Category Archives: Autumn watch

A rural moment

Camp Meeker, California

The retreat center I’m staying at for a couple of days is in the middle of second growth redwood woodlands. This morning, I walked around a bend in a trail , and there were two mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) standing in the middle of the trail They both froze and looked at me, although they were obviously not particularly afraid to see a human being. I froze and looked back at them. The three of us stood there frozen for four or five minutes until the mule deer decided that I was either not a threat, or stupid, or both. They twitched their big ears, and started browsing again.

They were bending their heads down and eating something that lay on the path. There was no greenery for them to browse on; all I could near them see was old redwood cones; so I couldn’t figure out what it was they were eating. I watched their jaws move sideways as they chewed. Little bits of stuff fell out of the side of their mouths as they ate. They were not very attractive eaters.

At last I got bored, and started walking again. They looked at me as if surprised that I was moving, and then bounded away in a leisurely fashion. When I got to the place where the deer had been, I saw what it was they had been eating: acorns from the tan bark oaks (Lithocarpus densiflorus or, according to some taxonomists, Notholithocarpus densiflorus). The bits of stuff I had seen falling out of the sides of their mouths were bits of the outer husk of the acorns.

Autumn watch

A gentle rain is falling outside the door.

This is September, when you expect the Bay Area to be sunny and hot; but sometimes a little bit of fall rain arrives early. But yesterday we had thunder storms move through, big dark clouds moving across the bay, and just enough rain to disturb the summer’s accumulation of dust on my car. When I got up this morning, the sky was still cloudy — not just low stratus clouds, some fog bank that had been pushed up a few hundred feet above the ground, but real clouds. The sun tried to peek through the clouds in the middle of the day, but towards sunset the clouds had grown thicker.

And now it’s raining — not much, not enough to need a rain coat or even an umbrella, but just enough slow gentle rain to settle the dust and stir up smells from the earth and the plants. The air feels damp and warm. Surely it will get hot and dry again before the winter rains come in earnest, but in the meantime I’m enjoying the gentle rain.

Autumn watch

We got up early so we could take a walk before we started driving up to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. It was unusually calm; in places the water of the harbor was almost completely smooth, in other places it was barely riffled by the smallest breeze; the barges, cranes, fishing boats, and heavy machinery along the Fairhaven side of the harbor were beautifully reflected where the water was still. Some blue sky began to show in the west, and it grew bright enough to cast shadows. Carol decided to turn back about halfway to Fairhaven. A dozen or so Buffleheads bobbed in the water between Pope’s Island and Fairhaven, the black and white of the males showing brilliantly in the growing sunlight. A couple of roofers stood on the flat roof of the old motel on Route 6, ripping up the old roofing; supposedly the new owner of the building is going to renovate it, and reopen it. I kept walking, but by that point my mind settled down and stopped thinking.

Beech nuts

Yesterday I wound up walking past the fast food joint at the corner of Elm and County. No, I didn’t go in to the fast food joint — even though I crave fatty food with the onset of cold weather, I’ve sworn off fast food for a while because of what it does to my digestive system (you don’t want to know). I walked under the old beech tree that grows along Elm Street across from the fast food joint, a big old tree that somehow survived the decline of the neighborhood. Its branches spread out over the sidewalk, and the sidewalk was almost entirely covered in beech nut shells. A fat Eastern Gray Squirrel idly hopped towards the tree, just out of my reach, keeping a weather on me the whole time. I thought, That’s what I should be doing for fatty food instead of fast food hamburger products, I should be eating nuts.

But then when I was in the supermarket tonight, I forgot to buy a jar of nuts.

Autumn watch

Out, as usual at this time of year, about an hour before sundown. I went out behind our building to look at our little raised bed of Swiss chard. The cold snap of the past few days has pretty much conquered the chard. One or two plants were still standing up, but the rest had fallen over, and the leaves had a dull look, no longer the bright shiny yellow-green of early this week. I planted the seeds too late, and even though it stayed unseasonably warm up until a few days ago, there weren’t enough hours of daylight to allow the plants to flourish. They never got much bigger than three inches tall. Late last week, Carol said we could eat them even though they were small. Lulled by the weeks of warm weather, I decided to wait. And now the plants are pretty close to dead.

I got to the Fairhaven side of the harbor, and walked into the parking lot of the motel right off Route 6. I was walking towards a black pickup truck when I saw a small head peering over the hood at me. It was a Mute Swan. It had extended its neck all the way up, until it was nearly five feet high. When I got around to the other side of the truck, there was its plump white body waddling around on big black webbed feet; its neck, incredibly long when sticking straight up, accounted for about two thirds of its height. I walked past it quickly — Mute Swans can be aggressive, and I didn’t relish the idea of having an absurd-looking bird pecking me in the chest. I walked down to the edge of the parking lot, and there, squinting into the setting sun, I saw a flock of Buffleheads — the cold weather had finally driven some of the wintering waterfowl to the ocean.

On the way back, I walked through the park on Pope’s Island, startling a couple dozen gulls into flight. They settled down and fluffed out their feathers. As I passed the little playground in the park, there was a used condom lying on the ground, torn and disintegrating. I thought, What a hell of a place to have sex, so cold and bleak. Then I thought, Well maybe that condom has been there since summer when it was warm. Then I thought, Even if it was warm, it’s still a hell of a place to have sex. Much better to have sex in a nice comfortable bed.

