Letter from Willow River: Investigating the phenomenon of October Light

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
The Willow is the river that runs through my life more than any other these days.

I had to go to town the other day, grumbling, on some errands and stumbled into an afternoon made unexpectedly luminous by the transformations of October Light — that seasonal shift of wavelengths, or so it seems, that makes the world glow from within.

Every inch of Wisconsin country road was remade from the leaden familiar to newly gold, and the city streets of Hudson, too. You know what I mean: how the colors deepen, the edges harden, the details sharpen this time of year until suddenly you see not a forest but a series of trees, not a mass of glowing foliage but leaf after individual leaf.

It was the sort of afternoon that can make you regret every moment spent indoors, and my own regret edged toward resentment as I watched a couple of unbudgeted couple of hours draining away, in pained awareness that every minute spent waiting at, say, the boot-repair shop was a moment I wouldn’t be walking the Willow River.

The Willow is the river that runs through my life more than any other these days. It winds for more than 50 miles across my home county of St. Croix, rising just north of the county line, near Gaylord Nelson’s birthplace in Clear Lake, and ending at the St. Croix River on the line between Hudson and North Hudson.

The Willow’s lower reaches offer fine trout fishing, and the upper portions to the east of me are pleasant, flat, farmland stretches with grassy banks, ideal for snowshoeing in the stretches preserved for public access by Willow River State Park.

In between, the park offers access to Willow Lake, a paddling gem backed up behind a dam, as well as a series of riverine trails and a waterfall of North Shore caliber that’s barely a half-hour drive from downtown St. Paul.

I reached Willow Lake just in time to see three trumpeter swans drifting down the far shore, abnormally bright against the water’s deep, pure blue. I never look at water or the sky these days without thinking of how I’d render it in watercolor, and this time the solution was simple: cerulean blue, straight from the tube.

Clear meaning, obscure origin

October Light is an oft-used term and one of natural clarity, I think, but its origin is obscure.

It’s a perennially favorite title for paintings of fall landscapes. And it is, of course, the title of John Gardner’s 1976 novel, which is where I first encountered it, although I don’t remember much actual discourse on the subject of autumnal sunshine. Ditto for the Charles Simic poem of the same title that I’ve had in a folder since clipping it from the New Yorker in 1995.

“October Light” is also the title of a 1987 book of poems by one Jeff Tagami, I learned yesterday, as well as the name of a band that plays, if I have this right, Croatian Christian ska. And it was the headline for two editorials on seasonality that I published in the Star Tribune,  in 1996 and in 2005, which because of their subject matter proved to have unusually long life spans  under refrigerator magnets and  in the memories and blogs of complete strangers.

But tracing the source of the term is not as easy as finding the headwaters of the Willow River.

I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary and came up empty in a phrase search. However, I discovered a reference to “Octobrist,” referring to members of either a Russian revolutionary group or, later, a Soviet Communist youth organization, and to “Octoberist,” a word found only in the letters of Edmund Burke and taken to describe “a person whose views or actions are suggestive of October weather.”

That’s me: a card-carrying Octoberist.

The big news at Willow River State Park this autumn is that the stairway at the falls has been repaired and reopened, after being taken out of commission for more than a year by the toppling of a massive white pine. Visitors can once again undertake the long, vertical climb to the platform that hangs out over the water and offers a vista stretching many miles to the west, with the smokestack of the King power plant a mere needle on the horizon.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Willow Falls

You can hike to the overlook from several of the park’s entry points but my favorite is still the route that follows the water from the Nature Center and beach on Willow Lake via the Little Falls and Willow Falls trails, with a portion of campground loop as a connector.

Surprising solitude

It’s not quite two miles each way, over a combination of paved, gravel and packed-sand surfaces that are flat to lightly rolling, and I was surprised on such a perfect day to have it nearly to myself, in terms of other people. I hadn’t gone more than a quarter-mile into the wooded portion before encountering four adult deer browsing at the side of the trail, indifferent to my passing within just a few yards.

I could hear pileated woodpeckers and barred owls higher up on the hillside, and saw two osprey, I think, but I had left my binoculars home. They don’t really help in the appreciation of October Light.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
Cedars overlooking the falls

I passed from sun to shade to sun again, watching colors change in the river below and the leaves overhead as the sunlight flattened, hurrying a little now with the realization that I might be getting to the top of the stairway at sunset, which would mean hiking back to the car in the dark.

And I motored along I thought about the late Bruce Watson and his enthusiasm for the subject of October Light back in the fall of 1996, when I’d phoned him in search of a meteorological explanation for its magic.

The main thing, he said, is that atmospheric pressure at our latitude is highest this time of year, because the atmosphere is closest to a uniform temperature over land masses and ocean, which creates a high-pressure belt that circles the earth in an unbroken continuum rather than a series of cells. Also, humidity is very low and so are the levels of airborne dust, because sinking cold air sweeps it away.

MinnPost photo by Ron Meador
The sun sets over Willow river.

Taken together, he said, these factors create the clearest skies of the year, permitting sunlight to travel farther without interference and thus seem brighter.

Though I had made a personal pledge never, ever to write an editorial that concluded with a boilerplate call for further inquiry, Bruce’s comments moved me to break it just one time:

This explains a lot, but some key questions remain unanswered: For example, is the sunlight softer in the mornings or the evenings? By the creek or by the lake? Which glows with more apparent candlepower: the scarlet maple leaf or a yellow one? How many more perfect days will 1996 provide?

These are important matters that merit further study. 

Maybe you’ll find them worth your study, too, in the autumn of 2014. And you don’t really need to drive to Willow River to start investigating, although that wouldn’t be a bad idea.

October Light is where you find it, and for the next couple of weeks you can find it almost anywhere.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/17/2014 - 12:37 pm.

    Some autumn poetry in prose and pictures. Thank you!

  2. Submitted by jason myron on 10/17/2014 - 02:03 pm.

    This is a beautiful time of year.

    With the sun lower on the horizon, coupled with the colors of the leaves, it just bathes everything in an ethereal glow. Bask in it now as November is by far the ugliest month.

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