It may be rare to be exhausted by summer, but this year I was definitely there.
In the Pacific Northwest, summer pretends to start in May: warming temperatures and clear sunlight, but the weather will cool and even drizzle throughout June, ironically getting colder through the first half of July. Normally, though, August visitors are stunned by the wonderful summer temperatures and the crystal blue sky; they can’t believe they’ve heard so many stories about Seattle rain. If you aren’t interested in these particular visitors considering a future summer place near you, this is when you tell them the weather they’re experiencing lasts for about six weeks, and they really ought to plan their next vacation here in February.
But this year, instead of the usual nearly two inches of rain in May, we had less than twelve hundredths; in June, we had a third of our regular precipitation, and for the entire month of July we registered five one hundredths of one inch.
And it was hot. Meteorologists are tangling over the details but most report this has been the hottest summer on record for the Puget Sound area, and records started in 1894.
There was a lot to love at the start: the sun, the green, the chirps of baby ospreys in a new nest down the road from me.
I was teaching a class on line and writing, and all of that was fine; in the relative cool of the mornings I could even say this was really a beautiful summer, a wonderful time of working at home.
At the same time, early in this very dry summer I also entered into a significant battle with dust. I swept the floor in the morning, wiped off tables and windowsills. By afternoon, though, when I crossed the floor I could tell it was back—and when I looked across a table I could see it—all back again, all over everything again.
Then, the temperatures usually reserved for mid-August showed up in July.
I found myself obsessively checking weather apps, to see if the temperature would drop enough at night to be able to actually rest, since like two thirds of the houses in the Puget Sound region mine does not have air conditioning—which meant leaving windows open, the windows and French doors open during the day, which meant more dust.
By late July, when the dogs started chasing each other out in the yard, a cloud of dust rose up six to eight feet above the ground and then just hovered there, suspended in the air.
August brought the addition of several weeks of smoke from regional forest fires, a creeping, sulphurous quality to the air, blue skies looking like they’d been lightly washed with turmeric. Mid-month we got a brief reprieve—enough of a pressure change off the ocean to clear it, and the temperatures dropped back to the low eighties. But apparently the winds changed, because I walked out a few days later to air that once again smelled like I lived near a pulp mill.
And because I was outside so much, because everyone was outside, there was more local hum: from neighborhood gatherings, groups of bathers scampering down to the beach, cars travelling up and down the dirt road raising still more clouds of dust. The young osprey were getting bigger, now screaming throughout the day because their parents, in an attempt to work them out of the nest, to get them to the water, were bringing less fish, and the fledglings were not having it. By August they were out of the nest, all over the area, but still screaming. I was surrounded.
The dogs were hot and agitated. The large dog, getting older, practically grimaced with the effort to raise his body up off the deck, before he charged off to the perimeters the property, working overtime to keep his eye on all that was going on around us.
Spending as much time as I do alone, it’s possible to become too lost in the processes and meaning of living. And any of us, these days, can get too caught up in the news, politics, the business of arranging something in our lives, even the business of business. It’s no secret to anyone these are challenging times, and often it seems like everything and everyone is picking up the tension and conflict. The turbulence seems global; maybe it is—but it’s also definitely another type of exhaustion.
And then came September One. The temperatures had dropped some, but almost on cue with the turn of the calendar page, we began to get rain. It was very light at first, so with the incredibly dry ground it made almost zero difference to the plants, to the dust problem, to the animals.
One evening in the first week of September, I was thinking through a rough decision and went out to sit on the deck, where I became distracted, watching the season come in. The sky suddenly developed a ceiling: we went from the flawless blue of summer, which had, frankly, started to seem sinister to me, to moody sheets of clouds drifting in, covering portions of the visible horizon, bringing night on faster. That night, the sky was slate-gray, with a slight breeze which had been completely absent over the summer. It was also notably quiet; all the neighbors, all their children, seemed to have disappeared. Just the sound of the cooler, damper air moving through the high branches of the trees.
Nights like this it can be easier to remember I’m actually on the surface of a large ball, rotating through space. With no streetlights in the neighborhood, something about the night sky opens to look as limitless as it truly is; it’s easier to see how far the trees and buildings of our world reach up into space–how far we do not reach. Sitting with my problems I was aware that at the same time, through the tree canopy, along the ground, all over the skin of this planet, organic life is going on—and almost certainly unconcerned with our human issues. Plants are responding to the change in daylight; some creatures in the tree canopy are building winter nests; the night skies are streaked with clouds of migrating birds–the osprey, just now heading out for South America. They all move to the earth’s magnetic fields, to its rotation.
The contrast of the enormity around me and the smallness of my house, my deck, my chair, reminded me, somehow, that there have been very hard times before in human society, even in the recent past. Today of course we believe our own problems are more significant than the ones before, but at the time, those people believed the same. They felt the world was going to end, was ending—sometimes it may actually have come close. Still, as I sat there then, as I write this now, the other life of the planet, the earth, goes on: creatures live, move, die, with all the ambivalence of the natural world. Ocean tides are coming in and going out; waves are rising and crashing, or rolling, like green or gray silk, not breaking, not making a sound.
The ball, the organic earth, is what keeps us: without it, without it breathing and growing and living the way it needs to, honestly, none of our issues matter. The seasons change because of the planetary tilt—and the light shifts, and we bring in harvests, and risk becoming ever more insular.
Watching the autumn come in, I reminded myself to take the time to be distracted by the trees, the wind, the changes of seasons and real changes they bring. For all our complexity and conflict and self importance, the earth is what actually keeps us alive.
Step outside. Look up and detach. And roll with it.
A slam out of the park as usual Kathleen. Although, I did not see any of those 80 degree temperatures up by PT and certainly not on my boat up in the Gulf islands. I was hoping though. It is always a pleasure to see your publications show up in my inbox…life is grinding along and it seems I am seeing it through different eyes almost every day anymore. So many thoughts about the oddity of life I couldn’t catalog them all, unless I had your skill of course. Then I’d really screw up my life and times…………I hope you are well, I do. Greg
Always wonderful when you surface, Greg! Is this the boat you’ve been working on, or did you sail off on something new? Great to think of you up drifting around the straits, thinking all kinds of thoughts. Back atcha, my friend….
Love your musings, Kathleen. You seem to reach into my mind and put order to the random synapses and electrons, connecting and sparking, then shooting off in all directions which normally, at best, result in another item to add to the grocery list. Plus your description of life in rural Kitsap brings memories of sights, sounds, even odors, little noticed while growing up in their midst, but fondly revisited now. Thank you.
Diane, thanks so much– if it jives with your own memories of the PNW, I must be doing something right. 😉 But I do think it’s a very distinctive set of seasons out here, and the move to fall can be slow and subtle, or just step right in–