November’s name comes from “novem”— Latin for nine. The earliest version of the Roman calendar, created under Romulus in 753 BC, had only ten designated months in its annual cycle. Some months were named for Greek or Roman gods and goddesses, while others were simply designated by their placement in the series. November was the ninth month.
Things got out of whack about 700 BC, when King Numa Pompilius decided to add two additional months, thus creating a twelve-month calendar. Until this point, the year had begun with March. But January and February were shoehorned in as the new calendar’s first two months. This pushed each of the ten original months forward two spaces. For number-named months, the move also meant they were suddenly misnamed.
November suffered a further awkwardness in 46 BC when Julius Caesar abruptly lopped off one of its 31 days and pasted it onto August.
Embarrassingly named and now unceremoniously pruned, November’s troubles almost turned from bad to worse.
The Roman Senate once tried to do away with November entirely — proposing to change its name to “Tiberius,” in honor of their Emperor. That didn’t happen, thankfully, because Tiberius was more put-off than pleased by such blatant ego-stroking, and snappishly refused to allow their meddling.
Maybe all this early history and disrespect has somehow trickled down through the ages to influence a seeming indifference today. Or it could be November is merely a sort of middle-child — regularly overlooked and ignored.
November is indeed a changeling month, the natural bridge between autumn and winter. Like all transitions it’s rather hard to define — a little of this, a bit of that, with the result being a seasonal amalgam that’s uniquely different than either of its parts.
While we tend to think of November as cold and dreary, in truth it’s often bright and pleasant.
“The thinnest yellow light of November is more warming and exhilarating than any wine,” said Henry David Thoreau.
And it’s true — November’s sun can flood a woodland with radiance, or sweep across a mile-wide field setting every individual weed stem aglow. November’s illumination is unique, special, filling the eye and heart, ultimately lifting the soul.
Moreover, November’s landscape is not yet monochromatic. Not by a long shot! Plenty of leaf color remain — a smattering of red, yellow and orange on various maples; lots of rusty-gold adorning the sycamores; poplars and gingkoes in bright lemon, dazzling fiery-orange sassafras mittens.
And more than a few local leaves remain stubbornly green, or a partially-turned mishmash of yellow-gold-brown-green.
The ratio changes daily. But in several of the woods I regularly visit, there are almost as many leaves still on the trees as have so far fallen onto the ground — though a few hours of strong winds could strip everything bare. Too, the already fallen leaves remain fluffy and still cheery in their variegated hues.
Prairies are also bright — swathes of tan or gold, russet or bronze. The big bluestem is a softly gleaming burgundy. Look close and you will spot the occasional aster, daisy or black-eyed Susan.
November is a month where the keen observer quickly learns to appreciate the nuance of shade and texture — a time when vision become almost a tactile sense.
When ambling through a rural woodlot, your gaze jumps from rough-barked hickory to smooth-barked beech. You can practically “feel” each individual tree’s texture with your eyes. The gray-green softness of the leafless paw-paw shows, as does the dark solidity of the sprawling oak — hard, obdurate, and not likely to relinquish its leaves for for several more months.
In November’s landscape the least hint of color or contrast blazes like a beacon. Piercing white of patches on the sycamores along the river. Sulphur yellow witch-hazel blooms hidden in the ravine. You might find odd rose-pink wahoo hulls down in a moist bottom. Or feel drawn to explore a rank of Druid green hemlocks brooding in a cloistered hollow.
Now is when the landscape shows the palette of subtle differences favored by painters such as Russell Chatham.
Wind is always November’s paramount voice — especially during the latter weeks. More than once I’ve stood upon the crest of a high ridge and listened to November’s wind sweeping through the valley below — whispering, moaning, sometimes wailing like a banshee as it coursed among the chinkapins.
I adore November. In fact, this eleventh month is almost my favorite of the year, coming in second only to May!
As nature writer Hal Borland once noted, it’s a time of “breadth, and depth, and distance.” A thought which the painter, Andrew Wyeth, echoed. “You feel the bone structure of the landscape,” he said — then added: “Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”
I emphatically agree. November serves up beauty aplenty, plus a whole passel of moodiness. But it also offers mystery — an inscrutable enigma at it heart. A story revealed only to those who open themselves to the natural magic of earth and season.
Jim McGuire, a nature columnist, resides in Englewood, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org