Gray November, and a cool mist-rain is being wrung from the clouds; the legendary seasonal sparkle that shoots color into the sky has vanished. It is a perfect day for running, however, and I go slap-footing along the tarmac on the way to local woods.

It is also the time of orange-caution, even in local woods, and I am wearing my colors. Hunting season aims me to the conserved expanses of Pennelville, where open sightlines and soft verges along the roads make for good foot-travel.

The trail that runs out from town to Pennelville ambles through The Commons’ high white pines and a mix of pitch pines, oaks, maples and beech trees. Today, its packed dirt is leaf-strewn or water-dark, and under the shroud of the forest canopy, I enter a world of half-light. It is either dawn or dusk; I’ve run to an all-day margin of light along the woods’ edges. I bend my concentration to picking out roots and stones poking through the litter of pine needles and fallen leaves. Such fall running over cloaked or dimly-lit ground invites a fall.

All runners know that a tense upper body produces a lurching franken-gait in the legs; the whole enterprise of moving forward tends toward stumble. I wonder if I should be here.

That’s when it happens: the speckle of dropped leaves begins to glow, especially the yellow ones. It is as if I am running over the pelt of a huge leopard, albeit one where the spots are the light instead of the darkness. The gray above and around me intensifies, and the ground pulses with light, and along that ground everything is evident. I feel that some kindly custodian of the woods has switched on the footlights.

My shoulders relax, and my stiffening neck straightens; my hands, which had been lifted, ready for an imagined tumble, drop too and begin to swing in rhythm with my feet. And with rhythm comes reverie, a rivery feeling of ease and good will and attention. I am paying attention without having to work at it because I am seeing each lit leaf.

I am running simply simply running; each leaf is glowing simply simply glowing.

* * * *

Some years ago, we walked to Concord Massachusetts’ First Parish church to hear writer Robert Richardson and painter Lincoln Perry speak about their collaboration on a new edition of Henry Thoreau’s late-life essay, Autumnal Tints. The book (Norton, 2012) is its own excursion of beauty, its writing and watercolors both transcendent. Each year at this time of year, I reread the essay and look over its paintings.

Thoreau wrote this essay as he lay dying in the winter of 1862, and so one might expect a funereal look at autumn and life. Instead, Thoreau pens an exhuberant, life-affirming piece that underlines his youthful insistence that “surely joy is the condition of life.” Richardson goes on to point out that the three-part volume containing Thoreau’s essay, Perry’s paintings and his own observations is united by its “common aim to make you, the reader and observer, see.”

As if to reinforce this aim, the book is a convenient size for carrying out into the woods, an idea implicitly encouraged by a final section called “Personal Leaves”: “We have left room for a few leaves of your own choosing,” they write, and instructions for preserving those leaves follow.

What caught my attention that evening, as Richardson read from his accompanying essay, was Thoreau saying this: “We cannot see anything until we are possessed with the idea of it, take it into our heads, and then we can hardly see anything else.”

* * * *

Each yellow leaf. As I run in the dark woods, I can hardly see anything else.

A little later in his essay Richardson wrote, “‘Absolute attention is prayer,’ said Simone Weil. Thoreau would have understood.”

Just so.

Sandy Stott is a Brunswick resident and chair of the town’s Conservation Commission. He writes for a variety of publications. His recent book, Critical Hours — Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, was published by University Press of New England in April, 2018; Tantor Media released an audio version of the book in February, 2019. He may be reached at [email protected]

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