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November 17, 2013

The Truth About the Fall

The Asylum

The city is a nightmare of crowded sidewalks and screaming steel brakes. Homeless women flit between open trash bins, collecting their daily nutrients from the city's refuse. Bristling strangers bustle down choked sidewalks, bouncing off each other in a human pachinko-prison. Scampering off to jobs they don't like.

A demonstrable, quantifiable, hell on earth.

My home in the Rocky Mountains is the polar opposite of this.

So quiet here in my asylum. So peaceful you cannot know.

No car horns or sirens. No cocky police or rude, screaming strangers. No homeless maidens wrestling in trash bins.

The serene four-acre retreat, ensconced in evergreens, rests in a remote corner of the county no city ever saw fit to incorporate. No planes fly over. No cars drive by.

At the terminus of a dead-end gravel road with hand-painted sign rests a rusting carpool of WWII amphibians. Broken machine guns pointing crazily skyward. The sign doesn't say "Keep Out", but clearly insinuates it. Deeply implies it.

Always, I've wanted to take the summers off. But in practice, it never pans out. Always, in the summer, I'm somewhere else. Austin or Boston. San Diego or San Francisco. But never here. This year, I've decided enough is enough. This year, I decided, I'm taking the summer off.

The truth is that, when I returned from my trip through Central America, I wasn't really sure what to do with myself. Kansas threw me in jail for a while, but once I got home, basically, I just climbed into bed and went to sleep. I slept through August and September. Only when the leaves changed did I really find it in myself to get out of bed.

Summer in the Rockies

In the summer, stoic bird feeders defend the picture windows. The wildlife is occupied in other pursuits. The bears are off smashing bee hives. The coons and foxes have other things on their minds. They're off, wallowing in the creeks, choking down crawfish, minnows. Chasing chipmunks, mice, and voles. The squirrels are busy burying pinecones gnawed from the evergreens in communal middens.

The sunflower seed bird feeders suffer through the long warm days, reluctantly dispensing seeds to itinerant flocks of Nuthatches, Finches, Junkos, and Chickadees. These feeders tolerate the summer, suffering small indignations, but largely unmolested.

The Hummingbird feeders don't have it so well. They're ground zero for a violent turf battle between the Rufous, the Broad-Tailed, and the Calliope Hummingbirds. Nothing is ever won completely, or finally resolved. Every skirmish is fought, only to be recontested seconds later. An ephemeral, victory. Pointless, to the casual observer.

Out back, the Mule deer rub the fur off their antlers, pushing blood beneath the bark of the mountain saplings, in anticipation of the rut. The elk move through in great swarms, mowing the lush green grasses.

The squirrels bury their pinecones in communal middens and then regroup to defend the cache. In furious, organized conflicts, the clans fight each other tooth and nail. Surprisingly, the squirrels fight against each other in families. Working together, they block the escape routes along limbs, trunks, and ground. All choreographed and orchestrated in shrill chirps and staccato barks. Racing through the evergreens, showering the earth with rivers of bark. Clouds of debris. Cascading waves of detritus crash onto the ground.

Now come the Stellar's Jays, Magpies, Ravens, and Crows. Corvidae, the vicious defenders of the skies. These birds also work together in organized family units. Lookouts guard while they feed on grass seeds in large open meadows.

Now comes an unfamiliar sea-gull sounding bird that I can't identify. When I hear his cry, I go racing into the fields, straining to see what bird made this awful plea. Eventually, we realize it's an immature Red-tailed hawk, soaring on high thermals, safely above the threat of the crows.

The evergreens lose some of their needles - the ones closest in. And they drop drop a few of their limbs - the lowest and least-productive ones.

Tired chainsaws warn the valley that snows are on the way. The lazy hammers of summer sound across the valley, as if in reply. Everyone knowing what is next. The sound of distant crows and nervous dogs. Roosters crow in the middle of the day, warning of some danger no one can know, like foghorns in the bay.

At night, the bears return, ripping trembling feeders from high eaves overhead, smashing them to the ground, ripping open the steel and wooden feeders, and gorging themselves on sunflower seeds. How do they know? How can they know of the coming winter?

All of the thrashing about wakes me, sleeping lightly behind open windows in the middle of the night. I come down with a crazy spotlight to see what the racket is for. Lots of guns by the bed, but I don't want to kill the wildlife. That's not why I'm up here. Only I want to see what goes bump in the night.

Hear it crashing through the garden - once full of California Poppies - now, full of weeds and the sounds of branches cracking, bark falling in waves from the pine tree. I should have brought a gun. This is crazy. Sure enough, it's a bear. A fairly large one. A mature, black bear runs up a pine tree as quickly as a housecat.

Only now does it occur to me that I should have brought a gun or three. Luckily, he was more scared of me than I was of him.

I dim the lights and go back inside. I feel bad for the bird feeders. Now I know what they were so afraid of all this time. They knew the bears were out there. I only suspected it, but they had seen them.

But the seasons pass me by, and summer fades, imperceptibly, into fall.


Summer tosses in his hand and says "Deal me out". The days get shorter and cooler. The sun drifts deeper north into the sky, recklessly close to the horizon.

Green fades to gold and everything falls back to the earth. Reluctantly. Silently. Somber as mourners fading away from a funeral. Saddened by Summer's passing, but glad to have known him.

Now the fields all go to seed. Everything I promised myself I'd mow over the summer but never got around to casts its seeds to the winds. Russian Thistle, knap weed, dandelions.

The aspens turn from light green to a pale yellow, then sent their leaves into the creek. Gold doubloon waterfalls. The color started at the mountain tops, from the peaks and the passes, then moved slowly, like a yellow tsunami, crashing down the valleys.

