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.

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 Flood Comes In

Spring always comes rolling in with buckets of rain to dump, but this year it hasn’t slowed down for summer. It’s relentless, coming down three or four days a week. It has ruined plans, raining straight through the peak of wedding season. Raining out all the Whitaker concerts and most of the Tuesday night Tower Grove Farmers’ Markets. Raining every time you hang something outside to dry. We’ve hardly had to even water our gardens.

And the flooding, of course, is the real worry. The river hasn’t crested this high since the infamous 1993 flood, when it hit 49.58 feet. That was a once-in-every-hundred-years flood like no one alive today had ever seen before. It’s become part of our local history, coming up at family get-togethers and popping up in commemorative TV spots.

Now, just 26 years later, the river creeps close to that record again. It now stands at 45.4 feet. Again, basements are flooded. Businesses are shut down. Property destroyed. We look at the rain differently these days. It’s more than just a bad-mood maker; now it makes us uneasy. We know that the water is rising.

There’s more rain coming later this week, but the river is predicted to stop rising now. Even so, this flood has been a warning. For years, climate scientists have foretold an increase in flood-bearing weather like this. It’s tempting to hope that it’s just another anomaly, but in all likelihood it is the beginning of a pattern. We have not been kind to our home. The earth warms, the storms whip up, the rivers rise. We are reminded at once of the destructive power of nature, and of our own power to destroy it.

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.

A Warm Rain

There’s something different about a warm rain. It always feels like the earth is welcoming it. In March or April the rain is cold. It might kill little blossoms or shrivel early sprouts. We curl into our raincoats and wish the last whispers of winter would leave us alone already. But a warm rain is different. You can sense the life that it brings.

A warm rain slaps the leaves, wets the earth. It brings out smells that you forgot about after last summer—the fresh smell of wet dirt, the soft smell of wet pavement. It fills the air with freshwater mist.

A warm rain might grow violent—loud with wind and thunder. Angry with a thrashing tornado. It might overstay its welcome and fill up the rivers—as it is doing right now.

But these rains are breathtaking. They demand that you stop what you’re doing, if only for a moment, and pay attention to their sound, their smell, their show. A sunny day might be taken for granted, but a warm rain puts your mind on nature. It turns your eyes towards the window and sends your feet towards the porch.

 

Blackberry Winter

Have you heard of a blackberry winter? It’s the name for an out-of-place rush of cold that comes late in the spring to make sure you haven’t forgotten what it feels like. Blackberry winter is spring’s equivalent to autumn’s “Indian summer.” It’s named after the blackberry blossoms that will wither in this unexpected cold.

It has other names, too, depending on who you ask. Some call it “linsey-woolsey britches winter,” and they won’t pack away their long underwear ’til it shows its face and passes. It’s safe to say—to hope—that this wet and shivery past weekend was our blackberry winter, and the cold is behind us once and for all.

The animals seem to think so. As the weeks have grown warmer, the babies have started arriving. Young squirrels are huddled up in their nests, many still too feeble to climb. Opossums ride along safely in their mothers’ pouches. Baby robins are everywhere, learning to fly. Foxes are still tucked away in their dens, as baby rabbits are in theirs. In the coming weeks they’ll all emerge with confidence, ready to take on the world. Ready to live, to eat, and to avoid getting eaten.

For now, most still depend on their mothers. But blackberry winter is past. Close quarters aren’t so cozy when it’s hot outside. It’s time now for us to put away our sweaters and long underwear, time for the critters to step out into the world they’ll learn to live in. This is the moment their mothers have been waiting for all winter long. It’s the moment that millions of years of their species’ survival has come to: the beginning of new lives.

The Last Frost

April 15th is the average last frost in St. Louis. But we know that date is no promise. In the past couple weeks, the temperature sank close to freezing more than once. April rains are unpredictable, sometimes bringing in cold; other times warmth. Days drop 30 degrees without warning.

But the winds are changing. More and more often, the warmth sticks around for awhile. The weather blows over, defying forecasts for thunder and rain. You start to feel bold enough to leave the house without a jacket.

Those who plant peppers, okra, or other heat-loving plants find a little more certainty at the end of April. The seeds of these plants can’t survive the cold and shouldn’t be planted outside until two weeks after the average last frost. With April 15th two weeks behind us, we have made it. And it’s not just the gardeners that know it—every creature has figured out that it’s safe to come out. Early blooming trees like magnolias have already lost their blossoms to the green of their leaves. The bees are back and buzzing in the sun. Birds we only see in springtime are passing through now on their way back up North. Azaleas are in full bloom.

This is spring as we dream of it through winter. Not the uncertain spring of March and April—the flowering, bustling, breezy spring of May.

April Wind

The birds are back, the sun’s out early, and the flowers catch the eye of every passerby. People air up the tires and start biking to work again. Joggers whisk past on the sidewalk. Spring is a time of movement.

