Friday, June 6, 2014

Summer's Waning

And so it begins, the slow and imperceptible yet inexorable progression of summer toward fall. Daylight's hold is weakening, and the sun's morning and afternoon rays penetrate the tree canopy from a slightly different angle at slightly different times each day. Oh, there is much left yet of summer, of those bright days and warm afternoons that distract from what lies ahead. And there is yet the early fall, that dry shining time of Indian summer and nights of cooler breezes and bright stars.

It's August, my favorite summer month, and once again, the wood and hermit thrushes have departed for other haunts, for woodlands less besieged than these by winter's extremes. And it will be many months before I once again hear them plying the hot muggy nights with their flute like melodies. The blue jays are more conspicuous now, as they seem to like this time of year when their cries seem to pierce the air more sharply, and many smaller birds that make these woods their home are more vocal, almost as though they are asking "Will you feed us again this year?"

The corn stands almost as tall as I am now, and there is lots of it to see this time of year in this area where woods open upon field after field lush with that familiar greenery. A few local farmers lease land on which to grow corn, and I watch its progression from mere green specks along the neat furrows in early June to the first young stalks to the tall proud plants that fill the rows come August. Tassels will be appearing soon, indicating the formation of the ears, and a few farms hereabouts are known for their corn, with many people finding the summer incomplete without a sampling of it.

Apart from its ancient beginnings as a dietary staple, corn still figures highly in both the human and animal diet. What isn't sold by the dozen from farm stands or grocery store produce bins is processed as silage for ruminating animals such as dairy cows or as feed for deer and other wild animals. In the Midwest and other areas of long summers, it's grown to be ground into the basic ingredient that goes into cornbread or hush puppies or processed as popping corn. The corn still standing in the fields in September in this neck of the woods is more than likely destined for the silo or the corn crib, while the corn that graces our dining room or picnic tables is reaching its peak as I write with people everywhere commenting on their "first corn of the season." Species that produce the sweet white and yellow kernels are in greatest demand, as all it takes is a bit of butter and salt, and for some, a bit of black pepper to round out the treat that comes only once a year in Maine. While corn can be frozen, it rarely retains that just-picked flavor and texture that can only be achieved by plunging it into the pot as soon as it's been picked, the reason being that the breakdown of sugars in the kernels begins the moment the ears are pulled from the stalks, a natural process that significantly alters its sweetness and flavor.

It's always a somewhat melancholy moment when, one day, the corn in one particular field is standing, and the next, it has all been sheared off close to the ground, its stumps awaiting burial when the soil will be put to bed for another winter. It represents another ending, just like the wood thrush's departure and the diminishing daylight. It speaks to our ancient beginnings and yearnings, when the seasons governed our lives, and we lived by the rising and setting of the sun, a way of life whose ingrained memory I think never entirely leaves us.

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