Only the sound of the winds in the trees and the distant echo of a murder of crows.

And maybe, in the Fall, the leaves changed and fell reluctantly to the ground. The days grew shorter and more frantic. Cold Fall winds pulled the seeds from the grasses. The Crows moved into the deep fields of grass, to eat the seeds. Watched over by the watchers.

Chainsaws whined in the quickening evenings. Cutting up dead trees for the coming snows. Everything seems more frantic somehow. The ducks fly south. Now, the calling of the Red-tailed hawk. The immature one from this summer. I don't wonder what it is when I hear his whining screams any more. I don't have to peer into the trees or the sky to try to make him out. I know his call.

The screams of the Stellar's Jay. Distant barking of dogs and calling of crows.
Jennifer looks at the pine trees and says "Look, daddy, they're dying."

"We're all dying, baby," I offer, in consolation.

"I know, but they're dying now," she pleaded.

"No baby. They loose a third of their needles every year. The trees are fine."

Now, the scrub oaks turn from light green to a burnt orange color. Usually, the scrub oaks signal the end of fall. They're the last trees to shed their leaves.

A murder of crows comes now, returning to their roost for the night. Flying, at reckless speeds on blackened wings that brush the sky loudly as they pass.

It's easy to see what's here, but so much harder to see what's not here. To notice what's missing. Eventually, I realize the Cordilleran Flycatchers have left. I miss their peculiar chirps as they flit, discreetly between the trees. The hummingbirds have flown south. The Red-Tailed hawk left our valley.

The ravens come in great waves now, darkening the sun. Screaming, unreasoned fury against what could never be known. The Flickers hop up and down the trucks of the evergreens, with a shrill, chirping call. The Stellar's Jays hear all of this, take it in, and repeat the call of each bird. So that one could never know for sure what bird they were truly hearing.

Young men move into the mountains carrying with them their hopes and dreams. Towing behind them whatever might follow. Women. Children. They buy machines, hoping to tame the mountains.

Old men do not move into the mountains to retire. Old men flee the mountains to places sunny and simple and warm. Flat warm beaches of Florida. Or the parched deserts of Arizona. But they don't come here. The winters drive them away, as surely as the snows drove away the old neighbors. They dreamed of retiring here, but old and brittle, fled for the comfort of the equator.

But all is not lost in the fall. We have new guests now. The Evening Grosbeaks are back. Soon, we'll have the Butcher Birds and the Bald Eagles will return.

But I'm not sure that I'll be around to see them.


In October, the days grew shorter. Nights grew longer.

The Aspen groves proudly surrendered their leaves, like an army defeated, but unashamed.

Scraggly barren trees clawed desperately at sullen skies, ripping open their seams, unleashing the first snows of Fall.

The horses donned winter coats, bright red blankets to get them through the long, thin nights of winter.

I pull the photos from the game camera, just to see what's milling around at night. I glance hopefully at the photos on a computer in the home office. But the darkness holds its secrets. Nothing's there. The bears are hibernating by now.

The hummingbirds and the flycatchers left months ago.

I stare absently into soft sullen skies, replaying the madness of summer dogfights when we were afraid to walk outside. Summer slipped by so fast. One day, you're shooting hummingbirds, turning their names over in your mind, like rocks tumbling down a river bed. Then suddenly, they're gone and you're left trying to put the shattered fragments of summer back together. Trying to remember the sound of their wings as they bombed and attacked each other.

Solemnly, I empty their feeders and put them away. No point in leaving them out all winter. We won't see hummingbirds or flycatchers again until June.

They say the hummingbirds fly to central america. And the bears retreat to secret dens. But it's hard to know for sure. It's so hard to say.

I refill the crippled sunflower seed feeders. Over the years, they've suffered greatly from the wrath of the bears. Mangled an cut. Battered and bandaged. I'm too cheap to replace them. Just keep cobbling them back together with glue and screws. Love and empathy. They're still getting plenty of attention though.

At night, the bird bath begins to freeze. And each day the local birds suffer a little longer, waiting for the ice to thaw.

I keep the sunflower seed feeders full for them, this stalwart, motley gang. Finches and Chickadees. Stellar's Jays and Grosbeaks. These birds won't migrate. These are the real troopers of the mountains. They suffer through long winters here, hunkered down like winter warriors. Nervously, they peck at the seed feeders, warily checking their shoulders for hawks, eagles, and the irascible Butcher Birds that turn up this time every year.

The young, innocent birds peck away at the feeders, naive and fearless. They don't know what to watch for. This is their first dance. A Stellar's Jay imitates a hawk, and the birds scatter. The Jay moves in to eat his fill of black oil sunflower seeds. I can tell the difference between a Red-Tailed Hawk, and a Stellar's Jay imitating a Red-Tailed Hawk. But it took me a long time to get there. The hardest part was admitting that I was wrong. That I didn't know everything. After that, the rest came easy.

This is all I can manage. The bird bath. The bird feeders. That's really all I can do. Everything else just fades away.

I retreat to my bed and collapse into a sort of hibernation of my own. I try to get up, but can't summon the courage. Instead, I lie in bed, surfing the internet, wagering ad hominem wars with strangers, and waiting for the Butcher Birds to return.

Posted by Rob Kiser on November 17, 2013 at 1:12 PM


Very nice Rob. Though I enjoy reading about your worldwide adventures, it's great to read about our beloved state of Colorado even more.

Posted by: Chick Voice on November 18, 2013 at 10:52 AM

Thanks CV. Good to hear from you. :)

Posted by: Rob Kiser Author Profile Page on November 18, 2013 at 12:37 PM

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