Even the air itself gets caught up in the hubbub. The rowdy wind blows itself breathless, sending pollen and branches flying; downing signs and power lines.

In Missouri, April is the windiest month of the year. Our state isn’t an especially windy one, but in springtime the wind has its say. On Saturday night, we heard it howling through the wee hours of the morn and flinging twigs against the siding. In the morning, debris was everywhere—branches down, internet down, trash blowing in the streets. Splintered reminders of the wind are still piled on the sides of the roads.

April wind isn’t always violent. Sometimes it’s a chill that brings a cold night in. Or a gentle breeze that swirls up little swarms of petals on a sunny day. But it’s always here, knocking the flowers off the trees as fresh green leaves begin to unfurl. April wind carries us from the chill of March into the green of May. The sails are full, and we are headed for summer.

Magnolias in Bloom

Here it is: the big bloom. It comes every year, and still it catches us by surprise. To see bright color outdoors is just so starkly and suddenly different.

The magnolia trees lead the march. Their flowers are not timid about unfurling early. They’re some of the first to show up, and they are unabashed in their splendor: huge, beautiful, and flushed with delicate color. Their big showy petals scatter all around the trees. If you pick one up, they feel thick and soft to the touch, almost like a thin strip of leather.

The magnolia goes back to ancient times. Those hardy flowers recall a time before bees were around. It’s believed that magnolias were pollinated mainly by beetles, and the flower had to be tough to survive potential damage from them. Today, the flowers help the magnolia thrive in a different way—those beautiful blooms mean they get planted and cared for by landscapers, horticulturists, and homeowners everywhere.

Here in St. Louis, two types of the tree seem to be the most popular: the star magnolia and the saucer magnolia. Saucer magnolias are the most instantly recognizable—their rounded petals fade from dark pink near the center to white at their ends. Star magnolia petals are long and white, and each flower seems to have dozens of them bursting from its center. You can count on saucer magnolias to bloom just about every year, and when those pink petals first appear, it feels like a promise that winter is over. Star magnolias are more sensitive and won’t flower fully if they are damaged by late frosts, but this year was perfect for them. Spring came slow, wet,  and steady. They’re so full this year that you might have noticed the trees blooming all over the city without even looking for them.

In this perfect year for the star magnolia, make sure to notice them in all their glory. These trees are picked out and planted especially to be seen in these brief weeks. Long ago, before landscaping, before people, even before the bees, these flowers existed for no one but themselves. How lucky we are that they’re still around, and now we get to enjoy them.

Here Come the Storms

Driving rain and roaring thunder kept quiet all winter. Finally now, they push the silent snowfalls and feeble drizzles out of the picture. Springtime storms have arrived with a bang.

In St. Louis, we all have a story about a close encounter: a flood in the basement, a tornado in the neighborhood, hail the size of baseballs. We’ve seen it all, and we’re not afraid anymore. Who doesn’t like a good storm every once in awhile? To Midwestern folk, a big blasting thunderstorm is a little bit like a holiday that you can’t plan for.

The birds stop singing. The leaves start to fly as the wind whips up, and you know what kind of storm is coming. People get excited. It’s a special occasion—everybody’s day revolves around the same event.

And we’re stubborn. Even as the first drops fall and the thunder starts to rumble, you’ll see neighbors out and about walking their dogs, just strolling along without a hint of panic in their step. It’s only when the downpour starts that we finally step inside to stay dry. The whole family gathers around the big picture window or pulls up a chair on the front porch to watch the storm. You wouldn’t want to miss it.

Then the lightening bolts flash across the sky and the thunder grows from threatening grumbles to splitting cracks. This is when dad will say “Count the seconds between the lightening flash and the crack of thunder. For every five seconds, the storm is one mile away.” You count and count, and soon the sound and the light are simultaneous. If you close your eyes, the spray of the rain blowing up onto the porch makes you feel like a fisherman at sea.

Even when the sirens come on, most people brush them off. But if the storm gets serious enough, everyone will hide in the basement. Mom is excited to bring out her emergency crank-powered radio. The wind howls. Hail hammers the siding. And when it’s all over, everyone creeps out together, puts their hands on their hips, and surveys the damage.

Sometimes there are branches down over here and shingles gone over there; hail dents in the hoods of the cars who don’t have garages. Other times there’s hardly a sign at all of the storm that just raged. The golden sun lights up the wet streets, and the raindrops on the grass and windows sparkle. The birds start to sing again, and we know that the danger has passed.

Watching a thunderstorm brings a different kind of satisfaction. Tending a garden or walking in the park reminds us that, in spite of our urban environment, the natural world is always there to welcome us back. But a storm proclaims nature’s power. It brings us the story of a different kind of world, a world where nature calls the shots. And it reminds us that that world still exists.