Friday, November 14, 2014

Embracing November

November is not my favorite month. October’s colorful brilliance culminates in the pageantry and sugar high of Halloween, and then we wake the next day and it is dreary old November. It is dark, the landscape devoid of color, the air damply chilly. It is too cold (at least for me) to ride a bike or embark on an enjoyable jog, yet it’s not quite ski season, and the twinkling lights and joyful chaos of Christmas seem still far away.

Embracing November with friends.
Many people of adequate means and time flee their northern homes during November, heading south to warmer, brighter locales. The rest of us dig out our extra layers, lament the shortening days, and muddle through this in-between season.

At least, that’s how I’ve viewed November in the past: an in-between time to be endured. This year, however, I am determined to embrace November.

Instead of decrying the loss of color from the hillsides and light from the days, I’ve made a point of noticing the intricate subtleties of the season, looking more closely at the gifts of nature that exist beyond summer’s flamboyance and fall’s color explosion, enjoying the downtime that comes between seasons.

With the mixed bag of weather typical of any time of year in northern New England, I’ve managed to take advantage of a few of the warmer, brighter November days outside. The kids and I spent an afternoon tending to some final gardening, pulling out the remnants of our late planting of sweet peas and harvesting the last row of cold-stunted carrots.

In our final homage to growing, blooming things for the year, we dug cylindrical holes into the garden outside our large living room window and dropped the papery bulbs of daffodils and crocuses there. These, we hope, will evade hungry deer and rodents looking for a cold-weather nibble and burst forth in happy spring color next year.

The day after our bulb planting, the mountains in view from that window garden were snow-capped, earning their White Mountains moniker. The high-elevation blanket of white was a reminder that on the other side of in-between November comes winter, with its glittering holiday shine and snowy splendor.

We’ve also visited friends a short drive south this November, exploring new fields and woods, passing old cellar holes and their long-forgotten stories: a hike with a different view and good company. We’ve wandered some familiar trails close to home, too, with other friends – a posse of kids happy to be out of school on a sunny day and oblivious to the scarcity of color and the fact that it is dark these days at 5 o’clock. Happy oblivion, it turns out, is contagious – at least for an afternoon.

Even on the gloomy-sky days, when I need a break from sitting at the keyboard, I have headed into the woods out the back door with the dog, who is always willing and good company. With the trees denuded of their leaves, the landscape, though stark, is more giving. Without a canopy of foliage blocking the way, woodpecker excavations are revealed, formerly hidden birds’ nests exposed, and various hollows visible high in the trees. I speculate some of these may house the barred owls we hear calling, “Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoooah,” back and forth in the dark of night throughout the year.

Amid the austerity of November’s backdrop – that dullish palate after leaf fall, but before snow fall – the season’s sparing color, if you look closely, is like a gift before winter. Deep crimson blackberry canes rise vividly at the edge of the tawny field. The tiny, scarlet tips of “British soldiers” lichens show bright atop their gray-green base on boulders and logs.

Faded gold beech leaves cling resolutely to their branches to provide a bit of muted color and an almost cheerful rustling in the late fall breeze. The black-splashed trunks of white birch pop through the drab backdrop. Sulfur-shaded tamaracks, whose summer green blends inconspicuously into the surrounding forest, stand out now in their late-fall yellow.

Our spindle tree adds a little bit of lovely to November.
The brightest bit of color, reminiscent of summer’s endless and cheerful hues, is from a small tree at the edge of our porch. A European spindle tree, I think it is, planted long before we arrived at this house. From its branches, which still hold their red-tinged leaves, hang small, bright pink, vaguely heart-shaped lobes, each surrounding an impossibly orange orb. These, I’ve learned recently, are the tree’s seeds: lovely, but poisonous.

I pass these unlikely bits of brilliance each November day as I come into the house from my various travels. It seems odd to find such warmth of color when I am shivering in my thick coat. Beyond their splash of pink and orange lies the field in its pale November shades of worn brown and faded russet, and beyond the field stand the mountains and their white peaks: summer color and the winter that will soon envelop us in white, both bordering on November’s in between.

Original content by Meghan McCarthy McPhaul, posted to her Blog: Writings From a Full Life. This essay also appears as Meghan's Close to Home column in the November 14, 2014 edition of the Littleton Record.

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