Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Color of November

 In the waning days of November, I cleared out a small area in my front yard.  Only then did I consider whether shrubs might be planted so close to the year’s end.  I thought that Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd might advise me, so I consulted their lyrical A Year at North Hill:  Four Seasons in a Vermont Garden (1996).  Landscapers Eck and Winterrowd were introduced in a post on asters nearly a decade ago.  In their chapter devoted to November, I found no inspiration about what to plant, possibly because that far up in the northern latitudes planting was now out of the question.  But I was inspired by Eck and Winterrowd’s characterization of November which prompted this post; I surround myself with a group of wonderful nature writers (and one cartoonist who is an expert on human nature) and see how their views of November might inform my own.  (Note:  Fossils don’t make an appearance in this post.)

I’ve come to appreciate that, here in the mid-Atlantic and further north, November is a special month, a transition month like no other in the calendar year.  The contrast between what came before and what the latter days of November offer is unique; we move from harvesting summer’s bounty and basking in October’s dramatic colors (the wash of reds, yellows, purples, and oranges in the deciduous trees as they mark the passing of their season of growth) to a time of hunkering down, living more in darkness than light, and often mourning an apparent loss of color in the landscape.  The change is quite abrupt and, for many, a depressing taste of a winter to come when a look back, around, and forward offers no relief.  Grayness has arrived.

That is, precisely, what Eck and Winterrowd write of November:

We could never say about this somber month that it is our favorite in the garden.  As the year winds down to its close, gray days occur with greater and greater frequency - not cloudy and not sunny, but simply gray.  Gray is also the predominant color of the garden and surrounding woods.  Most of the fiery splendor of October has fallen, revealing the great boles of trees and tanged architecture of deciduous shrubs, now an endless play on one monochromatic color.  (p. 125.)

So, for these Vermont gardeners, November equals gray.  (Though I must admit that perhaps in my area, hundreds of miles south of North Hill, late November may not be quite as gloomy.  That will emerge in a bit.)

New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast agrees with Eck and Winterrowd.  Her cartoon titled November in the November 21, 2022, issue of the magazine features three shell-shocked individuals, typical denizens of her cartoons.  They are standing on a city sidewalk, mouths agape, hair in frizzy explosion, and arms nervously shaking.  They are clothed in well-worn jackets clearly guarding against the cold, and the scene around them is awash in gray.

The first person complains:  “It’s only 4:15, but it’s PITCH DARK!”

The second warns:  "Something is seriously amiss."

The third laments:  "It's the end of the world."

Now that is a truly dire, truly gray view of November, one brought on, of course, by the loss of daylight saving time.  But this month, even without that time change, would still be a period of shortening days and lengthening nights.  Darkness encroaching steadily.

Yet it’s not only this transformation from a time of abundance, light, and color to one of grayness that November effects. The month literally provides a degree of profound clarity to our landscape.  Writer Verlyn Klinkenborg, from the vantage point of his Vermont farm, captures that truth when he describes November as “this bare month.”  That he also shares my sense of the transition we’ve undergone is made plain when he adds:  “October’s memory seems a little lurid from the perspective of mid-November.”  (The Rural Life:  A Private Month, New York Times, November 19, 2006.)

But this is not the apocalypse, no matter what the Chast cartoon characters might think.  That clarity offers a chance to consider changes to your landscape.  Eck and Winterrowd write that November has days inviting one outside in the light of a “lowering sun,” “to evaluate plantings that show their structures better for having been stripped, and to make ambitious plans for the spring – what to move and what to order.”  (p. 126, 127.)

The opportunity to view your landscape, or just your garden, as a whole and consider its immediate and long-term future is an integral feature of November, something which triggers very different responses.  Planning for action in the spring helps with the transition from fall to winter, and seed catalogues are a tool of choice for this.  This is quite passive compared to a more robust embracing of that opportunity to chart the future of the land.  Consider what the visionary conservationist and ecologist, Aldo Leopold writes in his seminal book, A Sand County Almanac (1949), about this eleventh month of the year as it plays out on his 80-acre farm in the sand country of central Wisconsin:

November is, for many reasons, the month for the axe.  (p. 68.)

