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November Moods

Bill Meredith

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 leaves, no birds—
…Thomas Hood, 1839. Morning Meditations.

(Nov. 2011) It is an article of faith with my wife that a person’s moods are determined by the weather. This is not the result of reading the collected works of Sigmund Freud, or of detailed research into meteorological records; rather, she comes to it simply by observing my state of mind. She knows spring is my favorite season, so if she finds me gazing into the distance with a blue expression on my face, she knows mentioning April or May will put things right. Likewise, if she finds me bounding about singing, knocking over stacks of crockery and spilling things, she knows simply mentioning November will bring me back down to earth, or maybe even a little beyond. The effect was expressed best by the English poet, Thomas Hood, whose verse was put in more succinct form on television some years ago by Benny Hill:

No birds, no bees…
No flowers, no trees…
No wonder. November.

As November approaches this year, my mood is best described as soggy. We normally get a tad over 45 inches of rainfall a year in Emmitsburg, but this year we have already had over 62 inches, 23 of which came in September and October. We probably won’t break the record of 76 inches, set in 1996, but we’ve got a shot at it if this keeps up for another two months.

I suppose things could be worse. In 1975 I attended a course in Applied Ecology at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, in which there was a unit on weather. One of the instructors told us that the world record for rainfall was held by Cherrapunji, India, where one year they received 1,042 inches of rain. For the benefit of readers who don’t happen to have a calculator handy, that comes to about 2.85 inches of rain every day for the whole year. Of course it doesn’t rain that much every year; the average for Cherrapunji is only 450 inches, and there are three or four other places that have higher averages. By comparison to such places, Emmitsburg looks pretty good; we only get one-tenth as much as Cherripunji. But even that can cause problems. According to my unofficial rain gauge, there were only four times this year when we got more than 2.85 inches of rain in 24 hours, but even those cases resulted in flooded basements, leaking roofs and impassable roads.

The garden gave up early this fall. Viney plants such as squash, tomatoes, and beans rotted, and after yesterday’s rain the plot where I started winter onions looked like a small lake. Even the flower beds seemed disgusted with the muddy state of things. Only the fungi seemed happy; mushrooms grew all over the yard with abandon, and the logs in my woodpile sprouted turkey-tail brackets as thick as fur. At least the outer inch of wood on them will be rotted, and they will probably just smolder instead of burning in the fireplace when winter comes. The leaves colored up nicely; it was a good year for yellow, and the rain made the woods look clean and fresh on those rare days when the sun bothered to come out. But any hint of a joyful mood will vanish with the arrival of November.

My usual deadline for writing this column is about 10 days before the publication date; by that time in October, the small winter birds like juncos and white-throated sparrows should have arrived from the north. So far, they haven’t shown up. I’m hoping nothing is wrong with them; maybe they’ve just been reading newspapers about all the rain, and holding off as long as possible. Meanwhile, my wife is in a frantic state because the house has been invaded by small forms of wildlife. This always seems to happen… in past years we have had box-elder bugs, mice, blacksnakes and stinkbugs… but this year it is a plague of little yellow caterpillars. They are slender little things, about half an inch long, and they seem to be especially attracted to the kitchen ceiling, where they crawl busily back and forth like miniature wooly-bears, except that they aren’t wooly. They look like the larval stage of some sort of moth, but I don’t know what species; I put some of them in a jar to see what they will turn into, but so far they haven’t cooperated. Obviously they have sense enough to come in out of the rain, so they can’t be all bad, but my wife seems prejudiced against them because they always come out to see what is going on when we have company. Evidently she doesn’t want our friends to know we associate with such low forms of life.

I read somewhere recently that in the Old Celtic calendar, winter started on the first day of November. If it ever comes to a vote, I would be in favor of going back to that. I come from a long line of Old Celts on both the Welsh and Irish sides of my family’s lineage, and hidden somewhere in my DNA there are memories of spending cold, wet winters huddled around smoky peat fires centuries ago, with not enough to eat and the wind howling just outside the door. Folks of my generation are like that; we all have a bit of Old Celt in us, regardless of where out ancestors came from, and when we read the morning papers or hear the evening news about the sorry state of the world’s economy, we get nervous. We’re already in a melancholy mood, and we know when November gets here the leaves will come down, the rain will turn to snow, and on our modern calendar it will still be a month before winter officially gets here. The Old Celts were realists; they knew winter was winter, and there was nothing to be gained by waiting around until the solstice arrives before you admit it.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith