Timber Rattlers, and the Seven Sisters

Reading and photograps by Robert Towe

From my nature journal, September 20: Today I’m hiking the Mountains-to-the-Sea trail, across the high Appalachian ridges northeast of Asheville. A splendid blue day, the upland hardwood forest rushes with warm late-summer wind. At this elevation the canopy of green leaves is already dying toward amber and gold against the azure sky. Sunlit edges are brushed with traces of blood red, as if a great wounded animal, bitten and bleeding, was fleeing in the cool nights, leaving drops of blood behind her.

In my work as a forester, I am used to finding my way through deep woods, off the trail. Since boyhood, I have loved walking among large trees. So today I angle off the well-worn path, and wind up through an outcropping of boulders defining the craggy spine of a steep ridge. Carefully climbing over tumbled rocks and deadfall logs, I am watchful for Timber rattlers coiled and camouflaged in patches of dappled sun. Rugged habitat like this is home to these shy, reclusive creatures. Like many of us, I was raised to kill every snake I saw, but have overcome that prejudice founded on unreasonable fears. I now appreciate their sinuous beauty, and leave them to their delicate, furtive lives.

Far above, flying over the high dark fir-jagged ridges, two ravens squawk and soar on long currents of wind. Each fresh gust comes crashing and drumming through the trees with multitudes of acorns, dropping through layers of thick summer leaves to the forest floor. It is the heaviest mast in years for several oak species: white, northern red, scarlet, southern red, chestnut and black oaks. In years of lean mast, the acorn crop is diminished by a hard, late-spring frost. These nuts are rich in proteins, fats, carbohydrates and minerals, and are a mainstay in the diet of wild animals, large and small. For untold centuries, the native peoples used acorns as a dietary staple, first leaching out the bitter tannic acid, then drying them in the sun, and grinding the mast to a nutritious flour. The coarse meal got them through many winters.

September 22: The Autumnal Equinox. Tonight at 10:29 pm EDT the Sun slides southward across the equator, somewhere out over the Pacific in broad daylight. In one silent instant, the Sun leaves the northern half of the planet to six months of colder nights, longer daytime shadows, icy wind and storms. Another summer has spun away from us, like a caravan of warm carnival lights that packed up and went south for the winter.

I walk out into brisk darkness, wanting to sense something of the globe’s movement as it ticks and turns the planet into another autumn. Night wind falling fresh from Ontario fills the black trees with strong rivers of cool air. It’ll be in the forties before dawn. The chirping of crickets slows down. Their tiny see-sawing southern knees are getting chilled with the crisp breath of Canada. Soon they will be silent.

I feel a quiet thrill reborn, looking out into the vast clear night heavens. The wide eastern sky sparkles autumn stars. My eyes adjust and open to the dark. And there as I had hoped, just above the flickering silhouettes of windy bamboo, shimmers the Pleiades Cluster. It glitters like a broken bracelet of icy diamonds, in an infinity of velvet indigo. For me, the re-appearance of these “Seven Sisters” always marks the beginning of Fall. Binoculars reveal a host of suns twinkling like a swarm of frozen fireflies around the star-fire cage of seven prominent lights. Beholding them, something faint but wondrous in us rekindles. Our untamed spirits perennially long for Never-Never-Land.

Gazing into that far, clustered mist of stars, my mind makes feeble mathematic attempts to grasp the distances. Inconceivable trillions of miles---many years at light speed---span between us and this exquisitely suspended celestial jewelry. Ancient streams of light four hundred years in transit enter our eyes this first night of a new autumn on planet earth. As if the long-traveled beaded strings of Pleiades photons began pulsing toward us just after sunset! Our perspective is inevitably geo-centric---earth-centered. But the sense of wonder wants to ask questions: how many countless planets in our galaxy view the Seven Sisters from different angles, enjoying their three-dimensional beauty in a variety of configurations? Do other beings impossibly far away look up at the twinkling cluster with a sense of reverence and awe? Are these hydrogen stars perhaps even deified for such radiant beauty and majesty? Can we imagine seven great Suns spinning across our sky?