By Jim McGuire
November always reminds me of Rodney Dangerfield, the late comedian whose monologue shtick centered around the signature catchphrase: “I don’t get no respect!”
Alas, November suffers a month’s version of the same fate! Overlooked, ignored, underappreciated. If it weren’t for Thanksgiving, most folks would probably disregard November entirely.
Perhaps the root of its identity troubles can be traced all the way back to 713 B.C. That’s when Numa Pompilius, second of seven Roman kings, decided to reform the calendar.
That Romulus calendar recognized only months. November was the ninth, its name taken from the word “novem,” Latin for nine. But in that first system, a full year had only ten named months which encompassed 304 days. The fifty-one leftover winter days — which spanned from the end of December to the beginning of the following March — were simply left nameless.
Pompilius incorporated the fifty-one unused days, plus a half-dozen others stolen from months already established, and created two additional months — January and February. But at that point, November’s name (along with September, October, and December) became an odd misnomer — out of whack, illogical, a etymological victim of puzzling order.
Further complicating November’s image is how after the kaleidoscopic show of falling leaves, we set our sights on the upcoming holidays and seldom give a moment’s thought to the fleeting weeks sandwiched between. Busy looking to the future, we miss the present.
Additionally, as a transition month, November has a split personality. It’s something more than autumn, yet not really winter. Caught between seasons, unfortunately too often remembered for its blustery last days instead of those mild and sunny ones which came before.
So we tend to think of November as barren—a world stripped of color; landscape pared down to stark essentials. But this is truly not the case.
Pull in your long-distance gaze. Look around. November may be a bit ragged along the edges, but it’s a month filled with autumn’s beautiful clutter.
Sure, most of the leaves are now down. But they’re still a bright, warm brown, richly variegated. Light and fluffy, too, easily animated by the smallest puff of breeze. An errant gust can toss them aloft like confetti. They swirl and flutter, rattle when the wind blows, crunch delightfully underfoot as you amble along a woodland path.
Even a lowly chipmunk can make a startlingly loud noise as he dashes across a backyard corner on his way to the woodpile. And those energetic gray squirrels, who spend their days pilfering for nuts and chasing one another about in sudden maniac bursts, sound like run-amok dervishes as they leave leafy contrails in their wake.
A few leaves remain on their trees, as if not yet convinced to give it up for another season. The oaks, of course, are always stubborn, often retaining their leaves all winter long. But several of the towering sycamores along my hundred-yard cottage stretch of the Stillwater still have most of their huge, golden-bronze leaves. So do a number of large hackberries and a box elder. Plus one little swamp maple — an eye-catching scarlet flame amongst the tans and browns.
It will be weeks yet until the last leaf comes twirling down, even longer until they’re packed and sere, reduced to a damp, sepia carpet.
November is like a middle child whose character and talents are obscured by their bookending siblings. You have to slow down, look close, pay attention in order to appreciate the month’s rich and wonderful subtleties.
Yes, the landscape is messy. But I like messy. I’m a little messy myself. Too much order, too much tidiness, makes me nervous, invokes a mild case of the willies. I find comfort in a bit of clutter.
And if November looks rather shopworn, so what? I know all about that. I’m shopworn … a bunch!
But that’s not a problem. Because I’ve decided to think of such wear and honestly acquired battle scars as the visage of experience. Much in the same way my old 12-gauge scattergun—after several decades of hill-country partridge campaigns—has patches of missing bluing and a fair number of dings and scratches on its walnut stock and fore-end. Endearing history marks. A map of days afield and adventures shared.
Life and time invariably leave their footprints. November simply reflects this cumulative effect — from spring’s beginning through summer’s heat and growth, to early autumn. An attribute when viewed from the proper perspective.
November is just that other half of autumn. The part without the technicolor leaves and still-balmy days. It may gift us with an interlude of Indian Summer…or Squaw Winter’s foretaste of things to come. November is decidedly moody. It could even serve up snow before it’s final hurrah.
But there’s also a wealth of natural beauty out there to be discovered and savored. Lots to see and do, and some of the most invigorating air you’ll ever breathe.
I adore November. It’s one of my two or three favorite months of the entire year. A hidden gem that deserves any outdoor-minded person’s time and respect … and will quickly earn their appreciation.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at email@example.com