I step outside the basement door into 97 degrees, but the evening is cooling down though it’s nearly two hours until sunset. Carefully, I climb into my canvas “sky chair,” hung from the deck by a single rope. I’m sweltering but invigorated after a hot bath infused with peppermint oil, eucalyptus, wintergreen, juniper, palm and clove oils.
In one hand I hold a gin and tonic, moisture beaded on the sides of the glass. The other hand clutches a pen and the slightly damp yellow pad covered with the ideas I scrawled while marinating in hot water and herbal oils. Not long ago, we bought an antique claw foot bathtub nearly as long as I am. Jerry installed it in a beautifully paneled alcove, which I curtained and furnished with a table for bath oils, wash cloths, and writing materials.
This is my idea of pure bliss: to work hard all day, slip into a bath and have a writing idea that compels me to write while I soak. A good day’s work and hot bath would have been enough to make the day excellent. The writing is an unexpected dividend, the fruit of the day’s quiet reflection.
Jerry spent his day mowing the yard and tilling the garden; he leans back in a padded chair beside mine. Bubbles rise from his beer. The two Westies, Cosmo and Toby, lie panting on a rug beside my feet. I dampen them with a handful or two of water from their bowl and they relax, eyes closed. We tell ourselves we feel a breeze.
Summer. In years past, I would have been driving haying equipment, piling up the hay crop for winter cattle feed. After I sold my cattle, the man who rented the land took over responsibility for the harvest. He’s hired a neighbor’s swather, which rumbled around the field, cutting hay and sweeping it into lines that followed the field’s contours, then lumbered away. Dozens of round bales shining with green plastic wrap are lined up in even rows all over the field. The sinking sun makes some part of the baler twinkle.
A robin rushes past carrying something wiggly in its beak, then perches on the fence, looking around. We’ve watched the nest under the deck as three blue eggs hatched into the three chicks that cheep for supper. Sitting under the deck, we make the robin nervous, but it darts to the nest and then away.
In the deep grass of the field south of the house, meadowlarks are whistling. Red-winged blackbirds trill from the cattails along the pond. Tree swallows tweet as they zip past. The robin lands in the grass, leaps ahead to snatch up an insect, then looks toward the nest. Everything in our sight is preparing for winter. Two of the biggest stories on the Internet today were about flesh-eating bacteria and the new practice of snorting chocolate powder to get a thrill. The nature I’m watching is too busy to notice what humans fear or how they entertain themselves.
The tomato plants push against the wire of their cages. Compelled to grow, they divide and branch as they reach for water and sunshine. Every inch of branch that extends from the main stem makes nutrients travel farther before reaching a flower that will become a fruit. Green tomatoes the size of a hen’s egg are nearly hidden by leaves, and yellow blossoms reach for the sun.
I want tomatoes, not branches, so my thumb and nail are stained green from pruning secondary stems. Rabbits have been eating the bean and pepper leaves, so I’ve slipped a horizontal slice of a soft drink bottle over each plant to protect the stem and lower leaves until the plant is strong enough to resist the depredation. On a metal table Jerry made, too high for the rabbits to reach, herbs thrive in pots. Calendula blooms are vivid yellow-orange beside feathery parsley and the pale purple blooms of lavender. Inside, in our homemade dryer, parsley, basil and chives are withering, getting ready for me to store them in labeled jars for winter stews. I’ll stitch little bags of lavender to slip inside my pillows for easing into sleep.
Leaves shiver in a breeze as the black storm that rumbled past us heading east swings around to the south. White clouds boil over the ridge, shading to gray and black underneath. The storm may come back. We planted our little garden in raised beds and pots just south of the house and deck for maximum protection, but if this storm carries hail, it could devastate our plants. I’ve moved several potted tomatoes on rolling platforms under the deck, but even that might not save them.
The limber stems of flax bend and wave, turning blue flowers back and forth like the faces of a crowd. Regal Maltese cross plants sway gently, blossoms startling red against the clouds. A pair of jets roar overhead, charging out of the clouds, aimed toward the nearby Air Force base after maneuvers that may have taken them anywhere in the world. Their business is being prepared to protect all of us below their roaring progress.
Nighthawks fly, their narrow wings slicing the sky, calling peent with long pauses between as the birds wheel and dart after insects, an aerial ballet both beautiful and deadly. Down by the water, the killdeer, likewise hunting, rise up from the marsh plants, calling killdee, killdee! I hear a flutter overhead, and a twig falls: the robin has darted to its nest again. A tree swallow zings west to east, then loops and loops and loops as another pirouettes beside it. Every living creature I can see is busy eating and harvesting, growing and thriving, too busy to snort chocolate or anything else for entertainment.
I sat down here to write, but now, with Jerry, I’m watching what there is to see, sweating gently and enjoying a light breeze.
The clouds behind the ridge have blackened, so the grass glows vividly green and gold in the sunset. We look for antelope on the skyline; they’ve been missing from our neighborhood for weeks. On our hillside, the grass crunches when I walk. Our fire danger is high in this year of drought, but relatives who visit from northern South Dakota say our landscape is greener than theirs.
As the breeze rises, a tree swallow hangs almost stationary against it, flapping vigorously toward the bird house, but getting no nearer. The robin sits on the post with a worm in its mouth, turning its head to watch us, then leaps into the air and lands on the nest overhead. “Cluck.” The cheeping overhead pauses. In the distance a long-billed curlew wolf-whistles. We haven’t seen any of the big birds for months, but it’s good to know they are still living in the tall grass of our pastures. They don’t thrive in agricultural areas, so rangeland that is not overgrazed is perfect habitat for them.
We observed Litha, the Summer Solstice and the longest day of the year, more than a month ago. On that day the earth was balanced between light and dark, between summer and winter. Every day since has been a little shorter and brought us a little closer to winter.
Traditionally, this is the time of the first harvest, forecasting the business of late summer days as the pace of gathering increases. Everything we see is preparing, in its own way, for the days to come. The animals are better at this preparation than the humans; while we fret over national and international affairs, they quietly pursue their own business. They have endured countless generations of human agitation, yet they survive.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2017, Linda M. Hasselstrom
# # #