Watch Live: The Washington Ideas Forum 2014

October Frost

Josephine Johnson is a native of Missouri whose first short story appeared in the Atlantic and who won the Pulitzer Prize with her beautifully descriptive novel, Now in November. Three years ago, she and her husband bought a majestic house a hundred and thirty years old on the outskirts of Cincinnati. In this essay she depicts the explorations which she and her children have carried out in the early autumn on their three surrounding acres.

I am happy to report that all who contemplate living off the land in the manner of their ancestors can be certain of one meal at least which, if not a square one, is edible in a microscopic fashion. For the little potatoes tasted like big potatoes and with salt and butter they struck the children as something very rare and special, and incredibly edible for costing nothing. We followed this with a few things that someone else had raised with the hoe and plow and the spray—big slices of fried eggplant and the polished green peppers and enormous yams, dry and sweet with brown sugar, and a salad of yellow-pear tomatoes, luminous and shaped like little flasks—and nobody's appetite seemed much diminished by his first course of wild starch.

There comes a moment, usually in the middle of October of each year, when, though much else is drying, disappearing into a stalky color, and the woodpile vines are shriveled and brown and the white fungus hard, the maple reaches its peak of gold perfection. Every leaf is a clashing, moving jewel, leaves of beaten gold, and it shines through the dark pine trees like an army of angels coming down in rays of light. For a day, if there is no wind, it stands there, a great gold burning bush, absolutely still, awesome in the shape of beauty beyond which there is no further shaping, and then the wind rises. That which was before only the movement of a bird is the falling of a leaf. Then another leaf detaches itself and sails downward and then a shower of leaves. In a few hours the gold is thinner, the emptying tree is no longer a burning cloud, the shape of the branches comes clearer and clearer under the descending shower. By morning it is all over and the maple stands gray and anonymous like the framework of a fountain, winter stilled above the great yellow pool of its own leaves.

The far, strange origins of Halloween, when the ghosts of Celts came whimpering in from the frosty pastures and the empty Irish woods, to warm their wasted hands by the peat bog fires and the warmth of their living kin, are lost now in a welter of dime store witches and soapy windows. The ritual and the legend are become prank and established local custom, as does anything that lasts beyond the wonder of religion and of awe. And life, being more precarious, death more widespread, less uncertain, we no longer build the Coel Coeth bonfires as in ancient Wales, and cast the life or death predicting stones, for omen of who lives or dies before the wheeling year brings back Allhallows Day again.

The dual heart within us both rejoices and regrets the passing of this terror and this awe. Or perhaps it is only because we are too old to bob for apples and beg for candy, that we think of Halloween now as cardboard pumpkins in the first-grade windows, of crayon witches all alike, and children in their costumes, distinguished only by the vast lack of imagination displayed in each. Since we are no more rosy-faced among the rosy apples, nor smitten to the heart by gypsy bangles, nor terrorized by painted skeletons, we seek our awe in conjuration of another century when the legend was both real and new, and forget that we could re-create that child to whom the platitude held terror and delight because she herself was new.

Some night late in autumn will come one of those seasonless hours of darkness and warmth when, in the October moonlight, leaves will beat suddenly against the kitchen pane, and a great flowing wind will pour through the barren maple branches. And there will seem to come to one a revelation of enormous freedom out there in the darkness where the witches begin to ride and the bodiless souls go rushing down the wind. Grease will grow suddenly cold and gray in the dishpan, and the baby cries out with pure meanness. There will be a vision of years and years of anxieties unresolved of waking nights, of measles, of heartbreak and decisions, of the responsibility upon us to protest and the responsibility to conform, the burden of example and of kindness, and suddenly will come a knowledge of that freedom we have never known—the weightless, boundless disembodied freedom of the soul who has bartered flesh and blood and made his night pact with the smiling Satan. Is it not very near and close, this hour of the flying leaves, this promise, and this revelation?

Presented by

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy. It's very organized."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Maine's Underground Street Art

"Graffiti is the farthest thing from anarchy."

Video

The Joy of Running in a Beautiful Place

A love letter to California's Marin Headlands

Video

'I Didn't Even Know What I Was Going Through'

A 17-year-old describes his struggles with depression.

Video

Google Street View, Transformed Into a Tiny Planet

A 360-degree tour of our world, made entirely from Google's panoramas

Video

The Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In