My heavy flannel shirts have been summoned from the closet. Wood smoke fills the air in the neighborhood most nights now. A trace of gun oil can be detected on my jeans, and I unnecessarily linger outside in the morning tightly holding a hot cup of coffee, just because its warmth in my hands in the cold feels good.
Blaze orange and camouflage are seen everywhere, while clean-shaven faces have become rare. The sun’s rays are gentle, and morning frost on the windshield is comforting. I reacquaint myself with the stove and oven. The windows in my house are rarely open. I lay awake at night thinking about killing birds and animals for their meat.
October, finally, impossibly, has arrived.
When it comes to the tenth month on the calendar, Aldo Leopold, the great naturalist (and also a bird-hunter), probably said it best: “I sometimes think that the other months were constituted mainly as a fitting interlude between Octobers.” I could not agree more, as even during the sweet spot of a Montana summer, my heart yearns for October.
My love for October is peculiar, though not uncommon. From an objective standpoint, October is somewhat ghoulish, as death permeates everything. The leaves, the grasses, the flowers and plants all perish. Ducks, geese, and songbirds, in pursuit of life and avoidance of death, fly south. Hunters, in pursuit of both death and life, head for the mountains. And on the 31st day, all hell breaks loose with kids dressed as Harry Potter sidestepping glowing pumpkins to ring doorbells for a free hit of chocolate.
And though death pervades the landscape, sex, and thus life, pulses in the forests and mountains. Bull elk, having spent the past month breeding the cows in their harems, retreat to dense timber exhausted. Whitetail and mule deer bucks polish their antlers, as their period of lust draws near. The bison rut is well over, and now their shaggy coats are thick and beautiful.
Grizzly bears ravenously wander the landscape in search of nourishment for the deep sleep that awaits them. Ravens eagerly look forward to the gut piles hunters will soon leave for them. With their prey healthy and well-fed after a lush summer, wolves must work harder for a meal now.
And I, whenever I can, go hunting. Rivers, ponds, and lakes, bordered by muted yellow grasses, for ducks and geese. Creek bottoms, dotted with aspens of the purest gold, for ruffed grouse. High alpine glades for blue grouse. And soon, deep in the mountains, for elk.
On Sunday, my wife and I rose well before the sun appeared to hunt ducks on the Madison River with my hero, Aldo the bird dog. We watched ducks, geese, swans, and sandhill cranes fly for a few hours and then called it a morning. We didn’t shoot any ducks, but that didn’t matter. It was an October morning in Montana, and we sat next to a river in the rain and watched the chorus of the wild assemble itself for the day.
A few hours later, at home, I listened to “A Prairie Home Companion” on the radio. It’s a show I love, but one I can’t listen to in the summer, as I’m too restless to relax on a weekend afternoon when the sun is shining brightly outside. But on a cold Irish day in October after a duck-hunt, I can think of no finer way to spend a couple of hours indoors.
Garrison Keillor’s “News From Lake Wobegon” on Sunday relayed the story of a family getting together for their grandmother’s 89th birthday at the family farm. The birthday girl herself, however, was nowhere to be found. But she left a note to be read to her family, which explained that she was skydiving.
As the family digested the skydiving news (one of her daughters hilariously exclaimed, “I knew she was depressed!”), an object appeared in the sky, and, in vintage Keillor fashion, it was their grandma soaring towards Earth from a plane. Following a safe landing in a cornfield, the family rushed to meet her.
Ol’ grandma looked a little disheveled, but she was elated, and, following a swig from a glass of gin, she shed some wisdom on her stunned family. She said, “Do it all. And, if it feels good, do it again.”
When I heard those words, “do it all,” I realized that no three words could better sum up the month of October.
For, in October, life outside begs you to savor it. The cold, the colors, the smells, the death – the sweet purity of autumn.
So Aldo and I roused ourselves from the couch, and we headed into the Gallatin Mountains to look for grouse until nightfall came.
Do it all.
(This story originally appeared in The Bozeman Magpie.)