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August 29, 2019



The World After Rain

A good Soak is the gift that keeps on giving.

By Jim Dodson

Every year about this time, as another summer’s lease expires, I remark to anyone who will listen (i.e. mostly my dog Mulligan) that we’ve survived the hottest summer ever.

Unfortunately, this year I turned out to be right. According to the National Weather Service, the months of June and July logged their hottest temperatures on record, symptomatic of a year forecasters predict will be hottest in history — for the third summer in a row.

If misery does indeed love company, at least we weren’t sweating it out alone.

In England, suffering through its own record heat wave, jurors weighing evidence in a sensational murder trial in Oxford were dismissed after complaining to the judge of being unable to concentrate due to intense heat. The case involved a church warden and a magician who allegedly conspired to murder a famous Oxford lecturer and his headmistress neighbor in a scheme to steal their pensions and wills, a plot line worthy of Dame Agatha Christie.

The judge halted the proceedings and sent everyone home to rest and cool off. At last check, the jury was still out. But stay tuned for the blockbuster movie.

Across the Channel in France, meanwhile, where dozens of meteorological records suffered heat stroke due to weeks of three-digit temperatures, maps of the country’s hottest zones at one point eerily resembled a human skull, reminding some of Edvard Munch’s painting “The Scream.”

As you may have guessed by now, I’m no fan of summer. Perhaps this is because I am a child of winter, reportedly born in the midst of a snowstorm. Or possibly it’s because I lived on the coast of Maine for more than two decades and grew accustomed to summers that are short but cool affairs, ruining me for increasingly hot Southern summers.

Curiously, when I think back on my boyhood — a kid growing up in three different small towns of the deep South — summer heat never seemed to get under my collar the way it does now.

In Mississippi, a beautiful state beach lay just across the highway from our house. There was always an evening breeze off the water, and my mother and I used to go there in late afternoon to wade in the tranquil surf of the Gulf of Mexico to hunt for interesting wash-ups. Someone at the weekly newspaper my father owned told me that the Gulf offered the widest variety of shells in the world, an idea that inspired me to mount dozens of beautiful sea shells — striped turbans, Scotch bonnets, false angel wings — on a pair of lacquered pine boards.

The pressman at the newspaper also informed me that we lived in the heart of “Hurricane Alley,” which prompted me to begin watching for signs of gathering thunderstorms that boiled up far out over the Gulf and swept ashore with curtains of wind and rain. Secretly, I confess, I hoped a real hurricane might blow ashore, having no clue what might have resulted. A few years ago, the town where we lived was almost erased from the map by just such a September storm. 

The next stop in our family odyssey was a small South Carolina town that could have been the setting for To Kill a Mockingbird. Save for a beautiful African American lady named Jesse who nursed my mom back to health after a pair of late-term miscarriages and taught me to “feet dance” to the gospel music she played from a transistor radio in the open kitchen window, my long summer days were spent either in a wicker chair on a wide side porch reading my first chapter books or — like smart dogs across the sultry South — burrowing into the cool dirt beneath the house, where I played for hours with my painted Greek and Roman soldiers.

The days I liked best were those soothing gray affairs when a soft, steady rain fell all day and into the night, refreshing a parched world with its music. Today, whenever I see the TV spot for the popular Calm app — featuring a full minute of nothing but gentle rain dripping from leaves  — I’m reminded of something Miss Jesse liked to say. “Slow rain is a gift, child. This tired old world is like new after a good rain.” 

In Wilmington, the next stop on our Magical Mystery Tour of Southern newspapers, we joined the Hanover Seaside Club on Wrightsville Beach, where after a long day on the searing beach I liked to sit in a big rocking chair on the club’s open-air porches, slugging down ginger ale as I eavesdropped on grown-up cocktail chatter about politics and weather. On at least two occasions a hurricane was in the vicinity.

Small people have big ears, as my mother liked to remind my father at such times. But I remember a few of his corny summer heat jokes to this day.

It was so hot today I saw a dog chasing a cat, and they both were walking.

Did you hear? It was so hot today, why, the chickens were laying omelets and cows were giving powdered milk.

These days, of course, owing to global warming, rising seas and other factors, ordinary thunderstorms seem more menacing than ever, and hurricanes have become even more lethal.

Last September the citizens of Wilmington were marooned by a lady named Florence that dumped catastrophic amounts of rain on the coastal Carolina region, killing 51 people and doing a record amount of damage to property.

A month later, tropical storm Michael turned into the most powerful hurricane ever to hit the Florida panhandle, obliterating Mexico Beach and adjacent communities before churning up through the Carolinas and knocking over record numbers of trees and power lines across the Piedmont. Four huge oaks went down on our street alone, which left us in the dark for over a week. At least two of our neighbors’ houses were severely damaged, but thankfully nobody was killed or injured.

In Michael’s wake, however, tree crews began combing the neighborhood, playing on people’s fears as they went door to door.

For the moment at least, we are willing to accept the risk of living in an urban forest beneath stately century-old white oaks, if only for the kindness of shade they offer in summer and cathedral-like beauty they present come fall.

Besides, at the start of the summer just ending, I made my wife smile by claiming that I was going to fully embrace the heat of this summer the way I did as a boy — with grace and a true sense of wonder, and absolutely no grumbling about the horrible heat.

“Oh, nice. Are you planning to spend the summer in Sweden?” came the cheeky reply.

I suppose she knows me all too well. For a while, at least, I gamely managed to live up to this impossible goal, as abundant rain in May and half of June made my garden flourish and the staff gardener smile.

Then came July and someone thoughtlessly turned off the great spigot in the sky —  turning yours truly into Munch’s Scream.

Despite heavy watering by hand — city water is no match for the kind that comes from the clouds — my garden withered during a solid month of relentless 90-plus days of heat and sunshine. Every little pop-up thunderstorm on my weather radar app, alas, seemed to just miss our little patch of earth, a personal affront that soon had me swearing an oath that next summer, “Stockholm here I come!” One afternoon when I least expected it, burrowed away in my air-conditioned treehouse office, my wife phoned to report that a cold front was bringing a series of thunderstorms our way.

I told her that I would believe it when I smelled it.

Not 10 minutes later, I heard the thunder and stepped outside.

Ten minutes after that it was raining gloriously. I actually stepped out into my garden with my arms outstretched, savoring the smell and feel of summer-ending rain like the character Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption who, after he finds his way to freedom by crawling through a prison sewer pipe to a rain-swollen creek, strips off his clothes and stretches out his arms to embrace the water of heaven. I’ve watched that movie half a dozen times and never fail to find that scene deeply moving, a metaphor for the power of love and a tired old world washed clean.  SP

Contact Jim Dodson at jim@thepilot.com.

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