A Dream of Earth in Summer

by Jenn Dean

If April and May felt hesitant and pale like an egg, with June comes the hatching of summer. Summer looks like the earth’s Bacchanalian dreaming: bees cluster, drunk on the pendulous and phallic spears of flowers, orgiastic birds couple, beetles crawl and heave, and snakes unroll from the marsh grass like rolls of striped tape. The trees pump themselves so full of water their trunks swell and water shoots up the inner bark’s xylem with enough force that you can hear it with a stethoscope. This is the tipping point, the point of no return: summer can no longer be stuffed back into the bag it came in.

At 9:24 p.m. the Earth bared its shoulder towards the sun. Today the day is long, so I went out to look the solstice in the eye. This time of year the sun suspends itself high and stays there; a jump-rope paused at the top of its arc. The mountains curve across the eastern horizon like a sleeping blue cat whose head starts south at Mount Si. The peaks blend with the sky, a cerulean bowl turned inside-out to swallow the horizon and this limitlessness extends our own possibilities, which lengthen and stretch like shadows on the morning grass.

To walk anywhere in the woods is to walk through a dim, enveloping greenness, as if walking under a shallow equatorial sea. That same underwater light fills my house in the afternoons. A tube skylight pours sun through a filter of evergreens into my living room; the air glimmers as though charged with olivine. Leaves turn this way and that in the breeze, like a million pairs of hands gently clapping. Kant wrote that the most astonishing thing about our universe is that it can be observed. This profusion of green makes me wonder though—why green and not, say, red? How did the human eye, able to discern only a sliver of the available kinds of light, develop in concert with a universe that decided upon green for most growing things? Lime, avocado, celery, emerald, jade and bottle-green: nature gorges as if it were her last meal.

A newly minted June day resembles freshly pressed linen; it is not yet overgrown July, nor heat-stroked August. In August a dry storm will leave the ground slightly damp, like a warning notice of November’s rains and won’t even wring the air dry. But in June we inhabit that endless lush illusion, still unblemished from last year: the promise of time unbound, time as we experienced it as children.

*

I crept up on my hands and knees on a swallowtail that landed on a willow next to the path. Its wings lay folded back like a pair of stained-glass windows made of paper. The butterfly’s plump body bore long obsidian and amber markings like warpaint, and two antennae projected from its head, ending in miniscule clubs like golf sticks. It reposed on legs bent at the knee. Most of the creature was wing—all fringed scales and chiton—the ragged edges of which resembled pencil shavings. The four, stiff, butter-colored sails were crossed with black lines. The wings resembled a map whose black bands narrowed to infinite possibilities: the map of our lives as it could have been, had our lives been a perpetual summer.

Three swallowtail butterflies flew in front of me while I rode my bike through the woods at full speed yesterday, and today they are everywhere: in town, at my house, along the trail, working the air maniacally, as if herding a flock of spastic ghosts. When I try to keep my binoculars on one, I nearly fall over from jerking around. “Thou, soul, unloosen’d,” wrote Whitman. At the marsh they cluster on the creamy drooping flowers of ocean spray. At the river they hover over the rocky shore or pursue one another on paths in the air. Their paths, if drawn, would resemble the lines I made once in an art class when instructed to look only at the object and not at the paper: loops, arcs, angles that overlap and go off on tangents. With so little progress made across the page, how can these stuttering creatures—in particular monarchs—migrate?

The thought of a butterfly migrating is improbable to begin with, like trying to fathom a potato chip flying thirty miles per hour from Wisconsin to Mexico. Give the potato chip antennas with biological clocks inside, give it a brain, and give it eyes that can track the position of the sun and where it is in relation to the horizon. The sun isn’t enough. Like us, they need to know the time of day, whether the sun is rising or setting, to determine direction. Now give the potato chip internal molecular clocks in all the cells of its crisp body to finish out the recipe. Now you’ve got one smart can of Pringles, one that knows where north is. Transport a Western Monarch from New Mexico, set it down in Kentucky and it recalibrates: it will drift southeast instead of southwest. Attuned to perpetual summer, swallowtails live about four weeks, which means all of the butterflies I’ve witnessed of late were using up their days like so many punched tickets. No wonder they danced.

*

At the Tolt River, I watched a swallow dart over the green and gold water. Something in the bird’s movements gave me pause. The body looked stocky and instead of swooping gracefully, as swallows do, the bird staggered over the surface like a bat. I dismissed the idea; it was nearly noon. But through my binoculars I saw clearly through its outspread wings: it had a mouse-sized, brown furred body, broad, blue-gray wings, and tiny ears. The south side of the river lay in shade and the bat flew over the cool moss-colored waters. It stagger-danced like a brown tennis ball, bouncing signals off the surface. Each time she veered close to the water like a crop duster coming down over a field, she dipped her lower jaw in. When the bat passed out of the shade and veered into the sunlight, her outstretched and flexible wing bones—the bat’s finger bones—became visible, like a flying x-ray.

