Like so many little red fires, the bearberry leaves glow fiercely on the wet, brown-green forest floor. Despite the gloomy dripping day that is heavy with grey clouds, the colourful celebration of fall has spread through the woods like the passing of a torch.
The throbbing red dots of lowbush cranberries wink at me from their drab neighbourhood of mossberries, making me stoop down and slide the cold tart berries into my mouth instead of my berry bucket. It is really the highbush cranberries that I am after in this festival of colours.
Onwards through the firs and spruces, their delicious scents mingling with the smell of soaked rotting needles and leaves and the pungent spice of Labrador tea. Drinking in the intoxicating, heady air, I tell myself that this would be the only fragrance I would ever bother to buy.
Far off, deeper in the woods, the chorus of ravens craws again as they have been doing for the last few days. Maybe intent on their own celebration, that of a life lost which will feed them now. I wonder if the soul of a living being doesn’t inhabit all of the body, and if the spirit of the animal that has died out there might not live on now in the multitude of beings that are coming to feast on it, if it might not play in the wind with the ravens now, howl with the wolves and scuttle through the leaves with the martens, feed on the sun with the trees and mingle with Yukon River to flow into the Bering Sea.
The dark forest opens to a blaze of willows and poplars, alight with yellow and peach leaves that glow all the stronger in the absence of the sun. The dogs fan out through the open understory now, droplets of water glinting on their fur. I can already catch the musky smell of the highbush cranberries down by the creek, the smell that I can never decide on: is it actually pleasant or does it have too strong of an old socks flavour to it?
Then it envelopes me, the wet leaves a variation of wine reds and scab colours, and I begin to pick the almost translucent berries. The dogs take only a brief interest in it – highbush cranberries are about the only type of berries they disdain and that we are left to pick in piece. A small thunk as each little cluster of berries falls into my pail, broken-off stems and leaf fragments soon sticking to my hands and the sleeves of my rain jacket.
Slowly, I work my way through the chest-high plants, their branches bending softly out of the way as I make my way further down the slope. Another raven flies over, her wingbeats echoing the sound of the berry branches swishing against my clothes, causing the dogs to look up and lope along a little ways behind her. As my fingers stiffen with the wet and cold, my pail slowly fills up. I’m already crisscrossing uphill again, away from the creek, still finding berries that I overlooked before, until I have enough.
The dogs rush ahead, eager to get home now and dry off. My eyes skip again from the tree tops to the ground, sipping at the riot of colours – all the red sunsets, orange forest-fire skies and deep yellow sunlight of the year stashed away, distilled and now released again. By the time we get home, my fingers are still clammy although I don’t feel cold. I light the stove in the sauna before I put the berries away; I don’t have enough for much jelly yet and will have to go out again another day.
When the sauna is hot, I go in and surrender to the heat. A pot of hot water with spruce tips steams on the stove top, bringing back the aroma of the fall forest to me. My mind wanders back to the ravens again and to the way lives are lived and ended in nature. How final a person’s death seems in comparison: burned or locked away in a coffin. So much more dead.
When eventually my feet and hands also glow warm, I rinse and dry off, feeling at the same time vibrant and relaxed. Already I feel winter hovering somewhere over the northern horizon and think of the summer I will hold captive in glass jars. The jelly from the berries will glow softly with that drunkenness of fall from our pantry shelves, its taste tart like that of a good cherry jam.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.