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Mike Lunsford

October 8, 2008

THE OFF SEASON: Autumn arriving: The hunt for a red October

I first noticed that autumn had shown up last week, not in the usual way by turning a calendar page or by adjusting my thermostat, but when my wife and I realized that we’d have to leave earlier for our customary evening walk.

We had hoofed our way from the house, squinting into the setting sun, but realized at nearly the same moment on our return trip that the good old boy who had warmed us into rolling up our sleeves was by then nowhere to be seen as we made it back to our doorstep. We knew then that we would have to be moving our departure times up if we hoped to put in the same mileage each night.

A little stand of red sassafras trees delivered the same news in a less subtle way. All summer long I walk past those trees, sometimes snapping off the end of twig as I lope by so I can hold it under my nose. It has a scent that takes me all the way back to my first homeplace, to a pocketknife and the whittled end of a green, speckled stick.

Most trees are just now beginning to turn on us, a change that I look forward to each year, although I know that the season doesn’t seem to last nearly as long as the cold, hard months that follow it. I’ll be raking and piling leaves soon, a chore that I relish after my day is spent cooped up in a classroom, nearly as antsy as my students to get outside, to escape to breezes not forced through filters and vents.

The essayist Hal Borland says it better than I can in his book, “Homeland, A Report from the Country.” In a chapter called “October and Answers,” Borland wrote: “To waken in the night and hear the quiet of autumn for the first time can be a startling experience. You have seen change coming, the subtle shift of the noonday shadows, the weary look of the leaves in the elms, the first drift of milkweed floss, and you have felt the change in the look and feel of the air, itself. But not until you lie in the darkness and hear no cricket, no katydid, not one of the little sounds that are the proclamation of teeming, transient life, are you aware of the possibility of silence…”

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