The Middle of Summer?

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There were two stories on the radio this morning about summer: one dealt with the problems families with children face when they don’t have school to send their kids to during the day, while the other was about our summer music playlist. This latter story led off with the announcer noting that we were halfway through summer. Which of course sent me into all kinds of considerations.

There are several different summers. One is the traditional season that begins at the solstice around June 21 or 22, and runs until the autumnal equinox around September 21 or 22nd. If you’re counting what feels like summer, this is the one that counts. In the Great American Midwest, and plenty of other places, the heat and humidity often last at least that long.

Meteorologists have long used a different reckoning, counting seasons from the first day of the first month in which the seasonal pattern prevails. Thus winter is from December 1 through January 31. Summer is June 1 through August 31. But you see the problem with this, which I noted above. Summery weather can begin sooner and run longer. Meteorologists need well-defined units in which to record statistics about the seasons they study, so this system makes sense. If a summery weather pattern persists too long into what they normally deem autumn, that’s something to be noted. (Except, of course, in the United States, where we have politicians to keep an eye on weather patterns, and we don’t need to listen to meteorologists and other ‘scientists.’)

Then again there’s that summer vacation. When a school-aged kid says ‘summer is almost over,’ it means that summer vacation is coming to an end, no matter the weather. Summer is defined by the local school district and by state laws that say how many days of school students will have in a given year. Increasingly summer ends sooner and sooner. It used to be all schools began the day after Labor Day, the first Monday in September. Now school districts are worried that students won’t have enough weeks of instruction before they take their federally-mandated achievement tests, so in some places they start as early as mid-August. But of course federally-mandated achievement tests are an important part of every child’s education, so we have to adjust our lives to accommodate them.

All of these various ‘summers’ mean something to different people. Summer, like all seasons, is a time, but it is also a feeling, and I think we all know summer when we feel it. Like winter, it is a feeling we both cherish and grow weary of. No matter the date, when it has been too hot and too humid for too long, we all pine for summer to be over.

This is, of course, why autumn is the most popular season by far.

Rain is a Holiday

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Rain was predicted this past 4th of July. The midsummer celebrations always include barbecues, parades, and municipal fairs—all outdoor activities. There are simply no traditional indoor Independence Day activities. There was a good chance that parades would be rained out, that they wouldn’t be able to have the fireworks in Memorial Field. It put a damper on everyone’s celebrations, and there were lamentations far and wide about the unfairness of it all. After all, July is so typically hot and dry, and the weather predictions for the following week were for skyrocketing temperatures and dry, dry, dry. Why should it rain on the 4th?

I rarely complain about a rainy day, even on a holiday. Rain is special no matter when it comes. I mean, water out of the sky? How does that happen? One of the most ancient of Sumerian myths has the two sons of the sky god arguing: one is the deified Summer and one is the deified Winter, and they dispute about who is more important for the growth of crops. Their father steps in to settle the argument: Winter is more important, because without his rains there would be no crops.

But more than that, a rainy day always feels special. A long time ago I was married to a woman named Carolyn. She used to love when it rained, and we would take long walks beneath a large umbrella. This is the right attitude; there is something intimate and romantic about sharing that little shelter, the patter of raindrops on it, the splash of water at your feet, that encourages conversation and closeness.

We once attended Fair St. Louis, the biggest local fair, and one of the best 4th of July parties in the country, on a rainy day. I thought cancelling was the best idea, but she would have none of that. We went to the fair and it was very nice. The temperatures were cooler than normal for July, and the weather kept the crowds small. It was easy to get a beer and a hot dog, to get up close to hear featured musicians, and to find a good seat for the fireworks, even though we got rained on a few times. Our determination was rewarded when the rain held off in the evening and the fireworks went on as usual, everyone oohing and aahing from their soggy blankets on the ground.

Early in the predawn morning I am awakened by the sound of rain. It was a warm night and the window is open and I can hear the rain begin to drop on leaves and on the ground. I know it is falling on the sill and soon I will have to rouse myself and close the window. But I linger against that duty, feeling calm and assured within the sound of the rain. This will be a good morning, cooler and greener, and I hope the rain is still falling when I get out in it.

