Saturday, while Brenda was in class at the Arbor Day Farm complex in Nebraska City, I toured the southern half of the Loess Hills Scenic Byway across the river in Iowa, from Council Bluffs to Hamburg. It had been extremely windy the last couple of days, so the air was hazy with harvest dander and river dust. The sun was obscured by high thin clouds, and the combined effect was a washed-out day with faded color and dull light.
Of course, by November, the autumn colors have also dulled to deadish ambers and umbers. While not common, it would not be abnormal to have had a bit of snow by this time. But this year there wasn’t even the desperate white of early snow to add variety to the scene. The hills were grim with the season.
This is not to say it was a depressing day (in spite of the wind, which I do tend to find depressing). There is a big difference between resignation and determination and the hills expressed a determined grimness that comes with this particular change of seasons. Late September and October can be carefree weeks. The brutal heat of late summer is gone; the leaves blaze in glorious oranges and yellows; the ice and snow are still far enough in the future to not be of real concern. The height of autumn beckons us to pause and enjoy the glorious respite.
At this latitude, November, while not yet a winter month, is different than October. Winter is increasingly plausible with each storm that blows out of the northwest. The vibrant colors, which call for carefree enjoyment, have faded to the background, as if nature herself is bracing for the frigid blasts to come.
November’s tone is set by the month-end harvest festival. And in this context I am loathe to call it “Thanksgiving,” although it is certainly a day of thanks. That word, “Thanksgiving,” implies the carefree autumn of late September and October. But this is not October; this is November. It is the season of necessity – of harvesting corn, of picking apples (before the changing season steals them from us), of cutting firewood in order to stay stone-hearth warm on a blizzard cold day, and filling the freezer with venison, and turkey, or pheasant so that there might be something to eat during the lean days between solstice and equinox.
This is the grimness of November. There’s no sense of despair, but rather of necessary preparation as long as this season of preparation lingers. Neither is there a sense of celebration as long as corn remains standing in the field or the wood pile remains too small to stand against the bitter arctic blasts of January, February, and even into March. But if this necessary work is completed, the grim necessity of November leads to the satisfied celebration of a harvest festival complete with the bounty that comes from the work of spring planting, summer tending, and finally, autumn harvest.
Christmas, coming at the mysterious darkness of solstice and adorned by the magical twinkle of fresh snow, is otherworldly, hopeful, and quietly transformative. Christmas is the hope of a new beginning in the midst of rock hard dormancy. But November looks backward rather than forward. November is the termination of that which was begun eight or nine months before. It is the difficult (but satisfying) final effort to bring to a proper end a season or cycle of bounty. Like a marathoner in the final miles or a student during finals, November is grim and determined in the most glorious sense of those words. It as grey and faded – and every bit as functional – as a pair of well-worn work jeans and thinning flannel shirt. It is a comfortable determination that is best reflected in umbers set against grays and the yellow sunshine and blue sky subdued by high, thin clouds spurring us on to finish the task at hand with diligence.