Vail Daily column: A ramble of the senses
November 5, 2016
A shallow breath gives rise to pause. At 12,000-plus feet, breathing through the liquid mucus of an oxygen-deprived nose, only the most effusive scents capture my attention. This time, damp notes on the breeze carry an autumn melody, inviting me to contemplate what lies beyond the visual aspects of nature for a measure or two.
This particular invisible gust carries me like a maple whirligig back to a rainy October afternoon in Portland, Oregon — the day I first realized that changes in seasons bring gifts unseen. It had been raining for days, and the "Rieke River" was gushing. Finding itself in the middle of a long hill, the precipice between sidewalk and street along Rieke Elementary transformed during heavy rainfall into the ultimate drainage. Had it been a true river, it would have rivaled the Columbia in flow rate by watershed area. On this particular day though, the river spread across the street like sound in a silent room. A splash of colorful leaves had made its way into the drainage and forced the rainwater from its central point. As my friends and I studied the intricacies of the unexpected riparian micro-ecosystem, the wind picked up, and brought with it a strangely familiar aroma. While I have pinpointed individual elements of that symphonic breeze throughout the years — the soft piano of decaying topsoil, sharp staccatos of fruiting apple trees — the sentiments it carries have always remained the same. Autumn greeted me that year with the gift of a brand new smell, and every year since my anticipation for that long-awaited fragrance reminds me that there is beauty in change if only we allow it to find us.
As fall serenades us this October, it carries signs of the season beyond a change in color. Scents and sounds harmonize with the yellowing of the aspen. Sharpening the senses to pick up these acute hints — stowaways on the breeze — allows us to experience this eternal season in a new way.
In the form of leaves reddening to cooler weather and dropping to color the rain-dampened earth, so too do microscopic molecules in hexagonal form drift effortlessly into receptors in the depths of our nostrils. Like our own personal leaf-piles, instead of providing an afternoon of enjoyment, a symphony of molecules offers a cadence of hints about our surroundings. Molecules generously donated by their hosts — freshly turned earth, pumpkin seeds slowly baking in the oven, the crunching of leaves underfoot — are captured in passerby winds and carried directly to our senses. From there they settle in our memories.
The changes our environment undergoes during a new season are accompanied by particular smells, sounds, and most commonly, sights that we unconsciously record. The realization I underwent on that stormy afternoon in Portland was a conscious recognition of the senses that I was born with as an animal on this planet. Today, embracing those very same senses resonates with my greater humanity: the ability to cherish past moments and yearn for the future. The promise of my mom's homemade apple pie, drizzly nights bathed in the harvest moon, the watercolor wonders of a change in scenery pass through my consciousness. I acknowledge the beauty of being human and animal: truly wild at heart, and mindful in spirit.
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A flash of brown plumage from above delivers me from the clouds and brings me back to the present. Hiking alone, I don't have to explain my musings nor play catch up for my pause. I can take this hike at my own pace and savor the chords of our Mother Earth's sensational hymn. A few more seconds and I identify the red-tailed hawk that brought me from my reverie as I continue up the trail in search of a new journey.
Raichle Dunkeld is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center.
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