I have returned, for a time, to the lakes and forests of my childhood.
Returned to the knotted post oaks and the impenetrable blackjack pines, to the dense undergrowth and brambles, to the thick forests echoing with the song of cardinals and sparrows and scissortails and crows by day, the humming of cicadas and tree frogs by night.
Returned to the cool mornings, when the mist floats above the still waters as the first pink glimmers of dawn ripple against the surface; and to the scorching afternoons when the sun shines hotter than anywhere else, when hawks and bald eagles circle lazily in the sky and the whole river valley is shrouded in a cloud of humidity – thick, palpable, almost visible to the naked eye.
Returned to the lake and the sailboats and sandbars that dot the horizon. Returned to the ramshackle marinas, their supports rotting and their roofs almost caving in, stocked with the same motley assortment of wares they have been peddling for thirty years. Returned to the same shabby little lake towns, their historic main streets once bustling with commerce, now little more than dilapidated clusters of banks and barber shops and antique stores, their benighted citizens reliant upon a tourist industry that dried up years ago. Returned to the old summer camp with its cinderblock cabins and walk-in freezer and fire pit and dingy swimming pool, to the refreshing frigidity of the cabins and their lumpy bunk beds.
Returned, then, to scenes of my boyhood: to the tiny bass boat where I learned to fish; to the islands I once explored with my sister, which at the time seemed like continents as vast and impenetrable as South America; to the country music playing on the car radio; to the camping trailer where I learned to walk, balancing between the kitchen cabinets and the wood-paneled walls, where I slept in a loft above kitchenette and woke early to the smell of fried bacon; to the campfires and s’mores and sunburns and bleached hair and happy, irresponsible innocence of it all.
The summertime is full of such memories for me, days of sunshine, snow cones, fireworks, water balloons, kites, Ferris wheels, sunsets, and fireflies. These memories are probably typical for those coming of age in the rural South, or indeed any region of the world not wholly urbanized. Though the world has changed a great deal since then, I hope that my own children will have such memories someday.
As an adult I have often wondered about the inner life of children who do not have these experiences, who grow up in forests of steel and concrete and rarely see a sunset or a wildflower or a night sky full of stars. Children whose formative years are passed in environments designed and controlled by man and who have no real sense of what lies beyond the city gates. I believe it was my early childhood experiences of wild nature, especially during those long summer days, that gave me a standard by which to judge the civilized world and its ephemera. Not only that, these forest wanderings honed my observational skills and aesthetic sense, and awakened my soul to higher things. I fear that as the world comes more and more under the dominion of urban man, these childhood experiences will grow rare and mankind will be diminished accordingly.
What’s more, the summers of my childhood also taught me the meaning of liberty. We were like young lords in those days, roaming the countryside at will through endless days of absolute freedom. This was probably a safer time, when one could let a child wander in the woods for hours on end without fear. This was also before recent innovations in childhood education requiring that children remain incarcerated all year long, in order to better accommodate working parents’ schedules and prepare their wards for productive lives of wage slavery. It is true, of course, the very institution of “summer vacation” was invented in order to give children time off to help parents at the farm. Nevertheless, in an age and a society obsessed with work, schedules, and monetary gain, there is something positively aristocratic in these leisurely summer days devoted to exploration and adventure. It allows children a time to actually be children, that is to say, to be people not yet warped by anxiety and self-doubt. It allows them to escape the grinding drudgery and indoctrination of their schoolwork and the degeneracy of the pop culture to which they are continually exposed. If we have a taste of this freedom before we must commit ourselves to a lifetime of drudgery, one hopes that we can retain some sense of perspective as we age.
In truth, I have never counted summer among my favorite seasons. Being of Nordic stock and a melancholic temperament I’ve always found the introspective fall and winter much more to my liking. However, as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate how it is only in summertime that the magnanimity and gratuitousness of life is on full display. One need only listen to the deafening roar of birdsong and humming insects or peer into the dense thickets of a Southern forest to see the divine excess at the heart of things. Nature has a law and an economy and can be exacting in its demands, it is true; but out of these thousands of arbitrary laws emerges a flourishing scene of exuberance and beauty. For my cold Anglo-Norman heart, summertime serves as a valuable reminder of the excesses of God.
The Excesses of God
Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to equal a need
Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain
And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea-shells,
And make the necessary embrace of breeding
Beautiful also as fire,
Not even the weeds to multiply without blossom
Nor the birds without music:
There is the great humaneness at the heart of things,
The extravagant kindness, the fountain
Humanity can understand, and would flow likewise
If power and desire were perch-mates.
Many summers ago, after half a bottle of Woodford Reserve, I had a particularly vivid dream. I had returned, as an adult, to the forest behind my childhood home. There had been heavy rains that year and, in my dream, the creeks that crisscrossed the forest had spilled their banks, making the ground muddy and the vegetation particularly thick. I find myself at a deep and wide place in the creekbed where my sister and I used to play, and I am faced with something I had never seen before: a window and a door, very old and coated in red dirt, a little shack built into the side of the creekbed, perhaps uncovered after all these years by the rains. I enter the shack and find that it is much larger than it appears. The floor is bare earth, the walls and roof made of rotting plywood, with a few posts supporting the ceiling. Various shelves, desks, and chests of drawers line the walls. I start to open these drawers, and I find countless knickknacks and books from my youth, whose rediscovery fills me with an indescribable nostalgia and warmth. And then I woke up.
These recollections probably seem as pointless and meandering as a childhood summer’s day. Certainly, one motive in writing was simply to memorialize some of those small moments – these memories that will one day be lost in time, like tears in the rain. But if nothing else it shows how these idle days of childhood remain with us, make us who we are, and continue to haunt us in the twilit dreams of our adulthood.