“While Emily Dickinson found ‘a little madness in spring,’ I used to find this lunacy in the fall. Faced with a half-acre of wet leaves, many of which slid between the tines of my rake, and which no leaf blower would budge more than a few feet, I have been frustrated as hell. Now, in the guise of ‘Lawrence of Suburbia,’ I simply obliterate the arboreal litter from atop my ‘Lawn Ranger.’”—Skip Eisiminger
Skip the B.S.
By Skip Eisiminger
I. “A bellyful of January/The snow’s a confection of sugar and ice—/our plates are heaped when one would suffice.”
CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—December 2018—Lord Byron, who’d decamped to warmer climes, complained that the winter he’d fled ended in July and started up all over again in August. Not many years after, Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, “In Maine, they have not a summer but a thaw.” I’ll leave it to the people of England and Maine to decide whose summer is shorter, but my guess is that few have ever visited Verkhoyansk, Siberia, whose 1,300 residents cope with temperatures as low as -90°F in the winter and 100°F at the other extreme. I’m all for seasonal change as my title above suggests, but I have to wonder what humans were thinking when they moved to Verkhoyansk. Some Siberian prison camps have no guards because to escape during the winter or summer of a prisoner’s discontent is certain death.
II. “34° N. Lat: February/Buds black and still as cold clumps of grapeshot/await the sun’s boom just out of earshot.”
“Winter is a comin’ in,/lhude sing goddamn,” sang Ezra Pound with a wry grin. He’s alluding, of course, to the earliest extant round in English which welcomes summer and the cuckoo that is its feathered herald. But for my money, British and American poets have had a better grasp of winter’s hell than summer’s heaven. Winter reminded Shakespeare, for example, of “Marian’s nose . . . red and raw,” and “greasy Joan” pouring cold water into a pot of soup to prevent a boil over. This, I would argue, is as close to the miseries of winter that language can represent. Thermophile that I have become, I shiver reading “Winter.”
III. “Pear Tree Transport: March/One warm spring evening, her highness decrees:/‘This pear will be lifted by one billion bees.’”
To the dismay of local skijornering cryophiles, winter in the South Carolina Piedmont is usually done by mid-March. And though the planet is still a couple of million miles closer to the sun than it will be on the first of June, here in the south, there are more sunny days in March than rain. In Barrow, Alaska, however, some residents complain of “arctic hysteria” that comes from being confined to their shipping containers for three months during winter’s “dark perihelion.” Are 80 days of the midnight sun worth 67 of total darkness? Not to me. Spoiled as we are in the South, I’m anxious after the second day of rain in any month.
IV. “Tornado Gutter: April/An in-coiling spring, dubbed ‘Satan’s finger,’/is a suppository with too much ginger.”
English poets have tried for centuries to get a fix on “puddle-wonderful” spring, but few have succeeded. Wallace Stevens in an uncharacteristic voice whined, “Poor, dear, silly Spring,/prepar[es] her annual surprise.” But what a stunner it is when that pear tree, mentioned above, lifts off. While “dear” is close to the mark, there’s nothing “poor” or “silly” about it. If I ever run for public office, I’ll promise a spring in every pot.
Stevens’ peer T.S. Eliot thought April was the “cruelest month,” perhaps because in ages past, it was time for a spring military offensive. When I used to teach Eliot’s “Wasteland,” I often wondered if he’d forgotten those cruel summers growing up in St. Louis without air conditioning when the temperature and humidity hovered in triple digits.
V. “Round Five: May/The roundhouse right of the flowering crab/says winter had nothing but a frail jab.”
Speaking of spring, the American writer Dorothy Parker didn’t fare much better than Stevens and Eliot, two of her contemporaries. Parker wrote, “Every year, back comes spring with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off and the ground all mucked up with plants.” A century earlier, Percy Shelley wrote, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” Parker turns that optimism on its head: “If autumn comes, can winter be far behind?”
VI. “Conspiracy: June/Dusty crows strut the fields and scissor their beaks/while we watch the third rain to miss in a week.”
Roy Campbell, a South African poet with a curious excremental vision, wrote, “Now Spring, sweet laxative of Georgian strains,/quickens the ink in literary veins.” “Laxative”? One needs to go back to Caesar’s day to find a “laxative” that referred to a “balm” or “relaxing agent.” I too have felt the quickening need to write as winter withdraws, but I would never claim that even a mild metaphorical laxative is what produced it. Unlike Parker, Campbell is fond of spring, but the ink in his classical veins apparently leaves his pen in a romantic rush.
For all his faults, Campbell, I feel sure, would challenge the observation expressed by Derek Jarman that with modern climate technology, humans in the 21st century have lost the thrill of finding the first daffodil or tasting the season’s first strawberry. It is said that spring like baseball creeps north out of its winter home 16 miles a day, and from what I’ve seen over the last 76 years, most people still stand on the roads and railroad tracks eagerly awaiting its return.
VII. “Volunteers: July/Summer’s goldfinch is flushed from the grass,/bright as March jessamine’s yellow trespass.”
Migrating north and west out of the Indian subcontinent, the Indo-Europeans thought winter was “wet,” spring was “growth,” and autumn “a turning,” but summer was just “a season.” Perhaps it was just too hot on the Russian steppes to find something more descriptive, but for most of us, summer has always resonated on its own frequency. The estival image that resonates most clearly for me, is nine grown men in July standing in the “shade” of a telephone pole cheering our tenth who was at bat.
