The Restless Season

As summer turns to autumn, the warmth of the South calls. // Illustration by Glenn Wolff
The Restless Season

What is this energy that floods our veins in autumn? I wake at dawn and leap from my bed and hurry outside to cut firewood, install storm windows and change the oil in the snowblower. When the chores are finished, I hurry to the woods and rivers to hunt and fish. Why so energetic? Why so restless?

Anthropologists say we’re a restless species, descended from nomads who followed the seasons in search of better hunting and foraging. We walked across entire continents, crossed ice bridges to new continents and, when we butted up against oceans, built rafts and boats and set off across the water. It’s no wonder we grow restless when the days become short and the nights cold. It’s our ancient selves whispering, “Head south, fool!”

Of course, we’re not the only ones to heed those whispers. As early as August, monarch butterflies begin their epic migration to the mountains of central Mexico. Among the best places to observe them are along Great Lakes beaches. Early and late in the day, when the wind is down, the monarchs flutter steadily southward, one every minute or so, their flight is erratic but resolute.

Anthropologists say we’re a restless species, descended from nomads who followed the seasons in search of better hunting and foraging.

By October, warblers are passing through on their way to the Gulf Coast and beyond. These are not the brightly colored warblers of spring. They wear their drab coats now, and it takes a practiced eye to know a pine warbler from a bay-breasted or a blackpoll.

Other birds are heading out, as well. I remember an unusually warm day in October in the western U.P., when I came upon half a dozen hermit thrushes hopping across the ground in an aspen wood, flipping leaves in search of insects, moving constantly southward. I left the woods and turned onto a highway in my car. On the road, a flurry of leaves burst into the air and transformed into a flock of snow buntings, their white wings flashing in unison. During the drive home, the weather turned, and by the time I reached the Straits of Mackinac, a harsh wind rattled sleet against my windshield. On both sides of the bridge were vast rafts of ducks on the water — redheads, according to my sources, and probably also some scaup, canvasbacks, and goldeneyes — so many that in their massed thousands, they undulated on the waves like carpets the size of football fields.

When I was a kid, I loved the migration season because it meant the summer people had gone home and the lake was mine again. I went out in our aluminum rowboat and cast Mepps spinners into glass-calm bays, the surface reflecting the orange and yellow of hardwoods along the shore. At night, lying in bed, I would listen to the honking of geese as they passed overhead, bound for their winter grounds far to the south. It was the melancholy song of autumn, and it made my heart beat faster and my blood flow stronger. It still does. Maybe one day, I’ll take wing and follow it south.

Renowned Michigan author and BLUE’s Reflections columnist Jerry Dennis lives near Traverse City.

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