October Is the Cruelest Month
April has a terrible rep in these parts — longtime Mainers are known to schedule vacations just to avoid it — but I can't understand why. All that mud is such a splendid metaphor for life arising from the primordial ooze, and there are flowers at the end of it.
October: this is the real heartbreaker.
It starts so beautifully. The sun is still warm, your windows are still open a crack, the garden is (with any luck) still putting on a last wistful flush of lingering bloom. Aster 'Alma Potschke,' whose wide and glowing red flowers, just kissed with purple, my son Tristan — with the casual boorishness of the teenage male, defames as merely "pink" — ought to be our official state flower. It is the most glorious sight in my front yard for about three weeks. Then, almost overnight, it becomes a stubby brown reminder of beauty irrecoverably lost. It is the essence of October.
And the roses! Good Lord, is there anything more lovely or more melancholy than those final blooms, unfolding in solitary glory at the end of stems that have grown imprudently long — winter-kill waiting to happen — on, say, the American climber 'New Dawn' or the ungainly English shrub 'Graham Thomas'? Those of us so reckless as to venture beyond rugosas, those stalwart and ultra-hardy staples of the Maine scene, are doomed to endure every kind of insect and microbe and other biological onslaught, but at least for us there is life after Labor Day. And then, one frosty morning, it is all over. Our roses stand there, as the late Henry Mitchell said, looking like sinister devices for impeding hostile infantry. The thought makes us smile — but against the coming winter there is no defense.
The German poet Stefan George — unfairly neglected by American readers merely because he was an arrogant nationalist twit — would have made a fine (though crotchety) Mainer, judging from his deep understanding of autumn:
Come to the park they say is dead, and view
The shimmer of the smiling shores beyond.
The stainless clouds with unexpected blue
Diffuse a light on motley path and pond.
The tender grey, the burning yellow seize
Of birch and boxwood, mellow is the breeze.
Not wholly do the tardy roses wane,
So kiss and gather them and wreathe the chain.
The purple on the twists of wilding vine,
The last of asters you shall not forget,
And what of living verdure lingers yet,
Around the autumn vision lightly twine.
In 1933, upon the Nazi accession to power, George was offered the post of poet laureate in the newborn Third Reich. In an act of magnificent twittishness, he dispatched a Jewish admirer to deliver his rebuff to Joseph Goebbels personally. Thereupon he dropped dead. Take that, unpoetic Philistines.
In Maine we lose one and a half hours of daylight between the first and last of October. We go from nights when you can leave a bedroom window open and awaken in golden sunlight to a Halloween night when the kids scurry home with trick-or-treat bags half empty because their costumes are not sufficiently padded to keep out the bone-shivering chill. One year when my daughter Callie was small and dressed, if I remember, as a princess, a kind stranger insisted on loaning her a fleece jacket because she looked as cold as the fake diamonds on her little tiara. I see this woman in the grocery store now and then. Her name is Nina, with a long I. It goes without saying that she is an avid gardener. Probably reads poetry too, but our brief conversations have never come around to that.
I like October, please don't mistake me. I like Casablanca, too, even though I know it's going to end with the pretty lady getting on that plane, leaving Rick with only a slippery Frenchman for company. Play it again, Sam. I'm a sucker for torture.
We can hope, at least, for a spell of Indian summer. God knows we get little enough actual summer — we've got it coming. Even a day or two will be a blessing: one last interlude of shirtsleeve weather before the hammer comes down. Give the woodstove a little rest to get its strength up, before we need to shove half of the Great North Woods into it by Christmas time. Just please don't let it all be over so soon.
Roll over, T.S. Eliot.