An ode to stick season

After a morning of house cleaning and farm chores we looked up at the clear sky and decided that it wasn’t too late for an adventure. Leonard Harrison State Park, in nearby Tioga county, provides easy access to the Pine Creek Gorge; what the locals refer to as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon. The valley there is 800 feet deep and nearly 4000 feet wide. In comparison, the Grand Canyon averages 10 miles wide and its greatest depths plunge more than a mile beneath its rim. So, ours is a small Grand Canyon to be sure.ย There was blue sky above when we reached the trail head to the Turkey Path.ย As we descended the gorge however the clouds rolled in and by the time we reached the creek bed it was clear that north central Pennsylvania was well into Stick Season (Stick Season is a phrase new to me and one which I learned from reading a post by fellow photographer Stephen Gingold. He described it as that time of year known for its lack of woodland color). I had been looking forward to this little adventure for more than a week and was crushed at the dearth of color and photographic potential with which I was presented. I scanned the drab vista, a near-colorless, late fall, pallet. I noticed that a few cairns had been constructed some distance from the shore. There was nothing for it, I walked into the rapidly flowing creek to get closer to my only available subject. The water was cold and the rocky bottom seemed more than usually slippery. Joanna and Darcy had gone for a walk and were out of sight. I walked slowly, and with care. When Joanna returned, we agreed that evening was approaching and, although our descent into the gorge hadn’t taken long, getting back to the rim might be a bit more arduous. We started back. On the way, Little Fourmile Run descended noisily along the walls of its nascent gorge. Although Stick Season had, I thought, rendered the surrounding wood colorless, the sandstones, siltstones, mudstones and shales that formed the valley walls lay exposed, alternating in subtle slices of gray, red, brown and green pastel. Perhaps this place hadn’t been devoid of visual interest after all. Perhaps I should have stopped to remember that there is more to nature’s beauty than vibrant spring and summer color. If I had, I would have been able to enjoy the colorless beauty of Stick Season. For as I stood in the creek I knew there was beauty in motion, all around. There was motion in the water which surged around my ankles. There was motion in the trees which recorded movements of the wind which traversed the valley to the south. As I stood there was beauty in the sounds which surrounded me. The sounds of the wind. The sounds of rustling leaves. The sounds made by the water as it flowed, for there is no such thing as perfect and unperturbed stream flow; boulders, rocks, cobbles, stones, gravels, and sands all impede progress and eddies and waves produce the chaotic music of moving fluid. And, there were smells. Smells of wet soil and of decaying organics, and of the clean air itself. And, there was texture. Texture in all that was alive, all that had died, and all that lay dormant. All of these inputs, though they lacked that very particular modality which we sense as color, combined to provide a complex sensory message. Inputs came from the stream, the riparian transition to woodland, the wood itself, and from the skies above. What was I thinking when first I thought that Stick Season lacked interest? Interesting things are always there to delight us. To find them we must learn to adjust the ways in which we perceive this place in which we live.



35 thoughts on “An ode to stick season

  1. So, first things first: what did you have on your feet? Were you wearing a pair of watertight boots or were you ‘enjoying’ the feel of cool fall clear water pushing against your skin? I enjoyed spending time with you there and wonder, if it had been me, how long before i would have been able to leave. There’s something about those moments, isn’t there? You just know you are in a place that’s going to leave an imprint on your permanent memory and so you drink deeply, using all of the senses: sounds, sights, smells as well as the other sensations. All go through that narrow gap from scratch to permanent. One of the benefits of age is that we are better able to sense those times when they are able to occur. As such we get the chance to enjoy the moments all the more. Life’s good!

    • The answer (which you expected I think) … sneakers and socks! Brrrr … it was cold indeed. The ride home wasn’t very comfortable either! I had another of just the sort of experience you described … yesterday. We were visiting some friends. Joanna was busy so I took a bit of a walk. Ended up in the basement of a concrete slab silo taking pictures. I was so wrapped up in the moment, exposures, composition, what the final image might look like, what I could say about it, the smell of the place, the echoing sounds of birds fluttering above, the light, all of it … that it never occurred to me that what I was standing on might not actually be the concrete bottom. After years and years of use most silos are filled, several feet deep at the bottom, with lots of stuff that is mostly unmentionable and (in some instances) not very nice to be breathing (mostly bird manure … you know, histoplamosis and all that). When it finally occurred to me that the ‘substrate’ might be acting like the top layer of a creme brulee … I took the last in a series of long exposures (of course I did … I wasn’t going to ruin the series simply because of the threat of death) and tip-toed back from whence I came! But here I am, still alive to tell the tale. Picture to follow … stay tuned. D

    • So you’ll hear a sound and this stimulates the visual center? This has never happened to me but I have heard it described. Wow. I wonder whether it occurs during the normal course of your day or whether the events may be associated with dramatic events and sounds like a smoke alarm, squealing tires, laughter? Sensory inputs are pretty darn complex. When one considers the proceeding required to input and then prepare the proper output … it’s no wonder that sometimes signals intended for the downstream auditory system may find their way to the downstream visual system. Totally expected I suppose in a highly complex computing system such as ours … but always a surprise nonetheless when one hears about it! Thanks. D …. PS: That reminds me … isn’t it just plain strange that our brains are put together in such a way that they turn inputs of electromagnetic radiation into impulses that allow us to ‘see’ the colors of the rainbow? What if, instead, those inputs were connected to sound centers … and we were totally blinded (visually) but heard color instead (this would be the reverse of your experience)? Or felt it somehow? Or tasted it? Now there’s a thought for a sci-fi novel if either of us ever got around to it!

