October Surprise: Nature Offers an Antidote

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Every day that I wake up and find it’s still October feels like a small, beautifully wrapped gift. I want to plant myself on a corner like a street preacher and recite Keats’ “Ode to Autumn.” I want to grab people by the arm and say, look. It’s happening again. The woods are draped in the muted colors of a medieval tapestry. The haphazard bouquets of purple ironweed and Michelmas daisies bloom in the roadside ditches. The air smells like kudzu blossoms. The elegiac light has returned. Despite the scorching summer, my favorite month is here, complete with mists and mellow fruitfulness.

And not a moment too soon. I am in urgent need of an antidote for the current political season. The steady drip of acid is eating away at my always fragile peace of mind. I’m considering a media fast until mid-November, maybe longer. The only October surprise I want is the maple in my front yard retaining its perfect flame color for an entire week.

There was a time when I took nature for granted. Scarlet leaves and spring orchards in blossom were lovely to look at, but never prompted much reflection. The idea that such sights could comfort and inspire seemed hopelessly 19th century to me. Though I dutifully plowed through Wordsworth and Keats, I preferred poems about love and passion and loss. Enough with the daffodils and the nightingales and the violet by a mossy stone.

But living in Manhattan for six years, I began to miss the leafy village where I grew up, the smell of wood smoke, the rustle of leaves underfoot. Each fall, I looked forward to weekend excursions out of the city, drives along the Hudson to West Point or Bear Mountain, jaunts upstate for apple picking. The October scenery calmed my city nerves and refreshed my spirit. I came home and dug out the Golden Treasury and gave Wordsworth and Keats another look. Maybe this poetry of earth thing was more than an antique notion. 

We moved to Chicago, where fall is a split-second interval between brutal heat and epic blizzards. I learned to make the most of every brief October day, dragooning my children into nature walks on the Green Bay Trail and driving to farms in Waukegan to buy far too many pumpkins. By the time Halloween rolled around with its attendant snow flurries, I had banked enough October to see me through the winter.

And then we came to Knoxville, highly touted for its extravagant spring. Fall was about football. Autumn leaves were secondary, a decorative afterthought. No one mentioned that October would take my breath away, that the days would linger and the light would call up the past and fill me with longing. They forgot to tell me about how the lake looks in the early morning, ringed with rust and amber trees, how the deer in my backyard woods move out of the mist and gaze at me without fear or judgment.

The poet Wendell Berry writes often about the restorative power of nature. In “The Peace of Wild Things,” he echoes my current state of mind, the 3 a.m. dread about what the future may hold for my children and grandchildren. He speaks of finding respite in “the presence of still water,” and “coming into the peace of wild things, who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.”

I turn off the TV with a final, decisive click. I step out into the morning and watch the red flight of a cardinal, the slow, meditative descent of a single bright leaf. I unwrap the gift of another October day. I will handle it gently and store it with care. I need it to last.

Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.

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