Next was November; he full grosse and fat
As fed with lard, and that right well might seeme;
For he had been a fatting hogs of late,
That yet his browes with sweat did reek and steem,
And yet the season was full sharp and breem;
In planting eeke he took no small delight:
Whereon he rode, not easie was to deeme;
For it a dreadful Centaure was in sight,
The seed of Saturne and fair Nais, Chiron hight.
WHAT an uproar there is in the old forests and woods when the November winds lift up their mighty voices, and the huge trees clashing together, like the fabled giants battling with knotted clubs against the invisible assailant, whose blows they feel but cannot see struck, so wage war on one another! On every hand we hear the crash and fall of mighty branches, and sometime a large tree torn up by the roots comes down, quick as an avalanche, levelling all it falls upon, where it lies with its blackening leaves above the crushed underwood like some huge mammoth that has perished. The sky is low and gloomy and leaden-coloured, and a disheartening shadow seems to fall on everything around. We see swine rooting in the desolate cornfields, among the black and rotten stubble, while the geese come draggles and dirty from the muddy pond, which is half-choked up with fallen leaves. On the cold naked hedge a few ears, which the birds have long since emptied, hang like funeral-wreaths over the departed harvest. The rain raineth every day on the heps and haws and autumn-berries and beats the brown seed-vessels of the dead-flowers into the earth, while the decayed leaves come rolling up to make a covering for their graves. In some low-lying dank corner a few blackened bean-sheaves, that never ripened, are left to rot; and if you walk near them, you see the white mould creeping along the gaping pods. There is a deathly smell from slimy water-flags and rotting sedge beside the stagnant meres, and at every step your footprint is filled up with the black oozing of the saturated soil the moment it is made. You see deserted sheds in the fields where the cattle sheltered, rent and blown in; and if you enter one to avoid the down-pouring torrent, the dull gray November sky is seen through the gaping thatch, even in the puddle on the floor where the water has lodged. The morsel of hay in the corner you would fain sit down upon is mouldy, and as you look at the beam which spans across, you fancy some one must have hanged himself on it, and hurry out again into the pouring rain.
November is the pioneer of Winter, who comes, with his sharp winds and keen frosts, to cut down every bladed and leafy bit of green that is standing up, so as to make more room for the coming snow-flakes to fall on the level waste, and form a great bed for Winter to sleep upon. He blows all the decaying leaves into dreary hollows, to fill them up, so that when Winter is out on the long dark nights, or half-blinded with the great feathery flakes, he may not fall into them. If a living flower still stands above its dead companions, it bends its head like a mourner over a grave, and seems calling on our mother-earth to be let in. The swollen streams roar and hurry along, as if they were eager to bury themselves in the great rivers, for they have no flowers to mirror, no singing of birds to tempt them to linger among the pebbles and listen, no green bending sprays to toss to and fro, and play with on their way, and they seem to make a deep complaining as they rush along between the high brimming banks. The few cattle that are out, stand head to head, as if each tried to warm the other with its breath, or turned round to shut out the gloomy prospect that surrounds them, laying down their ears at every whistle of the wind through the naked hedges. Even the clouds, when they break up, have a ragged and vagrant look, and appear to wander homeless about the sky, for there is no golden fire in the far west now for them to gather about, and sun themselves in its warmth: they seem to move along in doubt and fear, as if trying to find the blue sky they have lost. The woodman returns home at night with his head bent down, feeling there is nothing cheerful to look round upon, while his dog keeps close behind, seeming to avail himself of the little shelter his master affords from the wind, while they move on together. The pleasantest thing we see is the bundle of fagots he carries on his shoulders, as it reminds us of home – the cracking fire, the clean-swept hearth, and the cozy-looking kettle, that sits ‘singing a quiet tune,’ on the hob. We pity the poor fellow with the bundle under his arm, who stands looking up at the guide-post where three roads meet, and hope he has not far to go on such a stormy and moonless night.
