When Autumn Becomes Fall

During the autumn of 2016, I spent a month preparing a large timber sale in the mountains of Tucker County, West Virginia about 150 miles from my home in Calhoun County. The property is owned by long time clients, and I was able to stay in their old homestead on the farm, allowing me to get some very long workdays in the woods.

For most of the month, I never saw a another person and probably talked to my dogs more than I did my voice recorder. When I started the project, the leaves on the trees had barely started to change color and the canopy of the forest was full, green and thick enough to obscure any views or evidence of a world outside the immediate woods surrounding me.

The property was on a steeply sloping mountainside with rocky soil that was crossed by several ledge outcrops and rock bars. The better terrain was pockmarked with hidden knee to thigh-deep jagged-edged holes filled with years’ accumulations of half-rotted leaves. Each step I took as I worked my way through the woods required planning and the ground was unstable enough that most of the time, I didn’t want to lift my leg for a next step before making certain my current foothold wouldn’t slip or give way.

When I took a rest break, especially during the early days on the job, there was little to do but sit, look around and listen to the quiet. The persistent but muffled roar of the Dry Fork River in the valley more than a mile below me was the only background noise. For several days, the only recurring sound, aside from the river, was the occasional noise of ravens’ wings tearing the air as they passed overhead, hidden from view on the other side of the foliage. Once the leaves fell from the trees it was possible to see the ravens noisily circling back to check out my dogs.

My first the days on the job had near record-high temperatures. I did all I could to avoid exposure to the sun and any sort of breeze or air movement was welcome. Although the weather had been dry, smaller trees had not started to shed their leaves and any breeze through the woods was slight, heavily filtered by the dense foliage and barely making a sound.

A few days into the month, a windy nighttime rainstorm passed through the area stripping nearly all the foliage from the saplings and small trees in the forest. The next morning, when I began work, the roar of the river was noticeably louder than the day before and other faraway noises, including airplanes and traffic sounds would periodically waft across the mountainside in waves as the wind shifted direction.

Because the length of daylight hours influences the growth of trees as much as the timing of the first killing frost, the leaves of many species of trees naturally start to fade and drop as the days become shorter. The hushed rustling of falling leaves as they break from the trees and slide, scrape and bounce their way to the ground is a certain sign that winter is coming sooner rather than later. Most of the earlier dropping leaves like maple and poplar don’t dry out or cure before dropping from their host tree and sound much different from oak leaves that don’t normally fall until well after the first frost.

For a couple days, the gentle leaf showers were continuous enough to mute the sound of the river and most outside noises. Then, the leaf storms started. For the first time in weeks, it became windy and yellow poplar and sugar maple leaves rained to the ground in clouds every time a strong gust hit the hillside. Between gusts, when the air was calm, so many leaves were airborne and simultaneously dropping it was possible to identify the specific sound different species of trees’ leaves made as they crashed to the ground.

After just a few days, millions of leaves that had been between me and the sky were suddenly between me and the ground making my footing slippery and even more treacherous. The weather stayed sunny and windy. Drifting leaves blowing across the forest floor like snow filled every available pockmark, hole and dip in the ground surface.

The last of the oak leaves dropped to the ground after a couple very heavy freezes, a hard rain and some snow flurries. The record heat and extreme quiet that was nearly overwhelming when I started the job a few weeks earlier was completely gone. I was planning my rest breaks by seeking sunny spots out of the cold wind.

During a break on one of my last days on the project, three military jets performed rolling acrobatics in the valley below me. The jets were flying low and close to the speed of sound when they dropped into the valley without warning. The trio flew down the river a short distance before rocketing away at an incredibly steep climb without slowing a bit. I realized it would be at least four or five months before the foliage returned and the mountainside would be quiet again and I was glad to finish the job and head home.