Tara K. Shepersky
Half an hour ago, it was too hot to be outside. The edge has curled up off the day now, just about 8pm, and a soft freshness pushed up from underneath. I can smell it, unfurling like a frond of fern.
I have not been content today, nor free of heavy cares for some months. So much is not right — with the weather, with my home, my life, my country — and my ability to affect change is so limited. But the towhees buzz as the breeze comes up before nightfall. It does help.
Summer in the Willamette Valley is the beloved season. We wait for it, discuss its late starts and occasional rains with an affronted air that recalls nothing so much as sun-spoiled Southern Californians. Which is what an increasing number of us used to be.
I carry a preference for mists and overcast, morning chill and fresh cool air at midday. I like to be outside and alone, but all my neighbors are up and out in this season, keeping me company from dawn until well past dusk. There’s a reason I’m no longer in Southern California myself.
Even my sleep is more populous in the hot season. Vague dreams keep me hovering near the surface, aware of my cool cotton sheets. A few nights back, I was dipping in and out of some large unsettling mystery, in no hurry, for once, to find how it all fits. Dreams are unknowable, but that hasn’t stopped our species from confident interpretations. I decided mine was my subconscious speaking to my daytime unsettlement: slow down, this is all you have.
In which case, what to do with the dream that followed, featuring an invisible force I was either playing or contesting with, while half my family looked on? I banished it aloud at the end, with a sense more of theater than conclusion. It’s normal to wake from dreams of the supernatural with a pounding heart in the darkness. This time I only lifted a vexed prayer for unvisited sleep.
The lack of actual darkness surely plays into this. I live in a semi-urban downtown, where night is just a dimmer switch. Evening is a great consolation near midsummer, and I long toward its liminal softness — a promise it does not always keep. I wish to find the night, to move through its other-textured streams.
I do try. Here, where shouting street lights reveal too much, and tamed music ruptures the boundaries of human habitation, I often lose heart for evening walks. I also find some of what I seek, when the night is cool and I can persevere. The wind coming up as the sky fades, as though it disperses the light. The flittering of tiny bats; the white roses’ last, late glowing.
Mornings are the quiet hour: five or six, before the sun clears the foothills. When the sky is a blank blue page, a bit darker each week. When the city and the hills disappear, enshawled in a drift of sunrise cloud. On the bay, the mallard kids are nearly grown. The men paddle about in lonely eclipse while the women give every appearance not to need them. It’s a brief reprieve: the loud voices and fancy suits, the strutting and the casual violence of the mallard love scene will return.
Supposedly summer is waning by September. Everyone’s keen to stuff in two more backyard parties, one more camping trip in the mountains. These last few years, though, August and September have brutalized the Northwest. Glance at a map showing wildfires, and it’s lit up like a city skyline. Rain might have never existed. In our supposedly temperate valley, the air doesn’t cool below 70 degrees for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. Meteorologists call this “poor nighttime recovery.” The mercury is climbing to the 80s by mid-morning, peaking near 100 in the breathless five o’clock hour.
I have to walk very early to get outside in this season. And I see things I would otherwise have missed. In the second week now of September, I’m out the door in darkness at 5:30. By seven the sun has vaulted the horizon. By 8 or so it’s struggled up, stained in blood, through the haze of smoke that walls the valley in. You can feel the air catch in the instant the sun breaks free.
Last week, the smoke-flat sky was dim at twenty after six, the sun still crouched and readying to spring. The glorytrees in bloom smelled like someone’s vision of heaven: rich and sweet and heavy like a cross between perfume and preserves. Bruise a leaf and the scent of peanuts rises into the sweet. I’d been listening for some minutes to a ruckus of crows, moving westward roughly parallel to my route. Turning the corner at the scent of peanut butter and jelly, I was hearing something else as well, a screechy-brakes squealing, overwhelmed by indignant caws.
Suddenly a large, distinctly flat-faced owl shot out of the dougs on one side of Berwick Road, taking immediate cover in a clematis tangle on the other. Its wings caught the light off the glorytree’s creamy blossoms. Barn owls are common, so I hear, but I’d never managed to see one wild before. I followed its escape through the neighborhood, invisible but for the crowd of shouting corvids. Exit, pursued by crows.
In the remnant oak woodlands on bluffs above the river, dawn means I’m the first to greet the spiders. Webs crackle as they break across my nose, drape limply on the brim of my hat. There’s Oregon white oak up there, a rarity, and some much scrubbier variety, and rocky, seeping meadows drying out in the long rainless months. I know the plants there, but they arrange themselves differently than the wetter woods I'm used to. They make space for the sky. I played a game where I named every plant I passed — snowberry, toxicodendren, big-leaf maple, sword fern, thimbleberry, Indian plum — until I met one I couldn’t and I had to stop for one full minute and listen, utterly still. One time, the birds went silent too. I stood tall and tried to look either intimidating or invisible. I didn’t break my silence. Games don't always turn out the way you plan.
Tryon Creek, my smallest local artery, breathes tangibly in this blanketing heat. Standing 20 feet from the trailhead nearest my house this morning, I felt it the invisible rising. Beneath the heavy summer maples, the green-boned alders reaching, wrensong watered the understory. The creek itself is small, of course, but running fast and clear, busy with water striders treading against the flow. Two ravens skimmed the treetops, a rare presence in this city-shouldered wood. It didn’t feel urban, though, today. At the wood’s heart, at dawn, as ravens quorked above, it was wild.
Even my little urban bay seems wilder just before daybreak. Endless tiny fish backflip out of the shallows. Airborne insects caper, and the last bats snap them out. Yesterday I sidled up to three Canada geese on silent patrol, and in so doing startled the shy green heron I have seen here only twice. A great blue glided low above my head, startling me in turn with his single, growling kraaaaaaak. I followed them both around to the marina, empty of boats this early. The green flew from my presence but the blue ignored it, stalking along the docks under sunrise clouds. A blue heron’s eye is huge and fluorescently yellow. I imagined myself the object of its hunting gaze.
Returned from my sunrise ramblings, I seal up the house with myself inside. As a child I read about house arrest and thought it a very light penalty. Septembers in Portland have caused me to reconsider. Evenings on the patio are scarce, and the noontime sky some days smells like an overwrought campfire. It sags, exhausted, leaking sulfurous light. It looks like a storm about to boil, but there’s no rain coming to save us.
Then I woke last night to the scent of falling water. No breeze, so the rain dropped in silence, misting onto the maple and dripping from its fingers once when enough had gathered. Coolness rose and padded in the window like a cat.
I woke again and reached, and my fingernails clicked on glass. Rising, I slid the window back and thought I smelled the rain. The moon, my companion on these long hot nights when the smoke recedes, had dropped behind the trees. Instead, the neighbors’ porch lights tangled in the maple trunks with the orange shine of over-lit streets.
In the morning I got up with the first faint seafoam glow in the eastern sky. Only some spent brown seeds dripped from the maple. Beneath the hydrangeas, mulch and soil were dry. The rain, if it had been here, had found the veil too thick to cross last night. I walked into the fitful semi-darkness, my heart a small, confused, insistent hammer.
Tara K. Shepersky is a taxonomist, poet, essayist, and photographer. She makes her present home in Oregon's Willamette Valley, with roots joyfully tangled up in half a dozen soils of America's West. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Shark Reef, High Desert Journal, and the Clackamas Literary Review, among others.