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Summer, we hardly knew ye

Here in Maine, our brief summer is so hard won that letting go of it and yielding to the inexorable pull of fall and winter is reminiscent of the Dylan Thomas poem about "Do not go gently into that good night."

Truth to tell, summer in Maine is something of a tease. Especially the present summer, which has brought stretches of rain and somber skies more befitting an English moor. A while back, in what should have been "high summer," I was out canoeing and noticed a massive oak tree leaning out over the river. Its leaves were beginning to turn. It was only July 25, for goodness' sake!

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I realize that, at root, one needs to take a philosophical view of such things. That which we have in abundance becomes routine and unremarkable. Years ago I lived in southernmost South Carolina. The seasons there graded into one another in one long continuum, their borders readable only to the natives. When summer came there was no unseemly whooping, no dance of the seven veils on the front lawn, no celebratory rockets. In fact, most folks seemed unaware of the beginning date of summer.

In a land of continual sun and warmth, this appeared reasonable to me.

But Maine makes us pay for our summers up front. Winter is our rite of passage, our hazing ritual. You want to enjoy long strolls along Maine's rocky coast on a warm July day? Then first spend several months putting on your mud boots, mummifying yourself in parka, muffler, and gloves, and remembering to plug in your engine-block heater before going to bed.

Split that wood! Stoke that wood stove! Thaw those pipes! If you can do all this, you'll be a man, my son, and come July those pine boughs will part and admit you into the sweet, and brief, nepenthe of the Maine summer.

As I said, we take abundance for granted. The flip side of this maxim is that the rare and fleeting is cherished. When summer comes to Maine, it is like a long-lost friend who is only passing through. We want to invite him in, give him the best chair in the house, put slippers on his feet, and serve him sweet mint tea. All the while, the clock ticks, the sun traces its arc across the sky, and our conversation is charged, cheerful, interesting.

And then, suddenly, our guest arises and heads for the door, waving goodbye without making eye contact. But still, wasn't it a lovely visit?

For me, the late, great American poet William Stafford best expressed the bittersweet emotions of summer's ebb. In his poem "August" he wrote:

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It passed carefully, touching
farms, leaning over ponds,
bending down the wheat.
People stand long at their doors.
"You were good this time, August
Old Friend. So long. So long."

As I drive along the pretty roads of central Maine at this, summer's trailing edge, my windows are still rolled down, the visor is lowered against the brilliance of a still-high sun, and I wear sneakers but no socks. I drive slowly, as if in so doing I can extend the length of the days.

But all along the way, there are signs.

A woman busies herself about her pile of newly delivered wood. She stacks it neatly between the shoulders of two pine trees with the artistry of a sculptor.

A man leans out from a ladder, scraping old paint from his clapboards. Next he will prime them. Then repaint. He is doing it exactly the right way.

Another man tends his pumpkin crop. Some of the vines are already dying. Soon he will line up the pumpkins on his front lawn, arranged in order of size. The sign will read, "Take Your Pick: $2-$4."

These good people may not realize it, but they are savoring our summer guest as well as helping him find the door. In every length of firewood that is stacked, in every stroke of new paint, in every pumpkin cared for with paternal tenderness, they are making a statement.

They are saying, in a manner of which William Stafford would approve,

"You were good this time, Summer
Old Friend. So long. So long."

• 'August' is quoted with permission of the Estate of William Stafford.