Wildflowers Dominate

This kind of heat isn’t friendly to fragile beauty. Mild weather flowers and cool weather crops have burnt brown in the sun. A humid evening at a summer wedding has the groomsmen itching in their suits and the bridesmaids sweating off their makeup. It’s a hard thing to look shipshape in late July.

But not all living things are deterred by this weather. At this time of year, the wildflowers thrive. Primrose, cardinal flower, and columbine endure in rocky glades and creek beds. Vibrant butterfly weed and blazing star dominate the prairies. The coneflowers are particularly radiant, shooting up past the sky-high grass to get their daily dose of sun.

These flowers are a far cry from a delicate iris or a fragrant rose. They’re sometimes scraggly, often unkempt. But they require no attention and get on just fine without us. In midsummer, they overtake our wild landscapes. They know summer is no time for measured elegance. It is for growth, for life, for movement, for color. A time to leave the air conditioning behind and to jump in the pool, sweat in the sun, and, when the night comes down, to lay down expended in the dew-soaked grass.

Summer’s Smells

Each season has its own scent, but midsummer must be the time of year when the smells are the strongest in the city. On a Saturday morning, cut grass tickles your nose when the neighbor’s lawnmower hums you awake. On a weekday morning, when the trash pickup comes, the whole neighborhood stinks with the rotten smell of sun-cooked garbage. The warm smell of wet pavement hangs around for your day at the zoo, in the amusement park, on the blacktop at summer school. A fresh sweat follows you with every outdoor hour. The smell of charcoal brings the evening in as you drive home through the neighborhoods. Bug spray and citronella are threaded into a tiki-torch-lit twilight.

Spring’s perfume is delicate; autumn’s fresh; winter’s subtle. But summer demands attention. In the city, summer’s aroma is made by humans. Summer smells like us because it is the season we spend outside. What would summer be without cut grass, bug spray, sunscreen?

Have you ever wandered far off the path in Forest Park and smelled the hot grass sweetened by the sweltering sun? Or walked through the Botanical Garden on a day so hot that you could smell the lavender simmering in the heat? These are the smells of summer that exist with or without us, riding on the breeze even when there’s not a nose in sight to sniff the air.

Dog Days

The heat has arrived. Some plants and people thrive in this sun; others scorch and wither. Early mornings offer little reprieve from the broil, and the nights are heavy with humidity. This is prime pool season, prime drink-from-the-hose season, prime ice-cube-on-your-forehead season.

These are the dog days of summer—a phrase that comes from the rise of the dog star Sirius, who peeks over the eastern horizon just before the sunrise. Ancient astrology associated the appearance of Sirius with drought, fever, bad weather, and bad luck. Maybe so, but for us these days are equally intertwined with a kind of careless fun that can only be had when the cold–the huddling, the bundling, the turning inward and away– seems an impossible ache of a distant past. There is something about the cold that makes us shrink. But the heat—if you stand in it long enough to sweat your shirt through—will make you want to stretch your legs and shed your clothes and indulge in being alive.

Whether or not you know where the phrase “dog days of summer” came from, you know exactly what it means. You can feel the arrival in the sweat on your back and hear it in the rising buzz of insects in the cattails.

June Bugs

In St. Louis, the June Bug is an annual summer visitor. When they first arrive, they startle you tapping on the window. They whack and crack on the glass until you get up to see who’s at the door; then you remember the yearly summer flight of these brown beetles.

These bugs are harmless to humans but unpopular nonetheless. In large numbers, they can damage lawns or crops. They make people squirm when they bombard porchlights and screen doors. Their armored little bodies and thorny little legs give them an unsettling prehistoric look.

But have no doubt: they aren’t going anywhere. They were here long before we were. Every year, they will announce their arrival with a buzz straight into a brick wall. And they’ll depart in a lifeless parade, floating down the lazy river and into the filters of the community pool.

Summer Morning Steam

The glory of a summer morning awaits anyone who can stand to get up early. For the first few hours of sunlight, the cool of the nighttime hangs around. On summer evenings, the parks buzz with runners and free concerts and cyclists and food trucks, so you have to beat the crowd if you want to find some quiet. An early morning walk is your best bet to get a taste of solitude.

The crickets will stay out and sing well past sunrise, perhaps reluctant to go to bed while the rest of the world awakens. The birds chatter in the morning, too, and don’t sing through the day anymore as they did in spring. In these early hours, the heat hasn’t yet taken hold. But there’s always the same ghost of yesterday’s heat hanging around to make sure you know that heat is coming back again: the humidity.

It’s that moisture and the warmth that give a summer morning a scent all its own. The wet, warming grass brings back some of life’s best memories. It’s the smell of summer camps, morning hikes, family vacations, an early start on the yardwork. The smell of summers before jobs, summers off of school, summers for playing outside.

The Lightning Bugs Arrive

The nights, too, are warm now, and that brings the promise of life at its swarming peak. The bugs now return in great numbers. Bugs are cold-blooded, so some remain inactive when it’s under 50 degrees. With the chill is gone from the air, all creatures are safe to come out.

Bugs tend to be unwelcome at human affairs, but there are a few for whom we make exceptions. The firefly is one of these special few. Who can resist the beauty of the lightning bugs floating on the mist of a sticky summer night?

Long before they emerge to light up your backyard, lightning bugs are doing good deeds. Firefly larvae–glowworms–are carnivorous, so they feed on the pests and grubs that would eat up our gardens. It’s been said that when they do emerge as adults, it’s safe to plant warm-weather crops. The fireflies know that the cold snaps are over.

Lightning bugs love the humid weather that St. Louis summers are so well-known for. The stickier the night, the more fireflies you’re likely to see. And after a wet spring like this one, they tend to come out on the early side. Some have already been out and about in the daylight, just crawling around and getting familiar with their new world. They ought to be arriving in numbers soon, here to set our backyards twinkling. Haven’t they been there for every summer you can remember? Something about it sets your heart beating. They are tiny miracles, little glowing bugs that embody, perhaps more than any other creature, that simple magic of summer.