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The first day of summer, the beginning of the end.

thAll around the country people recently celebrated the first day of summer (calendar-wise). The weather was gorgeous in Anchorage but I was a little sad. Up here, summer solstice means that in a day or so the light turns around.

If that sounds defeatist, it’s because it is. We’ll still have tons of light for quite some time, much more illumination than the Lower 48 gets. But I can’t shake the notion that it’s now going the other way.

I felt that way every solstice during my previous tenure in Alaska (1984-2001) and I feel that way now. May and June are the best months, in my opinion, even if the latter does turn on us each year on or around June 21. 

 

I’m not depressed per se, just sad. My first full winter back here was a particularly long-lived one and spring never really took hold until fairly recently. It snowed on May 17, for heaven’s sake – not unheard of, but certainly uncalled for.

However, all was forgiven after the record-breaking June weather. Most days have been sunny and “hot,” i.e., in the 70s and even the low 80s (see “record-breaking,” above). A sunny summer day here is perfection: warm, dry and drenched in light that lingers till midnight and beyond.

The quality of northern light is hard to explain to someone who’s never been here. It’s a pearly, luminous, benevolent beam that suspends you in a dreamy haze of timelessness. Start a pickup softball game after work, lose track of innings, look at your watch: it’s quarter of ten. How’d that happen?

When I visit my dad during a South Jersey summer I feel pummeled by the sun. That hard, flat, yellow light bores straight through my head and splashes glare across my eyes. Without a hat I feel dizzy and nauseated by the one-two punch of heat and humidity.

Up here, by contrast, I’m likely to need a jacket in June.

 

The smell of green-up

The other night DF and I attended a midsummer gala at the Alaska Botanical Garden. Flowers were blooming, herbs scented the air and boy, did their kale and cabbage get a head start on everyone else’s. It was a lovely occasion but again, “midsummer” jarred me.

In South Jersey or Seattle that word connotes garden-fresh vegetables, trips to the shore, nectarines and cherries, outdoor concerts, major league baseball. It could also mean long days playing backyard baseball, sometimes until it was too dark to see. My childhood home sat in front of a huge, empty field in which I spent many, many hours in ball games with kids from the neighborhood.

Here in Alaska, midsummer means “fill your eyes with color and cherish every moment outdoors – you’ll need those memories to get you through dark November afternoons.”

When we walk I drink in what’s around me. I inhale the odors of Mayday trees, lilacs and what I can describe only as the smell of green-up – leaves enlarging, grasses and weeds pushing frantically toward the sun. Wet-earth scents from the sprinklers that revolve everywhere in this dry-as-a-bone summer. The astringent fragrance of the rhubarb snapped from the yard of a guy who invited us to take as much as we wanted.

Every walk, every bike ride, every lettuce leaf I pluck from our little garden – all are precious. My great-nephews have coaxed me out to play in the yard, use sidewalk chalk in the cul-de-sac, swing swords that we knocked together out of scrap wood and imagine that DF’s old red van is the Millennium Falcon. My friend Linda B. and I made an overnight trip to Homer last week and, as usual, I was glad she drove because it left me free to stare at eagles, water, trees, mountains.

 

Wishing it could last

Earlier this month a writer for Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine came to town. We took her out to the Turnagain Arm Pit BBQ and then to the Glen Alps area of town so she could see Anchorage spread below her like a postcard. Big patches of snow were still visible in the parking area, and we even scared up a moose for her. No bears, though, which was probably just as well.

She asked a ton of questions and exclaimed over everything we saw. Linda B. and I told her a lot of stories about Anchorage, some of which were even true. Once again I thought of how many people work and save their whole lives to get a one- or two-week glimpse of the views we too often take for granted.

I do love the way this land makes me feel. That’s why I wish summers lasted a little longer. Every time they leave it’s a sad surprise.

On our walk this evening we spotted some fireweed that had already bloomed halfway up the stalk. Local lore has it that when the blooms reach the top, summer is over. This particular bunch of epilobium angustifolium was perfectly situated on a southern slope and that’s why it was already in bloom; most of the fireweed I’ve seen has had barely visible flower stalks and some have no stalks at all.

Intellectually, I knew that was just an old story. Emotionally, I started mourning summer’s departure even though the sun overhead felt limitless.