VIII. “Southeastern Fire: August/Out west, mudslides may quench the wildfires/while our scouts read by the glow of foxfires.”
How summer comes across, of course, depends largely on the latitude and longitude of the observer. To the Inuits, summer is the season of “inferior sledding.” Perhaps hoping to keep out the riffraff, New Englanders boast, “We have two seasons: winter and the fourth of July.” Finally, Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward wrote that summer in the American South is when “the livin’ is easy.” Indeed, “the livin’” is so relaxed here, we often overlook our final consonants, but we seldom have to do math in our heads to stay warm, either.
IX. “Carolina AC: September/Is that time when the air inside is so cold/men go outside just to see if they’re polled.”
My wife and I were charmed by the fact that the small town of Clemson still had a “general store” when we moved here in the summer of 1968. The proprietor and sole employee was “Judge Keller,” the son of a man who’d once tailored uniforms for Clemson cadets and served as the sole judge of their fit. Judge Keller, Jr. delighted my wife, whose thermostat has never fully adjusted to the American South, when he wished her “a cool summer and a warm winter.” Seldom does man attain that ideal indoors; rarely does nature attain it outdoors.
Though I have lived farther north, I grew up in the South and have always preferred summer to winter. Slowly, my wife of Northern German origins is coming to appreciate the South’s warmth as well. But for all our varied seasonal experience, we are puzzled by the fact that our optimal indoor daytime temperature is eight to nine degrees warmer in the summer (75°-76°) than it is in the winter (67°-68°). Forced-air heat and air conditioning were supposed to change all that in advance of the glass-domed cities of the 21st century. Yet here we sit at non-optimum temperatures waiting for our personal aircraft to waft us to bluer skies.
X. “The Heft of October/Like fields left fallow, some things are best left/for sunnier days when rain has less heft.”
I’d like to second Albert Camus’s motion to make autumn the “second spring when every leaf’s a flower.” My wife and I don’t subscribe to the “Leaf Peeper” channel (there is such a thing), but some of my favorite autumnal moments over the past seven decades include riding my bike with the grandchildren under and around the campus’s sugar maples at their colorful peak. When the wind blows these arterial-red leaves from their branches, it looks as if an assembly of vermilion flycatchers, northern cardinals, scarlet macaws, and summer tanagers are recessing for Halloween.
XI. “Crownfire: November/Halloween breezes throw yeast at heaven./Blood-orange maples are the spirit’s leaven.”
A Clemson friend who has a sister in Tucson often sends her a box of colorful leaves and holly wands when his leaves fall. Though she loves decorating at Thanksgiving with his Eastern bounty, she once sent him a New Yorker cover showing Adam and Eve being escorted out of Eden into a world of leaves and two rakes with which to cope.
While Emily Dickinson found “a little madness in spring,” I used to find this lunacy in the fall. Faced with a half-acre of wet leaves, many of which slid between the tines of my rake, and which no leaf blower would budge more than a few feet, I have been frustrated as hell. Now, in the guise of “Lawrence of Suburbia,” I simply obliterate the arboreal litter from atop my “Lawn Ranger.”
XII. “Wintery Mix: December/Carolina snow is less powder than gel./Sweat runs down my back, and my sweater smells.”
Science tells us that Earth owes her seasons to the 23° tilt of its axis relative to the sun. Without that tilt, we in the temperate latitudes would only experience Nature’s more extreme moods by traveling, as many already do, from sea to sea and season to season.
Without sharply-split, but not Siberian-style seasons, environmental determinists like Ellsworth Huntington (1876-1947) have argued that humans are incapable of developing restraint and foresight. Thus, the people of the tropics, Huntington opined, are like poor farmers who carelessly eat their seed corn. This is plainly false because Olmec and Mayan farmers had been raising corn for about 8,000 years before some Spaniards took these “poor” farmers’ seed corn to Europe.
Readers might also recall that some “well-seasoned” Puritans sailed to Plymouth “Plantation” without any seeds. Without the seeds they eventually cadged, wheedled, and stole from the Native Americans, there would have been no corn crop in 1621 to feed the 50 or so who hadn’t starved in that first winter.
Whether it was Mother “laying out” on the first warm day of spring, the first tomato and mayonnaise sandwich of summer, trying to catch a maple “helicopter” before it fell in the leaves, or steel-brushing the runners of my Flexible Flyer, the changing seasons of the middle latitudes have always offered a pleasant alternative to the mugginess of the tropics and the aridity of the poles.
Seasons also remind us that everything we love will die but return in one form or another. A.E. Housman’s “death-struck year” predictably and confidently arises decked in green and gold.
To order copies of Skip Eisiminger’s Letters to the Grandchildren (Clemson University Digital Press), click on the book cover below or contact: Center for Electronic and Digital Publishing, Strode Tower, Box 340522, Clemson SC 29634-0522. For Wordspinner: Mind-Boggling Games for Word Lovers, click on the book cover.