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girl kicking up leaves under bright orange maple tree in Jackson Park

Photo essay: An October Odyssey

November 13, 2019  |  Topics: Spotlight, Stories

Story and photos by Eddee Daniel

A misty morning in spring is full of mystery and anticipation; the fogs of fall are shrouds of melancholy and remembrance.

Underwood Creek Parkway woodland in fog
Woodland trail. Underwood Creek Parkway, Wauwatosa

This is the year autumn became an obsession. I wanted to see it all and perhaps went a little overboard…. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It began simply enough, as autumns often do, not with the turning of the leaves—which took their sweet time and more about that in a moment—but with that subtle sense of impending change: things winding down, days getting shorter, time running out.

field of sumac and wildflowers at Nashotah Park
Sumacs and goldenrod. Nashotah County Park, Nashotah

In Wisconsin, as in most places these days, autumn begins not with any discernible change in the season but with the flurry of activity that surrounds the start of a new school year. The leaves begin to follow shortly after, usually, around mid-September. By October we can be pretty sure to enjoy the full onslaught of the changing colors.

a man walking a dog on a paved trail through a woodland in Mound Zion Park
Greenway Trail. Mound Zion Park, Brookfield

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers!” ~ Anne of Green Gables (L. M. Montgomery)

a grassy path through tall prairie grasses at Rolfs Nature Preserve
Prairie path. Rolfs Park and Nature Preserve, West Bend

Photographers know the magic hour of golden light just before dusk, when everything is a little more beautiful; similarly, the magic season is autumn. And October is like a brilliant and climactic sunset just before the dusk that precedes the night of winter. This year, as the school year got underway all around me, September dragged on without so much as a yellowing leaf; my yearning for autumn grew. Moreover, it rained and rained with a dreariness that dragged on right into October.

hikers on woodland trail at Cudahy Nature Preserve
Guided tour. Cudahy Nature Preserve, Oak Creek

In September I created a hiking group on (Urban Wilderness Explorers) and scheduled a hike in early October billed optimistically as “Autumn colors in Cudahy Nature Preserve.” I did so because past autumns there have been spectacular. But we hiked amidst summer-like greenery. Although everyone enjoyed the natural beauty of the place and no one complained, I knew what we might have seen….

autumn red leaves
My front yard in Wauwatosa

And so, I began to seek out elusive signs of a season painfully slow in changing. It became my October Odyssey. My quest, however, was never simply a matter of finding autumn colors. If that were my goal I would have had to go no farther afield than my front yard. Many of the brightest red maples could be found along city streets. My mission, as always, was to highlight the wealth of nature to be found in our area, to discover and showcase local parks during their finest hour.

white tail deer on grass in Estabrook Park
White tail deer. Estabrook Park, Shorewood

“…I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house. So I have spent almost all the daylight hours in the open air.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I was determined to see as many different parks and preserves as I could during October. When some leaves finally did turn, here and there, it made me a little crazy. I feared missing out on that finest hour.

a woman walking through autumn woods
Woodland hike. Tabor Woods Preserve, Caledonia

My odyssey took me all over Southeast Wisconsin, from Palmyra to Port Washington and numerous points in between. When I counted them up on November 1, I discovered I had managed to visit and photograph 42 parks and preserves during the month. Whew! This frenzy, in fact, threatened to diminish the impact of the autumn experience. For it is essential, I believe, to pause for a moment in autumn in order to contemplate the dying of the leaves—which after all does not mean the death of trees. The leaves go out in a blaze of glory, that we may be mindful during the cold winter of their return in spring.

wetland pond reflecting autumn colors
Wetland fantasy. Falk Park / Barloga Woods, Oak Creek

The falling leaves encourage us toward a closer affinity with the earth. They transport us to an earlier time, when life was simpler, at least in our recollection. Few things are as sure to evoke nostalgia than the aroma that arises from dead and drying leaves that billow up around our feet as we stride through them.

two hikers on the Ice Age Trail amid autumn foliage
The Cathedral. Ice Age National Scenic Trail, Monches

I may have gone a little crazy about autumn, but then again, so did the season itself. Who expected that trick or treat prank from Mother Nature on Halloween day? The still peaking leaves covered with snow. Beautiful and ominous. An entire season collapsed into one month. This is the year we went from a warm, wet summer through a brief blaze of fall and into a cold, snowy winter all within October. An odyssey indeed.

Red maple leaves at Mequon Rotary Park
Autumn red. Mequon Rotary Park, Mequon

Maybe it’s another sign of climate change, which suddenly seems to be a topic of daily conversation. (One hopes not too late.) I’ve heard from several sources that the unusual amount of rain was a major culprit in the delay and, yes, diminishment of peak color. For, as you can see in the photos, while some species (particularly the maples) finally did produce brilliant colors, many others went straight to brown. In fact, as of this writing in the second week of November, when the few bright yellows, reds and oranges have faded, there are a surprising number of trees still wearing green.

people fishing from a pier on a lake at Ackerman's Grove County Park
Fishing pier. Ackerman’s Grove County Park, Washington Co.

“A moral character is attached to autumnal scenes; the leaves falling like our years, the flowers fading like our hours, the clouds fleeting like our illusions, the light diminishing like our intelligence, the sun growing colder like our affections, the rivers becoming frozen like our lives—all bear secret relations to our destinies.” ~ François-René de Chateaubriand

man carving pumpkins at Milwaukee County Zoo
Pumpkin carving. Milwaukee County Zoo, Wauwatosa

If Chateaubriand is correct then this year’s moral character seems to be steeped in ambiguity and shrouded in uncertainty. Time has shown that the Halloween surprise was no fluke snowstorm quickly followed by a return to Indian Summer. Winter has established itself securely and “unseasonable” weather seems to have become the new norm. Less than a year ago, in January, I wrote about how late winter was in coming!

I present for you this photo essay, the record of my unexpected and memorable October Odyssey. May it prove not to be a new normal.

girl taking a selfie in Honey Creek Parkway with autumn colors
Selfie. Honey Creek Parkway, Wauwatosa
Seven Bridges Trailhead in autumn colors
Seven Bridges Trail. Grant Park, South Milwaukee
girl kicking leaves under bright orange maple tree at Jackson Park
Joy. Jackson Park, Milwaukee
yellow maple tree in snow at Washington Park
Halloween surprise! Washington Park, Milwaukee

You can see photos from all 42 parks and preserves in my October Odyssey album on Flickr.

Eddee Daniel is a board member of Preserve Our Parks and Project Director of A Wealth of Nature. His personal website is