November in New England has an image problem, a bad press. It may be the most underappreciated month on the calendar. The rich, refulgent greenery of summer is long gone. The gaudy leaf displays of October are but a memory. In a recent Hartford Courant column, Jim Shea confessed his “hate” for the month and called it drab, dreary, a time that “gets on your nerves.” Too cold to swim and too warm to ski, many people look upon the eleventh month as merely a bridge to December’s holidays and winter’s cold and snow.
November is a tease. There are days whose warmth and bright sun throw us back to summer’s waning moments and induce a sense of longing and loss. Other days are leaden and gray, frigid with spitting snow, a harbinger of winter for which we are not quite ready. A rainy day this time of year is the cruelest, most bone chilling dampness a body can endure.
But November also provides a great liberating burst of space. No longer is our vision obscured by vegetation, nor is the ground yet hidden and smoothed by a quilt of snow. With the leaves gone and the ground bare, our landscape is fully exposed in all its detail, every glory and imperfection. Houses, ledges, stone walls, and swamps are visible where once they lay unseen or only a partial image. Looking into the woods through a dendritic cat’s cradle of branches or down a village street, the world seems larger, our vision more acute. By contrast with the months of thick deciduous cover, it seems as if we could look through the universe itself.
November’s true splendor is the light of its sunny days—pure, austere and silvery. It is a true light revealing the real color and every detail of an object, whether the gable of a house on a city lot or a mica-flecked ledge deep in the forest. This illumination neither diminishes nor augments the character of the subject on which it shines, but reveals its absolute essence. It is a light that artists crave and only the most accomplished capture. Drinking it in with our eyes, we feel as if we might live forever.
The light reveals bleached colors—gray tree branches, bronze leaves that crunch underfoot, khaki grass burned by frost and desiccated plants in all dun and dusky shades. With the bright floral colors of summer a distant memory and the garish hues of autumn dried and brown, color is reduced to its very basics. Though the palate is limited, the variety in shades is remarkably varied. I am reminded of black and white photography where the absence of color gives emphasis to the object in the lens—its shape, texture, contrasts and shadows. These are days when a pine or hemlock boldly stands out on a hillside, and when a leathery green Christmas fern seems to have been painted among the leaves and rocks alongside a woodland trail.
The virtues of November are hardly limited to natural phenomena. It has more holidays central to our American way of life than any other. The second Tuesday of the month should be considered the most sacred day of our year, though it has never been officially proclaimed a holiday. Election Day is the indispensable American day, though with business going on as usual, it’s not surprising that people underestimate its importance and turnouts are low. It seems fitting that a few days later we celebrate Veteran’s Day, honoring those who defend our right to vote and many other freedoms. The month winds down with Thanksgiving, a holiday of family gathering and gratitude, of reflection on our land’s abundance. It wonderfully involves no gift giving, no veneration of political figures or events, no celestial occurrence, and no religious miracles.
November is also an opportunity to turn inward as we increasingly spend time indoors. It is a time for reflection, reading, thinking, and earnest conversation. Henry David Thoreau wrote that “this is the month of nuts and nutty thoughts.” To his Journal he confided in November 1858, that “perhaps its harvest of thought is worth more than the other crops of the year. Men are more serious now.” Certainly, this is something to think about.