Don is this old retired guy who lives across the street from me. We’re friendly in the reserved, non-verbal way of men, but I don’t know him well. Judging from what I can tell by his activities, tending his lawn is his major passion. In green times he cuts his lawn more than once a week. He trims it with an electric weed whacker and fine tunes the job with a hand-held battery-powered unit. I have seen him sweep his yard with a broom, removing those last few blades of cut grass. The centerpiece of his front yard is a dwarf weeping cherry tree which bursts with white blossoms in spring and is a picture of green symmetry throughout the summer.
It’s hardly news that the American Midwest has been on fire this summer. Record high temperatures are being set one after another, in week after week of ceaseless heat and humidity. The heat is worsened by a persistent drought. People are watering their lawns until the fear of the water bill, or the guilt about the waste of water, or perhaps just the realization of the futility of it all finally overtakes them. What can it matter to keep a carpet of green grass growing when your world has become a desert?
On my drive to work, I see ghastly sights of things dying. Flowers at the entrances to parks, the shrubs lining someone’s driveway, trees in the lot at a grocery store, all brown and as dry as old bones. I think how autumnal it all looks, here in the middle of summer. And then I correct myself. It doesn’t look autumnal. Autumn has a beauty and a grace all its own. This is something else.
This heat is just killing plants and trees. It’s not leading them through their natural life cycles, not allowing them to live out their natural lives. As humans we are accustomed through long experience to these life cycles. We measure our own lives in cycles that mimic those of the natural world: the spring of our lives, the autumn of our lives. The thing we fear most is untimely death, which we refer to often as a death out of season.
My father died very young, just forty-two years old. At the funeral, my grandfather sat in the front pew and cried aloud that it should be him in that coffin, not his son. When he too died several weeks later, I didn’t feel like anything in the natural order had been set aright. Still, this is a common sentiment, and a poignant example of how we dislike when our lives do not synchronize with the seasons. Wartime is the most egregious time for our race, since it signifies an untimely end for so many young people. We glorify the sacrifice to cover the unnatural horror of it.
So no, things do not look autumnal around here. They look as dead as things beset by violent forces, like a wartime landscape. It’s a wonder people can keep their chins up, keep smiling, keep asking one another, ‘Can you believe this heat?’ and ‘Hot enough for ya?’ with a chuckle in their voice. It’s how we deal with it, the human communication that helps us handle almost anything life can throw at us.
Don’s weeping cherry tree is dead. His lawn is brown. I have not seen him out much lately: just once or twice, going for the mail then retreating back to the air-conditioned interior of his home. I wonder how he and his wife are taking this heat. I’d like to go over and say something to him, see how he feels. But I can’t imagine what I might say. The trees in my yard are still green, still hanging on.