Summer, in full.
June 10, 2011 § 19 Comments
We topped 100° more than once in May, and according to the calendar summer doesn’t even start until next Tuesday.
And a little worried. If it’s this hot already, what will August be like?
But the official start of summer is a human notion. Each summer comes on in its own way and time, unaware and unconcerned about the calendar.
Most Americans only visit summer anyway. They sprint across its sun-baked parking lots from air-conditioned car to building, they book a week to “do summer,” lured by the proximity of a beach, or the cool of the mountains. They experience few of the ordinary summer days that unfold just outside their own front doors.
“Crazy” is a word often used to describe the summer behavior at our house. I prefer “stoic.” The fact is, my husband and I live in an un-air-conditioned house in Florida. I’ll admit we could never do this in a modern tract house. But ours is a concrete bunker, with a thick slab floor, that sits under a canopy of trees.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t get hot. Sometimes even damned hot. But as a writer, it is my job to witness what the world is up to, and although the calendar insists it’s spring, summer is what the world is up to right now.
And it isn’t just the outside world that is remade by the season. As a resident of summer I slow to match the pace of the long, long days. A kind of torpor takes over, a reining in of ambition.
Orderly thought, which requires an ambient temperature below 85°, evaporates. As the temperature creeps up, thoughts form a buzzing cloud, like gnats. They flicker in the light, no one of them commanding particular attention. Collectively, they make a person say, well look at that, in an abstracted kind of way. It’s too hot to take action. But in this slowed-down state it seems easier to observe things carefully.
So let me tell you about this summer that technically hasn’t started yet. Out at Bluebird, our land in Wakulla County, early spring promised a bumper crop of blueberries, the young green berries thick on every bush. And then the heat came on as sudden as a blowtorch, scalding-hot and dry. The berries within reach of a hose are fine. The ones along the fence in the meadow are desiccated, a condition our neighbor John calls “mummy berry.”
For the first time, a rabbit has broken into the garden. In a bone dry world animals become as resourceful as they are desperate. The squirrels are climbing the tree-fern in our front yard and eating the young fronds. But the dryness has also kept the yellow flies down, and the lubber grasshoppers are fewer in number this year.
Like the animals, I respond to the summer heat with respect and a certain amount of deviousness. I walk early in the morning when the neighborhood is still night-cool, or in the evening as the sun is going down. On a late morning walk I wear a big hat and zig-zag down the street from one puddle of shade to the next. I avoid the noonday sun, when the heat is a nail driven hard.
By midafternoon, as I sit at the computer writing, the fans are blowing nothing but hot air. As the indoor temperature climbs toward 90, the pleasant buzz of being warm becomes irritation.
Since we can’t bury ourselves in the cool dirt beneath a bush, or slide under a rock, or go comatose in front of the fan like our dog, Moo, Ray and I visit Publix for a cool stroll down the freezer aisle.
The biggest test of our stoicism (or craziness) comes when it’s time to cook supper. We move the fans into the kitchen door, put the pans on the stove, turn the burners on, and we cook, in every sense of the word.
Just when we think we can’t take any more, the sun goes down. The temperature drops and we turn the window fans on. Some evenings, hearing the low grumble of thunder, I stand in the yard. As lightning flickers on the horizon, I turn my face up and feel the chilly downdraft.
By full dark the fan in the bedroom window blows cool air across the bed. And by the middle of the night we pull up the sheet, sometimes even the blanket. If you are used to summer’s heat, anything below 80 feels cool. Because the window is open, we wake in the night to the trilling of insects, and just before light, bird song.
It may be hard to believe, but there are pleasures to being really hot. Get really hot, and step out onto the concrete slab of the front porch. The chill beneath bare feet makes you glad you’re alive. The same goes for a sudden breeze on a sweaty neck. A cold drink of water.
The bad news is, the body has to acclimate to the heat. And that doesn’t happen when you spend most of your time in an air-conditioned box. Most of us have real, regular, air-conditioned jobs. Not me. I’m out here, barefoot and ragged, living the Huck Finn version of summer—and doing my job, which is to report back.
Here, on the front lines of summer it is 11 in the morning. Indoors the temperature is 82.4 and rising, outside it is 86 and headed for the mid-nineties.
Later, I will feel the need to go to Publix, but for now the temperature’s fine–and my bread just rose in record time.