Summer at Last: Making Hay while the Sun Shines Hard

June 28, 2015

So the longest day of summer has now come and gone. It may seem a bit morbid, but I feel my annual wave of post-solstice melancholy setting in. The light lingered so long last evening that the western horizon was still aglow when I went to bed at 10:30. As I lay in bed, recounting to myself a very full day, I could almost visualize a gigantic "available light" water slide tied to the top of the summer solstice, with a long slippery slope down down down to the trough of darkness on December 21st. If you accept the analogy, sometime around October 20th the waterslide would start to feel slushy, cold, and ice strewn. And probably by December first, I would be found frozen in place halfway down the slide in some grotesque posture, with an icicle beard and stalactites cascading down towards the dead earth all around me.

I love North Dakota winter, the fiercer and grimmer the better. Bring it on. I will never flee. But I do not much like the dying of the light, the period between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day when I get up in the dark, go to work in the dark, and drive home in the dark.

Once again we have peaked. Each day now, until Christmas, we will lose two minutes of daylight. We must make hay while the sun shines.

The two big thunderstorms of last week were magnificent. I drove around Bismarck on Saturday morning to survey the carnage. It's always sad to see extensive tree damage from a storm, particularly in old Bismarck between Ward Road and 16th Street East. But there is something about the power of nature, when it really chooses to assert itself, that is thrilling and frightening and breathtaking all at the same time.

When the big storms come, I try to get as deep into them as is safe (opinions vary), and to open up every fiber of my body and soul to drink them in, to put myself in a position to feel their power right to the edge of terror. At least three times in my life I have been out in the American West in a gigantic thunderstorm and have been absolutely certain that I was going to die from a direct lightning strike within the next twenty minutes. It is just about the most exhilarating experience I know. I love to lie out on the prairie when one of the big thunderstorms starts to assemble far away on the western horizon. And then to watch it roll slowly in for an hour or more. And to speculate about whether it will build up or fizzle out, whether it will seek me out or veer off to the north or south, whether it will be mostly heat lightning or streak lightning.

At a certain point, I start counting the number of seconds between the flash of lightning and the timpani of thunder. A thousand one, a thousand two… Sound travels a mile in five seconds. Some thunder seems to occur high in the sky, up towards the top of the thunderhead, and some seems to rumble around close to the surface of the earth. I have three favorite thunder sounds. One is the kind of continuous rolling low thunder that sounds like the drum roll at the circus as you wait for the acrobat to plunge down 100 feet into a tiny basin of water. Such thunder can last up to five minutes, with brief pauses. It's like thunder as background music.

The second (there was one the other night) is when the lightning strike is so close that there is no discernible pause between the flash and the repercussion. The sound is not like thunder at all, but a sudden intense explosion, like the violent clap of the hands of a Sci-Fi giant right over your head. That one can make you jump and scamper inside. And the third, by far my favorite, is when the lightning strike is a mile or so away and the roll of thunder builds slowly at first, and you almost wonder if there will be much, and then it builds to a shattering crescendo. At the top of the sound arc, there is a pause, followed by a kind of cosmic tearing sound, as if the very fabric of the sky is being torn apart, or a cosmic zipper were being thrust open. Of all the best sounds of the Great Plains—the breeze in the cottonwoods, the perfect liquid purity of the Meadowlark, the sound of a boot on dried, packed February snow, the owl out at the edge of one's listening horizon, the yip of coyotes not far from camp—the sound of the sky being ripped apart by a thunderstorm is my favorite.

A classical thunderstorm has a leading edge and a trailing edge, with hard rain in the middle. I love the moment when the pre-storm calm starts to give way to the leading edge. The breeze begins to pick up, but before you can appreciate it the hard wind bursts on the scene and everything that is not buttoned down starts to bend or tumble away. I was up at the replica of Fort Mandan years ago during a whopper of a thunderstorm. As if out of nowhere, a calm evening turned into a tempest, and the mighty old cottonwoods alongside the river bent over as if they were wetland reeds not stately old stiff trees. I expected them to snap off from the sheer power of nature, but they "weathered the storm" and shook off the rain as soon as the winds disappeared, like dignified English dowagers after a rude remark.

Can any North Dakotan, any person from an arid or semi-arid climate, resist the smell of fresh rain?

When I was a boy I used to rush out after a thunderstorm to play around the storm drains, barefoot, feeling the power of the little roadside flash flood as I waded against the current. These days, I wander around the house checking the gutters. The loss of wonder as we grow older, and the obsession with property, is one of the saddest facts of life.

How many days per year in North Dakota does nature overwhelm us? A dozen maybe. A few winter blizzards (sometimes with loss of power); one or two or three thunderstorms (occasional loss of power, sometimes with serious hail damage); those ten or so days when the wind is so violent and unrelenting that it rattles your car windows and jangles your nerves and makes you for a moment hate the Great Plains. We have few tornadoes here, so the annual North Dakota storm damage is usually pretty modest. If you live in the Red River Valley or less often the Souris, however, nature can overwhelm in an entirely unromantic way.

The two storms that passed through recently did no damage to my garden. I'm shocked and delighted by the resilience of plant life. Now that the typically cool and moist June is yielding to the long hot reliable glare of July—recreation season in North Dakota!—my corn is growing an inch or two a day, my cucumber plants are exploding with leafage, and my 57 tomatoes are starting to get serious about their destiny.

Summertime. We must squeeze the next ten weeks like the last lemon for our annual outdoor pleasures.