So many blues songs and popular tunes evoke rainy days as a symbol of sadness, loneliness, and despair. I know, it’s an easy contrast with a sunny day, which is a symbol for happiness and things going well in life. Still, I don’t get it. Everyone complains about rain on a holiday, but to me, rain is always a holiday, a little break within itself, a little remembrance of the cycles of nature and how they can interrupt the artificial lives we’ve assigned ourselves.

Country Bird, City Bird

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During the years I lived in the country, surrounded by woods, I would occasionally visit someone back in town, and occasionally spend the night. Arising in the morning to step out for a walk, I would notice the birds singing. Everyone notices the birds singing, it’s a lovely part of being awake and outdoors in the morning; but this was my observation:

The birds singing in city and suburban areas were always more raucous, louder, and more ebullient than those in the country. In the country there were delightful, distant peeps and trills and calls from here and there. In the city there was always a crush of birdsong, what could rightly be called a riot of birdsong. One would think, from the demonstration they made, that there were many, many more birds in the city than in the country.

But the fact is, there are plenty of birds everywhere. The difference is that in the country there are many more trees to inhabit. In the city, they have to contest their nesting spots all the time. Much birdsong is just that: the announcement to the world that this is the spot where my mate and I have chosen to reproduce and raise our young. It’s our tree, you go find your own. Birds inhabiting one of the few dozen trees in a subdivision, or one of the ornamental trees in a strip mall parking lot, have so much more to to contest than birds who find themselves in a thickly forested area where the choice of trees seems infinite.

During the early 20th century, architect Frank Lloyd Wright spent much energy working to deconstruct the urban environment, to spread things out and reduce population density. His was a utopian vision of prairies of population rather than crowded cities. Of course it didn’t work, and later critics of his work have written that there is one main reason it didn’t: people like living in cities. They find them stimulating and interesting and full of vigor.

Sometimes I hate a crowd, like when I’m fighting to leave a parking garage after a sports event, or trying to find a parking place at the mall around the holidays. But I also enjoy some crowds, like at our local farmer’s market on a Saturday, where you rub shoulders with people of many ethnicities and cultures and styles. Such a rush of sights and smells, and such a cacophony of sounds, of various languages being used, of accents and discussions and arguments. One’s ears are assaulted, like the birds on a spring morning in the city, all quarreling and threatening and making a joyous noise of it all.

You can live in the country, and find peace, space, and time to think, and make little noise. Or you can live in the city, chockablock with ten thousand of your neighbors, and jostle and fight and cajole; butt in line and sneak an extra portion; or you can open the door for a stranger, and say hello and good morning to people you’ll never see again. Either way your song, the thing that you feel you need to say each morning when you get up, is likely to remain the same.

Counting

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I have an odd habit of counting everything that I do. Perhaps it originates in my lifelong habit of exercise, in which I count repetitions of lifts, squats, and crunches. I count how many stairs I go up, or the steps between my office and a co-worker’s office. I count how many weeds I pull when I’m gardening, and how many times I knead the bread dough. I make to-do lists and count how many tasks I have accomplished in a day. When I’m driving somewhere long distance I count the miles driven, and grow more concentrated on the task of counting the closer I get to the destination. I count weeks in a season, the days of the week, the weeks in a month.

If there is a philosophical foundation to my focus on the seasons as a subject of study, and indeed as a way of life, it is the idea of mindfulness: learning to be present in the moment you’re living, engaged with the people and events here and now, and not focused on imagined futures or tormented pasts. I guess it’s obvious that obsessively counting everything militates against that. It puts an artificial layer over everything.

If I’m walking in a park on a sunny spring day, I should be aware of things around me—the breeze, birdsong, voices of children, splashes of geese as they land in the lake—and not on the 572nd step I’ve taken. 573rd. 574th. It’s all a matter of calming one’s mind to be present in the moment. And while I believe I often calm much of my worry about work, or family, or money, or whatever, I substitute for those things this incessant counting.

