Despite the presence of hunters, we are in the midst of the peak hiking season.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no objection to hunters although I wish they wouldn’t leave their piles of Bud Light cans along the trail. (What is it about Bud Light that makes it the beverage of choice for many hunters?)
In fact, some hunters object to my presence and not the other way around. “We only get a week to do this,” they say to me. “Can’t this wait until next week?
No, it can’t. Sorry. When I was very young, I used to dart up to a wooded area near my house to stare dumbstruck at the autumn leaves. Because I wasn’t clued in on the seasonal rhythms, I felt a sense of urgency. How long will this beautiful thing last? Will it still be here tomorrow? Will it ever happen again?
When one gets a bit older, the sense of urgency returns. The old wooded area is long gone now, replaced by apartment buildings. I must go farther afield, and I do so joyfully but with a quiet tremor in my heart. Will this autumn be my last? Will I ever enfold myself in this beauty again?
I have thus spent a considerable amount of time in the woods these past few weeks, because I love to watch the leaves change, subtly, almost imperceptibly, until they explode with color.
And then I love to watch the colors fade to brown and the leaves fall off the trees. At that point, vistas once blocked by green are freed from their leafy obstruction. Even in their coma-like slumber, the trees are doing us a great favor by getting out of the way. I sincerely hope that nature will feel the same about me when my leaves finally fall.
This time of year is also a good one to look for black bears if you go south to Kentucky or West Virginia. As they load up for their long winter’s rest, they will basically ignore you as you pass by. Black bears are not particularly dangerous, by the way. In bear-hunting regions, they will most likely run away from you before you ever get a chance to run away from them.
This year, I forewent my usual trip down to Lake Vesuvius to watch the leaves change. If you haven’t been down there, you should go next autumn. It is absolutely the best place I have found in Ohio to see autumn colors. Wait for the peak weekend, and stand near the boat dock. On a sunny, calm day, the leaves are perfectly reflected in the lake. It will knock you to your knees, and I have the sore patellae to prove it.
Instead, I have been going to the Hocking State Park and the adjacent State Forest. I zip right past Old Man’s Cave. (Been there. Done that.) I arrive an hour or so later at Rose Lake, which provides a smaller simulacrum of the Lake Vesuvius experience.
And then, enlivened by a 16-mile hike or so, I make the quick drive to the John Glenn Astronomy Park to participate in the public stargazing session if they are having one that night.
It was on such a night a few days ago that I stood next to a large telescope as the sky darkened. Over 200 people fidgeted nearby as they waited to look through the half-dozen telescopes set up on the plaza.
Despite the whirling chaos of humanity, my eyes were drawn to the Big Dipper.
The confused din of collected speech faded to silence as I stood open-mouthed at the Big Dipper, which loomed, huge and horizontal, along the northern horizon.
And abruptly, my mind turned to bears and hunters and the brilliance of the fall leaves and an old story told by the Iroquois people.
I’m going to tell you that story, but the telling won’t make much sense without a bit of background.
In the northern parts of our country, the Dipper stars are circumpolar. They circle the Pole Star, never quite setting below the horizon.
Many widely separated cultures identify the Dipper stars with a bear, but few agree on what stars constitute the bear. European cultures see the bear in a larger set of stars of which the Dipper is only a part. Some Native American cultures of North America see the bear in the bowl of the Dipper. The stars of the Dipper’s handle are often identified as three hunters stalking the bear.
The faint star called Alcor is the faithful hunting dog Ji-yeh.
So how did the hunters get into their starry predicament? In the old Iroquois story, the bear is a huge, monstrous beast that is devouring all the winter deer that the people depend upon for survival. Three brothers are given the honor of killing the bear.
However, they soon discover that this is no ordinary beast. It can cover itself with an invisible net, which hides it from their sight.
Onward through the snow they plod, their moccasined feet slowly freezing, their hope slowly fading. At last, they approach the bear and make ready to loose their arrows. All of a sudden, the bear disappears under its magic net, and a vaporous mist “like a hiding cloud that floats above the water envelopes the brothers,” as the old story goes. That night, as hope fades to frozen despair, the brothers all have the same dream — that they have finally captured the bear and roasted it on a warm fire.
They vow that they will not rest until they have vanquished the bear. Many days and nights pass without sleep. The cold winds blow, the snow piles up in great drifts, and still they stalk the bear. Higher and higher into the cold mountains they climb as the pitiless snow drifts to the sky. And into the sky they go, upward and upward, until they at last see the bear pushing the clouds before it.
Seeing the hunters, the mighty beast casts the net of invisibility over itself. But this time the hunters are not fooled. They rush to the spot where the bear lies hidden.
At that moment, the bear raises the net above its head and casts them into the sky under an eternal cloak of invisibility. We see them only as stars.
The hunters and their dog are condemned to roam the skies, ignorant of their fate, ceaselessly chase the bear but never quite catching it. We see them as starry ghosts, forever circling the pole star, never quite setting and never gaining a well-deserved rest.
In the autumn, when the stars of the Dipper are lowest on the horizon in the early evening, the hunters manage finally to wound the bear with their arrows, and the beast’s blood drips down upon the trees, smothering their leaves.
The glorious colors of autumn thus remind us of the pain and sadness of the long, cold winter soon to come and of the dogged courage of every quest we know will never end.
Tom Burns is the former director of the Perkins Observatory in Delaware.