Falling Slow

Maybe it’s the same every year, but this year I noticed: Fall on the Rock River is actually more like a slow-motion fading of summer. You know it is fall to watch it happen: the leaves color over like gemstones and the sky grows more acutely, deeply blue by the day. Some birds leave and others come, and then they leave, too. Geese fly ever higher overhead, ever more directly southward. Soon, frost crystals will collect overnight in the rushes along the river’s banks.

Of course this is fall.

But this year it seemed like there was an hour or two of summer in every fall day. So the hammock stayed out in the yard. The rake stayed propped against the boathouse, waiting for raking weather. And the light continued to die last on the river, turning it golden and stretching every day’s end.

Still, we acted by the calendar here on Cherry Street. We resisted the daytime urge to call everyone and tell them to stop by that night for one last mini-Bratfest on the deck. The graham crackers and chocolate and marshmallows stayed in the kitchen cabinet; we pushed them farther and farther back to make room for new supplies. Seventy-two degrees at noon in October is much more fleeting than the same 72 degrees at noon in July. No matter how balmy the afternoon seemed, we knew that evening would find us tucked around the fireplace inside, not sprawled by the fire pit down at the shore.

But the sight that drove home “FALL” for me was actually an early sign of winter: a bald eagle. Because the Rock doesn’t freeze over entirely for very long, its waters are prime hunting for bald eagles as they move south in search of food. Around here, you know it’s winter not when it snows or when your car won’t start. You know it’s winter when a bald-eagle sighting is so commonplace that you’re sanguine about seeing birds the size of children perched in a tree on your lawn. 

One morning not long ago I woke up to see that the waves had stilled along the shore, ready to freeze. The flat, glassy water blushed pink and orange, reflecting the earliest sun. The cold snap felt like one that was going to last. Later that day I looked up from my desk to see a bald eagle swoop low over the water, following the river’s curve, heading south. Huh, I thought. So that was fall.

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