November 16, 2013
My dear friend, farmer Bob Sloan (alas, he has departed Earth) and I were walking along Sun Road on Crow Creek, due east of the Illinois River, one bright fall day a few years ago, the old man and the fifty-something kid, laughing and talking.
(Bob had one laughing gear—fifth; he belly-laughed his way through life. The previous fall, he had asked me to help him remove an eight-foot-long bullsnake that had wrapped its body around his pickup truck engine. It took us two hours to pull that pissed-off snake out, and Bob laughed the whole time. Bullsnakes are the actors of the snake world. They hiss and spit and show their fangs, but if you stand your ground they roll over and play dead, tongues dangling out of slack jaws, and, if you’re reckless like me, you can pick them up and enjoy the experience of a bullsnake neck massage—or get bit—it’s fifty-fifty with bullsnakes.)
We heard a riotous commotion coming from a mulberry tree up ahead. “My god,” I said, “a tree full of cats fighting.” “A tree full of drunk raccoons, more like it,” Bob said. He was right. Six raccoons were swaying on branches, punching each other out, falling to the ground then climbing back up to fight some more over fermenting mulberries. “The whole animal kingdom gets drunk,” Bob said. “I got the wild marijuana growin up on the hillsides? My cows, they eat that stuff and they roll over, Cowboy Gene.” Bob called me Cowboy Gene.
Every living species on earth gets high. For animals it’s seasonal. I’ve seen drunken songbirds, drunken stray dogs and cats, and geese that swayed like tightrope walkers. Every leftover fruit and seed in late summer/early fall ferments and animals get blotto. We humans regulate—or not.
And there is that other, non-alcoholic high, the Autumn Drunk, as it has been here in Up South for the past twenty-four hours. Last night the temperature was in the sixties. The wind howled up the bluffs at thirty miles an hour, shaking the bare trees, blowing lawn chairs down driveways, and crickets came out and screeched and frogs croaked in my pond. I stood in the front yard and watched furious clouds racing southwest to east, like a sky flashflood, and there was the moon to the north, an owl’s eye in the ever-changing patches of clear, and Jupiter shone in the east, trailed by Mars at midnight. I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the night, Autumn-drunk.
Below Genehouse, Clifton Terrace Road drops steeply and there is an s-shaped curve that has killed some drivers over the years. There was a wreck last night, as a carful of drunken men drove up the road, lost control on the curve and their van rolled two-and-a-half times, landing upside down in a neighbor’s yard. I haven’t heard about the casualties—I’m not even slightly curious. It is hard to mourn for drunk drivers.
This morning, I walked outside for the Sunday paper. The sky was black and purple, the wind howled even more fiercely and the temperature was eighty degrees. I quickly ate breakfast and took off on my walk, dressed in a tee shirt (black, of course) and jeans.
The Autumn Drunk was still in full swing. I saw a tornado on the east side of the road. Leaves rose up twelve feet in a perfect funnel shape then blasted apart. The last of the Osage oranges and acorns and hickory nuts rained down and bowled down the road. I literally flung my arms up in joy.
On the River Road trail, I met two women, a mom with a pile of silver hair and her middle-age daughter. They were holding hands; they were in love. We greeted each other and I told them about the tornado. And then, just west of us, a swath of creeks and streams of leaves swept down a bluff, riffling across the path and down to the road, where the Mississippi looked to be flowing backwards. “Look,” I exclaimed, “a waterfall of leaves.” “You talk like a poet,” the daughter said. I smiled. “You do,” the mom rejoined. And we went our separate ways.
At Piasa Creek, I passed the dead deer. It’s been rotting in the tallgrass since mid-July. The mowing crews kept running over it. Buzzards and coyotes did their work, and today it was down to a skull and spine. Autumn-drunk, I was tempted to take the skull. Autumn-drunk, I got the creeps, thinking about my own skull and spine.
While climbing up Stroke Hill, I saw an Autumn-drunk king snake on the asphalt road, awakened from wintersleep and sunning itself—yes, the sun had come out. The wind pushed strong enough up the valley to hold an old man upright in case he fell.
As I turned into my driveway, the sky blackened and thunder cracked. Needles of rain slashed downward just as I stepped onto the porch. Dishes on my kitchen counter had been blown to the floor. Then came marble-size hail, more gales of rain, and now the sun is shining in a perfect blue sky.
I am still Autumn-drunk, even as the forecasters say the temperature will drop thirty degrees this afternoon. I am shirtless, sunbathed, windburned and flat out happy. It won’t last. We know what’s coming. I don’t mean death, but It’s coming, too. My birdfeeder just blew off the clothes pole in the yard. “Blow winds, crack cheeks!” Bill Shakespeare.
It is hard to mourn for drunk drivers. It is oh, so easy to mourn the sobering end to an Autumn Drunk.