink, I heard geese and saw three or four Monarchs southbound over the trees. The big red maple, as well as the big silver maple, has grown so much there isn't much in the way of sky showing. In my little window between the trees, there were some butterflies, just skimming over the treetops. In open areas I've seen them by the dozens at one time.

But as much as the appearance of those two creatures are a prelude to autumn, it's the wooly bears that finally provide the irrefutable evidence that summer is over. These are caterpillars that are large and black with brown middles. Supposedly, the size of the brown middle predicts how bad the winter will be, though I've not found much in the way of correlation. In any event, as the days get shorter and cooler, the wooly bears get on the move, looking for places to hibernate. If you drive anywhere, you'll see them crossing the road. I've found them at the bottom of wood piles, as well as tucked away here and there in cracks (ladybugs also come out, and they are simply everywhere; where they've been all summer, I don't know, but they crawl all over the house in late fall).

Well, I haven't seen any wooly bears yet. The apple trees are green and loaded with apples. The big silver maple is still green. The big red maple, usually a holdout, has started to change into its namesake color. Hunting season has started. Baseball playoffs have begun. Saturday college football is in full swing. It's a dynamic season. The constellation Orion can be seen in the late night/early morning hours, running away from and staying on the opposite side of Scorpio, the summer constellation. According to legend, Orion was bitten by a scorpion, hence he stays away from the summer night.

Oh, and another sign is pumpkins. They start showing up in yards. A small one has appeared on our front porch, and I can only guess how it got there. Pretty soon we will have our first frost, and all the pumpkins hiding under foliage will be revealed as the vines will wither away and disappear. Just like the Monarchs heading south in the sky above them, they add some orange color to the New England landscape.

Music in my head: Autumn Leaves, Nat King Cole