Downtown View:North Country Life

I spend several days every summer in the North Country. The weather is always typical for New England, both warm and cold, dry and humid, sunny and rainy—all the contrasts that summer brings in our region.

Plenty of rain this year has ensured that the color green is pretty much overwhelming. The rain seems to have served up more insects and seeds for birds, because I’ve never heard such a chorus in late July.

The mountain trails are full of hikers. The ponds hold swimmers, canoe-ers and kayakers. The state campground down the road is full. Motorcycle flotillas roar by. Hot dog stands and clam shacks do a robust business. Some locals make their annual trek down to Boston to see the Red Sox play. Even the smallest towns have bike races, weekly farmers’ markets and outdoor concerts.

This summer we have much entertainment from Washington too. We were at a restaurant where the patrons were in stitches imagining Mexicans throwing bags of drugs over a border wall and hitting Americans on the head. They went on to laugh about a president’s lawyer whose name is Ty Cobb and the drama of a meeting with Russians—a meeting, one wag said, that appears to have had more people in it than attended the inauguration. Even Steven Spielberg would have trouble imaging all the weird things going on.

As summer progresses, though, it’s clear that this season stands out from the rest in its unique activities and leisure. It’s not like the joke—at least I think it was a joke—in the movie La La Land, in which each season introduced a section of the movie, and yet nothing changed.

New England’s summer progression is most apparent in the plants. Plants mark time passing as they can’t do in winter. It seems a metaphor for a life span.

Summer’s promise in the North Country is heralded in April by deep green skunk cabbage, bursting tree buds and the bright happiness of daffodils, almost like the anticipation of a newborn baby. Soon those beginnings give way to the solid structure of forsythia in gardens and along the roadside hobblebush, apple blossoms and painted trillium, more like a toddler. Tulips and then lilacs can seem as overwhelming as loud children at play.

By the time the mountain laurel appears in June, the summer is nearing teenage status. Peonies, columbine and gas plants (do you realize gas plants can actually catch fire?) are showy garden plants much like those teenagers with their dramatic appearances.

Lilies decorate the Fourth of July as does the abundant feverfew and are as dependable as college graduates going out to work.

Late July is rather like people in their forties. The show on the roadsides is in its prime and well settled in. It is as diverse as it will get before being taken over by goldenrod, a native plant, and Queen Anne’s lace, an alien I like, although some states have designated it invasive. Those August plants signify you’re on the downhill slide into fall.

In the neck of the woods I frequent most often, the most dramatic sign of fall is the proliferation of Michaelmas daisies, also known as wood asters. They last until the woods turns bright yellow with the native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana, which unlike the early spring Asian witch hazel, puts out its best show in the fall. To create the skin antiseptic with the same name, Native Americans taught the early European settlers to boil the stems of this plant.

After those bright October days, the last item left standing is the winterberry, a native holly that lasts for only a couple of weeks in November since the birds eat all the small red fruits. Once I put winterberry in my window boxes only to attract sparrows, which wiped the stems clean in a few minutes.

After this, it looks as if life shuts down, even though it will come again in the spring. Unless it turns out we can be reincarnated, that’s where the metaphor for human life ends.

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