It’s been hot for days. Not just hot, but really hot. The kind of heat that makes your skin feel a bit raw, swollen. You could sympathize with a cake in an oven. It’s the kind of heat that puts a gleam in a weatherman’s eye. You know he’s searching thesaurus.com right now for adjectives to name the phenomenon. It’s dire, portending dark days ahead. The heat bleeds into the other news. There are warnings: don’t touch hot grates, stay inside, use sunscreen, check your car before leaving it, heat-sensor mapping show asphalt-laden cities aren’t faring well.
It gives us all a something to talk about, something to commiserate on. Days turn into weeks and the novel becomes old hat. We go about our business, just earlier in the day. We preplan to get back to our window fans and air conditioning before the scorching early evening hours begin. The days are unbearable even in shorts and tank tops. The nights sticky with little relief, unless you are still awake at dawn. So, why, in this weather, do my thoughts turn to fall?
As the days wear on, something else has begun to show. There is a sense of giving up and letting go.
I’m standing in the woods and it feels like a snowstorm has set in. This heat is oppressive, like a heavy blanket smothering sound and life. Nobody, nothing wants to be in this. To move under it. It feels like it’s taken the life out of the trees. Normally this is the wood’s most active hour, but the birds are silent on the wing. The crow family here, shadows. The flicker, no piercing call to warn of my transgression into his domain. The chickadees seem dull. In the silence, the scratching of the towhees and squirrels in the underbrush is jarring. Every whir and thump of the grasshoppers is audible. Who can blame them for their lack of energy? Even a slow walk puts a line of sweat down my back.
The leaves on the trees are changing. They drop, brittle and sappy to the ground. It should be an event the first hard frost cues, but this year a lack of water fades the green early. The madrones have popped. Their delicate papery outer layers peeling back like old scrolls, revealing a velvety olive-green skin underneath. Heavy fringes of brown hang on the maples, seeds ready to disperse on helicopter wings. Oak acorns are ripening. Cones on the evergreens are dropping. It is clear not all of the trees have survived. The lack of water has hit many of the less hardy, leaving their stiff skeletons ablaze in red. Maintenance crews have been busy thinning the troublesome ones: fire and falling hazards.
Pacific madrone with peeling bark
Fire now is an everyday threat. There are black scorch marks along the shoulders of the road where the patchy grass has sparked. Everywhere, the grass thin and fine, like the hair of a balding man. The earth and rocky scrabble underneath shows. The golden tufts of grass seeds shimmer in the heat. Among them a few wildflowers endure. They are kinds that can reach above the high summer grasses. This is the time for the parsley family members, their dainty lace umbrellas wave in the warm breeze. There are shocks of yellow goldenrod and groundsel still blooming, too, as well as purple teasel, chicory and thistle. These late comers are busy with bees and butterflies; their downy seeds, food for the birds.
Thistle growing in local park
Everywhere the understory is becoming sparse. The vines and shrubs curl and brown. It has been probably three, four weeks, since any noticeable rain. The ponds and creeks and rivers recede. Even in its thick shroud of haze, it is clear the snow pack on distant Mount Hood is gone and will not offer any respite. Reduced to trickles, many are thick soups of algae and duck weed in stagnant water. Where water still seeps out in ditches and crevices, tufts of green growth marks these hidden wellsprings like ancient ruins. Deeper in the woods, I check on a winter-filled lake and see that is has become a barren flat of cracked mud ringing a small pool. A startled blue heron squawks at my arrival. Indignant and ungainly it flaps away. The pool’s inhabitants, frogs and tiny fish, have been pushed into the shade of the rushes in this shrinking environ.
This long drought has come after a mild winter. It seems like everything has started earlier and will end earlier. I have already seen the small songbirds, crows and robins fledged and tagging after their parents. I go looking for muskrats. Last year, late August, their young were numerous and unabashedly curious. This year, I see one unaccompanied juvenile and a far off adult. The juvenile keeps pace with me in the water, before veering off toward the far bank. I wonder if I’m too late, or too early. But, I notice there are few swallows here this year, too. No, ospreys learning to hunt. I am, however, surprised by a deer and her fawn in the dry grass. It reminds me that as the fullness of summer presses on, life presses on, too.
Fawn feeding in morning
They say these are the “dog days” of summer. An old term marking the time when Sirius, the Dog Star, rises with the sun in the northern hemisphere. It is the brightest star in the night sky. Its name means “glowing” or “scorching”. It is reflected in these months of hot weather, when we yearn for relief and slip into summer’s cabin fever of inactivity. In a way, these days also are the portent of the end. The end of one season, as we wait for another to begin. As all things, it is a cycle.
June 21 was the summer solstice. The autumn equinox will be September 22. Mercifully, the dog days should be over by then. The equinox traditionally marks when the night time temperatures start to fall below freezing and the days begin to shorten.
The swimsuits and flip flops are being relegated to the clearance racks. The garden centers’ shelves thin and the showy, flowering plants disappear. In the produce section, the summer fruits are replaced by pears and apples, early fall’s bounty. Soon, there will be gourds and cornstalks, scarecrows, and the scent of pumpkin spice wafting in the air. There is no alarm bell, no pinnacle summited, just the slow tipping of the scales where life begins to fade back into dormancy.
Additional reading: Heat, drought and dry plants are a recipe for wildfires. There are currently three large fires burning in Oregon and numerous others throughout the Northwest. Two major wildfires burn in California, and the Mendocino Complex Fire is the largest the state has ever seen.
While recreating outdoors, be cautious of using anything combustible or that may cause sparks. Check with the U.S. Parks Department, U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management about any closures or fire-use restrictions before camping or visiting parks.
For more information on current wildfires, visit https://inciweb.nwcg.gov/.
- In Oregon, the South Umpqua Complex and Sugar Pine fires burn west of Crater Lake National Park. Started by lightning in July, they are burning at roughly 37,000 acres combined.
- The South Valley, Long Hollow and Milepost 90 fires burn near Dufur and the Dalles. Combined the fires cover about 68,000 acres. These fires have the highest containment level. Caused by both human and natural elements.
- Taylor Creek and Klondike fires in the Rogue Valley near Grants Pass also were started by lightning in July. They currently burn at 72,000 acres combined.
- The Mendocino Complex Fire in California outside of Clear Lake currently burns at 292,000 acres and only 34% containment. There are numerous closure and evacuation orders associated with this fire.
- The Ferguson Fire also began in July west of Yosemite National Park. It currently burns at roughly 95,000 acres. There also are road closures and evacuations associated with this fire. Check updates if you are visiting the park. Be aware that smoke-filled air has a significant impact on hiking and walking abilities.