At Our Best
“October is the fallen leaf, but it is also a wider horizon more clearly seen. It is the distant hills once more in sight, and the enduring constellations above them once again.”—Hal Borland
“Slow, slow!” cried Robert Frost to the fleeting days of October—and we who live in Connecticut know exactly what he meant. Even with his immortal gifts, Frost couldn’t slow things down any more than we can. Maybe his name worked against him. Anyway, October is a month that always seems to pass much too quickly; we barely have time to savor its colors and light before it disappears (and we with it) into the darkening uncertainty of November and the cold embrace of winter.
We do love October while it lasts, though. Polls and surveys invariably show it to be the favorite month of Connecticut residents, and I heartily agree. It’s the one month of the year that without equivocation allows us to feel superior to those who live in other states (especially those who have homes in Florida and spend all winter obnoxiously sending email and Facebook weather reports back north). We are at our best in October. There is a briskness to our step, a delight in our surroundings and a busy energy that in some sense must harken back to our harvesting forebears. In any event, I can’t imagine devoting a column like this to any other month.
Some years ago, I laid out some of the very specific reasons why I think October is the best month of the year in Connecticut. Most of those reasons remain true today, of course:
- It’s too late for mosquitoes, and too early for the holiday hullabaloney to begin. October is a delightful transitional period in the annual cycle, a gentle easing down into the cold and dark (and let’s try not to think about last October’s freak snowstorm). The foliage is just a spectacular bonus.
- Tailgating. One of the most wonderful of all social activities: Congregating near a field or stadium before a football game combines eating and drinking, the outdoors, people-watching and often the renewal of old acquaintances.
- Cider. Is cider the eggnog of October? No, it’s far superior. You can drink more of it, drink it more often, and, unlike eggnog, it actually can be enjoyed with certain foods. Doughnuts, for instance.
- MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA. Call it Jocktober? Once you’re done communing with nature, it’s good to remember that this is the one month of the year when every major sports league is in action. It’s also the month of the World Series Hangover Syndrome, a condition identified only since Major League Baseball and the TV networks decided their Eastern Time Zone fans didn’t matter all that much. With many playoff and Series games now ending around midnight, true baseball fans regularly stumble into work still woozy from the night before. But there’s a camaraderie in the sleep deprivation that’s actually kind of enjoyable.
- Indian summer. October usually provides one unseasonably warm Saturday or Sunday afternoon, one last sweet drink of golden light for us to carry until spring. I have always called this phenomenon “Indian summer,” but learned the last time I referred to it as such that, according to the dictionary, a true Indian summer is “a period of mild dry weather, usually accompanied by a hazy atmosphere, occurring in the U.S. and Canada in late autumn or early winter” (emphasis mine). My informant went on to suggest that “Indian summer” really should not be used before St. Martin’s Day—i.e., Nov. 11.
- Canadian Thanksgiving. It’s celebrated on Oct. 8 this year. How do the Canadians celebrate? I have no idea, but one of these years I’m going to find out. As a big, big fan of our own version of the holiday, I’d be delighted to add another to my calendar.
- Halloween. Skeletons, ghosts, mummies—a holiday about death? With candy? For kids? What’s not to like, except maybe the way adults are increasingly claiming it for their own?
- The smell of decaying oak leaves on the ground on a chilly night and the sound of people walking through them. This spot once would have been reserved for the smell of burning leaves, but those days are long gone (although sometimes I’ll set a match to one leaf and breathe in the smoke just to recall those thrilling October dusks when our whole neighborhood seemed alive with piles of burning leaves, flying sparks and running kids).
Speaking of leaves, Norton has just published in book form a new edition of Henry David Thoreau’s final essay, October, or Autumnal Tints, written as he lay dying in 1862. With an introduction by Robert D. Richardson and watercolors by Lincoln Perry, it serves as a fitting memorial to Thoreau’s final days, and to life and death in general.
We began this column with the words of one New England master, so why not end with those of another? Here is Thoreau, in a subsection of the essay called “Fallen Leaves,” writing on one of October’s many glories:
“By the sixth of October the leaves generally begin to fall, in successive showers, after frost or rain; but the principal leaf-harvest, the acme of the Fall, is commonly about the sixteenth. Some morning at that date there is perhaps a harder frost than we have seen, and ice formed under the pump, and now, when the morning wind rises, the leaves come down in denser showers than ever. They suddenly form thick beds or carpets on the ground, in this gentle air, just the size and form of the tree above. Some trees, as small Hickories, appear to have dropped their leaves instantaneously, as a soldier grounds arms at a signal; and those of the Hickory, being bright yellow still, though withered, reflect a blaze of light from the ground where they lie. Down they have come on all sides, at the first touch of autumn’s wand, making a sound like rain.”
We hate to quote a line of poetry without putting it in context, so here is Robert Frost's "October."
By Robert Frost
O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed 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.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.