The Rural Life
A Private Month
By now, the wind has emptied the milkweed pods. The goldenrod has gone mousy. All the leaves are down, except for a few tenacious oaks and beeches and an ornamental dogwood that is a reprise of the entire season. Each tree looks more singular — and the woods more intimate — in this bare month than in the thickness of summer. October’s memory seems a little lurid from the perspective of mid-November. The sumacs down by the road might have been reading Swinburne the way they caught fire and expired, vaingloriously, in last month’s light. But now that drama is over, as if the year had come up hard on a plain, Puritan truth and was the better for it.
I used to hate November up here — a month of freezing rain and inconclusive light. It brought out my most urban sentiments, a reluctant longing for the enclosure of the city, its containment and warmth and distraction and all those lights. Up here we are no more vulnerable to the prevailing wind than we were in August, when the trees still had leaves, but it feels as though we are. I still can’t get over the size of the November night. And yet my old disgust with the month is somehow slipping away.
I suppose this is partly the snobbery of place. October’s vivid colors are a public spectacle. You can take them in even through the tinted windows of a chartered coach lumbering down the road. You can track the peak of the foliage as though it were just another commodity fluctuating in price. But nobody really chronicles when the lights go out in the goldenrod or when, all at once, the most luminous color in the landscape becomes the green of the moss that grows on the ledge outcrops in the woods. These are private gratifications, the kind that come not from passing by but from staying put.
I have been replacing fence up here this fall, and the other morning I walked along the western property line, where the next stretch of new fence will go. This is the edge of the hemlock woods, where the ground is either bedrock or fungus. A few yards further in, there is a gorge with an intermittent stream. Most of the time the water goes underground well above our land, leaving the rockfall dry. But after heavy rains the gorge sometimes flows with the sound of a heavy wind. That morning was one of those times. In that somber place, as dark and deep as the month we’re in, a stream was now rushing, not in flood, perilously, but working its way down the rocks, carrying the broken light of the sky with it. Another day or two, and the gorge would be dry again, leaving me to imagine the subterranean course of that stream.