Monthly Archives: June 2006

Summer Inventory

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This is the worst week of the year: the week when every radio announcer and third-rate journalist announces the arrival next week of “the first day of summer.” June 21 is the Summer Solstice, also known as Midsummer. As in mid-summer, or the mid-point of summer. In other words, the middle of summer. Not the first day, the middle day. How difficult is this?

Apparently, it is quite difficult. Shakespeare notwithstanding (imagine going to see “A First-Day-of-Summer Night’s Dream”), the rest of Western civilization seems content to reproduce this sizeable error whenever possible, in every conceivable medium. It’s not as though in my current state I need to actively search for things to piss me off, but this one falls into my lap each year almost begging to be whacked upside the head, so whack it I shall.

If the weather actually bore out the newscasters’ pronouncements, that would be one thing. But here in northern California summer arrives on its little pollen-speckled feet sometime in early May. The roses and jasmine are then in full bloom, the new fruit has set on apple and plum, and the grasses are just beginning to ripen, turning the hillsides into a rippling tapestry of green and gold.

We know summer has arrived because the weather settles for a time into the familiar pattern of coastal fog in the morning, burning off by noon and returning later in the day. By midsummer or soon after, the coastal fog gives way to the occasional perfectly clear, still, hot day, the kind of day that makes you die of heatstroke in the Central Valley but here on the coast is like a sparkling gift from a well-pleased God.

Walking through the hills the other day, I noticed that the wild iris have finished blooming. The meadows are studded with summer wildflowers, blue-eyed grass and johnny jump-ups amid the dandelion and morning glory. In the hollows, monkeyflower blooms and thimbleberries ripen in tangles of willow and bracken fern. And on the windswept slopes, poison oak grows as a low-lying vine against the rocky outcroppings of the hills.

The air today smells of sweet ripe grass and salt water. Cool marine breezes mix and swirl with warmer air rising from the sun-baked earth, playing a wordless game of tag around Vince and me as we stroll through the neighborhood. Every possible geranium is on show right now, along with pentstemon, foxglove, nasturtium and fuchsia. Yep, I’d say summer here is in full swing.

In a few days I’m off to Boston for the annual International Association for the Study of Dreams conference. On the afternoon of the Summer Solstice I will be giving a talk as part of a panel on dream incubation. I don’t know how I’ll work it in, but it strikes me that when Fate gives you a soapbox you should make suds, so somewhere in there I’m going to mention Midsummer and how we are at that very moment witness to the middle of summer.

It’s a small act, to be sure, against a culture-wide yet relatively insignificant inanity. But the other thing about Summer Solstice is that it is a turning point. After her summertime dip in the yearly tango she does with the sun, the earth slowly rights herself, moving the other way across the dance floor. Because all such extremes are potent or at least potential turning points, I believe that we can use our actions going into the Solstice season to affect change as we come out of it. With that in mind, may we all pay attention to the small moments of influence that present themselves to us in the days to come. And may the Solstice bear gifts of long-awaited change to us all!

Basic Birding

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I love watching birds, and I want to know more about them. What I want to avoid is having to learn about them, specifically by studying birds from books. I tried that last Fall, when I bought the smallest birding primer you’ve ever seen, about 3″ x 3″ square, called Birdwatching For Dummies. It’s got a large font size, generous line spacing, and only 120 pages. I am still only halfway through it, and I can accurately report that I haven’t retained a single piece of information from the first half. This is probably some sort of undiagnosed handicap of mine, but fortunately I have developed a couple workarounds.

Bodega Bay, it turns out, is a major stopover on the Pacific flyway, both for birds and for birdwatchers. My favorite method of knowing more about birds involves taking Vince for a walk down to the rail ponds or the bird walk park. Invariably I will spot some pretty bird, and then will notice someone with binoculars nearby. I approach the birder and ask what he or she is looking for. They tell me all about the species they’re hoping to sight, and then I ask some version of the question, “What’s that over there?” This is known by me as a twofer, a rare occasion to know something new about two or more birds at the same time.

My second favorite method of knowing more about birds is by making it up, also known as guessing. A case in point occurred a few days ago while driving Jojo to school on a beautiful sunny morning. We were heading east just past the town of Bodega, when looking to my left high atop a phone pole was a sight that could have come straight out of a National Geographic feature on ancient Egypt, or a book on mythology. A turkey vulture was perched on the pole, completely motionless, wings spread wide, with its back to the sun. It was a majestic, fearsome sight. Jojo asked me why it stood there like that, and summoning a thread of logic from some place not associated with Portents of Doom, I told her it was warming itself up by having the largest possible surface area of its feathers facing the sun.

Now this is a perfectly reasonable guess, but it still is just a guess and no doubt mostly incorrect. But it brings me to my third favorite way of knowing more about birds, which is by asking my brother-in-law Jon. He’s a smart guy and a devoted birder, and by virtue of having married into the family probably feels obligated to clear up my misconceptions about turkey vultures, or birds in general, whenever we’re on the same continent. The drawback to this method of course is that I have to remember all the random guesses I’ve made since our last visit in order to get them clarified point for point. Still, I find this an enjoyable and perfectly workable method.

In conclusion, if you want to know more about a subject but are basically incapable of learning it through traditional means, it’s good to have a back-up plan. Also, the most enjoyable thing about birds by far is having the time to just sit and watch them, unimpeded by demands of work, conversation, driving, or other activities. Some say the birds will even teach you themselves. That sounds like a thrill.