But amid all these images of desolation, which strike the eye more vividly through missing the richly-coloured foliage that threw such beauty over the two preceding months, November has still its berries which the early frosts have ripened to perfection. Turn the eye wheresoever we may, during our walks, heps and haws abound on the hawthorn-hedges, and where the wild-roses of summer hang swaying in the wind. The bramble-berries, which cottage-children love to gather, besmearing their pretty faces with the fruit, have now their choicest flavour, and melt in the mouth when eaten, looking like beautiful ornaments carved in jet as they rock in the autumn winds. Many a poor village-housewife brings a smile to the children’s faces as she places her blackberry pie or pudding on the table, for it is a fruit that requires but little sugar, and is a cheap luxury added to the usual scanty meal. Then there are the sloes and bullaces, almost always to be found in old hedges, which at this season have a misty blue bloom on them, equal to any that we see on the grape. These the country-people gather and keep sound through all the long winter, and they are equal in flavour to the finest damsons our orchards can produce. The dewberry bears so close a resemblance to the blackberry when ripe, that it is not easy to distinguish the difference. When in flower, it is as beautiful as the blossoms of the wild-rose, the fruit has also a blue bloom on it like the plum, which is never found on the blackberry; the divisions of the berry are also larger, and not so numerous. Often, is seen growing among the ling, the pretty cloudberry, only just overtopping the heather, for it is seldom more than a foot high, and its fruit is of a splendid orange colour when ripe, though rather too acid to please every taste. Bu7t of all the little berry-bearing beauties, none beat the bilberry when in bloom, for it is then covered with rosy-coloured wax-like flowers, which few of our choice green-house plants excel, and for which we marvel it has not been more cultivated. Birds are partial to this berry, which bears a grape-like bloom, and game fed upon it is said to be as superior in flavour as mutton, fed on pastures abounding in wild-thyme, is to that fattened only on grass. But the fairy of our shrubs – which may rank with the harvest-mouse among animals, and the humming-birds among the feathered race – is the tiny cranberry, which you must bend the back to find, as it only grows three or four inches high. Whether our grandmother had some secret art of preserving these delicious berries, which is now lost – or the fruit has deteriorated in flavour – we cannot tell, but somehow we fancy that cranberries have not the delicious taste now which they had in our boyish days.
The most wonderful plant that bears berries, is the butcher’s broom, which may be seen covered with fruit as large as cherries, in the very depth of winter. Both flower and berry grow out of the very middle of the leaf, and it would make a pleasant change in our Christmas decoration, as it is an evergreen, and quite as beautiful as the holly. The black berries of the privet remain on the branches all winter long, and are found there when the sprays are covered with the fresh green leaves of spring. These berries are much harder than our heps and haws, and retain their fulness when all the other hedge-fruits are withered and tasteless, though the birds generally seem to leave them till the last, as if they only ate them when nothing else could be got. They make a grand show with their large clusters amid the nakedness of winter, though almost failing to attract the eye now if seen beside the wild-cornel or dogwood-berries. Autumn has nothing more beautiful than the wild-cornel, with its deep-purple berries hanging on rich red-coloured branches, and surrounded with golden, green, and crimson foliage, as if all the richest hues of autumn were massed together to beautify it, and wreath the black purple of the berries. Another tree, which scarcely arrests they eye in summer, now makes a splendid show, for the seed-vessels appear like roses, the capsules separating like the petals of the Queen of Flowers, for such is the appearance of the spindle-tree. The woody nightshade, whose purple petals and deep golden anthers enriched the hedgerow a few weeks ago, is now covered with clusters of scarlet berries, not unlike our red garden currants; while both the foliage and berries of the guelder-rose seem kindled into a red blaze. But the bird-cherry is the chameleon of shrubs in autumn, its bunches of rich-looking fruit changing from a beautiful green to a rich red, and then to the colour of the darkest of black-heart cherries, and looking equally as luscious to the eye, though it would be dangerous to eat so many as we might of the real cherries without harm. Beside all these, and many other beautiful berries, we have now the ferns all ablaze with beauty – vegetable relics of an old world – and many of them as pleasing to the eye as our choicest flowers. Where is there a grander sight than a long moorland covered with bracken at the close of autumn? – the foliage of the trees is not to be compared with that outspread land of crimson and gold. And there is such a forest smell about it too – that real country aroma, which we get a sniff of in villages where they have only wood-fires – for there is nothing else to compare with the smell of fern where it covers long leagues of wild moorland.
Many little animals are busy, during the autumn, in laying up stores for winter; for though some of them sleep away the greater portion of the cold season, a change in the weather often causes them to awaken, when they have recourse to the provision they have saved; and as soon as the mild warm weather is again succeeded by cold, they coil themselves up, and sleep again. The hibernation of the squirrel is shorter than that of any of our winter-sleeping animals, for he is up and away as soon as he is awakened by a mild atmosphere, and as he has generally more than one larder, enjoys himself until slumber again overtakes him; for we can imagine, from his active habits, that he is not likely to remain in his nest while there is a glimpse of warm sunshine to play in. The hedge-hog is a sound sleeper, and stores up no provision, though its hibernation is sometimes broken during a very mild winter, when it may at times be found in the night, searching for food under the sheltered hedges, the pretty dormouse coils itself up like a ball of twine in its winter-nest, curling the tail around the head to the other side of its back, as if tying itself together before going to sleep. Should it awake, there is a store of food at hand, which it holds in its forepaws like the squirrel, while sitting up to munch an acorn, hep, or haw, or whatever is stored up, and it is a great hoarder of various kinds of seeds. But a few of these torpid animals store their granaries better than the long-tailed field-mouse; considering its smallness, the quantity of corn that has been found in a single nest is amazing. Even if we reckon it to have carried from the harvest-field a full ripe ear at a time, it must have made many journeys to accumulate so much food. Nothing seems to come amiss to it, for if there has been no cornfield at hand, its hoard has been found to consist of nuts, and acorns, gathered from the neighbouring wood, which has sometimes been five or six hundred yards from its nest. Above five hundred nuts and acorns have been taken out of its storehouse; and as it can hardly be supposed that so small an animal could carry more than one at a time, we have proof of its industry in the hoard it must have laboured so hard to get together. One might suppose that, early in autumn, when the weather is fine, these little animals would give themselves up to enjoyment, instead of carrying the many loads they do to their nests, did we not find proof to the contrary. The ant lays up no store at all, though it has so often supplied an image of industry in poetry. It is not only one of the sleepiest of insects in winter, but when applied as chloroform, soon steeps the senses in forgetfulness. The ancient Greeks were acquainted with its drowsy properties, and availed themselves of it. Some naturalists say that the hibernating animals we have glanced at, spread out their provisions in the sun to dry and ripen before carrying them into their nests. That this may be the case, we can hardly doubt, having seen the ears of corn, nuts, acorns, and seeds, about the roots of trees, at a considerable distance from the spots where they were grown, and in such positions as they could not have fallen into, even had they been shaken down by the wind. The foresight of these hibernating mammals is proved though their laying up rovision against the time they may awaken, long weeks before they retire to their winter-sleep. Nor is it less wonderful to note the going out and coming in of the migrating-birds in autumn; for though all our songsters that are migratory have long since gone, we now hear the screaming of coming flocks in the still night – the clamour of voices high overhead, which is sometimes startling in the star-lighted silence. Most of our aquatic birds land in the night, though long strings of wild-geese are often seen forming a V-like figure in the air, as they wing their way to our fenny and marshy lands in the daytime. If flying low enough, the leader of the van, forming the point of V or A, who seems to cleave the air, to make a passage for his followers, will be seen after a time to fall into the rear, when another bird takes his place, until he in time also falls back, as if through fatigue; nor can there be any doubt that the leader, who first pierces the air, through which the whole flock passes, has to exert himself more than his followers. The heron shifts from place to place in search of food, but, like several other of our birds, is not migratory, though it may be seen in some parts of our island at this season, where is rarely appears during any other portion of the year. It flies very high, and in dull weather may often be heard, while on the wing, far beyond the reach of the eye. At first there appears something strange and mysterious in birds coming over to winter with us, and migrating again at the first appearance of spring, and never, or very rarely, staying to breed with us. One of our celebrated naturalists argues that the sun is the great moving-power; that they are again forced northward in spring by the same impulse which brings back again our summer singing-birds; ‘all seeking again those spots where they first saw the light, there to rear their young;’ and that a failure of temperature and food causes them to follow the sun in autumn. Some think that from the time a bird remains with us, a calculation might be made as to the distance it goes after leaving our shores; that, because some remain a month or so longer with us than others, they do not fly so far away as those which migrate earlier. But the rapidity of the flight of a bird, and its power of remaining on the wing, are objects of consideration; and though the swallow is among the last to leave us, it would fly treble the distance in a few hours than many other birds that leave us earlier, and have neither its strength nor stretch of wing to carry them a great distance. As to the time of departure or arrival of our passenger-birds, that must always depend upon the state of the season at the point of departure; for, as we have before remarked, they can know nothing of the backwardness or forwardness of the autumn or spring in the countries they visit, no more than they can tell before they arrive here whether our April is green, or has had all its buds bitten off by a killing frost, such as we well remember to have seen. A summer abounding in insect-food will cause birds to leave us earlier, after a forward spring, because their young were sooner hatched, and are stronger and better able to accompany their parents than they would have been had they left the shell later, and been pinched while fed by the parent-birds, through a scarcity of food.
By the end of this month our gardens look desolate. The few chrysanthemums that have survived have a draggled and dirty look after the frost and rain, and nothing out of doors, excepting the evergreens, remind us of the green flush of departed summer. There is the tapping of rain on our windows, and the roaring of the wind through the long dark nights. The country-roads are soft, and we stick in the mire at every step if we traverse those rutted lanes, which were so delightful to walk along only a few short weeks ago. Even the heart of a brave man beats quicker, who, after passing a treeless and houseless moor, hears the rattling of bones and irons of the murderer on the gibbet-post, as he turns to enter the high dark wood, which, when he has groped through, still leaves him a long league from the solitary toll-gate – the only habitable spot he will pass before reaching home. For now, in the solemn language of the Holy Bible, we have many a day ‘of darkness and of gloominess, of clouds and of thick darkness, even very dark, and no brightness in it, for the land is darkened.’
November was styled by the ancient Saxons Wint-monat, or the wind-month, from the gales of wind which are so prevalent at this season of the year, obliging our Scandinavian ancestors to lay up their keels on shore, and refrain from exposing themselves on the ocean till the advent of more genial weather in the ensuing year. It bore also the name of Blot-monath, or the bloody-month, from the circumstance of its being customary them to slaughter great numbers of cattle, to be salted for winter use. The epithet had possibly also reference to the sacrificial rites practised at this time.
CHARACTERISTICS OF NOVEMBER.
On the 22d of this month, the sun enters the sign of Sagittarius or The Archer, an emblem said to express the growing predominance of cold which now shoots into the substance of the earth, and suspends the vegetative powers of nature. The average temperature of the British Islands for the middle of November is about 43o.
November is generally regarded as the gloomiest month of the year, and it is perhaps true that less enjoyment is derivable in it from external objects than in any other of the twelve divisions of the calendar. It is popularly regarded as the month of blue devils and suicides. Leaden skies, choking fogs, and torrents of rain, combined frequently with heavy gusts of wind, which shake down the last remaining leaves from the trees, are phenomena of normal occurrence in November, and certainly by no means conducive to buoyancy and cheerfulness of spirits. Summer and autumn, with their exhilirating influences, have fairly departed, and winter, in its gloomiest phases, is approaching, whilst the hilarity and joyousness of the Christmas-season are still far off.
Kalendar for November 1794, Edinburgh Almanack.