By Ross Seyfried
It is not easy to define: a sensation, a feeling of uneasiness, for some it would be called excitement . . . a stirring perhaps. This is a happening of autumn, one that can neither be qualified, nor quantified, but rest assured for millions of humans it is a very real phenomenon.
It was early and cold, especially cold because the dew on the tamaracks drenched me as I rode down the overgrown logging road. I willed the big motor to be quiet; there was something I wanted to hear, even though I knew in all likelihood it was too early in the year. The Rubicon was quiet, or at least as quiet as it is possible for a running motor to be. I was glad for the original muffler and even more so for the extra one behind it that quieted the pulses of internal combustion to a loud whisper. The old overgrown road gave way to a better one, at least one where I could dodge the wet branches. Below, the little stream held huge mud puddles, nasty plastered places in a pretty green world. They encouraged my hopes and spurred my search; the boys had been playing in the mud!
I turned south and climbed to a high ridge, one that touched 5,000 feet and eased gently over the top. The Galt Forest welcomed, as it always does, an oasis in the midst of cruel logging, tall, old trees saved by a fool who loved them. The old forest would lead to a meadow, with a lake half a mile below and another pretty, clear live-spring that, hopefully, just might have been turned into a mud-puddle. There too, was the very best chance to hear the voice that had tugged me out of bed in the dark. We rolled through the downhill hairpin curves and across streaks of sunshine shooting through the timber. The Honda’s blue fenders looked out of place until I glanced up at the late summer sky. And then I heard it.
The sound was a combination of a groan and a flute-like whistle. The night had been cold enough to stir the young bull elk to activity and he was very proud of himself. He was plastered in mud, looking rather horrible, unless you happened to be an elk maiden. It was a bit early for the girls to care, but he had to try. He too had been bothered by something apparently unreasonable on this first cold morning. The elk rut had just begun.
I took in this spectacle until the sun drove him into the thickets. Then I started the motor and rode home in triumph. Triumph? Certainly. In 20 minutes I had motored to a place where I might have ridden a horse, but that would have taken two hours. I had triumphed over civilization, over modern rules that said I was civilized, yet I had witnessed the annual onset of one of nature’s greatest spectacles. Thanks to some very modern technology, I had defied the strong and tempering grasp of civilization by coming to this wild scene.
I have often wondered what it is that grips us so tightly and apparently so unreasonably come autumn. Why do I wake earlier near the end of August? Why does my Labrador retriever pant beside the bed at 4:00 AM, when he normally sleeps until 7:00? The complex question is easy to answer: we are hunters. This call is ancient, locked in our genetic code because millennia ago, we climbed down out of the trees and began to scavenge meat and very soon thereafter began to kill our own food. But why does this affect us especially in autumn?
The stirring must come as a response to the seasons because once upon a time, when life was reality instead of a computer screen, the seasons controlled our lives. Winter is long, and the many hours of darkness each day depress our joy. So certainly we rejoice in spring, delight in the new grass and that first afternoon when we do not need a coat. A flower brightens our day and a blue bird thrills us. But to me spring is not a stirring. It is more a sensation of wonderful relief. This too may be ancient, but it is different than the stirring of autumn. Spring I suppose is a celebration of "we lived through the winter." For our brother predators and the big game animals it is a sedate time, a time indeed to simply be alive. Spring is a time to eat and recuperate, but certainly not one for celebration. Autumn is different, very different.
Our American Thanksgiving holiday serves as classic reminder that autumn is typically a time of plenty. Ripe grain and vegetables were harvested, which went a long way to assuring we would live to experience spring. And while we hunted year-round to survive, the autumn hunts of long ago would have been special. First, the hard-times of winter loomed; if the autumn hunts were not successful, the tribe perished, plain and simple. Also, the game birds and animals we hunted would have begun to congregate or migrate, making them easier to find and kill.
When there were no refrigerators, storing meat—even by drying—would have been difficult to impossible in the searing hot summer. Suddenly, in the fall, the nights grew cool, even cold; the world became a Frigidaire. When it was cool we could store excess food and most certainly in the fall we hunted not just for the moment, but to bring us through winter.
Not everything has changed today. While almost all "civilized" hunters have an alternative, most do hunt for food. Wild elk, deer and boar are among the healthiest foods a person can consume and certainly as tasty as anything we can imagine. Hunting, if you will, feeds our tummies and our souls.
So, if some late September morning finds you uneasy, it's OK. Take comfort in the squirrel that no longer engages in long naps and idle chatter, who instead runs with one acorn after another. If your old smoking pipe that stood quietly on the mantle all summer calls to you, it is only natural. If you have an overpowering urge to clean your shotgun, or change the oil in the ATV, do not seek a therapist. You are far from needing help; you are very fine and in touch with nature's rhythms. It is those who decry what we do who may be out of synch with reality. You are still in touch with your ancient roots and yes, you are very, very alive.