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OUTDOORS COLUMN: Just look around -- it's death's beautiful season

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

Death. It comes to all. Violent death, peaceful death. Quick death, prolonged death. Death both painful and painless.

The animal kingdom, to a species, is fated and resigned to death. Only one animal, however, fears it. Perhaps that is mankind's ultimate trade-off for supreme intelligence and accelerated cerebral function.

Man, and man alone, sees death coming. He knows full well it is inevitable.

Man fears death, I think, not because of its finality, but because death offers him no options. It provides him no selection - no color combos, varying sizes or different styles. He cannot choose a death that comes peacefully, quickly or painlessly. He can only hope for it. And hope, for an animal accustomed to control, is abstract and fleeting.

Enter autumn, when death is beautiful.

Fall is a perfect season for man to be alive. Strangely so, for it is the one and only time of year when death and life are in complete harmony. It is a time when death itself can make life worth living. When days shorten and mornings and evenings start to chill, death is ushered in and man can behold it, not with fear and trepidation, but with wonder, a peaceful sort of awe and appreciation.

Leaves die in the forest. Magnificently. They breathe their last and welcome their fate bedecked in wardrobe ensembles of red, yellow, brown and gold. They cling doggedly for a time to their dormant hosts - the hickories, the oaks, the aspens, the poplars - whose boughs now deprive them of life-sustaining nutrients. Then, intermittently, they succumb and fall; breeze-borne, ground-carpeting, shimmering. They alight in myriad numbers on the earthen floor in gaudy profusion. Their sight, their smell, the sound they make as we crush them beneath our tread, all make us feel rejuvenated, somehow more alive.

It is death, a beautiful death.

Winter is death, too, but it is death inanimate. In winter we can witness only death's aftermath, not the lovely dying. We can marvel at spring's miracle of birth and summer's profusion of life, but that's much too easy. Birth and life are never difficult to celebrate. It is only in fall that we may watch death descend and breathe life from it.

In autumn, too, we ourselves dispense death. As kindred souls we enter the woods, hungry for the smell of spent powder and the taking of game. We yearn to hear the sharp crack of an old.22 and to savor once again the flavor and aroma of squirrel and gravy. We need to feel the familiar kick of a shotgun that long ago became not just a tool, but a treasured friend. Our mouths water for venison steaks as we squeeze the trigger of a .30-06 and watch through the scope as a whitetail folds and falls.

It has been this way for centuries. Man the hunter is an integral part of autumn's death rite. And it is good. Bless us if we kill cleanly, sportingly and in the spirit of fair chase and legal obeisance. Bless us if we, in red-man fashion, honor the spirits of the noble creatures we seasonally harvest for our tables. Curse us if we do otherwise.

If it is man's lot in life to wonder and fear how his own death shall come, he must, I believe, see death up close at a time when death is not only a part of life, but a pleasing part of life as well. Such occasions are rare. Sadly, for those who refuse to open their eyes, they are even nonexistent.

So, my friends, if you would, albeit briefly, reconcile yourselves fearlessly to death, enter nature's realm this fall. Watch and wonder as beautiful death rains gloriously down and lands at your feet. Dole out death, if you choose, fairly, humbly and with a true hunter's reverence.

Know intimately autumn's death.

And live.