Back to the complexities

This is my contribution for the Ecotone wiki topic RePlace.

A spot of poison ivy between the first and second knuckle of my left thumb has been lurking there since late May. I never knew exactly where or how I made contact with the plant, but by now, in mid-August, its berries must be ripening. In two weeks or less they will redden and the leaflets three will color up to match – signal flags for the small birds of passage who will drop from the sky each morning for a quick nosh. For them the first leaves turn: poison ivy and Virginia creeper along the woods’ edge, fox grape and dogwood and a hundred acres of tupelo, red-orange-yellow right underneath the canopy’s stalwart green. The migrants won’t have much time and the banquet is overwhelming, so the foliage has to shout: Get your high-fat berries here, at the drive-thru window!

But Jesus, these birds! Only a fool could dismiss them as ordinary because frequently seen. Steering at night by the stars, their vision by day encompassing ultraviolet light and polarization caused by the earth’s magnetic field, traveling thousands of miles through every kind of weather, year after year venturing everything to come and breed in woods like these, then leaving their nests and returning to the far more fecund South – the Indians were right about them. How could they not be messengers, couriers of the otherwise undeliverable hope to the otherwise unthinkable destination?

It is the time of year that approximates that late stage in an urban civilization when works of art and language start to give off a faint odor, bending under the weight of footnotes and allusions. Wasp nests bulge with larvae, Luftwaftes of termites take to the air. More moth species than lepidopterists have yet been able to catalogue, most of them naturally rare, seine the forest air for the exact scent of their shorter-than-a-needle mates in the landscape’s haystack. Overlooked for their apparent sameness by generations of collectors, agog at polyphemous, the leaf-winged luna, the riddle-winged sphinx.

The last of the huckleberries are ripening, and the first of the apples. The peaches are at their height. The air we breathe teems with more life than most of us would even want to imagine. The soil in the woods gives off an odor so much a part of the general gestalt that the overwhelming majority of humans heading out for a week or two of camping have no clear notion of what it is that draws them, year after year, to the same spot in some park or national forest, relinquishing the hard-won comforts of home for the pleasure of sleeping on the ground, their nostrils just a couple layers of fabric away from the sweetly rotting earth. The sternest teetotalers are led around by their noses. The juice in its stoneware pitcher grows mutinous with yeast.

Winter is as far behind us as it can get, now, and the growing chorus of northern true katydids each night reminds us – those whose grandparents grew up on farms, and were full of such sayings – six weeks till frost. We’re as far as we can get from February’s spare forms, blue shadows and that crystal-clear air that always leads my mind upward and away. One may or may not tire of August’s filigree and fandango, but for me the sense of mystery in this season is undeniably more profound. If in January I am a desert ascetic, in late summer I return to the full-course spread at the Life and Death Café. There’s nothing like it for ambience, for service, for live entertainment: a small combo with trumpet and upright bass, ride cymbals going lush . . . lush, the blues singer shouting sundown as if he meant it.

Waiter! I’ll have another bowl of the primordial soup!

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