Halloween should be pushed back by four weeks: The end of October isn’t scary enough. The evenings are too bright, the weather too pleasant, the wind too still.
Now, late November — that’s scary. The sun goes down before 4:30 p.m. Because your body hasn’t adjusted to the cold, the first 34-degree evening feels like 20 below. There are no leaves on the trees or bushes to block the wind or the view.
I’ve been trying to cram in daily visits to Denning’s Point before it closes for nesting season and the green tunnel has turned into a wide-open peninsula. You can see through to the mountains on one side and the river on the other, and anything that’s been hidden is again visible. “How long has that ruined house been there?” I asked myself for the 16th November in a row.
It’s also louder without the leaves. Last weekend I hiked with my family while a barge headed south on the river. When the water hit the shore, it was deafening, transformed into sound waves rolling across the land. I grabbed a tree. “Why is the river being so weird?” I yelled. My wife and son looked at me in a way that said it was not the river they found weird.
There is a sense of distance in November where there wasn’t before, revealing the far blue edges of the horizon that before was greens followed by yellows and oranges. One name the European settlers gave those rises to the northeast was the Blue Mountains, partly because of the way they appear to be blue as you sail up the Hudson, and partly because the name fit with others: the Green Mountains of Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The latter two names stuck. In our case, some Dutch guy saw a puma by a creek and now we call them The Catskills.
I can’t help but think there was another reason to call them the Blue Mountains. Those who ventured into them had an absolutely miserable time. They named many features after the devil — the Devil’s Path, the Devil’s Kitchen, etc. — and described the narrow gorges of the Catskills as “cloves,” i.e., the devil’s cloven hooves. Given that reputation, the Europeans stayed at a distance and only ever saw them in blue.
There’s a section in Barry Lopez’s 2019 book Horizon, in which he discusses ways of defining the farthest thing you can see. A boundary defines the edge of where you are now. Once something happens that causes you to view that boundary as a horizon, “a world one has never known becomes an integral part of one’s new universe,” he wrote. “Memory and imagination come into play. The unknown future calls out to the present and to the remembered past, and in that moment of expansion, the imagined future seems attainable.”
What is a mountain to you? Something that you keep your distance from or something to explore? Perhaps the most disorienting thing about late November is when the landscape makes that choice. The barrier of trees becomes a horizon of forest that goes on much farther than you realized. There’s a slope you didn’t know about, a rock formation you’ve run by every day for months that was hidden, a stone wall stretching outward. You don’t understand your surroundings as much as you thought you did. Now what?
This is the time of year in which we’re supposed to be winding down. The darkness grows longer, we celebrate the light that remains, we throw another log on the fire and pour another mug of hot chocolate. But every time the leaves fall, it pulls me outside, despite the cold, to see what’s changed.
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