I practice yoga usually 5 or 6 days a week. One of the goals of yoga is to calm one’s mind and concentrate on perfect stillness, to listen only to one’s breathing. For this reason many students of the discipline adopt a mantra, some calming word to repeat in the mind to still all other thoughts. It never works for me. I find myself counting the breaths I take while holding each pose. The counting seems to drive out many other thoughts, so maybe that’s good; but the counting itself is a problem.

Humans are obsessed with counting, and the counting of time in the year is the most glaring example of it. We have never been comfortable admitting that counting is our thing, our obsession. We want to believe that the universe is orderly in a perfect, countable way, that our various deities created it just so. We were long loath to admit that it wasn’t really that orderly. We counted by the moon, which was always a mess. Lunar-based religious calendars still in use have holidays happening all over the year. Once we settled on the solar year, or the tropical year, things settled down, but not completely. There is the problem of leap year, making up for the fact that we have laid the year out in a number of days, and once we have counted 365 of them, the universe still has ¼ day hanging there.

When it’s hot we count how many days of summer are left, as if once we pass September 21 someone will flip a switch, the temperature will cool, the leaves will turn, and we can get our sweaters out. In reality these are gradual changes, everything happening on an innumerable continuum. But we don’t stop. What is supposed to by cyclical we try to make linear; what is ineffable we try to tally.

I wish I could stop counting things all the time; but I don’t think the problem is mine alone. I think we all need to think about what purpose our constant enumeration of things serves. And now I will publish this little essay to WordPress, and start counting how many people read it . . .

Cucumbers

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When I was a boy my grandparents lived in a succession of small western Tennessee towns. The names of the towns were typical and prosaic—Edith, Ripley, Dyersburg—but my siblings and I had a field day when they moved to a spot called Frogjump. We’d visit in summer, and the funniest thing to us was that we found the place to be truly almost infested with frogs. I was young and nothing of a naturalist or explorer at the time, so I don’t know if it was because there were nearby creeks or ponds, but there were frogs everywhere. My grandfather was the Baptist minister, and we attended church twice every Sunday. In the cool of the settling evening after late services, the local boys occupied themselves with catching frogs and hurling them to their deaths against the stone walls of the church.

My grandmother always kept a garden, but her garden in Frogjump is the one I remember most vividly. Maybe it’s because it was more successful than others. For one thing, she got a bumper crop of cucumbers one year. I would go out with her in the afternoon and while she weeded I would lift leaves and scrounge until I found a cucumber. It was a thrill, finding the big vegetables, all dusty and covered with scratchy prickles. And it was a thrill when she’d say to me, ‘Another one! Look at you! You’re so good at finding them!’ I was good at finding them. It was my special skill, my first indication that I was going to enjoy gardening, that I was going to be good at it.

When I was older and had homes of my own, I always put in a garden. Whether large or small, I always feel best when there is something that I am growing. Which is a funny expression in itself, because nobody truly grows anything. They just initiate the process by putting seeds in likely soil, watering that soil, and waiting for sunshine and warmth to have their effect. But again, I always feel best when I am participating in that process. It’s semantics, I guess.

But what stood out mostly for me is the fact that in general, I wasn’t that good at it. I didn’t take seriously the need to prepare the soil properly. I was impatient and would plant seeds that called for warm soil weeks before it was time. I’d complain to anyone who would listen about the bad seeds I had bought, secretly knowing the seeds had probably been just fine until I had consigned them to a frosty death in early March. I didn’t fertilize much, so plants that did grow were reluctant to produce any vegetables or fruit. And weeding was a chore I never took seriously, even though if I harked back to memories of my grandmother, weeding was the activity I saw her do the most in her gardens.

I eventually learned. I had some good teachers, and I read a lot. I have had plenty of successful gardens. I have learned that gardening is one of the most seasonal of activities. We mostly think of it as spring planting and summer’s abundance. But in autumn, after everything has been picked, the process of turning the soil begins. Even in the winter months, on any day warm enough to allow, you can be out there checking on the soil, tilling it one more time, getting it ready for spring planting.

Harvesting, the actual thrill of picking ripe vegetables, occupies less of your time than any other gardening activity, although to most of us, it is the payoff. And that’s what else I have learned. To experienced gardeners, every step is part of the payoff. All the preparation of the soil, laying out rows, patiently waiting to put in the seeds or bedding plants at the proper time, each step is gratifying and understood to be part of what leads to the harvest. Picking those cucumbers is the delight of children, and of fond grandmothers who seek to encourage little boys.

