Seeking Autumn Maples

I had big dreams the year that Oscar was born to do all the things that I loved to do, only with a baby, including hiking in the Dandenongs and seeing the autumn maples. Well… Things didn’t quite go to plan. The reality of being the parents of a newborn was quite unlike anything we could have imagined, and we were both (naively) a little surprised to discover that a baby, despite being small in size, did not just slot into your existing life. Instead babies are tiny catalysts of change, remaking the person you thought you had evolved to be into someone totally different, which is of course by design.

Anyway, back to the autumn maples.

The result of this little moral tale is that Dean and I did not go to see the autumn maples with Oscar in his first year. We went to lots of other interesting places in Oscar’s first year, including the Great Ocean Road Redwoods, Lorne, spots in the Dandenong Ranges, and Darwintwice. But no, autumn did not see us hitting the trails in 2019.

Then 2020 rolled around, and with it a global pandemic and the threat on the horizon of imminent closures of parks and limits on non-essential travel. In fact as I sit here writing this a few weeks after the fact, we would not be able to pack our boots up tomorrow and head up to the Dandenong Ranges to live this day again. The thought of this makes me quite sad.

Still, sadness never did that much for me, so I shall try for the moment to focus on the trip that was, this glorious day in the sun. We knew that within the next week or two we would not be so free to just head away from home so we packed all the essentials we would need for an entirely self-sufficient, socially distant hike in the woods and off we went.

Even with all that bad news banking up behind us in the ‘real world’ it was a lovely day. We were through the township of Olinda, parked up and on the trail with the sun still freshly risen behind us and the maples were calling. Of course, first we had to find them, which did not prove to be as easy as I had first remembered. In fact it took quite a few wrong trails, snack stops and even a moment where we very nearly gave up before we found them. Our secret grove of maples, resplendent in their autumn glory and ablaze with the colours of the season… except they weren’t.

Yes, we were too early in the autumn and the maples hadn’t made their wardrobe change just yet. I looked around the grove, sadness welling inside me. In all likelihood, I was going to miss the maples this year. I would miss the leaves changing in this beautiful spot, miss the autumn hikes, miss feeling the fresh cool winds in my face as we conquered new hikes and explored new places. Instead we were going to spend the autumn and the winter within a few blocks of our home, limited and languishing while we waited for this pandemic to pass.

I know, these are first world problems and out there are people who are suffering and struggling and dealing with things much worse than something as trivial as missing the leaves changing colour on some trees in the forest. But dammit, in the moment as I stood there with the maples all around me still in green, I felt a whole lot of unfair and a whole lot of helplessness. Then I took a deep breath, and I smelt the earthy moistness of the soil, and I heard the birdcalls in the distance and the sound of Oscar babbling away with Dean back on the trail, and I realised that I could do nothing to change either situation. I couldn’t wish this pandemic away, and I certainly couldn’t wish the autumn leaves into being. So I turned around, and went back to reality.

And do you want to know something?

In that reality, even though I was sad and a bit helpless, we actually had a lovely day. Oscar loved being in the forest and learning to ride on our shoulders and when we went back to the car there was even a little coffee caravan set up selling coffee, which was called the Oscar Vintage Coffee Van. And as we walked back to the car to head home on what would almost certainly be our last trip out of town for a while we did pass one little maple which had got the autumn memo early, and had burst into a flame of fall colour worth being proud of. Little warm leaves caught in the breeze that blew the changing chill over our skin and through our hair. A tiny piece of autumn magic.

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