Less than 1% of bats carry rabies, and besides, this bat didn’t act sick. I read that in some parts of the world bats migrate over the ocean and sometimes roost in wind farm turbines. I couldn’t find any literature about bats drinking from rivers in daytime, except one study recorded bats dipping across the surface waters of the Amazon. The bat’s oneiric flight from shade to sun, as if flying from night into day, made me recall what Thoreau wrote about the sound of crickets at dawn after the first sultry nights in June: they seemed like the dreaming of the earth still continued into the daylight.

Summer apparently brings out the most audacious displays of behavior: at the meadow I discover a sea of white froth, like clotted cream covering the clover and buttercup. Thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands, of dime-sized clots of glistening spittle covered the grass. Even the molehills bore clots of spittle. Spittlebugs, who resemble their leafhopper cousins, suck three hundred times their weight in xylem—the watery fluid from plant stems—working against gravity to draw the water up. These miniature cicada look-alikes then void the water, whipping it with caudal appendages into a froth like tiny blenders, and turn their waste into a protective covering, which they then hide in like seasonal fugitives.

But what I saw before me was just the surface. We are outnumbered, a fact most of us would not care to dwell on. A study done in Pennsylvania revealed 425 million insects per acre, and that was only going five inches deep. Not all of them were true insects, but a back-of-the-napkin calculation as to how many of them might share our town at the foothills of the Cascades, after deducting the river out of my calculations, indicates we’re outnumbered: 315,520,000,000 to 2,234. The sheer numbers exemplify summer’s pluck. In summer, a handful of anything—blackberries, spittlebug nymphs—won’t do; the numbers are meant to stupefy predators and us. If crickets are the earth’s dreaming, then what are these but the earth’s improbable table, set for a feast. To stack ourselves against the sheer numbers of summer, be it stars or insects, is to realize the ridiculousness of all our scheming, all our plans.

There’s a lump on the meandering trail through the meadow. Its pear shaped, curved in on itself, halfway to becoming a bird, but mostly abdomen and tiny folded wings that bear rows of needle-like feathers, like quills still in the act of forming. It has translucent skin, a closed eye, and a long, broad, but pointed beak—perhaps a crow. Except for a mohawk of fuzz along its cranium, I can see through the skin to the neat little triangular organ of its stopped heart.

*

In summer, a certain lawlessness takes over. Like the mountains devoid of snow, we’re more exposed, our psychological drainages laid bare. The cruelest impulses can scatter and dry out on the wind. The point of summer is not motion, but stillness. To spend ten minutes staring at three garter snakes, immobile on the heated plastic cover of a water main by a weedy roadside, is to realize we spend most of our lives in pointless motion. Constant motion is a hedge against the pettiness of desire.

If summer were a bird it would be the Western Tanager I watched in the mountains one June evening from the back porch of the Longmire Inn, two hours south in Mount Rainier National Park. The tanager—incandescent yellow and orange-red—perched like a candle flame in the trees; the bird’s triangular heart, very much alive, burned clear with song. A veil of mist obscured then revealed the summit cone of the volcano far above the meadow. A fire was lit in the inn’s lounge against the oncoming dusk. Some people sat reading, sipping tea, and eating cake while others wandered in and out, restless without their wireless distractions like taskless ants. From the back porch the top grew visible again: a rock wall of basalt, a toothy ridge, an immense ice cap of woolly glaciers. It was after 8:00 p.m., but the sun lit up the leeward slopes and illuminated a patch of ice on a hulking piece of rock nearly 14,000 feet up. It looked very much like the window of a tiny cabin reflecting the light. Every few moments someone new wandered out, raised their eyes, and wondered aloud if there was a cabin up there. Summer makes dreamers of us all; we start building summer cabins of the mind.

The arc of summer begins in April when the Swainson’s thrushes arrive, then peaks around the Fourth of July. It begins its decline at the pang of discovery that comes from finding a red leaf in the August woods. That leaf sticks in the back of one’s throat until after late December, when the light turns again in our favor.

In summer, time stretches—an impossible line that extends past the mountains and keeps going, a vanishing point of a road across the mind’s desert. Or it’s a butterfly’s life crammed into June, like clothes shoved into a drawer. If ravenous summer eats the body that birthed it, so time steals even itself like a vapid thief. The dream unfulfilled, the one that fills us with longing like a sail lofts with wind, is a dream of the Earth in summer.

 

Jenn Dean, a writer living in Carnation, WA, is currently working on a book about the Snoqualmie Valley called Letters from the Valley of the Moon. Her essay “The Keepers of the Ghost Bird,” published through Massachusetts Review’s Working Titles series online, and subsequently anthologized in When Birds Are Near (Cornell University Press), was a recipient of the John Burroughs Nature Essay award, and was a finalist for the New Millenium Writings Literary Awards.

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