All things duly considered, I have to conclude that October is and long has been my favorite month of the year. Mind you, May with all its magic of Earth’s rebirth and greening up glories has to be given careful consideration and runs a close second in the sweepstakes of meritorious months. Still, if May is the miracle of Earth’s rebirth, October is the wondrous fulfillment of that greening up time come full circle to reach full, fruitful glory.
Laying by time has come and gone, crops are ready to be harvested or already have been, the whole world appears gilded with gold, with scattered splashes of scarlet and magenta merely adding emphasis to its beauty, and the natural world seems to have adorned itself in one final, colorful burst of splendor before the grim and gray days of winter arrive. Deciduous trees stand out in all their unrivaled splendor while fall wildflowers — cardinal flowers and wild asters, goldenrod and yarrow, coneflowers and coreopsis, along with an array of others spanning the color spectrum — decorate fields, roadsides, and creek edges. Yet these are but a few of the many parts of the many faces of October, a month gloriously rich with sights and sensations, the bounty of harvest time, and a cornucopia of colors. To me it seems fitting to pursue some of the month’s myriad wonders through offering a literary tip of the hat that can also serve as a sort of reminder of just how much there is about October to give us cause to pause and ponder, full of wonder.
Reflecting back, October was a hunter’s moon, cold gold just clearing the eastern horizon as a farmer left his fields at eventide. The month was a time of the hunter, whether his quarry be bushy-tails or white-tails, driven by impulse as old as mankind’s existence, harbored deep within his innermost being, that suggested the season was one for providing meat.
October was a lordly white-tailed buck in the prime of his years, full of virility and driven by the ages-old impulse to reproduce. He wandered the woods, neck mightily swollen, working scrapes, rubbing his antlers on limbs and small trees, leaving scent betokening his passage, all the while relentlessly searching for does in estrus.
It was a wizened and wise country farmer, a man making his living from land that had belonged to his family for generations, pursuing timeless rituals of the harvest — picking apples from the farm’s orchard; filling a corn crib with full ears of dent corn that would fatten hogs and feed chickens that laid eggs tasting far superior to anything ever found on grocery store shelves; gathering pumpkins to make pumpkin leather, bake into pies, feed raw to the hogs, or carefully store in a root cellar for use in the months to come.
It was a time when that good man’s spouse looked with quiet satisfaction on pantry shelves groaning with jars of vegetables and fruit put away for winter eating, knowing as she did so they represented sustenance from Earth’s bounty and the rewards of hard work through spring and summer.
It was observing wrinkles on the faces of that patriarch and matriarch, spread across their visages like so many streams adorning a detailed topo map, and wondering whether they were laughter lines, ones denoting character and cares, or simply visual testament to lives well-lived.
The month was one delineated by October beans drying on standing cornstalks awaiting the sickle and flail, purslane growing in a garden that had “made” and done its noble duty, fall vegetables such as turnips and chard thriving in the cool nights and bluebird skies under the warm fall sun, and an indescribable yet wonderful aroma in the air telling the sense of smell that fall had arrived.
It was golden persimmons, wrinkling as they ripened and dropping to the ground after making the magical transition from mouth-puckering bitterness to delectable delight.
October was sorghum syrup fresh in the can or jar, mere days from pressing and boiling down but full of promise as adornment for breakfast biscuits for many months to come. An advertisement for Dixie Dew cane syrup, a popular sweetening at the time, proclaimed with sheer promotional genius that it “covered Dixie like the dew” and “gives a biscuit a college education.” Maybe so, but the graduate degree in cathead biscuit scrumptiousness surely involved sorghum.
It was honey carefully extracted from hives and stored for satisfaction of even the keenest of sweet teeth. Flanking the jars of honey were those of apple butter, slow cooked and lovingly stirred to a delicious thickness that promised sheer delight come breakfasts in the midst of winter’s most bitter days.
It was a crisp Saturday morning, with daylight a half hour away, that found an aging grandfather and his eager grandson, one carrying a well-worn single-shot .22 and the other an old hammer shotgun, heading to woods marked by that sentinel of autumn, hickory trees clad in cloaks of gold, for a day of squirrel hunting. Both were buoyed not only by excitement of the coming quest but also by that indefinable yet undeniably real bond that exists where a generation is skipped but blood ties bind.
