The American marten’s body this morning had lost its lustrous sheen my wife Jody and I had marveled at yesterday when our dogs found it in the woods just off our drive. In the eighteen years I have lived here, this is only the second marten I’ve seen. I only got a glimpse of the first one years ago as he darted down off a rock and disappeared alongside the stream.
We have no idea what killed this one, although we have coyotes and fox here who are natural predators. The beautiful creature was probably a fresh kill when we discovered it yesterday. His neck appeared to be still wet from where some pursuer had gripped him. As I read later, the animal’s lustrous pelt was once highly sought after which pushed them to the brink of extinction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Like all woods, ours always contains the remains of one animal or another. When the creature’s full body is still there and has not been eaten, as was the case with the marten, we are moved by the lack of color that seems to have flowed out of the fur in death. The light simply does not reflect the same way on the quick as it does on the dead. When we find what is left of an animal, we are reminded that it is the strength of light that has the power to both delight as well as sadden.
At this time of year, it is perhaps light as much as anything that is so dramatic. We are attentive to it and try to be alert as to how it plays and dances about. Its sweep over the woods where the change of leaf color can be so startling is what we especially look forward to on our early morning walks. One spot of our woods forms a kind of amphitheater and we always approach it with a sense of awe and stop to let the dogs drink from the small run that pools along our path. With the dryness that has set in in recent weeks, the run is but a trickle now and the dogs are no longer as interested in walking out into the stream bed. Stopping by the dried up water hole anyway we pause to enjoy the light that comes over the hill into the forest in thin slices that set the colors set off against the shadows cast by the trees. We stare up into it with quiet and slow amazement.
These woods are full of deer and squirrels that always get the attention of the dogs, thirsty or not. Once as we walked, Abbie, our senior dowager Golden Retriever, spotted a mother raccoon leading her kits along a tree limb not all that high off the ground. As they peered down at us in wide-eyed wonder, we could see their markings and colors clearly without any special lighting to aid us. Their coats shined with a fresh luminescence that was beautiful to behold. When you see them dead alongside the road, they have become diminished creatures drained not just of life but of the vibrancy of color. The dogs can get quite excited by a family of raccoons in a tree but show little interest in road kill. They will dutifully sniff the carcasses but show scant concern now that the animal is gone, left dulled in muted shades.
As Jody paused this morning to enjoy how the early morning sunshine had given the “amphitheater” its special lighting, she said it was one of the reasons that Fall is her favorite time of year. We usually wake early in the dark and then putter about enjoying the crepuscular moments of change as the volume is turned slowly up and trees, stones, and outlines of things not yet known slowly come into focus. If you skip the moment, you can still be struck by the later colors and lighting, but there’s a presence of life about the first revelations that will be missed.
When the dogs made the turn up our drive this morning and we released them from their leads to trot freely the last fifty yards, I mentioned that I had read earlier in the morning that Faulkner had published Light in August on this day in 1932. Apparently he was struggling with a title for his novel about “the idea of a young girl with nothing, pregnant, determined to find her sweetheart.” He was going to call the book Dark House when his wife commented that the light in August was unlike the light at any other time of the year. He reportedly got up, went to his office, crossed off Dark House, and wrote Light in August.
So up I got, too, and thumbed through my old copy of the book. And before I had gone far I found the quote that seemed to tie the various thoughts we were feeling all together. As Faulkner wrote,
“. . . in August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times. It might have fauns and satyrs and the gods and—from Greece, from Olympus in it somewhere. It lasts just for a day or two, then it’s gone. . .the title reminded me of that time, of a luminosity older than our Christian civilization.”
With so much happening on this bright and sunny day in early fall, I think the moments of contemplation have passed as we approach noon and the sun is overhead. It is now time to go bury the marten who deserves better than to lie vulnerable and unattended in the leaves. Whatever trouble finally overtook him will remain a mystery but we feel something special has been taken from our woods.
Although his death is perhaps just part of the somewhat brutal and unexpected way that animals as well as we ourselves come and go, the light is different now.