I paused briefly to watch a reefer ship being unloaded at the Maritime Terminal. A couple of people were standing around, maybe on break, dressed in coveralls and hardhats. I remember those first really cold days of late fall, when you’re working an outdoors job — it was always tough for me to get used to it. Then after a few days you get accustomed to it, and it feels good. I miss working outside in winter. True, when it gets really cold, well below freezing, it wears you down. Even then, it’s better than sitting indoors all winter long, except for the hour you can steal to get outside and take a walk.


Between one thing and another, I didn’t get outside to take a walk until it was almost four o’clock, and already getting dark. It was windy, and overhead dark clouds were blowing across the sky. As I got down to the waterfront, the sky cleared out in the west, and across the harbor suddenly the town of Fairhaven was all alight, the towers of the Congregational church and Town Hall and the Unitarian church, a big white ferry docked at the Steamship Authority maintenance terminal, all shining bright against the dark clouds. I looked up, and the bottoms of the clouds were being lit up here and there with rosy light. I walked down to Merrill’s Wharf and along the New Bedford side of the harbor all was in shadow, except the smokestack at the old power generation plant, and a big American flag flying over one of the housing projects glowing redly. The light shining on Fairhaven faded out. The clouds overhead glowed orange-pink, then pinkish-gray, then they were just gray. I walked back home, and I could feel the cold air coming in, and I took big deep breaths of it — dry cold air from the north sweeping out the damp, warm, moldy air that has been hanging over the city for days. I could feel myself coming alive again with the new air, and I hoped for snow. It was nearly dark by the time I got home.

Autumn watch

It has been peculiarly warm this fall, even warmer than you’d expect in this era of global climate change. The days are short and sunset comes at 4:30, but the air feels like late spring, not early November. Because it’s so warm, the wintering birds haven’t bothered to come to the ocean yet — they’ll stay inland as long as there’s no ice on the water.

There may not be many wintering birds on the harbor, but there have been a number of freighters coming into the Port of New Bedford. In the middle of the day, we heard a huge deep horn sound once down on the waterfront, and when we walked down to the waterfront in the late afternoon, we saw Brazilian Reefer (IMO 8300377), a big refrigerated cargo ship, berthed at the end of the State Pier. I looked her up online, and discovered that she measures nearly 475 feet in length overall — she took up the entire end of the pier, and even stuck out a little bit at each end. We stood for a while and watched as they unloaded the ship. Being a bird nerd I guess I’d rather look at wintering birds, but it was pretty good watching two of the four ten-ton derricks on a 475 foot ship unload fruit onto the pier where waiting forklifts scooped them up and put them into waiting semi trucks.

Autumn watch

Thursday was the last day of our neighborhood farmers market. It was sunny, windy, and cold. The farmers from Mattapoisett weren’t there; “They said they had nothing to sell,” said Mary, the farmer from Dartmouth. Mary told me about the cafe she’s going to open in Fall River, where she’ll sell her baked goods. “Will you sell produce and eggs?” I asked. “Well, maybe some eggs,” she said. Carol and I bought apples, turnips, squash, and eggs from her. We said goodbye to Mary until July, and then we walked home in the bright sun, talking sadly about how we will miss the farmers market.

Although the farmers market has gone for the year, some of the winter residents have finally begun to return to New Bedford harbor. As I was walking to Fairhaven today along Route 6, I noticed there were some four dozen Brant along with the usual flock of gulls and Mallards that feed where a big culvert drains into the harbor. I stood there in the sun for a while, ignoring the four lanes of traffic rushing along behind me, watching those four dozen small geese who had finally arrived at their winter residence from wherever they spent the breeding season.

Autumn watch

On Monday, I noticed that there were no fishing boats moored at the wharf next to the Maritime Terminal building. When the big reefers come in, this is where they tie up to offload whatever perishable cargo they’re carrying. I kept on walking down the waterfront, and as I was standing on State Pier, I could see a good-sized ship slowly coming through the hurricane barrier. Since it was a nice sunny fall day, I decided to stand there and watch it come into New Bedford harbor. A police boat raced down the harbor to escort the ship to its berth. When the ship got close enough, I could make out the name on her bows: Nova Zeelandia. The tug Miss Yvette was attached to her stern, and the tug Jaguar circled around her bows, occasionally tooting its whistle at the big ship. One of the water taxis sped out towards her, presumably ready to take one of the officers to the Customs House. The swing-span bridge swung open, and I watched long enough to see the tugs and the police boat escort her through, while the little water taxi sped after them all, trying to catch up.

Yesterday evening at about ten o’clock, Carol and I were driving back into New Bedford across the harbor on Route 6. We passed the Nova Zeelandia, all her lights on, still unloading her cargo at that late hour. It looked like they were unloading boxes of fruit — perhaps oranges or clementines from Africa (you can track her position on this Web site, which shows her leaving Morocco sometime before 11 October, and passing by the Azores). Forklifts were running back and forth, and several tractor-trailer rigs were backed up to the wharf, ready to take on pallets of the fruit.

We don’t seem to have many of the big ships coming in during the summer, but one of the signs of autumn is the return of the reefers, offloading fresh fruit for New England markets.

Pictures of Nova Zeelandia here and here.