There comes a time in every manís life when he is either going to go fishing or do something worse.(Havilah Babcock)
November. Generally northerly winds have begun pushing the water out of Bayou Teche. Mud flats are emerging along the shoreline where the dog and I have been visiting each evening, looking for my pair of wood ducks that for two seasons have flown upstream at dusk. I hope they come again. It would break my heart if they did not. But it may not be cool enough yet.
I think of them as "my" wood ducks, but thatís just because Iíve grown accustomed to their presence. I donít mean to take the wild out of them. That would excise the very essence of what I love in them.
One month wraps up, another is birthed, but it is only the threshold of the season. The dog and I trod down to a shallow cove, a mere indentation in the bayou bank really, and soon as we near the edge, a school of giant fish erupts from the muck. I donít know what they are, carp most likely, but they suddenly rocket away, leaving huge v-shaped wakes in every direction and mushrooming clouds of mud in the stained water. Their sudden flight both startles and incites the dog, and I think if the mud flats werenít already a dozen feet out, sheíd leap after them. Even now, in her golden years, the puppy within is occasionally irresistible.
November, and the cypress needles are turning brown and the chicken trees red and yellow and orange. I could just jump out of my skin in autumn, but Iíve said that a million times already, havenít I? I canít help it, something about the season makes me feel like Iím going to burst with expectation, hemorrhage with restlessness and blather with the need to walk through the brisk anxiousness of fall.
Havilah Babcock knew. It was November when he took out his side-by-sides and worked with his upland bird dogs. A native Virginian who took up residency and was later chair of the University of South Carolina English department, he so loved this time of year and the wild places within. Most of the time the university administration tolerated his addiction to fall and wild places. But he did get into a little hot water one November when his secretary posted a note on the department bulletin board reading: "Dr. Babcock will be sick all next week."
Though truly often ill with various maladies, Babcock was quick to say, "My health is better in November," and I know precisely what he meant. Be sick in July, August. Not October or November, not May, or June.
Robert Ruark recalled in his own memoir, The Old Man and the Boy, that his grandfather promised, "I wonít die the first day of bird season." Ruark recounted the last days of the Old Manís life in the final pages, and ended the book with the line, "He kept his promise."
Ruark knew. The irresistible call of autumn, the loving caress of November.
November, and the dog and I sit on the dock at the bayouside waiting for wood ducks to pass and, like grandmotherís medicines, they will do much to quiet the leaping and bounding inside my chest when they come. If they come. There was a time when it was easy to vent the pressure of November. In a simpler time, at a tender age.
Because November still feels and smells and sounds like Novembers of decades ago, before the paranoia and before the testiness. In it, I can almost believe I am a boy again, that my knees donít ache with overuse and my back isnít throbbing with middle age. Iíve grown soft and have no calluses on my feet from walking through November, as I once did. Funny thing about growing old: The older I get, the less time and resources I have to be out there, beyond the back door, yet the more I ache for it.
Now the news is saying that weíll be paying four bucks for gasoline by spring. Our fresh water supplies are running out across the world, and global warming will spawn more horrific hurricanes. Our world economy is a fragile thing that can be toppled at the slightest provocation, and terrorism is something weíll always have to contend with. Thereís crazy people out there who abduct kids and do unspeakable things to them. They are safer behind the Playstation, we convince ourselves, than in the old days and with the old ways.
I donít know what kind of world weíve created, but I donít think Iíd call it a better one. In November, as the season tugs and coerces me to burst out of these walls and windows, the very knowledge that I canít is harder to swallow than any threat weíve concocted. If I could, Iíd hang a sign alerting to my forthcoming illness on the bulletin board and only return weeks later with a frostbit nose, sun-burned cheeks and a soul saturated with November and autumn.
But for now, the dog and I sit along Bayou Teche, waiting for wood ducks. I think Iíll hear them, long before I see them. Their wings will resound more loudly in November than any other time of year, because November is like that.
And I guess what makes me most anxious about November is the magic of it. I know, somewhere, thereís a door in November through which it can all be the way it should be again. November is that powerful, you know. Youíll see it, if you look around. Now and then, if you look closely, he might be there. A boy, looking wistfully out of the window at a grove or even just a tree-studded park, while the game controllers lie on the floor behind him and the pixel-generated monsters on the screen fidget as if rejected. He can sense it, sometimes still, because boys know November is magical, even as adults find ways to rationalize and subjugate it to a mere page on a calendar. To just 31 increments in a measurement of the year, no more. Sometimes a boy still knows thereís more to November than what grown-up minds concede. We havenít squeezed all the wonder and instinct out of him yet, thank heavens.