It got up to 97 here yesterday, one of the hottest days of the summer, maybe the hottest, and the morning air says today is going to be another warm one. The garden is in full sun—taut, round tomatoes in various shades of electric red and green, purple snap peas, lettuce green and reddish-brown, dark chard, spindly radish tops, pungent Thai basil, hot peppers both shiny and dull. A glorious high summer morning in the late-blooming Pacific Northwest. Above the garden, fir branches lean out solicitously, and Brewer’s sparrows flit in the green haze of the hawthorn tree, nabbing plump purple berries. A single yellow leaf, knocked loose by the skittering sparrows, floats down, dry and almost weightless. And then, slowly, slip-sliding, one more.
Liz, a friend of a friend who used to be my state representative and is now just another small farmer at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge, commented on Facebook last week that she had felt the season change a couple of days before. I didn’t believe her. But the next morning, primed perhaps by her comment, I noticed the red tinge to half a dozen leaves on the burning bush at the southeast corner of the porch. When I mentioned Liz’s post and the burning bush at supper—on the porch, with a salad from the garden—my son said he was suddenly seeing spiders and their webs everywhere. That reminded me that I have wakened several mornings recently to the sound of dew dripping off the eaves at dawn. And then, last Sunday morning, I was driven off the porch by yellowjackets. They always come in late August. Last year they were especially bad. This year they began to appear several weeks ago, but they’ve been lazy and easy to shoo, except from meat. Sunday, though, they swarmed me, full of purpose, or desperation, as I sat with my tea in the morning sun. I was beating them away as I backed through the door.
The Clark County Fair is barely two weeks past. The beginning of Fair usually coincides with the sudden appearance across the county of Queen Anne’s lace: the heralds, in my mind, of high summer. My grandchildren showed their chickens at the fair again this year, won ribbons and rosettes, qualified to go to the state fair in Puyallup next month. We stood in line to buy milkshakes from the Clark County Dairywomen.
Around the county, hay sits in bright fields. Young men, shirtless and shining, buck bales. In my own back yard, the garden is still coming to fruition, filling our table in the evening. But the light is different now somehow. Heavier, almost tangible. When did it change, and how did I miss it? The year is still strong, but suddenly, unexpectedly, we are teetering on the edge of a long, slow slide into darkness. Next week or the week after, a month yet maybe, but the rains will come. In three months it will be full dark by five.
I feel it in my body as well. I play capture the flag with my children and grandchildren. Join pickup games of basketball, mushball, flag football. I hike and bike. Work out. Eat unprocessed foods. Get enough sleep. But, randomly, a swollen knee. A sore hip. A hesitation in calling a name, finding a word. A slight but persistent difficulty now, getting the page where I can see it comfortably as I read. The quality of the light has changed somehow.
Fall used to be my favorite season, before things got personal. School. The smell of new books and pencils. The satisfying creak—felt, rather than heard—of new shoes. And then, later, teaching: new books, new subjects, lesson plans in crisp new folders. Sweaters, and fires in the woodstove, and vine maple ablaze in the dark fir woods. But somewhere along the way I began to feel in my bones that I couldn’t afford to be so choosy. Or so greedy. Thinking in terms of seasons, when no one among us knows whether she will be alive three months hence.
Even my sense of possession of whole days is starting to slip. I don’t think it’s despair, or even a constriction of vision. No, this moment, with the two shining strands of silk, the beginnings of a new web, stretched between branches of the burning bush, which is still entirely green except for those few tinged leaves, maybe a dozen of them now, this moment is almost overpowering. A ruby-throated hummingbird clicking in the alder just beyond the burning bush. A lone yellowjacket crawling on my phone on the table beside me. The sun in the disorderly green of the garden I planted so hurriedly amidst all the busyness of mid-June. The gift of consciousness, and personality: I mean, really, what were the chances? The quality of light keeps changing.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Carolyn Schultz-Rathbun
Carolyn Schultz-Rathbun’s fiction, essays, and feature stories have appeared in The Seattle Review, Vancouver Voice, Spring Hill Review and other publications. Her book on perinatal loss, Goodbye, Little One, is published by Two Worlds Media. She lives in Hockinson, Washington.