I have finally finished reading Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, after an entire autumn spent savoring it in small sips and draughts, on buses and curled up on the couch, my breath taken from me with nearly every page and spirited to a place of wild refuge. But my stunned admiration for the book is not, just now, what I am thinking of. It is instead a passage where she talks about the flight of a maple seed – a maple “key,” she calls it, in a marvelous usage totally unfamiliar to me before now – and yes, of course, this little instrument unlocks the entire structure, its scaffolding and all its wings. Reading it, it occurred to me that perhaps I have not seen a single maple seed (or whirlybird, as I have also heard them called charmingly but less strikingly – helicopter, also) this season. How can it be?
Heather and I biked a few miles along unfriendly suburban roads the day after Thanksgiving to visit a little nature preserve I'd heard about, the Anna Oaks Nature Center in Skokie. So, of course, there were oaks, the ground strewn with leaves of several different kinds, as in an illustration for children. On the shores of the pond where the bottom tapered off into featureless murk, the leaves and anything else that had fallen in had become immediately and uniformly covered with green-gray silt, algae, or some other form of matter too delicate for me to name. They appeared spray-painted or cut from construction paper, or the background artist had grown lazy and treated the entire area with a monochrome wash of muddy watercolor after the initial sketch.
The whole preserve had something of an illustrative quality about it. We walked along a path into the 13-acre patch of woods and heard some bird peep above us. Standing still, we eventually followed the sound to its source: a largish bird as song birds go, with a smoothly tapering body, dark up top and white-bellied. It tumbled from branch to branch, at one point landing upside down before hoisting its light body around upright. I wondered aloud what it was, drawing forth and then rejecting the few creature-names with which my mental cabinets were once so full. And then the world answered me: the bird began hammering its beak into the branch in the distinctive woodpecker way, with a sound called up straight from a cartoon.
We covered about all the ground there was to cover in the park, hopeful of living things. Along the shores of the pond I stopped to peer in and stir the muck with a stick. Nothing came. In the middle of a little amphitheater two men were chainsawing pieces of deadwood; there'd been a controlled burn earlier in the day, signs told us, and indeed the ground was strewn with unreadable patches of ash, clinging to the bases of trees like shrunken shadows.
Geese sat arrayed all across the pond, just one occasionally making a low, cowish sound. All the while the two-car Skokie Swift train rattled comically through on tracks just behind the preserve. We were leaning over to look at a handful of sluggish, deep orange goldfish sunken into the pond when something unknown made the better portion of the geese alight and ascend directly over us. The new thing here – perhaps I'd just never been flown over so closely by so many geese at once? – was the noise of their wings: there was a crisp, almost insect buzz produced, I suppose, by the motions of their stiff feathers against each other.
So the city is full of wonders, to be sure; I saw a fox the other day as I was leaving the house, and my mind cycled through “dog” and “cat” before I could finally allow myself to believe that this silver-auburn creature dashing between houses was, indeed, a fox. (I added it to a small, private menagerie that includes the coyote I saw loping through Wunders Cemetery one winter, and a deer that suddenly began to gallop alongside our bicycles as Heather and I rode to suburban LaGrange.) Even so, how can I not have lately found myself in a place where maple seeds flutter down on me unsought through leaf-filtered light?
Especially in the fall, an ache rises in me to be in deep woods alone for as long as I care to tramp through them, my footsteps rousing the sweet odor of vegetal decay. It's a slightly ridiculous position my temperament has put me in, city-loving hermit, like some sort of amphibian whose two habitats are miles from each other – and now the fall, best season of migration, is more or less over for the year, and I've only made it a little way across the shore between them. Next year I should make a better attempt at a longer escape.