 

The Birds

The desk in my third floor apartment looks out on a large tree. Funny that in three years spent wandering a wooded area, I did not learn my trees better, and I don’t know what sort of tree this is. Perhaps as spring comes on and the leaves come out, it will be easier to tell. There are only a few trees, like the shag bark hickory and the birch, that I can identify by their bark.

Still, sitting at my desk I have already seen three different kinds of birds in my one tree, and this morning it was the setting for a nearly perfect moment. I was drinking tea and pondering the text of the book I’m working on. In the background the classical radio station began to play Respighi’s The Birds. A pair of pearly gray pigeons alighted, as if on cue, on a large branch just before me. They went into what can only be described, quite literally, as billing and cooing. They snuggled, they ran their bills through one another’s feathers, they moved a few inches apart and spent a minute feigning indifference, and then went into another round of affectionate bonding. Then the male hopped on the female’s back. He was off quickly. I couldn’t tell if he achieved his aim. After a few more minutes spent ducking their small heads together and rubbing wings, he was on top of her again, a little longer this time. Once off, they both sat unmoving for a few minutes. Then she slowly began to wander off, as if distracted by something she had to do. Once she had stepped about a foot away from her partner, she took wing. He followed suit a moment later, though notably, flying in a different direction.

Ah, what is love! In poetry, in our own imaginations, even in cartoons, we see these simple behaviors of birds and other animals as mimicking our own emotions. Surely all the fond rubbing of heads and fluffing of feathers is expressive of affection, like we would hold hands and embrace, whether or not it is leading inevitably to mating. But with these birds, it was leading inevitably to mating. I know little about the mating patterns of pigeons. Will they become a nesting pair, the male helping the female to feed and tend to her little ones once they are hatched? Or does he just fly off, perhaps to find another likely mate on another tree on a sunny Saturday morning?

It is one of the great questions and debates of animal behaviorists, whether the animals experience emotions as we know them. I only know that I was so absorbed in watching the pigeons that everything else stood still around me. I didn’t even notice when the Respighi piece concluded. And I don’t know if I was so taken by the scene out of simple interest in the birds’ behavior, or because I was projecting my own feelings of loneliness onto them. I think there can be nothing more difficult than scientific objectivity, especially when it concerns animal behavior.

Sameness and Difference

Last night, well past midnight, I was awakened by what I took to be the sound of gunfire; five or six sharp cracks in quick succession. Startled awake I raised my head and listened for some result—screams, angry voices, sirens racing to the scene. All I discerned were perhaps some muffled laughs, and then the silence of the night closed around me again.

So this is life in the city, I thought. Gangs, guns in the hands of dangerous people, disorder and peril. But upon rising this morning I replayed the incident of the previous evening and recalled that in the three years I lived in the country, there was rarely a day that did not include the sound of gunfire, either in the distance or frighteningly close by. Random bangs that sounded like shotguns, the sharp crack of handguns, or the rapid fire of automatic weapons, drilling bullets into otherwise still Saturday or Sunday afternoons. Who knows, who can tell if these firearms were in the hands of responsible or irresponsible people? Why did I never worry that a crime was probably being committed, that someone was being gunned down? What is the difference, really, between hearing weapons fired in the country and in the city?

There is more noise in general in the city; it’s more traffic, mostly. And more light. Streetlights filter in through the still curtainless windows of my small apartment. There are way more streetlights than I consider necessary. You almost have to look up to see that it is night in the city, when only the sky is dark. Everything else is illuminated well enough to read fine print. In the country, night is dark. You can tell when the moon is full, or close to it, when you step out, without looking up to see it. The light fills the ambient darkness. You know why people in times past worshiped the moonlight, or spoke of its spiritual qualities, by the way its nearly physical presence envelops you. It would be nice if urban planners could design streetlights that dimmed in proportion to how much moonlight was available, so city dwellers could experience it.

