Signals from the home planet

The luxurious honeyed vistas created by changing leaves lure thousands to the Western North Carolina mountains every autumn. Some tourists even take personal offense when the trees don’t ripen on demand, claims Cindy Carpenter, an interpretive specialist at the Cradle of Forestry (a popular educational center near Brevard).

But blazing foliage is merely the most in-your-face sign of autumn’s onset in these parts. The forest Carpenter sees every day shows changes far less obvious — though no less magnificent, to her — which occur far below the brightening tapestry of trees.

“I always like to focus on plants,” she says, “the way the ferns change” — anywhere from a deep yellow to a pretty brown, depending on the species — “and also the look of the [sun]light.”

Forget tawny oaks and scarlet sourwoods: Autumn glows in a fascinatingly complex array of colors, she stresses; certain currently blooming wildflowers, such as asters, come in a spectrum ranging from pale yellow to dark purple. More festive are the clusters of gutsy orange berries that adorn the mountain ash. (Nonhikers, take note: These appear prolifically near the entrance of the Pisgah Inn, located at Mile Marker 408 on the Blue Ridge Parkway).

Carpenter is especially fond of the newly burnished buckberry bushes, which look similar to blueberry thickets. Many people, she notes, view this shrub as “a nuisance, because it can keep young trees from growing. But in the fall, it turns this beautiful red-orange.”

In gentler times, people were perhaps more appreciative (or at least more aware) of these subtle alterations, Carpenter believes. The naturalist recalls reading an ancient description of goldenrod, in which the author urged the reader to pretend he was “very tiny” — the better to commune face-to-face with the sunny autumn blossoms.

“That older literature was so romantic,” she muses.

And speaking of tales, you can dismiss much of the popularized folklore involving cold-weather predictions — or so claims Hal Mahan, who runs the Compleat Naturalist, a Biltmore Village store for outdoor enthusiasts.

“Many of those [superstitions] are nonsense,” he pronounces, citing as an example the bands on a woolly worm, which he says have nothing whatsoever to do with the severity of the coming winter.

Mahan prefers more immutable signs, like the shifting skyscape (Cassiopeia is one constellation now moving into view). Scanning above the tree line, it seems, can provide a considerable education for those with sharp eyes. V-formations made by migrating Canada geese are a well-known sight this time of year. And some of our local feathered residents are now taking minivacations of their own, reveals Mahan: Watch for the junco, a sparrowlike bird identifiable by its white outer-tail feathers. Though a resident of WNC’s loftier peaks during the warm months (Mount Mitchell is a favorite roost), they now seek warmer valley climates.

Humans celebrate the season by hacking maniacal grins into unsuspecting pumpkins and playing dress-up. But what about the earth’s less theatrical mammals? For many four-legged beasts, autumn is a very serious time of year, says a representative from the Pisgah Center for Wildlife Education.

This particular naturalist declined to be identified, but was useful in diluting another deeply cherished myth: Black bears, she insists, “do not hibernate. They just go into a very deep sleep, and they can get up in the middle of their sleep to eat.”

It turns out that only cold-blooded creatures, such as reptiles, can lower their body temperatures enough to qualify as true hibernators. As you read this, hordes of them are scuttling and slithering their way to dens and mud holes, in search of snug winter retreats.

“You tend to see a lot more snakes this time of year,” concurs Bob Fay, a naturalist at the WNC Nature Center on Gashes Creek Road. Since some of them are rattlesnakes and copperheads, the Center gets plenty of worried calls this time of year from people who spot them in their yards.

But these avid serpents have more on their minds than a suburban ambush. “They’re just passing through,” he promises, on their way to cozier territory.

A randy buck is another sure sign of the approaching winter, according to Fay. Deer mate in the fall, so the naturalist didn’t need a calendar to tell him it was autumn when he observed a normally skittish Nature Center resident turn suddenly “frisky and bossy.”

“You can tell right off when they get ‘in the rut’,” he notes delicately.

Mosquitoes are almost a memory by now, but some folks may be spotting more larger insects, such as the praying mantis. It’s not that mantises and the like weren’t around in the summer — they just weren’t big enough to see clearly. If you do happen to spy one of these fragile, imperial creatures, take time to pay your respects: Mantises lay their eggs in the fall, after which they promptly die, Fay reveals.

If you simply must view autumn in its traditional abundance, you could do worse than checking out the Wagon Gap overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway, a favorite detour for the currently migrating swarms of monarch butterflies. These enduring charmers travel from as far away as New England, hell-bent on reaching Mexico before the cold hits. Why are they so fond of this particular mountain pass?

“Well, they’re not real agile flyers, and it’s a good place to pile on through. … They tend to find the path of least resistance,” Fay reports with a chuckle.


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