November lacks charm. November lacks charisma. November has neither pop nor pizzazz. Nevertheless, I’ve always had a thing for the month. When I was young, hiking, hunting, or just tramping the woods, I was impressed by its melancholy, the minor-key beauty of its sere landscape, dun and fawn, silver and ash. When
the clocks were turned back and the afternoon light came in low and long, the sadness of it struck me as wistful and lovely.
This romanticism had all but left me when, a few years ago, I was kissed unexpectedly by a reminder of it. It was early in November 2001, with a light rain falling and the dusk sinking into the afternoon. Suddenly, something moved me, some quality of the light reaching back into my memory. It came over me not as a thought or an observation, but as a kind of psychic shudder. “Notice what you notice,” advised Allen Ginsberg. Though I’ve been a writer all my life, I was not inclined to put the experience into words. Nor do I paint or compose music. But I had done some photography, so I turned to that to try to understand what had touched me. I’d never attempted anything as personal or elusive with my pictures; nevertheless, surrendering to an instinct bigger than my doubts, I set out to study November with a camera.
I didn’t get very far that first year. But the next fall, still interested, I committed to a project. I resolved to go out and take pictures each day for the whole month, on the theory that the sum of my work would amount to some kind of portrait of November. Immediately, I was faced with the question of what to take pictures of. I mean, a month isn’t a thing—it’s a passage of time. How to express it? Since that strange shudder the year
before seemed connected to my past, I did what I’d done as a child. I worked outdoors, in the month’s declining light and encroaching cold, immersed in the vegetable world’s annual dance of dormancy and decline.
In no time, I became a connoisseur of dead leaves, much to the mirth of those who knew me, shooting image after image of leaf-strewn parking lots and lawns, and lone leaves on streets and walkways. Connoisseur, however, is really the wrong word, for it implies protracted scholarly study, and I was far from a scholar. Exactly the opposite. I made it a point never to ask, never to wonder, never to learn anything about what I was photographing. I suspended all my usual desire to identify which trees were which, or classify the leaves by type or name. I needed to guide my mind past data and information, toward something less articulated but no less real.
At first, I had to remind myself to remember my project, but soon, going out in the morning became an anticipated ritual of the day. Often, when it seemed that nature was doing nothing but sitting and waiting for the snow, I would make a breakthrough. Other times, when the light and weather seemed perfect,
I would come back without having taken off the lens cap. But the discipline of daily practice changes your thinking. Work, even when you feel no inspiration, is a creative act all its own.
As it turned out, my November pictures weren’t as much about November as I thought. I never did anything with the project per se. But I have been working in nature for five years now, producing pictures that are studies not simply of the natural world but of my inquiry into it. Plants play on our perceptions in particular ways. Often, working on some leaf image in the darkroom, I’ve been struck by the multiplicity of time. On the one hand, I’ve been a witness to the leaf’s degradation, and seen its foliar color drain, its cells dehydrate, its carcass disintegrate and vanish. At the same time, these leaves, hovering in silver and reprieved from decay, remind me of the world’s ever-rolling, everlasting cycle of rebirth. November, though it is a season of dying, is not a season of death. Like the natural world in late autumn, we enter into a period of suspended belief. In
December, our houses fi ll with greenery to stave off the dark forces of winter, and to assert the inevitability of spring.