October Interlude Tugs at the Heart

October 09, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- October is a magical time, the afternoon light combining summer softness and winter clarity, but as it is so clearly the almost-end of so many things it has a poignancy as well, a bittersweet quality that tugs at your heart.

Migrating robins are passing through, and hawks are on the move. As I walk up along the fenceline young bluebirds, fledged in the boxes I keep up around the farm, swirl ahead of me. They're insect-eaters, mostly, yet generally try to winter here. If it's a hard winter, many will die, cozy boxes to roost in or not.

Along the fence line I walk in near-shadow, slowly and a little bent over, looking through the wild cherries and rosebushes at the alfalfa field on the other side. A bent shadow moves beside me on the springlike green of the October grass. The leaves are only just beginning to change color, but there are walnuts and hickories underfoot.

I am on a murderous farmer's mission, this gentle afternoon. In my hand and that of my bent shadow there is a rifle. About 150 yards away on the far hill, where the alfalfa is sparse, there is a cluster of groundhog holes. I've already thinned the colony out this fall, and the remaining occupants, though fat with good living, are wary.

The alfalfa waves in a little breeze. The field has been cut three times this year, and I'm undecided whether to try to cut it again. October hay tends to be very high quality if you can get in the barn, but with the shorter days and heavy morning dews it can take days to cure. A rain during that time can ruin it. Maybe I'll keep it for late-fall pasture for the cows -- and for the groundhogs.

At a gap in the fence I slip through and sit against a tree, scanning the far hillside with my binoculars. Something is moving in the alfalfa over there. I set up the crossed ski poles I use for a rest and look through the rifle's telescopic sight, and a big groundhog, fat as a sack of grain, sits up, almost in the crosshairs. Something in the woods beyond has caught its attention. Its back is to me.

I could shoot, but the groundhog is near the top of the hill, and if I shoot too high the bullet could go into the woods. I doubt there's anything there, but there might be. The den is lower down the hill, nearer to me, a safer shot. So I sit in the sun and wait, and think about October.

When I went away to college October was always the month when I was most homesick, perhaps because I never got home then. Then after college I missed two more Octobers in South America, and a while after that, two more in Asia. I was homesick there too, especially in the fall. One May I went from Saigon to New Zealand in the hopes of finding something like October there, and while the yellow fall foliage in the South Island 'N mountains came close, it didn't take away the ache.

More recently, as a parent, my Octobers have been a time for Scout campouts, high school football games and that sort of thing. But the Scout is a freshman in college now, and he won't be home this October. He's been so busy I doubt he's had time to be homesick, but parents aren't likely to know such things.

When I took him to college in September I went with him to an orientation meeting in which a professor gave advice to entering freshmen. I thought what the man had to say made a lot of sense, and I scribbled a few notes.

As freshmen, expect to feel disoriented for a while, he said. And don't feel unworthy in the presence of so much brilliance among your classmates; they're just as insecure as you are right now. Make an effort to get to know at least one faculty member well. Try to develop a genuine intellectual passion of your own. And always be suspicious (in the humanities and social sciences if not necessarily in chemistry and physics) of those who insist that complicated questions have exact answers.

Well, the world is full of people giving advice. I've received my share, good and bad, and ignored most of it. And I've dispensed -- thanks especially to this newspaper -- much more than my share. Those who've received it have generally ignored it too.

Leaves fall suddenly on my head from the cherry tree I am sitting against. The shadows are longer, and it's beginning to get cool. I look at the far hillside where the alfalfa thief was foraging and see nothing. I unload the rifle, pick up the ski poles and head for home. Perhaps I'll write a letter this evening to my son.

In the night it will turn much colder. There will be a touch of frost on the grass in the morning, and more leaves on the ground. I'll have to get the calves in soon and send them off to market. Under the alfalfa field the groundhogs will nap peacefully, waiting for spring. I'll take this same walk on other fall afternoons, but without the rifle. The season slowly turns itself over, like a page.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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