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Summer's high noon


THE YEAR is thick with the season. It's just past the solstice again, the high noon of summer. In these parts, where millennia ago the Earth's surface heaved and folded into hundreds of mountains and hills, the catalpas and mimosas are finally in bloom.

Barn swallows that nest in one of the joints under the roof of our porch have returned at least two weeks later than last year and begun to set up housekeeping. Morning and evening, a bob-white who has established residency in the fields around the house repeats indefatigably its two-note repertoire. Hillsides that were bare and brown three months ago are aswarm with green plentitude that shrinks space and enfolds creation.

The days have been all sunlight and leafblossom, wildflowers and rambunctious weeds. At roadside and in the fields, brilliant blue chicory has appeared -- and the white yarrow, the yellow mustard. Around every turn sweet peas and tiger lilies proliferate. In this valley at least, though elsewhere drought blights harvest and lives, the Earth has begun to confer her bounty; the first crop of hay has been mowed and baled, and on the large farm across the road where the fields were heavy with barley, the crop has been reaped and chopped into silage. Grain, flower and fruit have flourished.

What with the surge of the year and the business of my own doing, I have failed to notice how the poignant, ironic green of early spring has fattened into a full, glossy luster. Already, in nature's inexact way, small, unripe peaches and apples have begun to drop from the trees.

Luxuriant though the fields and hillsides are at this moment, I think I can discern a hint of attenuation in their substance. Everywhere I look green's dark opacity seems to have embarked on a spectral shift to the precincts of brown. There are some who find nature and talk of nature tiresome, for whom the observation Novalis that "Growing plants are the direct language of the Earth" is no more than a fanciful figure of speech such as poets are given to. But for me, the natural world is both source and culmination of whatever we know of plentitude -- in our words as well as in our lives.

The analogy between the progress of the seasons and the course of human lives, between "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower" and the creative imagination that flowers in art and religion and technology is not simply a metaphor but, rather, an inescapable law of our being. We are what we are fundamentally because we are a part of nature.

As for the solstice, it is one of those phenomena that reiterate our condition: For another two months perhaps, flora will wax on solar energy that has already accumulated in the atmosphere -- live on its capital, so to speak. But the skull has begun to show under the skin; from here on, for this cycle at least, it's all downhill at the heart of things.

The promise has been withdrawn, we realize, long before we fully understood how much had been proffered. As today, when word arrived by mail that an old friend whose life had promised much had dropped down dead. Unexpectedly, as the saying goes. A heart attack at 53. For the rest of the day I have turned over in my mind the pointlessness of our drifting apart -- more my fault than his.

Obliged because of jobs and other circumstances to live in different places, people agonize over old friendships, let them atrophy, occasionally manage to nurse them back to vigor. It had been about three years since I last saw Jose. I assumed there would be a time when my own life was more orderly -- as orderly as his had become after long struggle -- for us to pick up the threads of our friendship, weave a whole, harmonious web. Perhaps he assumed that, too. Both of us might have known that high summer has death in its heart.

There are occasions when we not only know, but feel, piercingly, that all the mistakes, the missed opportunities of a life are permanent, unrecoupable. Just before dusk, I walk over the shorn fields to the little country cemetery that has gathered the people who have lived and died here since the 18th century. Wandering from headstone to headstone -- some of them no more than flat rocks without inscriptions -- I muse on the old, once-vibrant midsummers here memorialized, the signs of their passing almost effaced under tangles of brier and honeysuckle. What they were has faded now to weathered script in stones, the only language left for them to speak.

For the living there is still the flash of a swallow's wing at dusk, the slight shiver of poplar leaves quivering in a sudden movement of air, and words like these, replete with whatever is left of summer. It is clear, though, that the green and golden opulence at either hand has a sickness at the core; we are standing already in the antechamber of autumn. For a moment I hear in the distance a flurry of hammering, someone tackling a final task for the day, and then, closer, so close it is startling at first, the insistent triadic chord of a whippoorwill, tattoo at twilight for the season.

Eric Trethewey, a professor of English at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va., writes from Catawba, Va.

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