Days for Paying the Piper


Havre de Grace. -- "The red sun was pasted in the sky like a wafer."

Old English majors, in the days before the formal study of literature became as squirrelly and off-the-wall as a Werner Erhard sensitivity seminar, used to spend hours arguing about that sentence. Back before literature came to mean Stephen King, before Marguerite Johnson became Maya Angelou, before images meant something pictured on videotape, it was burned into our brains.

One critic said it was "probably the most notorious metaphor in American literature." Professors always cited it in discussions of religious imagery in what used to be called modern fiction. And it still pops up out of my own subconscious whenever the summer weather turns as foul as it's been these past few days.

The other evening as I was out checking on a stand of alfalfa the setting sun took on that same ominous look. Through the sultry polluted air drifting our way from the city it appeared red and cheerless, although I thought it looked more like an infected pimple than a wafer. Earlier in the day the temperature had climbed above 100, but with the sun lower in the sky it was around 90 and seemed almost cool.

If you believe as I do that nature strives for a kind of equilibrium, you tend to assume that hot miserable weather like this serves a purpose. It balances the year much the way a tire is balanced by those little lead weights you crimp to the rim of the wheel.

Or -- another way of saying the same thing -- it's the price exacted for those other days when the air's like Perrier and you're almost overpowered by the momentary perfection of the world. Those are days for dancing; these are days for paying the piper.

Fortunately, on our place the workload wasn't too bad when the current heat wave arrived. We had just put some nice second-cutting hay in the barn, and didn't plan to mow any more for several days. This week I went over to look at a neighbor's wheat field to decide if I wanted to buy his straw, but the field has a lot of thistle in it, so we'll probably only bale a few wagonloads around the edges.

Even without the field work there's still plenty to do, of course. There's grass to cut, brush to chop, and an ample supply of broken stuff to mend. But those are jobs that can be done at a pace adjusted to the weather.

In making those adjustments, we're reminded that hot spells have certain compensations. For one thing, they get us going even earlier in the mornings, when it's a little cooler. And even in muggy July, the time just before and just after sunrise seems special.

As I was driving around my neighbor's thistly wheat field early one morning this week I happened on a covey of quail. There were half a dozen little ones not long out of the nest, and they skittered off into an overgrown fencerow and vanished. Quail haven't been doing well in our area the last few years, and seeing them brightened the day.

Stephen Crane was only 23 when he published "The Red Badge of Courage" in 1894. (Oh, you thought there might be a prize for identifying the source of the metaphor which touched off these musings? Sorry. Prizes are elitist.) He'd been a journalist, penniless and unknown. The novel made him rich, famous and readily employable, and for the six years left to him he lived a celebrity's hectic life.

In 1898 he covered the Spanish-American war with bravery and distinction. In 1899 he was living in England and consorting with Henry James and Joseph Conrad. (They're dead white male writers who wrote long books people once read.) In June 1900 Crane died, his health wrecked by the full-speed existence he'd chosen.

"The Red Badge of Courage" is a novel of war and spiritual

salvation -- the latter a subject apparently once again cleared by our political authorities for cautious discussion in the classroom. It's a tale heavy with symbolism, particularly in its references to weather. It begins in fog and ends with a sudden shaft of sunshine.

The wafer-like red sun appears at the moment of a tall bearded soldier's crucifixion-like death. The tall soldier's sacrifice sets the protagonist, Henry Fleming, on the path to personal triumph and redemption. By the end of the book he has left the "sultry nightmare" of war behind and is proceeding toward a vision of "tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks -- an existence of soft and eternal peace."

Although in its lack of nuance it's very much a young writer's book, it can still reward an old reader. This is especially true on a chokingly hot night in July, with thunder in the distance promising an eventual change in the weather. That's a metaphor, too, by the way.

4( Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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