Before the snow in November, you can see right through the trees into the dead of winter and beyond it.

A couple of weeks ago I set out one overcast, wind-bitten afternoon to walk the railroad tracks along the shore of Unity Pond. I wanted to see what the buttonbush brush looks like at this time of year. It was a gray, skeletal blur, like everything else. A little finer in the twigs than chokecherry, maybe. But on the edge of winter it comes to the same thing.

The bog between the tracks and the mouth of Sandy Stream was, as expected, withered and brown. It was the exact natural reflection of William Faulkner’s phrase “November’s gray dissolution,” which when I first read it 40 years ago rang like a voice off Mount Sinai. It’s echoed back every deer-hunting month since, as reliable as frost in October or the geese flapping and racing on before the snow.

Faulkner’s story “The Bear” is about hunting, I was thinking while I calculated each irregular step from railroad tie to railroad tie, and part of the ancient tradition is getting hammered to ward off the chill, among other things. This reminded me that I had, when you got down to the bone of it, actually put myself in danger by walking exposed along these tracks in my gray autumn jacket. There was a clear shot at me with a deer rifle from the other side of the bog, and there’s a sense in which it would be entirely my fault if somebody’s optical equipment transformed the line of my slightly bent gait into horizontal brown fur.

A drug like alcohol can encourage this phenomenon, of course, but you don’t have to be drunk for it to happen. Objective physical reality and your experience of it unify in your mind, and the biochemistry that makes up your brain has ways of reshaping reality that are to some extent under your control, according to your inner strengths and weaknesses. It’s possible for the mind of a completely well-meaning person with too much eagerness, too little inner discipline and a rifle to turn a human figure into an ungulate figure. As, tragically, we know.

So foreseeing the possibility, however remote, of becoming a party to my own sudden passage into the next world, I turned around before I reached the trestle bridge, got in the car and ambled back out along Kanokalus Road, which runs right through the middle of a cemetery.

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November’s dissolution does not get any grayer than this. Its beauty is astounding. Lines of maples, birches and ash who have gone bare for the long sleep. Apple trees with dark fruits but no leaves. Milkweed feathers and fraying cattails, leaf detritus, goldenrod ghosts, the shells of Queen Anne’s lace, staghorn sumac naked except for small pyramids of dry drupes, dead grass, all of it reddish brown. Towering overhead, luminous yellow tamaracks. The sparrows of fall, the Canada geese in loose low-altitude chevrons. Even at midday the sun drops only in windless dappling on the ground. All that stays is dying, and all that lives is getting out, the song says.

It’s a kind of magnificent desolation, to lift a phrase once applied to the surface of the moon, that telescopes your mind. The unstacked firewood from backyard to backyard is like a thousand other unfinished projects teetering on the edge of too late.

Winter is not now, yet it will come.

Here and there along the roadside, through gray, bare, bony tangles, winterberries remain like red candle flames. Ilex verticillata, the arborists call the bush, black alder to the rest of us. Overwintering birds, raccoons and mice will get the seeds when the better foraging has itself gone south. The fruits turn human stomachs, but in the mind’s eye the startling red berries run tunnels through the gray twists and turns of deep brush, and transform November, there in the far invisible post-frozen distance, into the rosy underpresence of spring. The readiness is all.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at [email protected] Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.


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