The osprey flashed over the building’s overhang and dipped below the tops of the nearest trees as if the road were the dark sluggish waters of a tannic creek and the white lines the silvery backs of fleeing trout. My eyes tracked the hawk as it canted wildly to avoid a house and slowly gained altitude against a rising south wind. Roiling clouds provided a contested backdrop so that it remained visible, a steadily shrinking dot, until that vast emptiness swallowed it entire. I returned to myself standing in front of the shop, key half in the lock, my thoughts clouded and dark.
Autumn migration is more about leaving than arriving, containing an equal measure of sorrow and exhilaration. It’s a time of great changes on the land, summer’s heat giving way to crisp mornings, the first yellowed leaves spiraling down to carpet the roads. Goldenrod and sunflowers blaze like miniature starbursts in the ditches and on the fringes of woods. Breezes shift to the north, redolent of transformation, subtly scented but unmistakably boreal, in contrast to late summer’s mugginess wafting up from the Gulf, some of it pushed far inland by hurricanes. In Orion’s wake Sirius beacons in the predawn darkness. And one by one the birds depart and the skies become empty.
The sense of loss I feel each autumn is mollified somewhat by the thrill of witnessing the great migrations of birds and other forms of life, notably the monarch butterfly and green darner dragonfly. It doesn’t end there, of course, for all around us migrations are taking place, some in elevation only, such as grouse and ptarmigan in the high country, and some from outdoors to indoors. This latter is an unfortunate seasonal occurrence most visible in the sudden surge of rodent population within our walls, followed by a flurry of trap-setting and sharp glances from my wife, who acts like it’s my fault this is happening.
Women do not like mice. Wives, especially, do not like mice because it means the husband is not doing his job of keeping them out. I was recently surprised to learn that female rabbits do not like mice, either. We were sitting in the back room, Sheba and I, when a mouse zipped past us and slithered beneath the computer desk. She sat up, ears cocked forward, and then her head swiveled and she gave me a withering brown-eyed look that let me know she did not approve of sharing quarters.
I’m rapidly familiarizing myself (again) with the low growl Lori utters whenever she spots a mouse scampering down the hallway or darting along the kitchen counter. The sound is closely followed by malicious looks directed toward my person and triggers an irresistible urge to check the traps I’ve already set. Like zombies or vampires, that look can only be assuaged by warm corpses.
Recently I read an article by Edward Hoagland where he described the interplay of life inside his house, with wasps in the rafters, mice nibbling his books, a line of ants marching in formation, skunks under the porch. It seemed quaint and homely, a rustic home in the Vermont woods (or maybe it was Maine—somewhere back East, which is my description for everything beyond the Mississippi)—sharing quarters with our fellow creatures as if a house could, and should, welcome them all. But I wondered then, as I do now, if he was married or single. I wondered if he was familiar with the look of opprobrium that says do something about it.
I’m happy to report that there are three fewer mice to carry on this morning. Two were killed yesterday and another last night, so perhaps the body count makes up for my egregious failing to do something about the huge wolf spider that scared Lori witless. It welcomed her home as she entered the house but her yelp signaled her displeasure at both it and me. When I rushed to her aid it was insinuated that our future matrimonial bliss teetered upon the immediate removal of the arachnid. It was a magnificent specimen, one I was loath to tackle, and so I helped her with her bags and served her a cup of fresh-brewed coffee. When I looked a few minutes later the spider was gone.
Gone but not forgotten. I go through this every year so it should be old hat by now. I root around for traps, check our supply of glue boards, and set them out in likely waystations. I dispose of bodies. I tell her that cats are out of the question. I try to find entry points but with a limestone foundation the house is as air-tight as a block of Swiss cheese. If we knew everything that lived inside these walls it would curdle our blood.
Two days ago the sighting of a broad-winged hawk simmered my autumnal stew of melancholy and elation. It hunted above the ridgeline south of our house as if searching for thermals, little more than a freckle against a distant bank of clouds. I shucked my binoculars from the case and studied it, thinking it at first a Swainson’s hawk, but the wings weren’t narrow enough. When it finally banked I could see the diagnostic white-on-black banded tail. Failing to locate a thermal, it sailed away accompanied by three vultures.
I longed to join them in freeflight over the Flint Hills and on past the curve of the horizon to lands I will never know. Having once tasted flight and now relegated to the earth, I feel like Icarus grounded, disconsolate, incapable of doing more than stare in awe at the unfettered sky, yearning for what can never be and yet consolate in my own feeble way for having been part of something much larger than myself, even if only as a bystander, even if only from outside to within. The skies clear. Mice and spiders invade. Autumn is here, and all the world is in motion.