AMATEUR NATURALIST

The ancient moment of midsummer

On a wild rose, an ancient rite of summer.
On a wild rose, an ancient rite of summer.
Posted July 17, 2011, at 4:37 p.m.
Last modified April 22, 2012, at 1:18 p.m.

In mid-July there’s always a sort of pause in the dash from summer to fall. A slowdown, like rounding a bend in the pavement. It doesn’t last long, maybe five minutes when you’re looking out over a new-mown hayfield, or maybe a week or two if you can get hold of it in your mind and watch.

It’s pretty much seamless — August and September are right around the corner — but it’s right there, closer than you think. Goldenrod and Queen Ann’s lace appear magically along the edge of fields. Steeplebush blossoms arise like dust-pink mirror images of meadowsweet. Uncut grass turning brown in the mid-July sun. Lake water on the shore at dusk.

Morning unveils on blue jays and doves overrunning the feeders at our small log house. This summer the chickadees and nuthatches have vanished into the woods, but family phoebe is back, with their nest under an eave and a perch in the birches for their ancient bug hunt. Honeybees loud in the roses. Goldfinch wingbeats. Sumac blossoms like little light-colored Christmas trees. Ants and especially slugs have had population booms this summer; walking from the driveway to the porch it’s almost impossible not to squash them. White admiral butterflies — jet black with white trim — have been as abundant as the slugs, and so have the big yellow and black eastern swallowtails and the white tail dragonflies, large, beautiful and ferocious.

More cobwebs than usual have been built in the Shed windows and cabled from bookshelf to bookshelf this summer, some with dead wings dangling like paper kites. One afternoon two house spiders took turns tending an egg sac suspended in their web on the back of a lawn chair where my own son was sitting while I tended him during some downturned luck. I didn’t mention the domestic bustle behind him; spider jaws are too close to primeval for him.

My brother-in-law John arrived from California as he does most summers, this time rumbling to the end of the driveway in a rented car at 4 a.m. “I forgot how early daylight comes in Maine,” he said, reminding me of July in Northumberland, farther north and 20-odd years in the past, where midnight’s all a glimmer.

When I stand in the driveway, this early-born and long-lived-evening daylight seems eternally paused. But in scientific fact, it’s dropping slowly and has been since June 21, as the sun steers slowly south again, an illusion created by the Earth’s orbit and tilt. We will not see this length of light again until next May.

Which is a way of saying the whole moment is in a state of ever-present returning. The ancient forest is always everywhere around us, no matter what we think we’re doing. About dusk one evening an awful retching bark came out of the woods just a few feet from the deck. Then rending, slavering, snorting sounds and a terrified peep-peeping erupted and went on for what seemed like forever. What must have been a fox was killing what must have been a turkey. It was close and invisible. The ancient forest is right there. Despite chain saws, rented cars, pavement and space stations, you can feel it, frightening and going full bore in this gigantic midsummer pause that is, in scientific fact, eternity.

Dana Wilde can be contacted at naturalist@dwildepress.net. His collection of Amateur Naturalist writings, “The Other End of the Driveway,” is available from www.booklocker.com and from online and local booksellers.

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