Between the lines / New England summers
Last summer at this time I was walking the rainy streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland. The old city stays framed in my imagination as all my travels do.
This year, with the exception of some family visits, I decided to stay home. A grandchild has a way of doing that for you. It was also time to get back in my garden. As much as I've loved my mid-life travels, I've always missed our New England summers.
I am a person who thrives on the familiar. I love the hours spent in the garden and the lovely landscape of Connecticut. They both anchor my life. When you travel you can quickly forget about daily life and the things that sustain you at home -- the sound of a bird singing, the sight of a leaf beaded with rain, the cast of the sky and the way evenings fall. The rewards of travel are incomparable but so is the satisfaction of a summer season spent at home. They are different kinds of energies but they converge in pleasure and watchfulness.
I must say that I don't enjoy the summer heat very much. Being in rainy and cloudy Ireland, the home of my ancestors, especially in the hills of tiny Slieve Gullion, I realized that cool weather is in my genes. While others can't wait to leave the misty island for sunnier days, I loved the the cool mornings and the daily showers. Summer days in Ireland rarely reach the 70s, let alone the sizzling temps we often get in Fairfield. New England has much more variation in its moody weather, too. This summer's sweltering humidity has already reduced me to an exhausted, overheated mess. I remember my pleasant walks along the river Lagan last year. Even in a busy industrial city like Belfast, a river can still be sleepy at noon.
New England summers are transient glories. The big heat that comes up some mornings serves notice: King Tropic will reign. There is a theatrical quality to our summers here. In Ireland, it merely rains and then rains some more. It rains so often that you eventually adjust and your skin seems hardly wet at all. You are just part of the atmosphere like a duck floating on a pond. The booming thunder and the pyrotechnics in a dark sky of New England storms are acts of the imagination, lines of poetry. Those storms are the subjects of oil paintings and photographs in National Geographic. No wonder the Puritans believed in the avenging power of an angry God. Our weather seems brooding and almost punitive as if God needs to remind us who's boss from time to time.
The tropical growth of New England summers is shockingly vigorous. The Irish meadows seem tame and well-behaved compared to a wild Connecticut roadside. The wildness creeps right up to our front steps and threatens to thread its way right into our doors and windows. After a heavy rain every leaf in the yard sparkles and shines. Driveway puddles attract dragonflies and other insects. The weeds push up out of the cracks in the pavement and the birds call so loudly you barely hear yourself think. While the Irish are caught between showers and more showers, the New England summer swiftly can swing from paradise to hell and back again.
The Irish have their parks and pubs for companionship and solace. In the evening the streets of the little cities and towns are filled with people. During the long Irish twilights you can walk into town, have dinner, shop and walk some more, go home for a rest and then go back out again for a few more hours of soft rain and misty sunlight. We have our suburban backyards, outdoor grills, swimming pools, decks and garden beds with colored mulches and hissing sprinkler systems. The sun quickly begins to sink after the summer solstice here and daylight becomes more precious. The frogs croak in ponds and the fireflies light up lawns and fields with their blinking yellow phosphorescence. Late New England summer nights are black as winter and seem to host any number of dark creatures creeping through thickets and hollows.
There is something of an edginess to Connecticut summers that I didn't feel in Ireland. Perhaps it is just the ease of travel and suspension of the routines of everyday life. But the New England summer seems more intense and personal to me. It vacillates between a sense of damnation and redemption -- fertile ground for the tradition of punishment and love that are part of our religious history here. God can speak through lightning strikes or the blue surface of a reflecting pool. The Irish rain continues on through centuries of human misery and religious division. Rain seeps into the Irish soul; constant change and shifting perspectives fill the New England soul. I like to think we became the land of steady habits to counteract the wild whims of our four seasons on the edge of the promised land.
When I see an ant crossing the sidewalk; when I watch a bumble bee working in a flower; when the white tail crosses my backyard with her twin spotted fawns; when the swifts flutter and dip in the evening sky above my driveway; when the trees bend nearly to the ground in a microburst; when the stormy sky clears into a sparkling blue and the air dries and crisps -- then I know my place in the world and the sights and sounds that have filled my senses.
If I could be in both places at once, then I surely would. But being home for the summer reminds me of what I have been missing. We can't truly enjoy the rest of the world if we have never learned to love our own. Every summer for me is a New England summer, and wherever I see a rain drop on a leaf, I am home.
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.