Tuesday, December 20, 2005

November in a windblown seed

In the ashen moonlight slanting through tall barren trees William Morris, the British poet, saw November. The light transformed midnight into “dreamy noon, silent and full of wonders,” he wrote, and

The changeless seal of change it seemed to be,
Fair death of things that, living once, were fair;
Bright sign of loneliness too great for me,
Strange image of the dread eternity,
In whose void patience how can these have part,
These outstretched feverish hands, this restless heart?

I, too, have seen November, not in moonlight filtering through the half-naked trees flanking our gravel road, nor in the variegated shadows cast by the death and rebirth of the full moon in the waning days of October—the hunter’s moon, blood moon—nor in the deep prairie grasses burnishing the hillside into shades of russet and umber and ochre, but in frost glittering on cold stone, in an icy wind coursing over the land, slipping through the desperate clutch of boughs to bend low the goldenrod and asters in fields grown empty of birdsong and cricketsong. The loneliness Morris wrote of clings to me like wood smoke. In the growing darkness of winter’s approach I find an oppression that has no name or shape but seems somehow to focus on a pile of rocks behind the house, situated between a pair of low elms and an Osage orange, sprinkled with withered bunches of wild alfalfa and the season’s final blooms.

When poets speak of November their words are mostly filled with loss, dread, loneliness or sorrow. Alexander Pushkin wrote, “A tedious season they await/ who hear November at the gate,” while Thomas Hood, with barbed whimsy, called it the month of noes, as in “no warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease/ no comfortable feel in any member—no shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees/no fruits, no flowers, no birds, no bees.” To Charles Lloyd it was “dismal,” to Helen Hunt Jackson “treacherous.” Charles Baudelaire saw in it the onslaught of winter, when he would be “exiled, like the sun, to a polar prison.”

In the mornings, when spindly shadows flee the pursuing sunlight or gray dawn is met with gray woods and gray heart, I walk to my rabbit’s cairn and stand over it and struggle for words to say. The wind harvests the bright leaves of the hackberries and maples only to abandon them, and slowly the grass lies beneath a blanket that sings autumn’s own peculiar chorus under the rustle of footfalls. I set more stones in place until the first shafts of sunlight strike the cairn like the tolling of a bell. In evenings, the sun long down, last light bleeding away into the hollows and darker recesses of the woods, I again stand above the stones and say farewell.

As all is farewell now. In November, “a little this side of the snow and that side of the haze,” as Emily Dickinson puts it, we become acquainted with the end of things. Yet even as the last leaves drift to earth, as the colors, once so gaudy and vivid, now die away, something remains just below the surface, some nagging thought or memory, of a November promise. And it eludes me, even as I trudge back to the house, whose lights glow with a warmth unknown in summer, a coziness of refuge, of sanctuary, like a solitary candle burning in a vast and terrible plain.

Can there be regeneration in the gathering gloom? Does November hold something that we can look upon in the benighted dusk and proclaim, as Morris did in an earlier stanza, “Is it not fair, and of most wondrous worth?”

I thought not. And yet, as one morning I sat beside the cairn, the asters nodding in the breeze, their purple blooms exploded into fuzzy seed heads now, a sudden gust sent them yawing and swaying, and I watched the seeds whirl away, as insubstantial as hope, each a tiny perfect microcosm containing the rudiments of germination and propagation, with embryo, placenta and egg, the matter of life itself. Here was the promise of spring in the fading of autumn. November, I had thought in my grief, was like the cold and bitter wind that strips away the tinsel of summer until all that remains is the desiccated husk of December. I was wrong.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon with no hint of November in the air my wife made a phone call. We drove south, the Flint Hills opening before us, the roadway spotted with tawny litter scattering in our wake, and after an hour’s drive we turned east toward the mad jumble of land enfolding Tuttle Creek Lake. There was a lone house at the crest of a hill and behind it a cluster of outbuildings. Inside were cages, and in them were angora rabbits.

One, a small black-faced female with silver ears and mottled flanks, placed her front paws on the bars and studied me. And I cannot say why this was so, only that it was: that in a room filled with rabbits, some tortoise, some black, some snow white, some tan, there was only the one, and we watched each other until I crossed the room and unlatched the gate and pulled her out, and she huddled close to me, heart to beating heart, and then she stood in my hands, our noses almost touching, her dark lustrous eyes staring deeply into mine.

In that instant I saw the “wondrous worth” Morris wrote of, and the coming November void held no fear for these feverish hands, this restless heart.

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