I have smiled at, said hello to, or been ignored by more people in the past week than in the entire last three years. They are just there. I feel like Gomer Pyle, like someone who clearly does not belong, but wants to be accepted, putting my friendly face out there in an environment that does not always reward a forthcoming attitude. It’s hard to say if people in the country are kinder or more friendly; certainly that’s the stereotype, but there are so few instances to test the hypothesis that the idea must remain anecdotal at best. All I know is that wherever I am, I regard most people as pretty much the same; kindhearted and selfish by turns, and unpredictable once you put a gun in their hands.

 

Just Another Excuse

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The other night the TV weatherman posed an interesting question. Which season, he asked, do you think is warming the fastest here in the Midwest? Turns out it’s winter. Out west, it’s spring, but here our winters have been averaging a few degrees warmer every year.

This is of course an effect of the global warming that is not happening. The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree that global warming, or what they are now calling climate change, is the greatest problem facing our planet. Fortunately we here in America do not have to listen to scientists, because we have career politicians to keep us informed.

It is only a few days before Christmas and I have not worn a coat yet this year. Yes, sweaters and light jackets, but no heavy coats yet. This is unheard of, or nearly so, in the Great American Midwest. This is either cause for concern or jubilation, depending on who you talk to. Some people like the cold weather and miss it. Some hate the cold weather and remind us that it will soon get cold enough. January and February will be frigid and icy, just you wait.

I heard a botanist the other day saying that our climate here in Missouri is now mimicking the climate of Arkansas, the state due south of us. I’ve been to Arkansas often, and I note that the same crape myrtle that doesn’t bloom until August around here blooms in May there. So that is a significant climate shift. Except of course for the fact that it is not happening.

One thing I have often noted about people’s interactions with the seasons is that they are most compelling in their changes from one to the other. People who have a favorite season like the transition to that season most of all. Autumn is the favorite season of more people than any other, with spring close behind. Summer and winter are distant contenders. When you ask people what they like, they usually cite the change from summer to autumn, or from winter to spring. It’s change they like, the feeling of something welcome and new: cooler days after the heat of summer, warmer days after the chill of winter.

I’m the same way. I try to be creative in my life, and I find that creativity peaks when change is in the air. Lately I’ve felt a little stymied in my creative endeavors, and I am now choosing to blame the weather. Winter has been dilatory in arriving, if indeed he ever intends to get here. Those long, cold afternoons spent indoors with books and papers scattered about are a distant dream. I’m sure it will come though, just as sure as I am that once it does, I’ll be able to find another excuse for my lack of creativity.

Bullseye

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I have always enjoyed the game of darts, though believe me, I’m not good at it. An old hand at the game gave me an interesting piece of advice a long time ago which proved to be somewhat helpful. He said that if you want to hit a bullseye, don’t aim at the bullseye. It’s too small, and nobody can hit that. Aim for the center of the next larger ring surrounding the bullseye. It’s easier to hit the middle of something bigger. I know, you are already sputtering with objections that this makes no sense, and it’s all the same thing in the end, just described in different terms. But it’s not.

I live in my own little bullseye of land. Eighteen acres, which for people living on postage-stamp yards in cities and suburbs sounds like a lot. But in the scheme of things, it is not a lot, and the longer I live here, the more I realize this. I have seen this picture that people post on Facebook and elsewhere that shows our whole galaxy spinning away in its immensity. There’s a small arrow pointing to, well, to nothing that you can see, really, and a message below it that reads, ‘You Are Here.’ The idea is that people with strong opinions about every little thing, who are convinced that those opinions matter, might want to put their lives in perspective.

But imagine that the arrow in the picture is a dart, and it is headed to me. It courses through all those stars to our solar system, down to Earth, to North America, to the United States, to eastern Missouri, to Jefferson County, to my patch of land, my own little bullseye. Will the arrow hit me? Is that where I am?

When I write about the seasons, and about climate, I always describe things here in the Great American Midwest. But the Midwest is a huge area, and includes much climatic variation. There is a lot of snow just to the north and west of here, but we have seen none yet this year.

When I run in the morning and the sky is clear, I can’t help but look at the stars all around. Here in late autumn Orion has shifted far to the east, while the Big Dipper still spins in its same basic place overhead. My heart leaps up and out of me, to the stars and beyond. I feel I am part of the universe, mere stardust.

