November 21, 2012

BACKYARD NATURALIST: November's pregnant pause

Dana Wilde

My nomadic impulses have subsided in recent years, and I guess I forgot the world beyond Maine looks different. The irregular hills and ruts of Maine are burned deep in me, and Florida's gauzy, half-drunk summer landscape -- in the middle of November -- plastered my mind's eye like some immense dew.

click image to enlarge

Unity Park in November.

Photo by Dana Wilde

November is not our most cherished month, at least not here in the accelerating seasonal rounds of the spruce-northern hardwood forest area in the Troy woods. It's the harbinger of winter, after all.

It's a pause, like a held breath, just before the deep cold.

Your eyes get used to November looking like November -- brown, gray and copper. Maple, birch, ash and popple by mid-month turn into skeletons. They leave a rough, brown, dead-acorn-smelling rug on the woods floor. Milkweed, aster and goldenrod stalks are lace-frail cadavers. Corn stubble and pumpkin vines are bent old men. Cattails, which were rich brown in August, are frayed and corroded sticks. Red winterberries glare out of bare tangles.

Crows, chickadees and nuthatches hang around the empty hardwoods and in spruces and hemlocks that are less like life and more like dark green blankets. The wild turkeys march through single file from time to time, and the blue jays seem bright against the copper oak leaves.

But the juncos who hopped around in the leaves like exuberant fifth-graders during October are gone, and so are the warblers, most of the sparrows, and the hummingbirds who split in September. The purple martins see it coming even earlier, and vacate in August.

Somehow this sense of an impending ending that gathers like storm clouds carries a certain clear, sober comfort: I've seen these gray-brown woods teetering on the still point of the turning world many times, and taken this deep breath ahead of the great white wall of winter. And I -- or someone, anyway -- will see it all again. November's great stillness is a blessed evening, you could say.

So my eye could not make sense of Florida's lightning colors. The big-finned palms and vines, the moss hanging off giant live oaks were like flakes of botanical flame to my New England-centric eye. Fruit was still ripening on my brother's lemon tree. In November? Not only were his jalapeno peppers still reddening, but his basil, thyme and coriander (which simply doesn't survive at any time at our house) were thriving in the little garden of his low-slung one-story, hurricane-proof house with windows about a foot from ground level. Cardinals, some kind of scrawny blue jay and exotic sparrows visited the garden; what might have been a red-tailed hawk monitored things from high up. Watch out for alligators and water moccasins, and sure enough I saw a brown-backed snake slither through a patch of unmown grass.

By 10 a.m. it was 75 degrees, humid and blurry.

To me, this all seemed like a riotous lack of seasonal decorum. Everything was drunkenly angering for life when it should have been soberly reflecting on the cusp of winterfall and the end of this year's everything.

But the gold side to these unseasonal green sides: Jack seemed to fit right in. He had his shorts and T-shirts ready to go when we got there. He sank his toes in my brother's shag-carpetlike lawn. He drank beer easily with my brothers, which (since we're from Maine, after all) did not take me by surprise. But then during the wedding reception he suddenly had a highball glass in his hand, which turned out to contain a high dose of vodka. This glass with twizzle stick and lime disoriented me more than ever.

But when I paused and reflected, I recollected times when all of nature, no matter where it was or when, synchronized with my imagination and the flatlands of elsewhere were as inspiring as the betangled and rutted Maine woods. In those days the whole world was a teeming green home, whether it was the gray trees of central Maine or the lavender-flowered garden of a cozy Florida flood-plain house. When Jack was just a little boy, we walked up through winter flowers to the top of the Pnyx hill in Athens and looked out toward the Acropolis with just that feeling of flame and morning. That was as intoxicating to me as the immense dew of Florida is to Jack.

Here at the end of autumn, the backyard in Troy looks exactly like Thanksgiving, I am happy to report.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursday of the month. His writings on fall, winter, spring and summer in Maine are collected in "The Other End of the Driveway," available from Booklocker.com.

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