The Last Day of Summer

by Victor C. Capelli

I began my day hike into my favorite woods prepared with a pack filled with food, water and bin-oculars, ready to deal with the usual exigencies of a simple climb into the Pittsfield State Forest from my home here in Stephentown. Past colorful fields of blooming goldenrod I walked, their waving wands of yellow flowing with an undulating sweep whenever the hand of a breeze caressed them.

My hike travels a dirt lane from the asphalt streak of continuous traffic on Route 22 up into the cool, quiet recess of Goodrich Hollow Road. The road is fronted by country homes, farms and meadows crisscrossed with fences. The bordering woods were already beginning to change color. Wending up towards the high ridges of The Taconic mountains, Goodrich Hollow Road crosses into Massachusetts just as the ascent steepens. Collectively, the mountains called the Taconics are part of the Berkshire Hills; scraps of rock over half a billion years old and the product of several mountain building events or “orogenies”. Each episode, from the Taconic orogeny (460 million years ago), to the Appalachian Orogeny, 200 million years later, were the result of continental collisions. The resulting earthquakes and volcanoes spawned alpine-like mountains which towered into the sky. Erosion has since worn them down into the relatively puny runts we see today.

As I made my way over Goodrich Road and then onto Tower Mountain Road, I trod over the evidence of these formative geological cataclysms. Quartzite (metamorphosed sandstone), slate (metamorphosed shale) and phyllite (metamorphosed slate) each served as a mute, but telling example of the crushing pressure and heat which transformed the simple folds of sediment into contorted chunks of rubble. The unbearable tectonic pressures which produced the Taconics shoved the earth’s crust skyward, forming a 20-25,000 foot high mountain chain stretching north and south over 500 miles.

These geological events churned in my mind as I ascended into the woods, sweat beading on my arms and face in the warm summer sun. The still woods, lacking the excited springtime chatter of birds, was alive with rays of sunshine streaking down to moss covered logs, swales filled with delicate ferns and the foliage filled canopy of forest. This stillness was palpable, a quiet and somehow waiting quality of silence, which transformed a simple walk in the woods into an epiphany of transcendent experience.

A blue jay’s cry jolted me from my hiking thoughts as I huffed up the last part of the rutted, dirt-bike eroded trail. I paused to take in the view down the slopes. Birches and beeches, oaks, sugar maples, dogwoods and hemlocks were the stuff of these woods. There was almost an eerie calm on this last day of summer.

Between the fires of summer and the deep, dark pit of winter, the world is suspended between seasons and like a ball perched at the tip of a hill, betwixt and between, waiting, uncertain as to which way to roll, hesitant before the plunge that will take it past the point of no return and down the autumnal slope towards the cold valley of January.

But today, every tree, every hill, every cloud is illuminated by the golden light of late summer— like the paintings of Fredrick Church and the Hudson River School of artists— this green verdant countryside, a carpet of still green landscapes shimmering in this pause of the seasons, in a vivid yet still suspended, vision of pastoral beauty.

They say that only when you are older can you appreciate a day of breathtaking visions. I believe this now as mile after mile, this panorama of Berkshire County and Eastern New York unrolls before my eyes, making this day unlike any day I have ever experienced before. Vast, billowy white clouds sail in awesome constructions of water vapor upon a sea of blue so intense that your eyes hurt to behold it. Is this heaven, where we live? Can it be that our paradise of green, verdant hills, this land of shimmering heat haze over cow pasture and dark forest, this beautiful windswept and sun kissed dell and dale is really the only heaven we should appreciate?

Here, atop Berry Hill in the Pittsfield State Forest, the far away spires of Albany and the Empire State Plaza glisten in a mystical, tantalizing apparition above a transparent atmosphere, bounded by an azure sky and galloping fantastical creatures of cloud blown east by the cool and persistent wind. A pair of hawks wheel in this vision, fixed by their migratory circling towards the southlands yet forever free with their capacity to fly in buoyant disdain of gravity. They whirl, higher and higher, until the image of their outstretched wings grows fainter and fainter, disappearing into the void of the deep, blue sky over Lebanon Valley.

The trees around me speak. Their leaves rustle, twist, flutter in shivering ecstasy before the colder north wind that is hurled down the eroded crags of the Taconic Mountains from the far away Adirondacks and Canada. These trees are outlined in a gleaming aura of September light, soft light, though not yet weak as in the dark days of December. The textures of different greens form a mosaic of subtlety in the bath of air that surrounds them.

A quaking aspen, so named because its leaves always seem shivery, trembles nearby, its heart shaped leaves with their flat stem, shake with a seemingly unending pulse of green. Like a wave, from the top of the tree to the bottom the aspen’s leaves pulsate like a green heart; a green heart in a green sea on a golden afternoon.

Seemingly quiescent, the vast ocean of green below and blue above is waiting now, with every shortening day and lengthening night, to begin the long rolling cascade of changing tints into the coming world of autumnal flame.

Vittorio Capelli is a naturalist, environmental educator, dowser, artist and writer who lives in Stephentown, New York. He leads bird and wildflower walks and educational programs on geology, astronomy and geology, as well as educational slide shows on John James Audubon

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