“April is the cruellest month.” So wrote T. S. Eliot echoing Chaucer in what may be the most famous English poem of the twentieth century. Eliot had good reasons for opening “The Waste Land” the way he did (even for spelling “cruellest” with two els), and, rest assured, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Nevertheless, I ask you: Is he right? Is April—showers, thunderstorms, and all—really so cruel? With all of that rain, we get more than our share of early beauties: budding and sometimes leafing trees, the faint warmth that anticipates May, and, in much of the South, azaleas and dogwood in full bloom.
Of course, that was Eliot’s point: the pains of rebirth that leads to a glorious renewal of life and the ironic resistance to it. A whole lot of people, the “Waste Land” tells us, honestly do prefer death and damnation. But even in acknowledging Eliot’s prescience, I argue that there is at least one month that may be as cruel, and we’ve just about seen the end of it this year. Get the hint? October is the near-“cruellest” month. You may think otherwise, but I’ll offer my reasons.
Unlike April, a month in which Spring is steadily hard to deny, October teases us with Autumnal delights and then yanks them away in a manner one can only describe as heartless (read: cruel). For me, as indeed it must be for many, this seesawing con game rankles the nerves. By October first I’ve had it with summer, even the Virginian summers, which are nothing compared to the Texas five-to-six month hell I experienced for much of my life. September plays its own games with those of us longing for cool weather, but who doesn’t expect that?
Ah, but October by all rights should be cool. The thing is, it’s not, or not enough for me. Year after year, a late September cool spell gives way to a comparatively sweltering first week of October. Followed by the second week. Yes, things begin to change by the middle of the month, but even if the first frost or freeze hits before the third week ends, as on the average it does in Virginia, a late Indian Summer or, worse, a rainy, late Indian Summer might spoil the effect.
You might think the payoff would be the leaves, and you’d be partly right. Yet herein lies a tale. In 1984, the first year my wife and I spent in Virginia, my parents decided to pay us a visit. When to come? As newcomers, we couldn’t say. My father had read a piece in the Dallas Morning News about the Virginia autumn and the glorious vision of leaves red and gold. “A riot of color,” the writer described it, assuring his public that the great change would display itself as early as late September. I don’t blame my parents for believing him, but the man was ignorant as dirt of what really happens in Virginia.
When Mom and Dad arrived in early October, they found the trees as green as they would have been in a Texas May; a car trip to Bluefield, West Virginia made no difference: green, nothing but green. We had a good time, but fall colors had nothing to do with it. If memory serves, it was hot too.
As I write, it’s raining, and out my window, I have a splendid view of a tree-lined ridge. There’s a golden tree or two, but everything else appears a tired green. Truth is, by now in the fourth week of October with three or four freezes behind us, the trees should have become the riot of color the poor sap at the Dallas Morning News convinced himself was the stuff of late September.
Alas, 2018 has recorded more rainfall so far—six inches more—than Virginia would normally expect for the entire year. The problem? I don’t speak on authority, but someone told me fifteen years ago or more that too rainy and too dry years alike ruined the fall colors. So it seems. A tree down the street, a stately maple that dwarfs the houses nearby already looks faded, past peak. It has changed its colors, all right, but it will not proclaim autumn as it has in numerous years past. Trust me: if you’d seen it in its glory, you call its current state one of nature’s cruelties.
Yes, I’ll admit I’m being a genuine crank about this. Autumn usually burst out splendidly enough in late or mid-October; that initial frost makes all the difference, along with the shorter days. Yet, kind as past autumns have been, this one is cruel. I won’t qualify the judgment. The trees will make their half-hearted efforts at riotous color, but by the time they do, they will have lost half of their leaves. In truth, it’s already happening.
Will next year be better? I pray to God it will, but, of course, only God Himself knows. That’s the life we live in an imperfect world. One day a new heaven and earth will dawn, and although some anticipate that world of Divine beneficence as a perpetual spring, I hope for seasons. The Texan in me wants as short a summer as possible—but I’ll take a few days of non-infernal heat. But no autumn? It’s almost beyond contemplation.
Red, gold, orange, and even a few light green leaves must be part of the glorious new world to come. This year I have to imagine them from past experience and settle for the fully predictable pleasures of Oktoberfest. And who can say? After a liter or two of German beer, even a dull October may not seem so cruel.