Standing in a patch of daylight that lasts for 18 or 19 hours, it’s easy to feel that winter will never come again. But there comes a day sometime in early August when the sunlight seems frailer and more tentative, unable to overcome the faint chill in the air. That chill feels like a foretaste of snow, and the sun shrugs its shoulders and says Hey, what can I tell you? It’s time.

Not yet. But all too soon.

 

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31 Comments

  1. That was lovely! Although I live in Massachusetts, I also mourn the passing of daylight hours as summer fades to fall. There’s a front yard full of sunflowers on my way to work, and every day, the flower heads turn toward the sun. As June becomes July, and August September, the flower heads look so sad to me, because the sun they love is going to a place they can’t follow….

  2. Beautiful! Yet we humans are fortunate; do you suppose the bears, ground squirrels, eagles and other wild things are able to stop preparing for winter and just appreciate the summer?

    • Donna Freedman

      I expect that certain things about their lives are easier in the summer, e.g., moose don’t have to wade through snow to strip bark off trees but can stand in the sunshine and eat fresh greens. Or to chill out in a sprinkler:


  3. ImJuniperNow

    Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said that people complain about the weather but do nothing about it?

    I work with a woman who, MOnday thru Friday, monitors for us things like how we lose 1/8th of a second of light every day after June 21st or how many hours it will be until Christmas and then Christmas is over in a blink of an eye.

    I just take in every day, no matter the scenery, like it was my last. It could be!

    • Donna Freedman

      Trying to soak in all I can, for that very reason.

      • ImJuniperNow

        Get a light box. Best thing I ever bought myself. How else could I be so blase about the weather?

        PS – We’re expecting severe thunderstorms today. I’ll be under my desk if you need me.

        • Donna Freedman

          Got a light box already, thanks. It makes a big difference. And DF has a “dawn simulator” alarm clock: The light comes up gradually starting an hour or so before your wakeup call. Much less jarring than a buzzer.
          Sorry about the thunderstorms. They’re rare in Anchorage but occasionally do happen. Once I heard thunder when some neighborhood kids were hanging around with their bikes. One of them immediately said, “You can stay here and get struck by lightning if you want, but I’m going home!” They all peeled out. This was the same group of kids who earlier in the day discussed the possibility of going out in the woods to find the bear that had been seen nearby. Sheesh.

  4. Even in California I celebrate the Winter Solstice and the gradual lengthening of days.

  5. hmbalison

    Donna,
    I live in the Bay Area, and with the advent of summer, I had the same thought about the light leaving little by little now until December rolls around.

    I’m also trying to stay in the moment and enjoy each day.

    hmbalison

    • Donna Freedman

      I’m about to leave for two weeks: My niece and I are taking her boys to Philly, NYC and South Jersey (to see my dad). Then two weeks after I get back I’ll turn around and go back to Orlando, to the SaveUp13 conference. This is starting to feel like the old days in Seattle, when I’d spend weeks at a time away. Just wish it weren’t eating up a chunk of summer — but since the kids are in school the rest of the time, we do what we must.
      And if it’s summer I want, it’s summer I’ll get: NYC, Philly and (ugh) Orlando get some real warmth and humidity. Whew.

  6. Glenna

    I live down south in Oklahoma yet I get the same feeling when summer solstice rolls around. It reminds me that winter “will” return so enjoy every possible moment of summer.

    • Donna Freedman

      Doing my best to enjoy — and apparently the 80-degree weather is headed back in a couple of days. To have so many “hot” days in the summer is pretty amazing.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  7. I look forward to the longest day of the year, and yes, I feel a little sad when it’s over. The winter here lasted much longer than usual, too!

  8. Mark Hummel

    I have to agree with you about the almost imperceptible decrease of daylight after the solstice – people don’t want to acknowledge that summers almost over and the termination dust is on the way…I believe the best months of “summer” are August and September – plenty of elbow room at the rivers/streams for rainbow trout fishing plus you’re able to score some great campsites once the ankle-biters are back in school and the tourists are finally gone! GOD, how I miss Alaska…

  9. Mary H

    You’ve made me glad to live in the hot and sunny South where I look forward to the end of summer because the long, hot days of July, August and even September(and they are long even if the sunlight is shorter)leave me wrung out. I love October!

    • Donna Freedman

      I’m heading to Orlando in early August for a three-day conference. Just typing those words made me sweat.

