Autumn has always been my favorite season. It is a time to celebrate the harvest and life’s bounties during this season. Our ancestors celebrated this time of year with traditions such as the Thanksgiving holiday, Halloween and other harvest festivals. It is a time to reap, to harvest, to prepare for the winter and a time to admire the splendor of nature’s evolving vibrancy. Plus, for me the increased availability of candy, hot chocolate, and apple cider is an additional seasonal bonus! But as I reflect on my childhood, I believe that this preference really originates from childhood experiences I had in the fall on my family’s dude ranch.
Treasures of the autumn season are abundant in both the rural setting as well as most western metropolitan settings. A fall drive down any western city street will display well-groomed foliage that boasts maturing, golden hues. Front porches and windows are likely also decorated with festive holiday decor. It seems to me that people are more vibrant in the fall. Could the increase in layers of cool weather and autumn colored hues in the seasonal clothing have an effect? I, for one, am a lover of sweaters and scarves, and I have a major soft spot for beautifully knit hats and colorful boots and jackets. (I could go on about this for days.) Harvest time is beautiful to behold, but I believe you can never fully appreciate what this season means for people, for the land, and for the soul warming camaraderie that the holidays usher in, unless you have participated in or witnessed the natural beauty of autumn in a more rural setting. For me, that “somewhere” was my parent’s California dude ranch.
Back home on the ranch, a typical fall chore is the raking of leaves. City dwellers tend to see this as a mundane task; annoying but not overly time consuming due to the comparatively small plots of landscaped land needed clean-up. On a ranch, it is a different story all together. In retrospect, I remember feeling annoyed at the amount of endless raking that need to be done. The ranch is about 65 acres and home to over 100 various deciduous fruit trees, nut trees, and ornamental trees. They seemed to all hold their leaves until that last moment prior to the arrival of the first major storm-front. Then, at that pre-determined week in fall, they all let go at once. It rained yellow, orange and red leaves to cover every single square inch of ground on the ranch.
Honestly, it was terribly hard work and I think that I still have blisters to prove it. It seemed that as soon as we had cleared an area of leaves, a gentle breeze would come along and bring down a whole new layer of them. But time has a way of making bitter things sweeter. I will never forget the thrill of diving into large piles of freshly rakes leaves. (It helped that there were literally hundreds of these piles readily available for my destruction). I felt invisible, my blond hair blended in with the leaves like camouflage. I remember my parent’s and brothers laughing as they piled more leaves on top of my head. And soon thereafter, one of our dogs came and joined me in my nest of leaves. Once the leaves were raked, I was allowed to perch on the tractor while someone older and more qualified got to drive the load of leaves to a burn pile. However, I was allowed to pull the lever that dropped the bucket and dumped out all the leaves onto the burning heap. This also worked to satisfy my inner childhood pyrotechnic tendencies. These memories still standout to me as something that I could not have experienced anywhere else; they were a gift of the harvest to me.
Traditionally, harvest time has more to do with farmers than ranchers. But dude ranches are somewhat unique in this regard. While most of them do not sow grains, plant fields, or farm commercially, the harvest is still an important season for them. This is because ranchers are typically very self-sufficient people who live off the land and depend on it in much the same way that a farmer depends on his land. It is not uncommon for ranches to plant fruit and vegetable gardens, fruit bearing trees, and even build green houses. At the Marble Mountain Guest Ranch, there are literally more gardens than people. True fact. (I should know, in my foolish youth I attempted to weed these gardens. All I can say is; never again). On the Marble Mountain Guest Ranch, there are several flower gardens, a lavender field, a large green house, over 70 fruit and nut bearing trees, and a fruit and vegetable garden.
There typically is more produce to harvest, than we have time to effectively gather. But for the residents of Marble Mountain Ranch, the abundance of produce to be harvested is also a blessing. The numerous fruit bearing trees and gardens on the ranch provide apples, plums, peaches, apricots, pears, and figs. Ranch hands harvest what they can and use them to make pies, jams, jellies, juices, fruit leather, chutney, sauces, ciders, vinegars, barbeque sauce, marinades, and more. The commercial grade refrigerators that during the summer months preserve all the groceries for weekly guests, are in fact more full in the autumn, when harvest time has come.
Fall, which is a cozier and quieter time of year, does have one caveat, and it is unique to the marble mountain ranch. Many years before the land was used as a guest ranch, its residents planted an orchard of English and black walnut trees. These trees were planted close together in rows and cover a significant portion of the ranch. But what you would never expect is the way that these tree literally dump the walnuts onto the ground. They are also home to an equally prolific population of squirrels, which at times take an unnatural amount of satisfaction in hurling walnuts down onto the heads of unsuspecting passerby’s. It is a full scale war zone, one marked by the ringing of feet scampering across the corpses of fallen walnuts, the crunching of their shells ringing like gun fire, and the barking and chirping of those furry little fiends. However, there are some who have taken comfort knowing that nature has generously provided an abundance of furry grey targets for practice! Ranches are not a fish-eat-fish type of food chain, they are a squirrel eat walnut, man hunt squirrel world. When the squirrels get aggressive in the Fall, and we get agitated, the squirrel war is formalized and the squirrel diplomatic relations are severed.
The crowning glory of fall on the ranch is the way that the leaves’ changing colors seem to light everything up. The timeless green, which is the trademark of the Marble Mountains, shifts for a small window of time and we see a different side of the mountains we think we knew. Our beautiful, yet conservative landscape is transformed into a blazing sea of red, amber, gold, and purple hues that surpass human imagination. It is truly a sight to behold, made even richer by the accompaniment of the emerald green river, the soft blue sky, and charm of the ranch architecture and gardens.
If the harvest is a time to reap what we have sown, then I think that there is no better place to experience that than on a beautiful piece of land like our ranch home, where people have worked hard for several seasons, and at last can enjoy a change of pace, and taste the fruits of their labors. The ranch is truly a gift, one that keeps giving through the seasons.
By Cierra Cole