Richard Brookhiser says farewell to a dry summer
As torrents in summer,
Half dried in their channels,
Suddenly rise, though the
Sky is still cloudless,
For rain has been falling
Far off at their fountains,
So hearts that are fainting
Grow full to o’erflowing,
And they that behold it
Marvel, and know not
That God at their fountains
Far off has been raining.
Edward Elgar set these lines of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in a choral arrangement that is popular with high-school choirs. Elgar and Longfellow — it doesn’t get any more upholstered than that, yet despite the too-obvious metaphor and the pat assurance of the last two lines, composer and poet somehow — rising and falling phrases? feminine endings? — convey yearning and consolation.
This summer was very dry upstate. There were enough far-apart sprinkles to keep lawns and pastures from being entirely parched, but wherever you stuck a shovel or a trowel you hit drought. Even with soaker hoses, vegetables (such as cucumbers) that are essentially water bags sprouted small and seemingly angry: Why did you bother growing us? Mediterranean herbs, masochists, thrived under the torture of sun and rock: Ah, Sicily, again. Bella! Leaves experienced an early, dishonored fall, running to brown and dull red long before the first chill: Enough already. In the woods my seasonal stream, which flows down a fold of ground, picks its way around rocks and trees, then loses itself in a marsh, gave up in June. Only a thread of stones marked its former path, and a few small pools in which frogs dove before I could see them.
I did not think of visiting the U-pick corn patch; I imagined the poor Hasids from the next county out there in their all-weather holiness gear. I supposed that the Mexicans who also pick there were used to the punishment, though perhaps one reason they have come to el norte is to get away from it. The swimming hole in the kill on the ridge got lots of custom; you could see the crowds — kids, dogs, families, couples — as you drove past; but as the summer wore on, the hole got smaller.
You take the sweet with the bitter. Outdoor weddings are a roll of the dice, but this year, even into September when storms form in the Atlantic and roll up the coast, the odds were favorable. Two young friends decided to tie the knot at an old summer camp, now a nature center. Of course there would be a tent, but a downpour on all four sides makes for a hunkered occasion. Age looks at the calendar and worries; joy is hopeful. They lucked out.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The grass in the field where the service was held was yellow where it had gone to seed. The arch that framed bride and groom was wound with blood-red cranberry viburnum. The clergywoman was New Age, but she sounded like Maggie Gallagher: Marriage, she told them, is older than religions, societies, cultures. You feel the sustaining force of the universe, she said, conventionally, then added, unconventionally, your vows give strength back. The music, both at the service and during dinner afterwards, was first-rate: a fiddle, two guitars, and a double bass, all acoustic; no ear-bleed rock ’n’ roll. Almost uniquely in my experience of weddings, no family member embarrassed the assembly with inappropriate behavior or self-centered remarks. Good food too: One of the main courses was a whole roast pig. Two high-school girls behind me in the buffet line were put off their feed by the lingering personality in Freddy’s face, and the intimacy of his rib cage. More for me then. High in the air over the tent buzzards flew in at day’s end, circling together before they roosted, comparing notes. The bride’s uncle sent up an RC airplane, bright orange, which swooped and buzzed among them. They took no notice.
When the band circulated among the diners taking song requests, our table asked for “Red River Valley” and “Down by the Salley Gardens.” Wistful songs, both of them. “For they say you are taking the sunshine that has brightened our path for a while.” “But I was young and foolish, and with her did not agree.” Wistful, but not therefore unsuited to the occasion. Great happiness can play with sorrow; it knows sorrow will come, but it is ready.
The weather broke at the end of the month, when one of those equinoctial storms made landfall. Five inches of rain fell in two days; everywhere water ran madly for low ground: Lemme outta here! My stream sprang to life, and parallel streams joined it. The water was stained brown from flowing over thousands of fallen pine needles; when it foamed over a ledge, it looked like beer. In the valley they closed the state road when the creek rose; that water was muddy from torn-up soil. Big trees shrugged off old dead branches: I don’t need that arm anymore. Leaves fell like confetti. Goldenrod and apple mint bent beneath the pelting. As in spring, the ground sprung a dozen little leaks where underground currents rose to the surface.
Joe Sobran died just then. He got a prayer in the Corner and an obit in the New York Times, and friends and students of Rightworld will sift his life and work. I said my piece already, in my book about our common boss. His humor, his talent, and his quirks were part of the glamour of this magazine when I joined it, and his unraveling was one of life’s problems that surprise us because we have not seen enough, or because we do not want to see what is so close at hand. When I met him he could hit singles and doubles effortlessly; when I stopped knowing him he feasted on filth. In his last years he found his faith again, which carried him through terrible torments. Hail, and farewell.