Any sluggish start to summer in Maine seems to have given way to heated activity now.
Gone are the nights of needing the wood stove crackling or watching the last of the stacked firewood diminish from a rectangle to irregular triangles and at last to branches left lying in a single plane. The air conditioners are humming, the electric fans a steady whir of white noise from dawn till after dark.
Every year now it seems to me that the sunlight is more intense, the rays more burning, than the last year. I hide indoors, feeling like a vampire avoiding the light, slouched in a wing chair or hovering over the sewing machine with endless quilting projects. I toy with the idea of holding a yard sale, then find myself each weekend navigating the back roads north of Gray, idling at other peoples’s private second-hand sales – chipped coffee mugs, ancient room heaters, a consignment of castoff clothing, kitchen tools and cutlery, tossed like Pick Up Sticks in shoe boxes.
The landscape comes alive in very specific ways on weekends in the sparsely populated parts of northern Cumberland County, even though we can’t claim the relative isolation of the real “up north,” where most of my friends and acquaintances still have primitive camps that I have found constitute the average Mainer’s dream vacation.
Even here, though, there is hardly teeming humanity; I can go a long way without running into anybody, and at night, though a good, paved, regularly trafficked road is only a tenth of a mile away at most, the woods slip into a silence free of human machines and harried noise, and only the skittering and occasional shrieking of a rabbit snatched by a coyote interrupts the quiet.
A couple of weeks ago, on a Saturday devoted to a trip to the dump and a swing by the local libraries, I saw a sign describing an event I have often concluded was occurring but never knew for sure. On a tattered bottom of a cardboard box, nailed to a tree, was a hand-scrawled sign: “Redneck Wedding,” the bride and groom’s surnames and an arrow pointing into a dense stand of trees that made it impossible to glimpse the nuptials.
I almost drove in, but curiosity doesn’t strike me as the appropriate invitation. I drove on.
But the surest indicator of summer for me penetrated my mind only last week, when I saw that the tiger lilies are in bloom. They were orange as a sunset, but brighter, and as sunflowers seem to do, they exuded an air of happiness, only more dignified. And all around, the lupine rose like candles lit with a thousand shades of purple flame.
During these relatively early weeks of summer, the eruption of these hues brings the landscape alive. I was stopped at an intersection and got a blessing for the day: a hummingbird, paused like a helicopter right in front of the windshield. It lingered for the equivalent of a few human heartbeats, certainly long enough for me to marvel at a tiny bird that can beat its wings 80 times a second. And then disappeared.
The coastal beaches are a whole different matter, but even more delicate. While the resident phoebe nests again in the eaves of the shed and the swallows swerve in and out of the meadows, the shorebirds have claimed the sandy beaches and tidal flats: piping plovers and chicks, semipalmated sandpipers, red knots, ruddy turnstones, Wilson’s plovers, American oystercatchers, black skimmers, common and least terns.
Nesting season is in full swing, and disturbances to their sites can mean the failure of a brood or death to chicks. But many of the birds seek the same habitats that human prefer to inhabit in summer – and the mingling of many species can have undesirable effects.
Appreciation and marvel, empathy and wonder, can be the human attributes that redeem the day.
Birds are our most immediate and accessible points of entry into the beauty, complexity and interdependency of wild things in wild habitats – no matter how limited the land. The nation is full of natural margins – median strips, roadside thickets, truncated forest edges – and many birds and animals inhabit them, making a routine drive around town the chance to experience ecological or ornithological education a daily opportunity.
I am adding an enhancement to my Independence Day celebration – the understanding that I have the freedom, and obligation, to love all the communities of birds and animals and to declare that love and passion through protection.
“The animal shall not be measured by man,” Henry Beston wrote in “The Outermost House,” penned from a coastal shack. “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth.”
A longtime resident of Nobleboro at Chimney Farm, Beston became an early spokeman for conservation and preservation of wild places, based on an understanding that humans are participants, not potentates on earth.
“Touch the earth, love the earth, her plains, her valleys, her hills, and her seas; rest your spirit in her solitary places,” he wrote. “For the gifts of life are the earth’s and they are given to all, and they are the songs of birds at daybreak, Orion and the Bear, and the dawn seen over the ocean from the beach. … Into every empty corner, into all forgotten things and nooks, Nature struggles to pour life.”
May summer let us find them anew.