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Summer Evenings, Past and Present

Bill Meredith

"There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something."
    Thorin Oakenshield, in The Hobbit

(July, 2011) If calendars were clocks they would now read half-past 2011. June is gone; the solstice arrived on June 21, as everyone except Rev. Camping expected, and summer is officially here. Actually, it felt like summer got here three weeks ahead of the solstice; the temperature reached 100 degrees on May 31, and twice again before June was half over. My wife never liked hot weather, and I have grown soft as the years passed, so now we succumb to the lure of air conditioning when it is in the 90s. But between the hot spells there were evenings when it was more bearable and we could sit on the porch and watch the night arrive. It is an ancient and honorable custom which few people now remember how to do.

According to the tradition I learned in earliest childhood, when the day’s work is done and supper is over, you sit on the porch with a cold drink close at hand (the original rules specified non-alcoholic), and you watch the lightning bugs rise from the grass and listen to the birds as they settle in for the night. And you talk… first about the weather and how it will affect what you have to do tomorrow, then about how the livestock and the gardens are doing, then about the neighbors, and finally about memories of older and simpler times. As a result, when we went in to bed we were in a mellow, contemplative mood which made prayers more thankful and sleep more restful. When we speak so wistfully of the Good Old Days, this is what we really mean.

Looking back, I think I must have been a strange child. As nearly as I can reconstruct my earliest memories, I expected the world to be orderly and logical, and it bothered me when it didn’t seem to follow the rules. My grandmother was partly responsible for this. She planted her garden and organized her life generally by the phases of the moon… "the signs," as she called them. I don’t know if she understood solstices and equinoxes, but she knew when they occurred, and she talked about them when we got to that part of the program on those summer evenings. In those days school ended in the first week of June and resumed the first week of September, and I couldn’t understand why summer didn’t start and end on those dates. I also couldn’t understand why winter should start on December 21 when it had already been cold and snowy for a month. I’m old enough now to accept the fact that while temperature and precipitation average out over long periods of time, in individual years they vary randomly. However, although I now know how solstices and equinoxes were discovered and why our prehistoric ancestors worshiped them and made them the starting points of the seasons, it still irritates me when the temperature reaches 100 in May. If it’s that hot, it should be summer!

Sitting on the porch last week, I was thinking about childhood, and my mind drifted off to how differently I look at things now. I used to love twilight because I could catch lightning bugs and put them in a jar to make a lantern. It never worked very well because they didn’t all turn on at the same time, but when you’re that age you’re an optimist, and there was always the chance that they might. Now, when I see them I reflect that they are all males, and flashing their taillights is their way of telling the females they’re available… and also that if they respond to the wrong female, she will eat them.

Soon after the lightning bugs come out, the bats appear. There used to be a lot of them; they lived in the attic of our old house, in the church belfry, in the old haunted house, and lots of other nearby places. The white-nose fungus disease has killed a lot of them; last year I rarely saw them, but there seem to be a few more this summer. The first one I saw this year was at a friend’s house when we were leaving after dinner. It is an old house with a screened-in back porch, and the screen doors were both open. Just as we came out to leave, a bat flew in one door and out the other. It passed my wife silently, less than a foot above her head. Fortunately it came from behind her and she never saw it; if she had, she would have broken the record for the broad jump and a lot of screen would have had to be replaced. I have tried for years to persuade her to like bats, but she is determined not to. Her favorite color is purple, and I even tried reciting Dr. Seuss’ verse about the lavender-colored bats that lived among the owls and spiders in the secret cave of the Royal Magicians, but even that didn’t work; she’s determined not to like them.

Thorin Oakenshield was right: if you want to see you have to look, and there is no better place and time than the porch on a summer evening. For the first time in years, one evening this summer I actually smelled rain coming… that combination of ozone and nitrogen oxides that lightning used to produce when I was a child. And I’ve seen two new sights. The first involved a female rabbit who has a nest among the ferns by the garage; she was busily eating grass and dandelions in the yard when a male came by to visit. He was clearly interested in a relationship; she was not, but she was polite about it. He would approach slowly until he was five or six feet away, and then dash straight at her at top speed. When he got within a foot of her she would jump straight up in the air, and he would barrel on right under her. This went on for a long time, until he finally got the idea that while she was not rejecting him entirely, his luck might be better if he waited a few days.

The second involved woodpeckers. A couple of weeks ago I put the last suet cake in the feeder, assuming it would melt or spoil before it got eaten. One evening there were two downy woodpeckers at it; one was a male, marked by the red patch on the back of his head. That caught my eye because usually the male will chase others away until he is finished eating. But in this case the other was obviously a youngster, recently out of the nest… a typical teenager, clumsy, feathers uncombed, shirt-tail out, shoes untied, the usual… and he had no idea how to eat suet. The father pecked industriously, and then looked at Junior to see if he understood; then Dad fed him a mouthful, as if he were still in the nest. After several demonstrations, Junior finally got the idea and pecked clumsily, scattering bits of suet in all directions and not getting much into his mouth, so Dad fed him again. Evidently he decided being waited on was easier, for it was some time before he was persuaded to try again. I watched this for a good five minutes, until Junior’s attention span failed and he flew off; Dad wearily followed. Life, I decided, is pretty much the same at all levels. May it always be so.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith