October is a month of mystic meanings. Of marigolds and wild asters and the ripe honey scent of Concord grapes on the vine. Of leaf peeping and football. Of “sweata weatha” and Oktoberfest beer and the glossy squeak of grackles as they flock south.
October is contrasts: the first skim of ice on the birdbath and mellow-warm afternoons and chilly nights. It is a month of winnowing, trees shedding after just a few short months of green newness. It is raking up the summer: June, July, August, September — a leaf for every day, hour, minute. It is an ache and a beauty and a quality of light — “October Light,” as the novelist John Gardner called it — all its own.
In the old Roman calendar, when March was in the pole position and February came at the end with its tail pinched off short, October earned its name. In this hemisphere, it’s the angle of the lowering sun that illuminates the stark display of mortality. Summer is over, the harvest nearly done, and the careful listener becomes aware one night that the crickets have gone silent. If you shut your eyes, you can almost hear the clop of Pegasus riding the sky with the moon in Scorpio.
In fields where people gathered up tomatoes, cucumbers, and corn, the pumpkins — unnoticed through the months — have come. Avatars of autumn, they leer from front stoops.
Since the “twilight superstitions” of Washington Irving and Nathaniel Hawthorne, October has long stirred — and haunted — the artistic imaginations of writers. In his doleful poem “Ulalume,” Edgar Allan Poe writes, “The skies they were ashen and sober / The leaves they were crisped and sere . . . / It was night, in the lonesome October / Of my most immemorial year.”
Thomas Wolfe’s prodigious, inward-gazing novels “Look Homeward, Angel” and “Of Time and the River” fairly ooze October. In the latter, he writes: “It was late October, there was a smell of smoke in the air, an odor of burning leaves . . . a pollinated gold in the rich, fading, sorrowful and exultant light of day.” In “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac memorably wrote: “I was going home in October. Everybody goes home in October.” Such is a wanderer’s yen for home in a season when, as Kerouac writes elsewhere in the book, “everything was falling down.”
Add Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, John Updike, Maya Angelou, Joyce Carol Oates, John Irving, Stephen King — the list is long. But the writer most indelibly linked to October has to be Ray Bradbury.
With words as chewy as candy corn, he celebrates the month in short stories and novels. In “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “The Halloween Tree,” the very word “October” is like an incantation, invoking magic and casting long shadows over childhood innocence. Bradbury’s classic collection “The October Country” particularizes that place “where it is always turning late in the year . . . where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. . . . That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts [and who] . . . passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.”
Ah, that lyrical October rain, which takes away the leaves that the wind has missed.
This season never fails to bring a savor of melancholy and some vague impression of the unmet hopes of a year in swift decline, of the sweetness that fades — and the awareness, too, of winter tapping its foot impatiently and preparing to take the stage. But then, beauty is its own reward. It can be the very brevity of things that gives them their poignance.
And so October burns down to its waning days and tells us again, lest we forget, that what has been given will be taken away.
David Daniel is an adjunct professor at UMass Lowell. His latest story collection, “Beach Town,” set on the South Shore, will be published next spring. He can be reached at email@example.com.