IT is November. My neighbors talk about fertilizing their lawns, trees, and shrubs, mulching perennials, and planting bulbs. I am sure that in their minds they see lush green lawns partially shaded by those same trees and shrubs and bordered by brilliant flowers.
That's not what I see. In front of my eyes are bare branches, stripped stalks, brown grass. It is November - the least attractive month of the year - with not a drop of snow to hide under, nor a stray sunbeam to pick up the radiance of a late-blooming weed. In fact, were it not for Thanksgiving, this month might pass unnoticed in the rush toward the December holidays.
Even the name, November, is undistinguished, signifying only its original place as the ninth month in the early Roman calendar. A proposal to rename the month after emperor Tiberius was summarily refused by no less than the emperor himself. ''And what,'' he asked, ''will you do if you have 13 Caesars?'' He was referring, of course, to July and August, which already commemorated two emperors.
Was he perhaps wondering about future problems should another Julius or Augustus come along? Was he aware of what would happen to that rhyme: Thirty days hath Tiberary, etc.? More likely, he simply did not want to be remembered as a dreary month.
As my neighbors continue to make plans for next year, I walk down the narrow brick path to the small garden alongside my house. It is a mass of stalks. Dried tomato stalks, bent at crazy angles, are still tied with scraps of old sheets to a trellis made of used telephone wire. It's hard to believe that only a month ago huge juicy red fruit nestled here in a cushion of soft stems and leaves.
On the pole-bean stalks, one fat brown bean pod still hangs out of reach near the roof of the house. We grow pole beans along wire stretched from the ground to the roof. During the summer, the leaves twine upward to form a natural canopy for our living-room windows, and when we want beans for dinner, we just open the window to pick them.
Remnants of cucumber stalks are twisted laterally along another set of wires, except for one plant next to the beans. It escaped and followed the beans, getting as high as the window ledge before giving up.
I walk to the end of the garden now and start pulling out the dried stalks. They uproot easily. I gather them into a bundle and notice that they still exude an acrid perfume as I trudge across the lawn toward the compost heap. Is this all there is to it, I think. Shouldn't I make a door decoration of these remains, to express my thanks for the harvest?
I put the bundle down and try to arrange something interesting, weaving the stiff stems in and out, attempting to shape them. I sneeze fitfully when the stalks crack in my hands and the powdery residue rises. What I end up with is a formless cluster of what is obviously just a bunch of dried stalks. Perhaps that is why I am not an artist. Perhaps that is why people go out and buy cornhusks for decoration. So I give up, pick up the pieces, and toss everything into the compost.
Back in the garden, I rake up the leaves already disturbed by my uprootings. As I listen to the bamboo prongs scrape across the dirt and pebbles, I imagine that I am scratching the earth's back. This reminds me of the summers many years ago at camp when my friends and I would sit in a circle by the swimming pool and slowly, lazily scratch the back of the girl in front of us. It is this same slow, lazy scratching that I am using now to resettle the garden dirt evenly after a long summer of turmoil caused by creeping roots and rowdy bugs.
All the sounds of dried stalks and leaves - the rustlings and crepitation, the swishing and susurration - are as soothing as the sounds of waves washing against the shore. But these sounds are unique to November, and now I know what November should be called: dried-stalk month.