An Ode To October by Jim Casada (copyright 2010)
Not long ago, in one of her daily blogs Tipper mentioned an old-time mountain writer, John Parris, who has long been a favorite of mine. He knew the mountains intimately and from the perspective of an individual who was not only in the mountains but was of the mountains. The distinction is an important one, because it has long been my view that the surest sharing of the lure and lore of the high country, literature which sears the soul and goes to the heart, comes from those whose roots reach deep into the soil of Appalachia. Certainly John Parris was such a man.
Yet this guest blog is not about the man, but I felt these introductory remarks were necessary for two reasons. First, like Parris I am a son of the Smokies with a deep and abiding love for the region, its people, history, and ways. Second, Parris had a pronounced penchant for writing columns which captured the flavor of a season, and it was memories of his offerings of that type which inspired the idea for the offerings which follow, a tribute to the beauty and beneficence of the marvelous month which is October.
October is fodder in the field waiting to be stripped, corn to be pulled for storage in the crib, and pumpkins dotting that field like splashes of orange scattered by fairies.
It’s leather britches dried and ready to store; October beans pulled and ready to thresh.
It’s pumpkins, kushaws, candy roasters, and butternut squash, all gathered and stored with their rich promise of pies and other treats in months to come.
It’s pantry shelves groaning with the bounty of summer and the quite satisfaction of knowing that a summer of hard work has produced a comfortable buffer against the coming hard times of winter.
It’s the juicy tang of a Golden Delicious apple, fresh pulled from the tree—cold, crisp, and providing tasty fare beyond compare.
It’s juice oozing from cane as the traditions of molasses making are renewed yet again, yellow jackets half drunk from feasting on the skimmings, and kids savoring a sampling of syrup as it nears finished perfection.
It’s molasses on the family table, wonderfully paired with home-churned butter to give a hot cathead biscuit a college education.
October belongs not only to the farm and garden, for it is a month giving welcome relief from summer ‘s hard work through the ageless joys of the hunt. This is the time of the aptly named hunter’s moon, a golden-orange orb which, in its gibbous fullness, seems so large when first clearing the eastern horizon one feels a long reach would let you touch it.
It’s a wide-racked old buck, neck swollen with the rut, easing along a woodlands trail while a hunter hopes against hope shifting winds don’t betray his presence.
It’s bushytails working high up in those golden sentinels of autumn, hickory trees, raining nut hulls to the forest floor in staccato-like regularity.
It’s a youthful hunter, carrying a little .410 shotgun passed down from his grandfather, sitting atop a log with barely contained excitement as he waits for a squirrel to show itself for a clear shot.
It’s that same boy roaming in the gloaming, a brace of squirrels in his pocket and a chest bursting with pride at having done it all on his own. He whistles or sings as he walks by a graveyard on the way home, or shivers involuntarily at the eerie eight-note call of a barred owl. He knows there ain’t haints but nonetheless takes comfort as sounds he produces breaking the silence and soothe his worries.
It’s a hook-jawed male brown trout on the prowl, answering the ages’ old call to spawn in late fall.
It’s a fleeting glimpse and thumping heart as a pound of feathered dynamite in the form of a grouse takes flight from beneath your feet as you walk an old logging road.
It’s a hen turkey and her brood of half-grown poults busily working the edge of a remote pasture as they feast on grasshoppers chilled and stilled by the morning dew.
It’s a young boy and his doting grandfather searching patiently for a perfect dogwood fork from which to make a slingshot.
October is the benison of fresh venison, grilling over the coals and carrying the hunter and his family longingly back into a world we have largely lost as they celebrate a successful hunt by consuming nature’s rich bounty.
It’s squirrel and dumplings on the country table. This dish, long an important part of mountain culinary culture is often served, baked sweet potatoes so loaded with goodness that sugar oozes from them to offer a caramelized smell of indescribable wonder, on the side. Joining them will be a mess of greens cooked with several pieces of streaked meat and bits of turnip chopped amongst them, along with a bowl of freshly cooked apples, and a dish of pinto beans with chowchow to complete the feast.
It’s wandering through a sere field on a sunny day, watching dust devils dance in the distance while snacking on ripe ground cherries or the tangy pulp of withered and yellowed maypops.
October is fall flowers and seeds in their jubilant splash of colorful finery—the vivid purples of ironweed, pokeberries, and devil’s club; the rich yellow of goldenrod; the varied orange and gold hues of touch-me-nots; the eye-catching lavender of asters; the vibrant pink of smartweed seeds; the reds of seeds on dogwoods, mountain ash, partridge berries, and jack-in-the-pulpits, and other blooms adorn fields and road edges, catching the knowing eye with every bit as much visual appeal as fall foliage.
It’s mountain woodlands painted by a masterful brush with more hues than any artist’s palette could ever offer.
It’s persimmons turning from yellow to gold, ripening as the nights lengthen and the grip of cold weather strengthens.
It’s the heady aroma of a patch of pawpaws, ripe and inviting as their fruit falls to earth.
The month means hazelnuts littering the ground along the banks of branches and creeks, promising a full measure of natural snack pleasure as they invite squirrels and humans alike to savor their rich flavor.
It’s a young school boy rich as only someone who has found a hillside covered with chinquapins which sprang up in the aftermath of a fire a decade or so ago can be. A pocketful of these aristocrats of the nut world brightens his day and lightens his way, and he is heedless of the fact that a few years down the road he will be nuts about a fetching young girl adorned by dark, shining eyes which match those chinquapins.
It’s a frosty morning late in the month, with a field of golden broom sedge transformed to a world of wonder as a million diamonds sparkle in the early morning sun.
Come afternoon on one of those bluebird sky days of Indian Summer which are part and parcel of October’s bounty and a blessing , a steep hillside adorned with the selfsame broom sedge, now dried and slickened by a day of warm sun, provides youngsters wild but joyous rides as they “sled” on a piece of cardboard.
The month is a time to fatten hogs with ample helpings of imperfect pumpkins, armloads of red-rooted pigweed, and special rations of Hickory King corn shelled from the cob by hand.
These are but a sampling of the sights and sounds, smells and sensations, of a month of fulfillment. Whether you view October as a time to look back in longing to the splendor of summer, to look ahead to the challenges of winter, or merely thirty-one days which find weather in the southern Appalachians about as pleasant and predictable it ever gets, I would hope you derive some of the same satisfaction this time of the year has always provided me. It’s a grand time to celebrate life in that world of wonder we call the high country.
by Jim Casada
Jim Casada grew up in Bryson City, N.C. He retired from his position as a university history professor after twenty-five years to devote his full energies to writing. He is the author or editor of more than fifty books. For more information on his background or to sign up for his free monthly e-newsletter, visit his web site at www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com