Finding Beauty in November
“Now the hours of daylight are shortening noticeably. Dusk and dark advance minute by minute as these November nights close down.”
– Edwin Way Teale, from “Circle of the Seasons, November 7, The Darker Days”
Today’s column is the second in a series about finding beauty in nature. My intention is to share the splendor of the natural world that I encounter each month as we pass together through the four seasons of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I hope these monthly columns help you consider what beauty in nature means to you, and I invite you to share your thoughts with me.
November is the time to see into the woods with vision unobscured by the greenery of the growing seasons. The leaves succumb to the endless circle of change. Their work is done, they have fed and nourished mother tree, their energy stored in sap and roots to rise again in the spring as new green life. Oh, a few still linger through the month and into December. The oaks hang on to the end, refusing to join their fallen brethren of maple, birch and hickory. The beech too hangs on through much of the winter, with soft yellow leaves clinging to stems until sap begins to flow again and old leaves give way to new buds.
For me, the beauty of November is discovered in the flashing white of a deer’s tail. They seem to be everywhere this month. Rut season has arrived and bucks compete for the attention of does and are seen moving from place to place in a frenetic search for mates. Their coat has changed from a smooth orange brown of summer to the thick darker tawny brown of winter — with hollow hairs providing greater insulation from the cold.
I love to see the dazzling flash of a deer’s tail in flight, bounding over a wall or through the woods with a stomach full of fallen apples and the last blades of green grass. Sometimes it’s a flag of surrender to the hunters aim and another time a mocking banner of escape to the waiting herd. The brilliant white is as startling in pure beauty as freshly fallen snow.
For me beauty in November is also found in a stone wall that meanders along the edge of our back pasture and the walls I encounter during forest rambles. With leaves gone from trees the walls reappear. To live in New England is to know stone walls. One of the more familiar poems by Robert Frost is “Mending Wall,” and its opening lines can be appreciated by anyone who lives among old stone walls.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper bounders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.”
When walking the old stone wall that marks our property boundary I think of Frost’s poem, in particular his repeated refrain “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Last week we finally had a good solid day of rain. More than an inch had fallen providing an all too brief respite to the region-wide drought. The old stone walls of our property are faced in pale gray-green lichen as if splotched with paint splatter. After the rain the lichen soaked up the moisture causing it to turn a brighter shade of green. What before had been mostly unnoticed suddenly stood out. All living things need water to survive, even the ancient lichen clinging for centuries to stones of granite-schist.
When I look at a stone wall I take in its surroundings and try to imagine what the land looked like when the wall was constructed. I imagine a past when hills were cleared of trees and sheep, cattle and horses grazed among rocky fields. The surface of the wall would have been in mostly full sunlight and possibly topped with wood fence rails to help keep livestock from wandering into a neighboring field.
In a few places the walls surrounding our property have an opening or barway for moving livestock and vehicles from one field to another. The opening of the barway would have been closed by wooden rails or bars and perhaps a gate supported by wood or stone posts. I like to stop at these openings and admire the well-constructed side of the opening with carefully selected large flat stones lifted into place to create a smooth edge. I imagine how many times someone walked through the barway to fetch a horse or to call cows in for milking. How many times did a two wheel cart pass through the opening? Perhaps it was pulled by a pair of yoked oxen, responding in quiet resignation to voice commands or the persuasion of a switch.
One side of the wall that circles our pasture is open field as it has been for centuries, but the other side of the wall is now thick woods with trees more than 100 years old. The barway opening is still there, but nature has closed its entrance to carts with a growth of thick woods. In winter, tracks in the snow reveal deer, coyote, fox and turkeys are the only creatures passing through the opening now.
I would suggest that anyone with an appreciation for stone walls, or interested in learning more about their history, should get their hands on two books by Robert Thorson, UConn professor of geology and cofounder of the Stone Wall Initiative. “Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls” (published in 2002), and “Exploring Stone Walls: A Field Guide to New England Stone Walls” (published in 2005). You also may want to check out the website for the Stone Wall Initiative at: https://stonewall.uconn.edu/
A New England stone wall, whether tumbled down or standing tall, is a beautiful thing to be admired and appreciated. We should also be grateful for those who went before us and to build such beautiful walls of stone. They have left a gift for us to discover again and again.
November is here and the natural world is ours to enjoy. All we need to do is get outside, stop, look, listen and let it come to us. We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley — our very own homegrown National Park. I hope you join me and together let us care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at email@example.com
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