  10. Donna, I think this is one of your best columns ever. I feel EXACTLY the way you do. The day of Summer Solstice was a day of mourning for me, no joke. We delighted in the long day, but it is, for me, also an inescapable day of mourning, knowing that the longest day is really just the beginning of a long descent into darkness, cold, and ice. And I hate it. I mean I REALLY hate it! I can’t stand winter in Illinois because it is so chilling and humid and cold. And dark. And endlessly gray. I think that if I lived somewhere where the light was different, and where it didn’t get so cold, I wouldn’t mind “winter” so much. But living here in Central Illinois, it’s pretty bad. So trust me, I “get” what you’re writing about. I’ll think of you every time I notice the days getting shorter and am mourning that! But enjoy your beautiful summer!! 🙂

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks, Susan. I don’t suppose you have one of those SAD lights? Using one helps me get out of bed in the morning. Doesn’t make the winter any shorter or warmer, but it definitely lifts my spirits and keeps me from wanting to take endless naps.
      At least the winter in Anchorage isn’t humid-cold. In Philly, 30 degrees feels miserable. In Anchorage, some people don’t even bother to zip their coats.
      Let’s both enjoy the heck out of the summer, shall we???

      • Donna-
        I’ve come THIIIIISSSSSS close to buying a light box the past winter or two. I think I’m going to have to, soon. Maybe it’s hormones, etc., as I get older, but the grayness about does me in. But for me, even the grayness/darkness isn’t as bad as the stupid humidity, where the cold is magnified and chills you to your bones. You know what?? Skip the full-spectrum light box- I just need to move somewhere else!! 🙂

        • Donna Freedman

          Exactly! The cold just burrows into my bones and magnifies itself therein. Brrrr…..

  11. Suzanne

    Donna,

    I just had to send you a little note to tell you how hauntingly beautiful this post was. It gave me chills.

    My dear mother passed away last September but not before spending two weeks in Alaska in August 2012. She came back sounding like she’d touched heaven.

    Thank you for doing what you do.

    Suzanne

    • Donna Freedman

      Thank you, Suzanne, for your kind words. I’m glad your mom got to see the 49th state.
      My mom died in August 2003. I’ve been missing her a lot lately.

  12. When I was thirteen, my family visited relatives in Alaska. In August. We got lucky with the weather and it was gorgeous – still lots of light, and quite temperate even for those of us who had come from southern Georgia.

    I don’t think I could cope with winters at that latitude.

  13. Wow, this might be your best work yet! You paint such a picture it makes me want to be there again!!! I was there several years ago just before summer solstice and for about a week after, and it was just as you describe, we saw a little bit of snow too, in Talkeetna, but as hard as we looked we never did see any moose 🙁 Hopefully I’ll get up there again, with my boyfriend this time, as he’s never been there! I try to do the same things as you, take in the beauty of this time, the warmth, the smells, even the cloudy and rainy days we’ve had so much of lately! Thanks for reminding me, something I needed during this stressful time, keep up the excellent work!!!

    • Donna Freedman

      Thanks, Kim. Let me know when you’re coming back this way. We’ll have a frugal meet-up.

  14. How short is daylight in the wintertime?

    My husband and I went to Alaska last year for 11 days. While I was hiking up a small mountain in Denali Park, a moose crossed my path. It was so neat!

    I hope you are able to enjoy these long days for as long as possible…

  15. Yvonne Wilder

    This is exactly how I felt during our 5 years up in Fairbanks. I loved the solstice festivities but I also knew that days were getting shorter from then until winter. I can still feel the dread when I think about it! I hope you have a beautiful July and Aug. just to be sure you get your fill of sun before the dark descends!

  16. alysha

    This was a great article. Glad to see I’m not the only one who feels summer fading away! I love summer, but I think spring is my favorite because everything is awakening and the days bring promise. Summer just has these odd moments, smells, breezes, that always hint of fall. It’s sad. You even notice the birds singing later and later. By mid-July, they don’t start until nearly 5 AM. In April and May, at 3:30 AM. I wake without alarm in May, not so by late July! Sob….I do have to enjoy the moment, but it is a little sad,

    • Donna Freedman

      I liked spring better than summer when I lived in a warmer place. Now I’m jonesing for “hot” weather in Anchorage. This summer has been unbelievably warm and sunny. When normal late-summer weather returns, we’ll bawl like babies.
      Hope the rest of your summer is swell.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

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