When the Frost is on the Punkin

When the Frost is on the Punkin

by Dr. Holly Ordway

It’s November in Houston, Texas, and it makes me wistful for the crisp fall weather of New England. A week ago, Houston had a cold snap that made it almost feel like fall — I wore turtlenecks and sweaters for a few days — but now it’s back to sultry 80-degree weather. And the trees still have leaves, green leaves, at that.

Perhaps that’s why I was struck, when looking for a poem to write about, by James Whitcomb Riley’s “When the Frost is on the Punkin.” Except for some vagaries of dialect and local detail, it could easily describe my childhood in New England. “When the frost is on the punkin…” is a very particular time of year, as fall begins to turn in earnest toward winter, but when winter is still just a hint and a promise.

In the second stanza, Riley hits exactly the note that makes fall what it is: “Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees, / And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees…”

Of course we miss the summer — all the richness of scent of blossoms and grassy fields, the riotous color and the incessant activity of all small creatures, winged and creeping, in the sunny warmth of summer days. Now that’s past; winter is ahead. The stubble in the fields is “kindo’ lonesome-like.” But yet the fall has a beauty all its own:

But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze

Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days

Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock—

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

Fall is all about contrasts. Sunlight dazzling the eyes and warm on the skin — and crisp cold air in the lungs. Rich red and orange leaves — edged in the morning with the silver lacing of frost. The exhilaration of an outdoor walk — and the quiet comfort of coming indoors, to good food and the company of friends.

And perhaps it is that sense of contrast, as summer turns to fall, that makes the move so natural from gladness to gratitude; and from gratitude to a desire to share: a sense of well-being that runs so deep that it spills over even to the angels in heaven:

I don’t know how to tell it—but ef sich a thing could be

As the Angels wantin’ boardin’, and they’d call around on me—

I’d want to ’commodate ’em—all the whole-indurin’ flock—

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock!

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