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October is a month of quiet transition. The animals have raised their young. Winter preparations are finished; acorns have been buried, seeds stored, bodies fattened, fur coats thickened, and next year's buds produced. Many birds have already flown to warmer places and the winter finches have not yet arrived. The hibernators are retreating underground. Shorter days and frosty nights warn us of the approaching winter. In October, the meadows, lakes and skies are still. Then brisk, chilling northwest winds sweep in to stir things up, sending leaves, seeds, birds and imaginations soaring on windswept journeys.
October winds tug at trees and send a shower of fiery red and gold, subdued purple and brown leaves swirling to earth. In a gentle breeze each type of leaf has a characteristic falling style; some float, some free-fall, others twirl around the stem. In a strong wind, this individuality is lost as the leaves move in mini-whirlwinds through the air and along the ground. At rest, the colorful, many-shaped leaves quilt the ground with the artistry of a gifted craftsman.
October winds pull at ripened seeds and send them on their way. Dried milkweed pods split open along one side, exposing flat brown seeds arranged like cedar shingles on a roof. Each seed is attached to a white, fluffy parachute. Gentle and not-so-gentle winds tug on the billowy floss one by one to carry the seeds aloft. When the pod and wind conditions are perfect, the seed-carrying parachutes lift off in military precision, one right after another, and float single file to unknown destinations.
October is not complete until I hold a handful of milkweed seeds over my head and let the wind work through my fingers snatching the seeds away. This has been a ritual since childhood. Each year I dream of what it would be like to float freely on October winds, wondering where I would land when the winds finally released me.
October winds assist avian migrants. Long undulating skeins of Canada geese ride south on northerly winds. Their resonant honking makes even the nature-oblivious look skyward. I call these brisk northwest winds "the hawk winds." On these special days I often scan the skies hoping to see a migrating hawk or eagle. With its wings swept back and buoyed by invisible winds, the bird is escorted swiftly southward without so much as a wing flap or a great expenditure of energy. Flocks of broad-winged hawks passed in mid-September, but in October, the hawks generally migrate alone; a red-tailed hawk, a sharp-shinned or was it a Cooper's hawk? Perhaps an elusive peregrine falcon will streak across the horizon or a wandering golden eagle.
October winds make me feel good. When I inhale the cold, fresh air, I feel alive. These winds replace the sultry stagnation of late summer and herald Wisconsin's annual march into winter, my favorite season.
Hawk spotter Anita Carpenter watches the wind on walks near her Oshkosh home.