Wednesday, August 23, 2006

august darks

The phrase returned to me. I knew there was a poem called The August Darks and I've now discovered it was by Amy Clampitt, whose books I got rid of ten years ago (it wasn't because I'd gone off them). I don't remember the poem, I may not even have read it, and I don't know if she meant what I mean.

In the north of Sweden, August is predominantly an autumn month but in England it is considered the definitive summer month. There is a tension in us between two conceptions of summer. One is to do with light and is embodied in the word "midsummer". The other is to do with warmth and also social things like the timing of school holidays, not to mention the now-unaccountable Bank Holiday at the end of August. The upshot is that we happily use the expression "midsummer" but none of us really thinks that June 21st is the middle of summer; some tidy-minded people even try to equate the four seasons with the equinoctial quarters; thus they consider "midsummer" as when spring ends and summer begins.

For of course there's a time-offset between light and warmth. In water the offset is even longer. Swimming in the sea is cold until far into July, but then you can go swimming to the end of October. There's also a diurnal offset. The coldest time of each day is at sunrise, while in the evening it stays quite warm until midnight. Which is why, if left to ourselves, we tend to stay up long after sunset and sleep until long after sunrise.

Those dark warm evenings are never more noticeable than in August, itself the summer evening of the year. As the month goes on it's impossible to deny what our senses tell us; the nights come earlier. Yet the warm air urges us to stay outside. Teenagers, birds on a wire, sit closer together. At dusk, gardeners are still cutting back rank growth, still watering what's left. In the countryside it's quiet and a sombre green, with ripening berries: there are still lots of flowers around but there are no more blazes of colour.

We notice the evenings because we're still out and also because, now so far from the solstice, the times are changing more rapidly. There's a tenderness in this hush, keeping loss at bay, but no longer easily. It's also, as everyone knows, the time for street trouble. Love and hate, instead of being merely professed, are uneasily felt. Perhaps that's why so many people seek relief in being away.

And waking early, we are surprised to find shadow and red splinters of dawn on the horizon.


(Note 2010): I didn't know when I wrote this that there is a Swedish expression "augustimörker" (August night, August dark). It seems to be remembered as a valued if slightly wistful phenomenon around the end of summer, associated with tranquility, crayfish, dark ripples on water.


At 6:57 am, Blogger Yves said...

You've brilliantly captured the quality that distinguishes August from the other months, and - to my mind - makes it the saddest. For its decline is subtle. Trees and bushes are tired after fruiting. The apples and the horse-chestnut conkers are not yet triumphantly ripe. Leaves are still green but they hang heavy. The glory of their autumnal hues is yet to come, and no harvest festival has yet arrived to celebrate Nature's bounty.


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