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October Has Come Again

By Adam Kelly - Editor Emeritus | Oct 21, 2020

“And October has come again, has come again.”

In the late evening stillness over our small West Virginia town, nestles down between the hills and the Ohio River, sometimes yet is heard the mournful, lonesome sound of a train whistle.

There is an affinity between that faint, far off wail of steam and philosophical reminiscing and reflection.

It has been three and a half decades now since I first encountered Thomas Wolfe’s “Of Time and the River” in one of Ruel Fosters’ English classes at West Virginia University. The sheer delight of the language, all those thousands of words which tumbled forth from the tormented genius of Wolfe in an ever shifting kaleidoscope of images were an immediate revelation. My copy of the work has been read over and over again until its covers are almost gone.

For we have walked, have Thomas Wolfe and I, along “the pavements of a little town and known the passages of barren night and heard the wheel, the whistle and the tolling bell and lain in the darkness waiting, giving to silence the huge prayer of our intolerable desire. And we have heard the sorrowful silence of the river in October and what is there to say? October has come again, has come again and this world, this life, this time are stranger than a dream.”

The annual miracle of the chlorophyll has come again throughout our hills. The leaves are touched with glorious living color and yet the sight seems mindful of mortality. Last month I held a little boy, but six weeks old in my arms. And when he died I was reminded of Wolfe’s sorrowful silence of the river and asked him, “What is there to say?”

“What is this dream of time, this strange and bitter miracle of living? Is it the wind that drives the leaves down bare paths fleeing?…Is it the one red leaf that strains there on the bough and that forever will be fleeing?”

One red leaf falling, one baby boy gone, one mournful train whistle in the night, all strange, all bitter.

“What is this strange and bitter miracle of life? Is it to feel, when furious day is done, the evening hush, the sorrow of lost, fading light, far sounds and broken cries and footsteps, voices.

Music and all lost and something murmurous, immense and mighty in the air?…October has come again, has come again and this world, this life, this time are stranger than a dream.”

For fantasies of our time are passing strange, but not always bitter.

One red leaf falls, fluttering slowly to earth.

For one lone monarch butterfly with deep orange wings flailing is seen low in the sky following faithfully the mighty plan of the Creator. Migrate. He commands. Go south.

These frail winged insects obey. Some traveling many thousands of miles form Hudson’s Bay to the Gulf states.

Talented author Annie Dillard once was fortunate enough to see a full five day migration of monarchs. “The air was alive and unwinding,” wrote she. “Time itself was a scroll unraveled, curved and still quivering on a table or altar stone. The monarchs clattered in the air, burnished like throngs of pennies, here’s one, and here’s one and here’s one and more and more. They flapped and floundered, they thrust, splitting the air like keels of canoes, quickened and fleet. It looked as though the leaves of the autumn forest had taken flight and were pouring down the valley like a waterfall, like a tidal wave, all the leaves of hardwoods from here to Hudson’s Bay.

“It was if the season’s color were draining away like lifeblood, as if the year were molting and shedding. The year was rolling down and a vital curve had been reached, the tilt that gives way to headlong rush. And when the monarchs had passed and were gone, the skies were not asleep but an awakening, a new and necessary austerity…”

And now October has come back yet again, and the dream is of falling leaves and butterflies migrating and mournful train whistles in the night. This world, this life, this time, this dream, this now. One red leaf flutters to the ground, one tiny life disappears. What is there to say? One orange monarch doggedly sails the autumn skies, an indomitable will urging it’s fragile wings onward for thousands of miles. What is there to say?

For the human spirit also soars skyward on this strange miracle of time and life. Life now always is like the one red leaf straining there on the bough, ready to sail downward into decay. When eyes are lifted to the hills sometimes, the soaring spirits can almost be seen shimmering up there in the translucent autumn sky.

For October has come again, has come again.