Although it makes no sense to me to call the summer solstice “midsummer,” who am I to argue with tradition, especially since the word’s history dates back to pagan times when folk lit bonfires to protect themselves against evil spirits which they believed roamed the land freely when the sun was at its peak.
By my reckoning, though, “midsummer” should fall around 5 August if you just count the days. I personally like my calendar better, since it occurs on a date that seems more in keeping with the setting of Shakespeare’s play. In these ancient hills of eastern West Virginia, we also live in a forest probably not all that unlike the one inhabited by Oberon and Titania. As we walk our dogs, following deer paths and sidestepping blow downs and thorny entanglements, we try to be observant of what we hear, see and sense. There is a presence in the forest, especially at first light and again in the coolness of the evening before night, that hushes us into a respect of forces not always seen by human eyes.
The indolence of summer’s heat is a reminder that some of us are children of a different god. In this land, we need no brick and mortar churches to pray in. As we approach early August, we begin to pace ourselves. The middle of summer protects us from too much impetuosity and staves off many temptations. We become mindful of the fleeting nature of our lives, since time always seems to be slipping by. In our daily observations, hints of change are already starting to show themselves. The hopeful enthusiasm of the first warm days of April has given way to the languorous stillness that slows our motion and beckons us to stop, to sit. It is a time for contemplation, to give oneself over to wonder, to imagine what comes next and how many more summers we have left in us.
The dreams of August have always taken me in directions that I never anticipate. They introduce me to the past in ways I never knew her. In a poem titled Midsummer Night, Carol Ann Duffy talks of the “magic hour when time becomes love or there for light’s pale hand to slip, slender, from darkness’s glove.” These moments ground us in memories, almost fossil times in our lives when we were young and just learning to fly. The hour reminds us of the truth in the adage that we accumulate our opinions at an age when our understanding is at its weakest. Now is the opportunity to taste the sand of time running through our hourglass.
I know that I do not “own” this forest, these ancient Swamp Oaks that keep vigil. I am nothing more than a custodian for a short time over the rocks that clump in surprising clusters as we scramble around them in search of Chanterelle mushrooms and Leatherbacks. We can do little but pause and say nothing when we stumble over a gathering of bones of some creature that fed another. We are alert to snakes and yellow jackets but do not seek them out for punishment.
What falls to earth and on the earth is beyond our control. The duff and moss are there to soften our foot steps, as we pause to smell the rain that speckles us. We are alive to the wonder of the Indian Pipes that pop up from in-between the rocks. We see where something with claws has ripped open a rotting log in search of ants or termites. These are places of quiet, of no thunderous noise. They are also places to find the ghosts of one’s soul.
When my father took me into the woods of Appalachia in southern Ohio so many years ago to hunt squirrels, I wondered how my boyhood dog Timber really felt about his duties, especially when I failed him as a marksman. Those moments are far gone now, but still appear to me in dreams that come in August. My Beagle appears festooned in flowers bestowed by Mustard Seed and Peaseblossom. He is young and happy and at ease with their affection.
If April is supposed to be the cruelest month mixing memory and desire, then August can be a close runner up since it can remind us of journeys not realized. It provides ample opportunities for reflection when time slows and we reacquaint ourselves with our strangers from other times. As we stumble about trying to make sense of who we are and how we got here in this form, we need to bump up against Shakespeare’s great equalizer, the magical Robin Goodfellow, better known as Puck, who will be quick to remind us, “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”
In the lull during these lazy, hazy days ahead of us, we can perhaps find comfort by indulging the child left in us, by chasing the elusive butterflies of the love that is left in our lives. In such times, we can always lose ourselves in the warmth of summer and forget for the moment about lost opportunities and friends and family no longer of this world.
As Henry James said: “The two most beautiful words in the English language are ‘summer afternoon.’”