Edges

At the edge of winter our end of the planet tips away from the sunlit center of its solar system toward the deepness of space. In November we endured yet another human-inspired time change –as though we could ever manipulate time –and on cue an expansive blue October sky was engulfed in basalt gray overcast, thick and cold and moist, erasing the sun and all of the lengthening shadows of autumn. At first I wanted that lost hour of daylight, the one that never left, but now that we are slipping further downward into the seasonal oscillation of light and approach the nadir of the winter solstice, I admit that the ride has become a little exhilarating.

This subtle feeling of delight makes no sense when most of the northern hemisphere is shutting down for the season. But here I am, perched in this river of time above the dark rapids of winter, waiting for the unrelenting current of astronomical events to propel me into the maw. Seeking no escape, I point my fragile craft downstream, dig deeply with the oars, and give myself over to the coming embrace of winter. I want the full experience of temperate-zone darkness ratcheting down on my chest, pressing out frivolous distractions, I suppose hoping that everything will be squeezed away except for some previously undiscovered essence. This seems both perverse and correct. In our wet, green corner of the world there is energy in these swirling eddies of darkness if they are properly negotiated. But winter bravado is cheap when I am sitting in a dry house next to a big wood stove with dancing orange flames aided and abetted by a chainsaw, a halogen lamp keeping the ever expanding night in check. Life is easy here, but real life lies beyond my walls.

At the edge of old growth at the edge of winter, I look out on a meadow cleared from the surrounding forest early in the last century. This afternoon there are no shadows, only gray diffuse light transiting to dimness. Beneath the trees the mycological explosion of autumn is waning and what remains is a profusion of drooping boletes and rotting russulas returning their short-lived bodies to the duff. Fresh hedgehog mushrooms sprout like fungal dollops of pumpkin cheesecake amid the dead needles. On the meadow the fall rains have stimulated green growth beneath dead forbs with drooping seed heads now black as the Reaper’s hood. Invasive meadow knapweed, introduced into Douglas County over five decades ago for livestock feed, dominates these open spaces. When a human-made meadow has been overcome by a human-transported weed I suppose some tragic biological denouement is fulfilled.

Human-made or not, an edge implies a sharp demarcation. But natural edges are usually fuzzy zones of transition between two habitats. In the parlance of biology these are ecotones, which can be very local or very regional shifts in habitat: the margin of a moisture-filled crack in a vast expanse of concrete, the forest-meadow interface on which I now sit, or a broader change from Douglas fir rainforest to drier stands of ponderosa and lodgepole pine as we cross the Cascades. Ecotones are areas of increased diversity. Plants, animals, and fungi adapted to the habitat on either side of the interface mix here. For these species, changing biological and physical forces across the ecotone make life challenging. Other organisms thrive on these edges, apparently adapted to a life of flux.

I fancy myself an animal of the edges. Their instability, a chaos that seems to radiate energy, draws me in. Ecotones are imprecise, with no clear beginning or ending. Maybe they feed my weird attraction for gray areas in general. In summer I love walking from meadow to forest just for the sake of dramatic change, the sudden drop in temperature and light and the rise in humidity. I see ecotones everywhere: in the changing quantum states of atoms, the transition from muscles to tendons in our bodies, the mossy spaces between shingles on my roof, the solidity of earth and the vacuum of space, science and art, prose and poetry, and of course the transition from autumn to winter. These are the places in which I like to poke around.

At the edge of night at the edge of the forest at the edge of winter, our side of Earth turns from Sun like a chastised dog. There is a slow but accelerating dimming and daylight slinks away. In this ecotone between day and night, I imagine Screech Owl perched in the nearly dark. Dense overstory needles did not shed the entire afternoon rain shower. Owl turns her flat face, and a quick ruffle shakes beads of water from soft silent feathers. She considers dinner. Deer Mouse considers dinner also, cautiously emerging from his nest in a large decaying log, looking out through a narrow space toward the darkening meadow beyond. He weighs the benefit of those few last seeds left in the open against the possibility of becoming bleached bones and gray fur in an owl pellet. Living on the edge requires guts, and Deer Mouse prefers to keep his.

At the edge of thought borne on the edge of night there lives a cougar, the one seen twice just up the road near the mouth of Prescott Creek. One night in Hells Canyon I stumbled upon the remains of a doe freshly killed and cached by a cougar. In the weak light of my headlamp her body was curled in a “C”, her ribcage a bloody exclamation mark protruding above a thin layer of bunchgrass drawn about her like a tawny shroud. Tonight my memory of the doe causes me to teeter between the ecotones of predator and prey, comfort and fear, rational and irrational. Looking back over my shoulder I move out of the forest, away from fear, toward the false security of my pickup. This evening my sentiments lie with the mouse.

©Tom A. Titus