Down on the Farm: Pedal perfect
Late September is the superb time of year in the north, the time of color, harvest, apples, rich green grass under the lights on the football field, and crisp air morning and evening.
Next week the sun will set directly at the end of the roads going west. Autumnal Equinox. The glare will strike you blind at about 6:45 p.m. Don't say you weren't warned. And look out for deer!
One pleasure seems unique to this season: It can be so breezelessly still and quiet in the cool of the mornings and evenings that you can hear for miles.
One sunset last week, I rode bike out on the tar. No breeze. I pedaled as slowly as I could without falling over. One car came by in 45 minutes as the sun set.
Crickets of all kinds oscillated in the ditch. A mile to the north, I heard my swans, who were forced to leave my pond for lack of water, flap and honk in their new home. As I passed Erickson Lake, our unofficial name for a forty-acre swamp on the DNR land across the road, a hoot owl cooed in the woods.
The slightest breeze would have obscured most of the animal sounds. But in the stillness, the owl's hoot fanned out across the glassy water and dissolved like the last note of a hymn in a cathedral.
Doves flew from the electric lines, their wings squeaking. A handful of ducks rose up out of the reeds in the ditch, whaaaack, whaaaack, whaaaack. Made me jump.
So enamored was I with the scene that I got up before sunrise the next morning, jumped on the bike and got back on the tar to hear the morning sounds, too.
Cattle ballered two miles to the east. The trumpeter swans ballered back from a mile away, in the same key. Possibly the cattle fooled the swans into thinking they had friends over the hill. Their ballering isn't that different.
In a stubble field, some Sandhill cranes croaked their rubbery croaks. When they fly over, they look like tinker toy teradactyls. Stop to think of it, their ratchety croak sounds just like if you twist a tinker toy stick hard into one of those spools.
It is possible to enjoy all of this nature for one unnatural reason: Pavement. The tar road allows me to coast slowly on the bike, swooping back and forth between the yellow lines, lost in a perfectly idle idyll, silent but for an occasional pebble popping off from the side of the tire like a flicked marble.
We're lucky in rural northwestern Minnesota: We have nice roads, most of which don't go anywhere important, so they aren't very busy.
On these still autumn evenings, sound carries. You can hear a car coming from four miles off, which gives you time to hide in the ditch if you don't want to be noticed.
I could walk down the road, but that's work. And even the little noises of walking can obscure nature's sounds and scare away the wildlife.
Biking real slow is ideal. It is effortless. And I have done it all of my life. Or at least since they tarred the road past the farm in 1976.
People used to litter more than they do. For selfish reasons, I brought a garbage bag along on bike rides to collect aluminum and tin cans. The cans were going to make me rich, but I never got around to turning them in.
The highlight of my collecting career came when I found an unopened can of Hamm's beer in the ditch. I had not yet tasted beer. Oh, the temptation.
I pulled off the tab. Beer foamed all over me and stunk to high heaven and I thought it must be old.
It wasn't old. It was just warm beer. Today, the smell would make me thirsty. Strange how that works.
But one thing hasn't changed: my zest for riding bike real slow on the tar road on these rich, still fall evenings.
After sunset, the air feels like cold clear water as you pedal home in the descending dark. When I step back in the house, it feels warm and cozy. Not hot chocolate cozy, but maybe warm cider cozy.
The fly in the ointment? These gnats! They are everywhere! Is there a dead animal somewhere in the house where they breed?
Am I the only one? Or is this just the indoor price we pay for the outdoor perfection of late September?