November 5, 2017
MONTPELIER, VT – A strong, cold south wind – a sure harbinger of rain – beats on the house, prying everywhere, trying to find ways in. The time has come, obviously, to put the storm sashes into the screen doors. The woods are dark at 4:30 in the afternoon, and a long evening stretches before Kiki and me.
She’s curled up on a folded fleece throw at the left end of my desk. She looks asleep, but the slightest move on my part brings her ears, eyes, and head up with a snap. I’d like to go heat up a cup of coffee, but she’ll follow me into the kitchen if I do, and then, when I’m back, wait for me to open the bottom drawer of my desk to get out a peanut butter cookie for dunking – and sharing.
When it comes to New England, and especially Vermont, Robert Frost has always been first at any place we’ve ever wanted to go with an idea, or a conceit. This, for example, is the time of year of which he wrote, “Not yesterday I learned to know the love of bare November days before the coming of the snow.” It’s the cloudiest month of the year, leading into the darkest, followed by the coldest. When the dog and I go out into the yard just before bedtime, bits of airborne moisture – snow seeds, I call them – swirl about my face in the light of my headlamp. It won’t be long.
November was for fifty years a time of great anticipation for me. In my office, the aroma was the unique smell of Hoppe’s #9, as I swabbed the dust out of the bore of my beloved carbine, greased my boots, and made lists of what to take to hunting camp. Until I got four-wheel drive, fairly late in life, the last mile to camp in the Friday-night dark was uphill, on foot, through redolent wet leaves of beech and maple, till at last the smell of wood smoke infused the icy air, and yellow light shone from the windows of camp. I can’t recall too many moments more enjoyable than stomping up the stairs and pushing the door open to woodstove-warm air and a mix of bacon, kerosene, maplewood fire, and friendly insults.
I’ll go again this week, but to northern New Hampshire instead of the Adirondacks, and in place of the carbine I’ll take an energetic little terrier for company on the ride. It’ll be an entirely new experience for her – as it was for me in 1958 – and I’m dreading trying to get her across the bouncing suspension bridge over the Dead Diamond River. But she’ll go crazy walking through those woods next day in her orange pullover; there are snowshoe rabbits, partridges, and red squirrels everywhere. And who knows? – maybe a moose. There’ll be other old guys in camp; the kids in their 50s do the hunting. I doubt there’ll be a firearm among us still in camp. We’ll read, talk, commiserate, and reminisce; and now and then one of us’ll sit on the porch in the cold to feed the gray jays bits of Put’s corn bread from his hands. Whiskey jacks are my favorite birds. The slight flutter of their wings is the muted music of quiet cloudy days in the north woods.
Here at home, I’ve got a rack of split firewood on the back porch. It’s my cleanest splits, separated from the general run for tacit display to visitors, and how I hate actually to burn it! Kiki’s become convinced there’s something alive inside the woodpile. She may be right, but if it’s a nest of mice, the last thing I want is to disturb them this close to winter. When we go out, she normally fires off the porch in a flying leap to circle the yard growling and barking, clearing it of dangerous predators. But now she veers off sideways and snuffles at the wood, sticking her nose into crevices, tearing off splinters, and peering with a comic thoughtfulness for long minutes into dark holes, willing them to give up their secrets.
November is the time of year for admitting that the work you saved to do in cooler weather isn’t going to get done till spring, at the earliest. The clapboards I was going to paint, the posts I was going to prepare to hold the headers of the new shed – all are neatly piled in the garage, up out of the puddles that the vehicles will leave during the winter. There’s one more canoe to put up into the attic, and I may get to it one of these days. It’s time, too, to get the snows put onto the Prius; the truck’s already shod. There’s a discount for getting it done early, and I’m getting tighter lately than the bark on a beech tree.
You see what happens: We pull in, ponder more, see our long view shrink to the circle of light around our work or book. I spent a couple of days without power last week considering that the goose bumps caused by an outage are different from those related to being damned if you’ll turn on the heat yet. In half-sleep during the night, I call the dog closer and try to figure out, in the dark, which end I’ve got hold of. The increased gloom prods our pineal glands into melatonin production; we feel hungry and sleepy, much like a bear dreaming of a winter den. I actually got to watch one once, putting himself to bed, and almost envied him his being able to shut everything off for several months. Like the winter birds, we can’t do that. But we can think about it. Again, Frost has beat us to it: “Were he not gone, the woodchuck could say whether it's like his long sleep, as I describe its coming on, or just some human sleep.