November is an in-between month. Autumn is, for the most part, over. The leaves have fallen and have been raked. The rakes have been put away. The landscape, now that the brilliant autumn colours have passed, can appear grey and stark. Nights are long, and getting longer. Many of the birds have migrated, and the rest have moulted into their drabber winter colours. Yet winter itself has not quite begun. The first snows have not yet fallen. Suspended between the colours of autumn and the chill clarity of winter, November is a month of grey.
Or is it? November, far from being a time of dull greyness, is a time when we can sharpen our skills of seeing by looking for the small details that we may have missed in other seasons. At this time of year where I live, the white berries of snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) are easily visible among the now-leafless branches. Snowberry is found throughout North America, and the berries provide a winter food source for birds. Native peoples of my region did not eat the berries, but occasionally used them medicinally, and in some languages they were known as “corpse berries” or “ghost berries” – unsurprisingly, since the berries are a pallid colour with a oddly spongy texture.
A stroll along the path, while keeping a close eye to the ground, reveals the dried heads of asters. Asters are among the last flowers to bloom in autumn, and these dry heads still retain the details of the flower. The flower heads of asters, like all members of the Asteraceae family (including sunflowers, dandelions, daisies, thistles, and others) are clusters (technically called inflorescences) of many, many tiny flowers. Each “petal” on an aster or daisy is in fact a single flower, called a ray flower, and the ray flowers surround a centre of tiny disk flowers. Some members of the family Asteraceae have only ray flowers, some have only disk flowers, and some have both.
The grasses in the field next to our house are dry and brown, and some of them have these wonderfully curled leaves. When the snow is deep, the tall grasses will provide shelter for mice and voles who will spend the winter warm underneath. When the snow melts in spring, we often find the paths, tunnels, and grass clippings that they left behind.
While November may appear grey, dull, and stark, a little attention paid to the small details is a reminder that, while the growth of summer has halted for a while, life will continue over the cold winter months – as it does every single year. Nature is rich in such small details.