A Cape Cod Notebook 8/21/07

listenSummer Doldrums

By Robert Finch

There's a certain lassitude that creeps over everything in mid-August. The rush and exuberance of spring seems far behind us. A summer haze has settled on the keen bright horizon of spring, and summer itself seems to have settled down to a period of uneventful growth and dull maturation.

Summer doldrums. If you don't watch out they can be infectious. The roads are clogged and traffic slows to a halt. The blood becomes thick and sluggish. One's limbs grow heavy and droop like the boughs of trees beginning to labor under ripening fruit. My eyes begin to glaze over with a dull film, like the mats of algal growth covering the bogs and the mud flats. Even the mind feels itself eaten away, like the roadside leaves, with rot and insects.

Whenever I begin to feel this way, when August begins to hang heavy and hot on my heart, I know it's time to get to the beach again, where even on the calmest days some small wind can be found blowing. Time to go down to the bay's blue waters, to shoulder past the sodden and sulking crowds plastered with sand, past the cracker box cottages swamped with roses. Time to herd small flocks of sanderlings and plovers along the water's edge, to gather a spray or two of beach heather and be lifted by a dark shield of bugling geese rising across the green, sharp-bladed marshes. Time to plunge at last into a deep tidal creek, losing myself in its strong, out-running currents, tumbling head over heels with the crab shells and the pebbles, carried swiftly towards the bay until I bottom out on clean, white sand.

The sea lavender and the shorebirds remind me that nature's summer ends before ours does. They tell me that even when my world seems to have comes to a soggy halt, others are already in motion.

The stiff, branched, bell-like heads of sea lavender, dotting the upper borders of the salt marshes, have always been a sign that summer is ending. Their diminutive purple flowers blossom with the arrival of our first shorebirds. They are the earliest of the fall flowers and the loveliest of marsh plants, long gathered and dried by local residents for a winter's remembrance. The flower stalks are surrounded by basal rosettes of broad, rounded leaves, already turning brown and dark-red. The lavender sprays form veils through which I gaze and watch sand crickets, beach ants, and other small lives scurry.

Likewise, shorebirds are the Cape and Islands mid-summer fall spectacle. By August, when most of us are still looking forward to our summer vacations, the season has been over for several weeks for most of these long-distance migrants. Black-bellied and semi-palmated plovers, whimbrels and dowitchers, turnstones, knots, dunlins, sanderlings and sandpipers - all are northern, largely Arctic nesters. They have only a few short weeks in which to court, mate, lay eggs, raise and fledge their chicks. Of the fourteen species of fall shorebird migrants that are listed as common or abundant along our shores, thirteen arrive here in numbers in July, and a few - such as the least sandpiper, show up in late June - all heading south. Whatever the calendar and the traffic jams say, it's reassuring to know that, as far as nature is concerned, autumn is already here.

Broadcast August 21, 2007