August starts the slow move toward summer’s end, accentuated by the start of school. The sunlight changes, becoming almost syrupy, and everything green begins to fade and harden. A few leaves flutter down. Grasshoppers and cicadas are full-chorus all afternoon and evening, giving way to the gentle rhythms of crickets at night. The breeze from the windows turns cool as we sleep.
I’ve decided that my favorite sound is that of the wind through the trees, and I go seek it out this time of year in a stand of cottonwoods at the edge of a clearing nearby. Poets can no longer write odes to trees – it having become cliche – but an ode to this elegant giant would be warranted. While its fluffy shedding is annoying early in the summer, it towers above most other trees in the Midwest, with its huge, post-like trunk of deeply-ridged, vertical bark that draws your eye upward to a narrow, dappled canopy. Its fan-shaped leaves with serrated edges are dense, hardened almost to plastic by August, and in a breeze they sound like great flocks of birds gently lifting into the air.
I can only hope no scourge comes to the cottonwoods in the way other diseases have killed our elms and ashes over the years. The beautiful white birch that shades my patio is infected with the insatiable ash borer; it will be cut down next spring, I’m told. I’ve already begun to mourn its passing.
Recently, an old photograph prompted this poem – about light, trees, summer’s end, memory, family, identity.
Light in August
In August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times.
– William Faulkner, on titling his 1932 novel, Light in August
On the patio in the sighing afternoon light,
I page through an old photo album.
Cicadas begin their chorus; black and white
gives way to kodachrome as I grow up.
I’d forgotten, when my new Instamatic
was still finding delight in the ordinary –
August, 1974 – forty years today, perhaps:
Mom and Dad kneeling by the forsythia
in the back yard, pruning it together under
the branches of the Russian olive tree. I am
on the patio, just fourteen, eyeing my world,
watching as Mom reaches to show Dad
a branch that needs a trim — their black hair,
their sturdy young backs, Dad’s murmured
Now the warm August sun radiates
through the ash tree, throwing shadows
onto the picture where the same sun had played
through tree branches over the three of us,
when I held the camera with raw autonomy –
my third eye – opening to life, opening
to love, opening like an early aster to the
enduring sunlight of August afternoons.