The moon’s large, orange orb was slipping into the western horizon and silhouetted trees and cornstalks around our Timber Creek Valley farm when I stepped outside early the other morning.
In the valley below – what some neighbors poke fun at me for not correctly calling a coulee – an icy fog hung to mask what was sure to be frost covering the long stalks that a couple weeks ago had been lush grass and weeds.
There was something different in the air that hadn’t been there in the days and weeks previous. I’d barely noticed it because the evening air had started to cool so much that we’d shut some of the windows on the Eimon Homestead’s old farmhouse. That difference hit me in the face like the slap of an cold spray of water during a hot July morning.
It was October, and autumn truly was in the air – air that’s fresh and clean with the snap of bed sheets on a clothesline but far from the winter cold that in a few weeks will suck the wind from our lungs and freeze our nasal passages.
With the air comes the introduction of yellow chore gloves on the hands of farmers who might be working into the night, and the tales from hunters who will spend dusk and dawn hours standing quietly in tree-stands to watch for deer whose minds have been addled by love-making hormones.
The chill increased, telling me that the moon’s light disappearing over the western horizon would in moments be replaced by the morning sun’s first rays glowing over the eastern horizon behind me. Years of life have shown me truth in the adages, “it’s darkest before the dawn” and “it’s coldest before the dawn.”
The air stilled for about a minute. And then the crisp, dry corn leaves in the field near me breathed their fall death rattle, reminding me that the crop had reached the end of its mature life and was ready for the harvest. A few early-dropped leaves from our yard’s trees joined the now-melodic rattling, skittering across the driveway and onto the road – first in straight lines and then moving in circles.
The sun’s first rays reached me on the breeze that was moving the leaves, the rays spreading themselves across the tan-brown corn stalks and creating a spattering of mini-shadows behind the leaves traversing the driveway.
The light rose as a woken child, stretching and yawning its way across the Northern Driftless landscape.
What moments earlier had seemed like the end had become the beginning.
At first, I noticed how the day’s dawning was missing some of the chatter spring and summer mornings brought on songbirds’ voices and on the voices of so many early-rising critters. But that morning, only the two-note crow of a cock pheasant in the corn and the occasional bawling of newly-weaned calves joined the sound of my breath and the occasional whisper of the earth’s breeze.
The sun, at first, was a large yellow-orange ball filled with life sent in its light’s whiteness. But as it rose, the ball whitened and flung its yellow fingers across the landscape. They felt their way across the barnyard and pasture, across the Larsons’ pond, and then across another piece of pasture until the now-golden fingers reached the woods.
The gold touched the bottom of the woods’ tree trunks and, without hesitation, gently stroked their way up the trees until reaching the leaves on the poplars, maples and oaks.
When they reached the leaves, the fingers balled into fists filled with every color imaginable. The leaves exploded into iridescent yellow, gold, orange, red and brown brightness. The leaves reflected the color so brightly that it was difficult to comprehend – impossible to pick out what colors were the brightest and most beautiful.
My face, heart and soul were warmed by the cornucopia of colors into which I stared to the west; the sun’s fingers coming from the east made their ways up my back and used their warmth to gently massage the week’s tensions from my back and shoulders.
I gave myself to the morning.
The most challenging part of that day was leaving the spot that offered so much comfort. There were, as people more responsible than I might say, “places to go and people to meet.” But I didn’t want to leave that spot.
As so often happens, I knew I’d have to photograph the moment in my mind, my eyes’ lenses used to see the picture as only I saw it. Other people’s eyes, I knew, would photograph it differently than I.
The photograph etched in my mind, I would later use words to attempt to paint the scene as best I could.
Later, I’d hang the picture in my heart’s galleries, where it would join the art of so many other moments I’d come to know in Wisconsin’s rural countryside. And that day I promised myself that I’d occasionally open the gallery to allow others to see the fall-morning colors as I saw them in our Timber Creek Valley.
— Scott Schultz