So between child of the stars and American Midwesterner, one of my main concerns has always been to ask where am I? Am I here in High Ridge, Missouri, or am I at the center of something larger? And if it’s something larger, how much larger? And to me, the question is not so much how much larger do I go, but where can I feel that I am the center of something?

If your feelings are important, if your opinions have worth, if your thoughts matter, if your efforts produce something, if your relationships enrich those around you, it is all because you are grounded in something, and finding that something is maybe the greatest goal of life.

I’ll say one thing: this spot of land, for all the work it entails, is the only place I have ever lived that feels like home to me, that feels like it could contain some part of my identity, if only I keep looking for it. It is my own little bullseye, and I am always working to perfect my aim.

 

Reptiles & Amphibians

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As the season changes from summer to autumn, some of the first things to disappear are the reptiles and amphibians who inhabit this land I work. In the suburbs where I used to live, the rare animals I encountered were mostly mammals. Possums on the streets at night, sniffing around our neighbors’ trash cans. Squirrels eating our bird seed, invading our fruit trees, vegetable gardens, anything they could imagine as food. The occasional skunk leaving an aroma that stretched for miles, and the occasional raccoon outsmarting any attempt to seal it off from a free dinner.

Out here I see more reptiles and amphibians. Skinks dash from cover to cover ahead of my weed whacker, and salamanders, fluorescent orange with black spots, turn up beneath rocks. Turtles shelter in deep grass as my mower passes overhead. Snakes climb trees to get at the birdhouses I put out. Toads of all sizes appear everywhere, including tiny, reddish brown specimens that abound in the compost piles. One day I was turning soil in the garden and a larger toad jumped out and sat by the edge of the garden eyeing me for a long time, ruefully pondering where I got the nerve to disturb his morning. Life is so rich beneath the grass around here.

Of course we have the usual mammals here, plus coyotes, groundhogs, and deer—lots of deer. People always say things like ‘this is their land, we are the invaders,’ and I agree. But the funny thing is, our land is an old farm. It is part of the old Brooks Farm, which encompasses our land and two parcels on either side of it. The Brooks Family, as I have been given to understand by neighboring farmers who know these things, worked this land for several generations. So if we are the invaders, it was an old invasion, and yet the incidence of wildlife has scarcely abated. There is just too much surrounding forest.

Time is relative at the same time it is absolute. Someone could say, ‘My pappy farmed this land, and his pappy afore him and his pappy afore him . . .’—and it all sounds like such a stretch of time. But that little skink, could he talk, might also say, ‘My pappy lived under rocks out here, and his pappy afore him and his pappy afore him . . . this summer.’ It’s all relative.

But what sets it apart most starkly from the suburbs, to my way of thinking, is the amount of reptiles and amphibians. They seem less adapted to sharing the land with humans than the local mammals. When I am cutting deep grass, especially in the pastures, I see little guys scuttling off to the front and sides of me, mostly mice. But the reptiles are less wary. I have mown down snakes, and shattered turtles in their shells, making a sickening thud beneath the mower. I have seen lizards speed away from my advancing clippers with obviously shortened tails. Why don’t they run off as quickly as mice and moles and voles? Do they think that simply being still, hiding out, skulking below ground is a good survival strategy? Because I am coming. Not coming for them, but coming just the same.

And now autumn is coming, and the reptiles and amphibians are going away, to wherever it is they go in the colder months. I’m sorry, I kind of forget my high school biology. I’m supposing they hibernate. This morning I was in the barn before the sun was up, throwing hay to the horses and donkeys. I stopped a moment and looked out the back door to see Venus glowing like a jewel in the eastern sky. Then I looked down at my feet and saw a toad. I said hello to him, and offered that I had just been writing a little essay about his kind. He seemed unimpressed by the information, but toads, as you may be aware, are not easily impressed.

At any rate, I think he’ll be one of the last I’ll see for several months. Things are closing down, drawing in, building towards the darker, calmer, inside weeks. I will shelter where I can, as the reptiles shelter all summer long. And we will all meet again next year.

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