      • I’ll have to add that I haven’t (at least not yet) experienced the kind of full-blown synesthesia I’ve read about in which a person might hear a certain sound and see a certain color associated with it. My long experience as a photographer (and probably yours too) has me on the alert when I’m in nature and my mind is questing for things to photograph. It’s during that receptive alertness that I sometimes hear a sound, for example the rustling of leaves in a tree, and immediately get the urge to photograph it. As you said, the brain’s a complex and sometimes (often? always?) a strange machine.

  2. What a wonderful narrative – I was right there with you, experiencing it all! To convey all those sensory details produced the colours for me, in my imagination. I’d never heard of Stick Season – we’re not quite there yet here in our corner of England – we’re still waiting for some of our leaves to turn. Tree bark has its own beauty and diversity, I’m pretty sure you’d come up with some amazing close ups to prove that Stick Season is anything but boring.
    Loved the cairn picture in the water. Just how wet did you get, capturing that one? ๐Ÿ˜„

    • ! My sister always responds to images like these in the same way … wondering about my wet feet! To tell the truth, I was pretty uncomfortable all the way home. Joanna wonders about me sometimes and why I don’t bring proper boots and a change of socks if I know that there might be the possibility of wading. I did think about bringing dry socks … but concluded that they wouldn’t have helped much with wet sneakers and pants. And, to tell the truth, I never really know I’ll be wading until I am! Joanna would remark, If he only had the sense that God gave Geese. The fact that I apparently have less sense than geese says quite a bit about how senseless I truly am. I won’t argue. D

  3. This is very poetic! Or like music! I also like stick season and the brown colors. And after all – even in summer it is ‘stick season’ in the middle of a forest consisting mainly of tall conifers!

    • Right! I suppose your Austrian forests are mostly tall and coniferous. Ours are primarily deciduous, so the contrast between spring/summer and fall/winter is dramatic. Summers are bright, leafy, green and warm, while winters are dark, leafless, monochromatic and cold. Perhaps that is why spring is always so welcome. Those first leaf buds are a true delight. Thanks for checking in. D

      • I should better check some statistics on Austrian forests – but I feel there are more conifers … or maybe it is just my bias – I really should take more photos ๐Ÿ™‚

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  5. Beautiful, and you dropped into mindfulness almost effortlessly David … you’re becoming a pro ๐Ÿ™‚ These shots are beautiful and with your words they capture the slow decay back to earth of this season … sliding towards a well earned rest!

    • I consider you the model for thoughtful nature writing Seonaid. You are the one who gives nature personality, character, and a face. It is you who finds it so easy to talk of nature as your good friend, one with whom you’ve sat and talked … so much so that you can speak to us about her, knowingly. You have been my model for this genre of writing. If I have penned something which strikes a note with you, then I have done well indeed. D

      • I think you have surpassed me here David, but thanks for the compliment … I do love to connect with nature, and of course having been away in foreign lands have been connecting with something which feels so very different to the face I know … I’m slowly coming back into the fading light of a Scottish autumn … but the bright glittering sun of the tropics has soaked deep into my bones ๐Ÿ™‚

        • Although I would disagree with your first point (that of having surpassed you), I will take our comments as a call to both of us to keep on writing! What say you? D

  6. Despite knowing that you have a distaste for this word, I can think of no other to describe your post: it is soulful. I use it to indicate great appreciation for the writing and the images. I particularly enjoy the richness of this sentence: “The sounds made by the water as it flowed, for there is no such thing as perfect and unperturbed stream flow; boulders, rocks, cobbles, stones, gravels, and sands all impede progress and eddies and waves produce the chaotic music of moving fluid.”

    • You are absolutely on target M … it does make me feel uncomfortable when you describe my writing as ‘soulful.’ I mean, I like it very well indeed that you have done so, but it makes me uneasy. Have we had this discussion before? Do gender roles dictate the ways in which I’m expected to write? Do gender roles dictate the ways in which I’m expected to think? And, is it thinking and writing outside of those socially-prescribed limits that makes me feel weird? I’m not sure. That being said, I very much enjoyed being able to compose this post and I’m so glad you enjoyed reading it. D

      • We have discussed gender roles before, and this is the undercurrent here, isn’t it? The post is “full” and very rich, reflecting something of what it is to be complicated and human. It refuses to be contained within a limit. (Rebellious!)

