By the Way: Tracing the exact shade of late August
Last week over coffee, Verlyn Klinkenborg set a challenge. In his New York Times columns, he chronicles the swing of time, week by week through the year.
He can describe his vegetable garden with the vim of a 9-year-old drag racer: "The French pumpkins have overtaken the butternut squash, and they are all bearing down in a dead heat on the hops arbor, where the hops have all lapped the climbing roses."
I read his summer columns wondering what he sees at this exact time of year.
But he doesn't want to have perceptions for other people -- he wants to prompt them to see.
"Why doesn't everybody make their own list?" he said.
The crab apples are red, and the elderberries shading to purple, and the white and black caterpillar I watched crossing a leaf at sunset last night was a hickory tussock moth. My butterfly bushes are blooming, the salvia and the mint are shoving each other against the garden wall, and two of my dahlias have finally opened one bud each, one a dense crimson, one scarlet and wide.
Yesterday a yellow swallowtail flew back and forth across my kitchen window for a good minute. And he probably saw more of my tiny garden than I have in daylight for some time.
For me, this is the time of year when the summer calendars I collected in April run out. The months of events I stockpiled have all gone by, and I may feel (and look) like a bear at the end of winter, shambling out to the cave mouth to breathe.
Summer is the season I lay in supplies for, the season when I walk out of the office in the dark and notice how sweet the air feels, even in the parking lot, with the damp tarmac and the haze of wet air under the street lights.
Now my interns have finished their stints, and the pressure and the speed and the rush of the magazine begin to ease.
Summer has been glorious. Pine trees drip water down my neck, and I disgruntle a tawny hen by trying to stroke her. Actors welcome me around a table, I sit in rehearsal rooms and delight in singing Transylvanians and stand on the walls of Troy, and I begin every other sentence in any conversation with friends with "I'm writing about this, and --"
I'm writing a story, and -- the curator told me about another exhibit just down the street from you, about a street of booksellers bombed in Iraq -- I talked with a poet, and they read outdoors, in laundromats, on subways -- that same artist had work in the Berkshire Museum last summer, his own spirit shirts, and this one at Mass MoCA, his thunderbirds made out of circuit boards, you should have seen it.
But now September is coming. Our shaken-up newsroom is settling into the delighted recognition that Kevin Moran, our managing editor, has been promoted and will remain in charge. I take time to reconnect with writers who once wrote for me and might again. On the way back from a peaceful evening at Gould Farm, I stop in Lenox to get an ice cream cone, peanut butter and chocolate, just because I can, and I eat it on a park bench in the dark, facing the bronze cannons in the park. Heat lightening leaves a silent trail to the north.
This is a season between times. The summer ebbs, and the fall has not flown in. This is the season of perpetual stories, of local history and family businesses, small museums, archive diving. This is the season when I happen on ideas like the Massachusetts Wood Co-operative and wish I'd known about them before.
Odd how much this season continues to be shift time for people, even now, when few of us have to harvest more than a few mint leaves for iced tea. Somehow I'm not alone, though I may be converse. Farmers may feel the season shift like me. The tomatoes ripen, and garlic appears in my farm share, and a 40-degree night gives the promise of shorter days, when they will not be out in the hayfields by 4 a.m. and still out after sunset. I miss the feel of stacking square bales of hay, tying my shirt against my ribs and leaving them scratchy with hayseed.
But I love the kind of tired I am now. It's nearer the tiredness of the end of the semester, the tired after the final exam, than the tiredness after a day of physical labor. It's the tiredness of a well-stretched mind.
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