October Light

John Gardner

Today is the last day of October, when the season pauses as it passes toward darkness and cold. And in this moment of passage, there is time to breathe deeply, and to  savor the beauty of the harvest just passed– a fermata for reflection. Here is how the late John Gardner described it, in Vermont, in his 1976 National Book Award-winning novel “October Light”:

“When they happened to look out, turning from the oval wooden table near the bar, it seemed to them all, one way or another, a surprising and vaguely unnatural thing– though they’d seen it every year of their lives– that sudden contraction of daylight in October, the first deep-down convincing proof that locking time, and after that winter and deep snow and cold, were coming.
 
“It was the time of respite before the air turned winey and the field-corn came in and then the busiest harvest of all. Apples. The State had been rich in them since before the Revolution. Even in deep woods you’d come across old apple trees still bearing away, half-forgotten species like Pound Sweets and Snow-apples.
 

October Light

“Now, in October, the farmwork was slackening, the drudgery had paid off: the last of the corn went flying into the silo with a clackety roar and a smell as sweet as honey; the beans were harvested in half a day, like an afterthought; on the porch and out by the roadside stood mountains of pumpkins.

 
“The trees turned -– those along the paved roads first, dying from the salt put down in winter -– sugar maples orange, pink, and yellow on one branch, elm trees pale yellow, birch trees speckled with a lemony yellow, still other trees carmine and vermillion and ochre, red maples as red as fresh blood. Soon-– anytime from mid-October to the end of November-– it would be locking time.
 
“It began as a suspension of time altogether. Rudyard Kipling saw it in Brattleboro, in 1895, and wrote: ‘There the seasons stopped awhile. Autumn was gone. Winter was not. We had Time dealt out to us-– more clear, fresh Time-– grace-days to enjoy.’”
 
“There’d be nothing but chores, load pigs for butchering, chop firewood, or walk through the dry, crisp leaves of a canted wood hunting deer. The air in the cowbarn would be clean and cold, but when you bent down between them for the milking, the cows would be as warm and comforting as stoves.
 
“Sometimes an Indian summer would break up the locking, sometimes not; but whatever the appearances, the ground was hardening; every now and then a loud crack would ring out, some oak tree closing down all business for the season. If it was warm and mild on Monday afternoon, Tuesday morning might be twenty degrees, and you’d find the water in the pig-trough frozen solid.
 
“By Thanksgiving the locking would be irreversible: the ground would be frozen, not to thaw again till spring. When the first good snow came, maybe three feet of it, maybe six, they’d call it winter.”