        When I encountered philosophy and literature of 18th C western culture the “great” thinkers of the age argued that biological science supported a division between masculine and feminine intellect. Rational thought was considered the domain of the masculine; God was considered the most rational of beings, and men most like God. Women, on the other hand, were thought to be fanciful, and prone to hysterical madness. The scientific reasoning behind this was our sex organs. Women, having the womb (the hyster) on the inside of their bodies were prone to influences of their sex organs, were more controlled by their bodies than their minds, and much more like animals than they were like God.

        Women who were so widely considered to be given to fits of hysterical madness–a product of a detached and freely-floating womb–that women often acted the part of being mad, whether they were mentally ill or not (Elaine Showalter is a feminist theorist who has written on this). Women were thought untrustworthy, because of their uterus and life-giving capacities. Men were considered inherently trustworthy, based on the idea that they are most like an imagined super-being that lives in the sky and tries to kill his “children” off in homicidal fits of rage every once in a while.

        It would be interesting to discuss exactly how deep gender divisions go, and how much of those divisions are based on biology and neuroscience, and how much on culture and politics. While it may sound, from the above, that women got the shitty end of things, I can only imagine what it would be like as a man to be told to model your behaviour on something that doesn’t exist. It seems the basis of definition can always shift away from you, and it would feel like being perpetually stuck in an argument with a neurotic whose perceptions are neither reliable nor real. Not only humiliating and degrading, but also volatile.

        • Indeed. You have pointed to the most intriguing point of all when you say that it would be interesting to discuss exactly how deep gender divisions go, and how much of those divisions are based on biology and neuroscience, and how much on culture and politics. So, it seems clear to me that that is your prompt for graduate study … there’s your question. D

          • I think you’re right. Now, how long would it have taken me to notice my own question, if you had not pointed it back to me? ๐Ÿ™‚ !! And why is it always so difficult to find that focus among the many thoughts that swirl around in our minds?

            • In all seriousness … this is a fascinating topic, to be sure. There’s is lots here that I do not know but wouldn’t it be interesting to look at gender division across culture, thereby controlling for and eliminating genetic influences? I mean, if you assume that all people are the same, at the genetic level … and they are, with a bit of variation here and there … then any differences we see in the way in which gender roles are established across cultures (roles played by men, roles played by women, and roles played by both men and women) then the conclusion we must draw is that these differences are entirely separate from biological influence and are entirely dictated by differences in history (very ancient and more recent) and culture? Right? Perhaps this is common logic which has escaped me. In any event … there are lots and lots of really cool questions out there to consider. Pick one! D

              • There are lots of things to think about. I was contemplating a post on my experiences of the last few years, and in particular what it felt like to live in a community that is designated a mental illness cluster. It was not a society so much as it was a mob. We might be able to say this was living without culture. I wonder what questions would begin to arise if I took these broad topics of our discussion and considered them in connection with mental health hygiene. Truly, what is the value of culture, and at what point does it begin to harm us? How can our growing knowledge of neuroscience and evolutionary biology help us question cultural practices, and make better choices about how we live in community with one another?

                  • One good source of information of studies in the field is A Handbook for the Study of Mental Health: Social Contexts, Theories, and Systems. Editor Teresa L. Scheid, Tony N. Brown. Cambridge University Press. 2009 — little behind the times already, but I found some formal study has been undertaken on the social impact of mental illness, although mostly in family units. I will need to do some more digging around.

  7. These images really do capture the last few fleeting days of fall! The waterfall looks familiar! Have you photographed it before? Looks like Katniss might be hunting in those woods! Love the way you captured the static cairn within the fluid water. Hope you managed to keep your feet dry this time!

    • I’ve not photographed this particular waterfall before. Perhaps it may be said that ‘If you’ve photographed one waterfall, you’ve photographed them all.’ Katniss? I’m at a loss at the reference (sorry … pop-culture and I don’t talk much!). And finally, ‘dry feet’ what are those? I had to negotiate the steep trail back and then drive all the way home with very wet sneakers, socks, and wet pants to the knees. It was pretty uncomfortable, but felt really good when I was able to finally change my pants and socks! When will I learn? [That was a rhetorical question, for we both know the answer is ‘never.’] D

      • Katniss Everdeen is the heroine of the Hunger Games Trilogy! You’ve obviously never read them. I think you would enjoy them. I couldn’t put them down!! Anyway … she’s an outdoors-woman and a huntress. Feels more at home in the woods then anywhere else!

  8. You’ve put together some fine thoughts about the sensory joys of a woodland experience at any time of the year, David. Even better though that it describes the time of year that most find depressing and devoid of beauty … a beauty that takes seeing rather than just looking. I like both images and am glad to see a cairn in the river and I really enjoy seeing the waterfall. I have mentioned that I generally don’t include cairns in my images but, as with my swirl the other day, you have made me think of visiting a local site where the river usually has dozens of them.

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