Yes, he, too, sees November as a month of opportunity with a focus on the trees that, with the loss of their leaves, stand in sharp relief, making it clear where their branches intersect and what the arc of their growth will be.  He writes, "Without this clear view of treetops, one cannot be sure which tree, if any needs felling for the good of the land."  (p. 68.)  Some will obstruct others, some will ultimately destroy others.  Given the finality of taking an axe to a tree, Leopold lays out at length how he passes sentence, exploring the various biases that may influence his decisions. Ultimately, he concludes, "The wielder of an axe has as many biases are there are species of trees on his farm."  (p. 70)  Thus, November to such a wielder of the axe in the landscape is a month of planning, foresight, and being, oh, so, deliberate in this action.

November also offers an invitation for a different kind of contemplation, for taking a moment from the rush of living to look broadly and closely at the natural world around us, not because we want to change things, but because we move beyond the boundaries of what we might control.  As he writes in A Year in the Maine Woods (1994), biologist and naturalist Bernd Heinrich deems November a month for stalking deer.  Yet, though he journeys through the month armed with a rifle, rarely is a shot fired, rather he spends his time hiking through the woods on and near his old Maine homestead and farm, or sitting high up in a tree.  All the while he’s observing the scene around him, registering the activities of the animals, particularly the birds (his books on birds are wonderful), studying the trees and plants that grace the woods.

My sense is that, by taking the opportunity in November for a close observation of nature, there comes a leavening of the Chastian dread that accompanies the month’s plunge into grayness.  The relief can be subtle, hardly dispelling the gloom, but still there nevertheless.  Heinrich captures it well.

From my perch in a tree, and walks to and from it I see the predominant gray and white tree trunks, and the kaleidoscopic pattern of browns from their fallen leaves.  It is a rare event indeed to see a deer on a deer watch, but until I do I enjoy seeing the woods – particularly the stunning display of mosses and lichens that are now an open book.  Before, when the canopy was green with leaves, and the ground was covered with herbs and small seedlings, these mosses did not stand out.  Now they shine with luminescent brilliance.  (p. 136.)

The month can have surprising color.  Some of that is reflected in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals.  She, the sister and an inspiration for poet William Wordsworth, is a sensitive observer of nature in the Lake District of England.  Her journals are fascinating, mixing accounts of the mundane – who’s visiting whom (poet Samuel Coleridge was a close friend), and who’s ill or recovering – with spellbinding passages describing the natural scene around her.  (Journals of Dorothy Wordsworth, 1971.)

Hers is a gentle view of nature, a positive, upbeat one.  At this time of the year, colors are there, though often quite muted.  I like the entry for Sunday, November 15, 1801.  The image she creates of a landscape seeming at rest is delightful (as are the place names).

I walked in the morning to Churnmilk Force nearly, and went upon Heifer crags.  The valley of its winter yellow, but the bed of the brook still in some places almost shaded with leaves – the oaks brown in general but one that might be almost called green – the whole prospect was very soft and the distant view down the vale very impressive, a long vale down to Ambleside – the hills at Ambleside in mist and sunshine – all else grey.  (p. 58.)

There’s the grayness but also some counterbalance to it.

I am taken by what she writes on Sunday, October 23, 1802, though it’s not an entry for November.  I think it merits quoting because she uses a word that so perfectly captures what is happening at this time of year.

It is a breathless grey day that leaves the golden woods of autumn quiet in their own tranquillity, stately and beautiful in their decaying, the lake is a perfect mirror.  (p. 162.)

Decaying, perhaps that’s the fundamental dynamic at work in how one might come to view the month.  This process starts in October, signaled by the burst of colors from the tree leaves, and continues deeply into November.  I wonder if it may be less the dullness of the encroaching grayness that worries us, but, rather, the subconscious recognition that this is a time of decay, things dropping away, breaking apart.

We are conditioned to view the month as monochromatic but, even when writers such as Wordsworth note the grayness, they punctuate their descriptions with notes of other hues.  I do think that, in this month, there is brightness and richness, if only you, like Heinrich, are open to it.  So, I went in search and found wonderfully sudden splashes of color adorning some of the paths down which I wandered.  Particularly striking are deep, robust blood reds.  Consider these seed clusters of sumacs (horn or smooth, I don’t know which) that I came upon in Brookside Gardens (a 54-acre site in the public park system of Montgomery County, Maryland):

Or the winterberry bushes outlined with their berries (also at Brookside):

Or the Christmassy palette of the St. John’s Wort in my own garden, capped by plump red berries:

Though November marks a fundamental transition from abundant growth to a time of decay, it offers more than just despairing grays.  It’s also a month of clarity, offering the chance of taking stock and looking forward.  It invites a closer look at the landscape and the chance to be moved by unexpected bursts of color.  There’s certainly enough here to keep one moving forward.

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