Daniel Orazio, Commentary Editor
Ohushed October morning mild, / Begin the hours of this day slow. / Make the day seem to us less brief. / Hearts not averse to being beguiled, / Beguile us in the way you know. / Release one leaf at break of day; / At noon release another leaf; /One from our trees, one far away. –from “October” by Robert Frost
I once heard it said that there are four reasons people visit New England: winter, spring,summer and fall. Though each season in my homeland is incomparable, it’s my guess that fall provides the region’s biggest draw.
What is meant by “fall,” of course – what most everyone means by that word so apropos – is October (late September too, for Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and the rest of far-northern New England). Needless to say, I don’t think New Yorkers book their country weekends in Connecticut’s lovely Litchfield County for late-November. No, what visitors and natives alike want to see is a hillside all ablaze with what must be the greatest brilliance of God’s handiwork: fierce, refulgent reds and yellows, oranges and golds. And for that, you come in October.
New Englanders, as you might gather from Frost’s words, wish that October would proceed more slowly. The colors are breathtaking; the air is crisp but not bitterly cold, and is redolent of fallen leaves (brown leaves have easily the best smell, you know). Vigorous physical activity feels awfully good, warming one amidst the chills. Pumpkins abound. The grass is still green and the trees are not yet bare. As the nights grow longer, one thinks to make a fire to curl up and read by; in the meantime one watches baseball.
When, last month, I saw October again for the first time since the Bush administration, I was unprepared for the many sights and sensations, most of them subtle and even indistinct, that I hadn’t thought of in four years but which came back to me, having been only half-forgotten all this time. In, of all places, the small city of Torrington, Connecticut, I was reminded of autumn’s essential warmth: There is no more inviting sight I know of than that of a drooping tree in front of a handsome white house in an old-fashioned neighborhood, the tree dropping its yellow leaves to cover a green and welcoming front lawn. The message, I think, is clear: Welcome to this home, to our home.
So October is easy to love. Not so, November. By Thanksgiving the days have really grown short – the air some degrees colder – and the trees stand naked. Worst of all, winter is nigh: several months of bone-chilling cold, black ice, snow-shoveling and cruelly little daylight. In October it is possible to disbelieve in the coming of winter; November kills that illusion. Old Man Winter will be back again, once the November rains have ceased.
Something that’s been hard for me to take, but which I’ve had to accept, is that my all-embracing love of New England’s four defined seasons is shared in full by precious few New Englanders, and is basically inexplicable to many Texans and Californians.
You see, I love November.
In the month’s favor I could make the inarguable point that it is quite like October, just a little darker and a little colder, with more leaves browning on the ground. Now, are these changes bad? To my, I suppose, cold-blooded soul, the answer is no. If it’s pleasant to wear a sweater in October, it’s still pleasant to wear one in November. If the leaves smell good and are a delight to crunch in October, then they still have appeal in November. If the quiet and intimacy that October’s increasingly chilly and dark nights force on us is cozy and peaceful, then November’s nights and mornings are, if anything, more cozy and more peaceful.
Those who deprecate November seem on their firmest ground when they lament the trees shorn of their leaves. Yet is there not an especial beauty all their own in the limbs of a bare deciduous tree reaching up to the heavens, rising skeletal against the sky? You know what I think; and in fact I would go so far as to say that the bare trees of November hold their own quite well with the burning, blazing trees of October. They may be even more beautiful.
I mean this all quite sincerely. Let me enlist Bobby Frost in my aid. Appearing at the beginning of A Boy’s Will, Frost’s first collection of poems, is “My November Guest,” a short work that captures some of the austere beauty of the eleventh month. The poet speaks of “My Sorrow,” who “thinks these dark days of autumn rain / are beautiful as days can be” and “loves the bare, the withered tree.” She thinks he has no eye for “the desolate, deserted trees, / the faded earth, the heavy sky, / the beauties she so truly sees,” but he does: “Not yesterday I learned to know / the love of bare November days / before the coming of the snow.”
Before the coming of the snow . . .
Fall is a transitional season, bridging the space between hot and cold, and November is a transitional month, bringing us from a chilly, vibrant place to a frigid, barren one.
And so November fulfills admirably its allotted place in the cosmos. A human life is filled with transitions, and because of these changes – this variatio – we can understand better where we’ve been, and think more deliberately about where we wish to go. All profound change, and maybe especially the change into freezing temperatures and 4 o’clock sunsets, shocks us out of our static ways of thinking and living. The turning of the seasons reminds us of our own mortality; we too will one day wither, and our bones will grow bare – but who will dare to say that we have lost our beauty?
All autumn is tinged with melancholy – the most radiant October midday presages decline and death – but we need not get too glum: Springtime’s rebirth, material and spiritual, hides just around the corner.