October was that same country boy, this time on a school day, who rushed home to take to the autumnal woods and do some roaming in the gloaming during an afternoon of squirrel hunting. As he headed home past an overgrown graveyard at last light, he told himself there’s no such thing as “haints.” Yet he whistled and picked up his pace just in case such precautions were needed as slowly strengthening darkness encroached. Then, at just the right moment, he found comfort in the hunter’s moon creeping above the skyline. It seemed so close that deep down in his innermost being, he felt as if it might be possible to touch the moon, and there was tangible relief in its darkness dispelling qualities. He didn’t know it, but that mindset was a subliminal way of linking with the joy of the hunt that stretches back through all of mankind’s existence.
If that lad had a brace of bushy-tails in the game pouch of his jacket, so much the better, for a hallmark of October was table fare from the product of such a hunt — fried squirrel alongside a heaping platter of sweet potatoes baked to a perfect turn with caramelized goodness seeping out and offering a delectable aroma. Partnering with the “meat and taters” was a bowl holding a mess of turnip greens cooked with diced turnips and streaked meat. Add biscuits and a gravy boat full to the brim with squirrel gravy, and you had a meal of the sort royalty was seldom privileged to sample and savor.
It was a sty full of hogs, gorging gloriously on red-rooted pigweed, corn fodder, more than a fair ration of shelled Hickory King corn, inferior pumpkins, bruised sweet taters, the last of the year’s watermelons, and whatever else the good Earth had to offer. Little did the feasting pigs know that their world of plenty would soon give way to Armageddon Day for swine. As soon as the first hard freeze arrived towards month’s end or maybe early in November, their salad days were numbered. Hog-killing time in days gone by was incredibly busy, but if you’ve never eaten fried tenderloin taken from a pig that very day, I would submit that yours has been a life of culinary deprivation.
October was the sweet and satisfying smell of newly plowed ground, with everything turned under to rot in the winter before plowing and planting time returned once more with the glories of spring.
It was the heady allure of nature’s perfume floating on gentle breezes, a mixture of fall flowers, just a hint of dust, ripe or ripening fruits, a touch of sweet decay, a bit of manure from the barn, and more. If you couldn’t smell autumn, your sniffer was out of whack.
October was a sense of quiet satisfaction in knowing that another year of hard work, good crops, and simple fulfillment had come to an end.
It was a broom sedge field turned into a treasure chest of sparkling diamonds as the morning sun glistened with a million beams of brightness after the season’s first heavy frost. It was a kid rich in freedom while having no idea he was poor in worldly goods, riding sleds made of cardboard in that same field once it dried in the sun of a warm fall afternoon.
It was a pack of beagles in training for the soon-to-open rabbit season hot on the trail of a cottontail in the cool of evening.
October was black walnuts dropping to the ground and providing promise of both hard work in the gathering and cracking and rich rewards in the form of cookies and cakes.
It was added pep in an old man’s step on a brisk morning as he looked back with a mixed sense of longing on the myriad days of a simple life well lived.
The month was a pot of leather britches beans soaking before cooking or maybe one of October beans holding a chunk of streaked meat for flavor simmering on the stove. The venison roast slow cooking in the oven, bathed every couple of hours with a splashing of vinegar and honey, were the makings of some mighty fine eating.
It was a well-worn Duxbak jacket hanging on a peg silently begging to be used and an old dog who recognized that this jacket being donned by his master and god meant good times in the fields and woods.
It was the incomparable aroma of Hoppes’ No. 9 and burnt gunpowder or the sight of dust devils dancing across a plowed field on the tail of gentle breezes.
Most of all, October was a month of fulfillment, one that blended the reawakening of spring and hard work of summer in perfect harmony as yet another symphony of nature’s never-ending cycle of death and rebirth, gray grimness and green richness, reached completeness.
In summation, October was and remains a month filled with enduring wonder. I have conscious memories of well over three score Octobers, and the richness of autumn in all her glory eternally stirs my soul and uplifts my spirits. Poets and pundits may not have written about October or offered it tribute comparable to praises afforded spring, but to my way of thinking it’s a time for glory well worthy of praise, remembrance, and celebration.
Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer and the author or editor of dozens of books. His latest work, co-authored with Tipper Pressley, is Celebrating Southern Appalachian Food: Recipes & Stories from Mountain Kitchens.