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It’s That Time Again

Bill Meredith

"No birds, no bees;
No flowers, no leaves…
No wonder. November!"
~ misquoted from Thomas Hood, 1844

(11/2017) November is here again. If that came up as a topic of conversation, my wife would probably say something like, "Big Whoop. Get ready to be excited." Apparently it’s always been like that; in 1844, I’m told, an English poet named Thomas Hood actually wrote a poem called "No!" which consisted of a long list of things that either stop happening or don’t happen at all in November. It never reached the level that folks who know such things would call "Great Poetry," but it did provide a field day for people who like to create mirth by misquoting things. I first heard the version printed above recited by Benny Hill on his TV variety show years ago.

I suppose there’s a grain of truth in it. October ends with a bang at Halloween, when unfamiliar cars stop in front of your house to disgorge crowds of kids dressed in costumes either created at home from old sheets or purchased at fashionable stores for prices that rival a new car. It’s a ritual that started in the Middle Ages as a religious holiday when the souls of everyone who had died that year rose from their graves and wandered about in hopes of being transported toward Heaven. It was called "All Hallows’ Evening," which morphed into "Hallow-e’en" after a few centuries, and people in country villages would make lanterns and parade to the local graveyard to see if the spirits had arisen. Then, poor families were allowed to knock on the doors of the Rich and Famous and receive gifts of food. After a few more centuries, when America had been discovered and pumpkins were brought to Europe, pumpkin lanterns were added to the ceremony, and the visits to wealthy homes evolved into "Tricks or Treats." And then, for the next three weeks nothing much would happen until Thanksgiving.

Nothing much happens? I don’t know about you, but in my case I have to be careful about becoming too self-centered. Of course things happen; but they happen quietly, and it’s easy to take them for granted. As Solomon reminded us in last month’s essay, the world keeps going on; and it’s complicated. A lot of routine machinery has to be maintained to keep the planet inhabitable. All of those leaves fall, and if somebody didn’t get to work and decompose them, our soil would get depleted of minerals and within a few years we wouldn’t have enough crops to feed ourselves. And besides, we would have dead leaves piled everywhere higher than our heads, and whenever the wind blew our houses would be completely covered, and then someone’s chimney would release a spark, and whole cities would burn up… a ridiculous example, maybe, but if all of those worms and bugs and fungi and bacteria didn’t do their jobs, we would be in deep #¢4§¶• trouble.

This time of year, my lawn is always full of little piles of dirt where the squirrels have buried walnuts. The nearest walnut tree is two blocks down the avenue toward the square, but there is a steady stream of squirrel traffic running along on the power lines between my house and that tree. If I stopped mowing the lawn, within just a few years our house would become hidden behind a forest of walnut trees. My wife grumbles occasionally about the squirrels, but I’ve decided I can live with a few bare spots in the lawn. In fact, as I grow older I tend to let things go a bit. This summer I sometimes forgot to rake up the grass after I mowed, and a layer of thatch developed; and this fall, there are several places where ant hills are developing. The ants are creating a labyrinth of tunnels and chambers where they carry in the dried grass clippings, just as we used to haul hay into the barn when I was growing up. And just as the cows in our barn converted that hay into manure that we spread on our garden before plowing the next spring, the ants will do the same. There may be some bare spots in the lawn next year, but around them the grass will be greener.

I had supper with a friend at a local golf course the other day, and we sat on the porch with a wee glass of refreshment to watch the day end. There was a light breeze blowing, and it was cool enough for a sweater, but very clear and pleasant… the end of the day and the end of a season. On the bank beside us stood a Canadian Thistle with two late blossoms still hanging on it, and on one of them was one of the last butterflies. It had a clear patch on each hind wing, so I think it was a Silver Checkerspot, but couldn’t be sure (my friend said it didn’t matter). Occasionally it would let go of the thistle flower and try to fly away, but the breeze kept bringing it back; and about that, my friend was right. It didn’t matter. It had done its life’s work; by now, it will have laid its eggs and made its contribution to the gene pool, and November is almost here. Whether it died there that night, or the wind changed and allowed it to fly away a mile or so tomorrow, its life was over. November is coming.

As the light faded, an American Egret glided in on motionless wings and landed beside the pond across the fairway. It is one of the largest birds in our area, standing four feet high when its neck is extended, and pure white with a yellow long beak for spearing fish. A few of its kind nest in this area, but it is more likely that this one spent the summer in northern Pennsylvania or southern Canada. It might stay around here a few days… but November is coming. Soon it will resume a leisurely migration toward the Atlantic coast, and if nothing bad happens it will spend the winter when it finds its Camelot… a congenial spot along the coast between Virginia and Florida.

Driving home, the sky reddened and we saw three large flocks of geese flying across the southeastern horizon. They were big flocks of migrants… hundreds of them in each flock… and they were on a path that would take them toward Chesapeake Bay. For many of them, it is their first trip; they were hatched somewhere north of Lake Erie, and depending on the weather, will spend the winter at the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, or farther south. For many, it will be their last trip; they be taken by hunters or predators, they may meet with accidents, or they die of disease or parasites. Some may fed peacefully all winter on grain fields planted for them by conservationists, only to find that they are too old and tired to make the trip back north next spring. Like us, they live in the present… November. Neither they nor we know what the future will be.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith