Another October has come and gone and Dad was not here to see “October’s bright blue weather.” Even though he was born in January in the midst of a blizzard, I always thought of October as his month. Maybe that’s because not an October went by without him reciting Helen Hunt Jackson’s “October’s Bright Blue Weather.” At 88, when he had trouble remembering people’s names, he could still recall all eight stanzas of Jackson’s mid-nineteenth century poem, beginning:
O suns and skies and clouds of June
And flowers of June together
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October’s bright blue weather.
Dad loved poetry and he loved the outdoors. Most of the poems he memorized, the old-fashioned poems he learned as a boy in school, were connected to nature, gardens, or rural life. In April it was William Wordsworth’s “Daffodils“–”Ten thousand saw I at a glance/ Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.”
James Russell Lowell’s “June” heralded that month.
And what is so rare as a day in June?
Then, if ever, come perfect days…
Whether we look, or whether we listen,
We hear life murmur, or see it glisten.
September inspired the recitation of Jackson’s poem by the same name.
The golden-rod is yellow;
The corn is turning brown;
The trees in apple orchards
With fruit are bending down.
Still, it was “October’s Bright Blue Weather” that inspired him the most. He continued to work in his showcase garden, aglow with flowers and shrubs, from early spring to late fall, but he also took time to “leaf peep” on foot and in his car. His wedding anniversary was the sixteenth of October, and he and Mom usually spent it taking a drive and looking at the leaves. Mom was not an outdoor person, but even she was moved by the glory of October. Then, after 55 years of marriage, Mom died and Dad lived alone in his mountaintop home near State College until he broke his hip while out in his garden and had to move to an assisted living facility.
When he could no longer drive, my husband Bruce and I took him for autumn drives through the central Pennsylvania countryside. I especially remember an October day when I had planned to spend the afternoon traveling the gravel roads of Rothrock State Forest with him. But it threatened rain and we almost didn’t go. Just as we arrived at Rothrock, the sun broke through the cloud cover and the leaves glowed.
“I guess God knew that two nature lovers were out,” he said happily.
We saw no one during our two-hour drive in the forest, and I barely nudged the gas pedal, moving slowly enough so that he could identify the colorful trees and shrubs.
Dad and I shared a love of the outdoors, of poetry, and also of operettas. As a teenager, I would sit up until midnight with him, watching the old Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy movies on television. One of our favorites was Sigmund Romberg’s Student Prince. As we drove that October day, I sang Romberg’s “Golden Days“–a song of remembering the “golden days, in the sunshine of our happy youth.” And, indeed, Dad reminisced about other Octobers as he “oohed” and “aahed” over the spectacular color. Now that he is gone, a golden October woods reminds me of that “Golden Days” afternoon with him when the sun backlit a shimmer of golden, scarlet, purple, and orange leaves. And every time I look at our stream, I remember Dad reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Brook” whenever he drove up our road.
I chatter, chatter, as I flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever.
He was part of my life for 63 years, and now he is only a bright memory. Born in a poor, anthracite mining village above Mahanoy City called The Vulcan, he was the oldest of three boys in a working-class family that had always been connected with the coal mines. When he was four years old, his blacksmith father moved the family to Pottstown for a better job. But every summer Dad took the train to the mountains and spent weeks with his mother’s youngest sister, Mary Dresch, a high school English teacher.
Among his chores was the job of picking wild blueberries on mountains recovering from the clearcutting early in the twentieth century. Picking blueberries was something he enjoyed doing well into his seventies. When he lived in southern New Jersey with Mom and their four children during the almost four decades he worked as a chemical engineer for Mobil Oil, he took me and my siblings to his own secret place in the Jersey wetlands to pick highbush blueberries. When he retired and moved to his country place near State College, Bear Meadows was his favorite berry-picking spot. It also recalled his days as a student at Penn State from 1932 to 1936 when he often hiked from campus out to the “Tusseys,” as he called the mountains in Rothrock State Forest.
Picking blueberries at Bear Meadows meant wading through bog water and carrying a berry bucket. One day he lost his footing and his berries. By then our eldest son Steve, who had inherited Dad’s “berry-picking gene” through me, was picking with him and pulled him out. Dad went home covered with muck from head to toe and, as he always did, laughed at his mishap. My Mom was not amused and put her foot down.
“No more berry-picking for you. You are too old for that.”
Dad, ever the peacemaker, agreed, but his face always lit up when I told him we had been picking blueberries at Bear Meadows.
As I walk through “October’s Bright Blue Weather,” I think of Dad’s life and how it has affected mine. When I was a child he told enticing stories about his Boy Scout camping adventures in the “Fancy Hills” near Pottstown. I was enthralled and joined the Girl Scouts, hoping for the same outdoor adventures. Except for one time when our troop camped at a state park cabin for a week, we mostly cooked, sewed, and gossiped at Girl Scout meetings. Still, I persisted, and with Dad’s help I earned every nature badge the Scouts offered.
Dad bought me Chester Reed’s bird guide and a pair of binoculars and I was off in pursuit of my bird badge. I easily identified 40 species in the park below our house and the large tract of wild lakes and woodland at the end of our block. Even today, when I hear the song of a mourning dove, I can conjure up the park, and when I hear a wood thrush I remember my childhood home, tucked in an oak forest, where I sat in a screened porch and listened to wood thrushes singing. With more guides and Dad’s help, I also earned my tree badge and my wildflower badge in the nearby forest.That wonderful tract, where I spent my happiest childhood hours, morphed into an enormous housing development the year I left for college. When I returned home, I could not recognize my old haunts–gone were the woods, and the lakes were surrounded by houses. It was poignantly reminiscent of Dad’s confusion when he took us back to his old haunts from the 1940s and 50s near Pottstown, and found houses instead. We had to imagine, just as our sons had to imagine, the way their parents’ natural landscape had once looked.
Now, our son Mark brings his daughter back to his childhood home on a central Pennsylvania mountaintop and he too records changes–the valleys on either side filling up with homes and highways and shopping malls. Even the mountain itself is being gouged apart for an interstate in one direction and still another shopping mall in the other.
When Mark was a boy, most of the mountain still contained 100-year-old trees, but one by one the property owners around us had their land logged. A few were shorn of every possible tree; others had only those 12 inches and above cut, what foresters now deplore as “high-grading,” taking the best and leaving the rest. As they predicted, not much has grown up in their place and invasives such as ailanthus, Japanese barberry, and multiflora rose fill the empty spaces. In some cases, striped maple, black birch, and even red maple have also germinated, but the forest has not regenerated as it should. Blame it on an overpopulation of white-tailed deer, poor logging practices, acid rain, or even unknown forces. Whatever the reasons, the forest we had around us, except for our land, is gone and Mark, who was intimately familiar with the tree species on our mountain, has a difficult time convincing his daughter Eva of his loss. To her, the forest looks great. It’s the only forest she knows here. What memory will she hand down to her children? What will be there for them to see? As each generation passes away, memories of what once was pass away with them.
Remembering all this and more is probably an appropriate exercise for October. October–month of loss–is like a brilliant meteor that burns itself out. The nights are frosty; the days clear and crisp. Birds flee south ahead of the impending winter. From the ridgetop I watch raptors sail past and wish that I too could ride those updrafts with such grace and beauty.
In the woods I encounter flocks of foraging songbirds pausing to fuel up for their nightly migration. Day by day the forest is quieter. Chipmunks, wild turkeys, deer, bears, squirrels and other wild creatures harvest the acorn crop from our mature black, red, white and scarlet oaks.
Near the end of the month, I sit enveloped in the dark gold of several sugar maple trees that still hold on to most of their leaves as I cling to the last remnants of warmth and sunshine. Another year almost gone; another winter almost here. My life is ticking away faster than I could have believed possible when I was young.
I give thanks for my Dad’s life and for his love of the natural world that formed our strongest bond and I watch the leaves sift down around me, a golden carpet soon to molder so that more life can spring from the soil to which we all return.
When springs run low, and on the brooks,
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting…