Thursday, June 9, 2011

Watching the Weather

When it's this hot in early June, it's good not to have the air conditioners in yet. This sort of heat won't last more than two or three days, and once you've emptied the wheelbarrow of all the early-spring junk you got out of the creek after it dropped-- corrugated roof pieces, lawn tractor tires, a shiny soccer ball that bounced up to the fallen tree and then was pushed back by the current into a perpetual circle that was perpetually fascinating to watch, the Dutch Boy paint can and the piece of what looked to be a Model T Ford chassis-- and wheeled it up to the barn, loaded the Maytag and the Frigidaire, backed it down the now-dry swatch between the house and the barn, taking extra care not to drop the Frigidaire off the top like you did last year, brought it up to the back door, unloaded each one and carried it to its requisite room, trying to remember where you put the plywood inserts that allow it to fit to the eccentric shapes of 18th century windows: well, by then it's probably 6pm and starting to cool off anyway. If you do get the units in, the front will blow through and you'll have weeks of cool weather again with those ugly metal boxes hanging out of the house.

It's not just the wasted effort. It's also the loss of something more ephemeral and more precious than comfort. When it's this hot, you smell yourself, even if you are taking three or four cold showers a day. But you also smell the first baking of the haygrass, the effulgent sweetness of those white flowering bushes that are scattered all through the scrub beside the creek, the goldenrod and the honeysuckle in the fallow field across the road. With the air conditioners in, you can't hear the arguments of irritated, combative redwing blackbirds or the hum of the hornets building their hives under the eaves of the barn, where you'll have to spray them out or swat them out in a week or two.

People don't go out as much in this heat. On a normal weekday, the road might get twenty or thirty cars a day, usually high school kids shortcutting past some accident up on 209, plus Wayne Bush's big dumptruck with the trailer, your alarm clock at 6am and your noon whistle when he comes back to the house for his lunch hour, plus a few lawn service trucks and sometimes the disconsolate panel truck from the plumber up from Wayne's whom everyone has learned can't be trusted. For stretches on a normal day, you might hear nothing of traffic except the faint hum of 209 up the hill. On these hot days, Wayne still goes out, but the cars tend to disappear from the soundscape.

Everything waits, though the pace of waiting is slow. For all the radar and the NOAA online commentaries don't tell you what you wouldn't have known fifty years ago, or a hundred, or two hundred and more, when the farmer first put up this shed by the King's highway up to Kingston, before the Revolution. The surveyor's stone under the dwarf apple that marks the original road, with the date-- 1760-- carved into it, is cool to the hand even in the hottest hours of this first hot spell.

The sky isn't really blue. It's so hot it's white, and the first hints of big cumulus clouds are hardly whiter, barely discernible in the blinding haze. By logic, the cold front could come in at any time of the day or night, but it doesn't. It comes late in the afternoon or early in the evening, or it waits till two in the morning. That's a consequence of locality that the internet weather predictors can't take into account: the fact that we are in a valley between mountain ranges, albeit low, well-worn ranges: the Catskills to our west, the Shawungunks-- the Gunks-- to our east. The front pushes eastward from Chicago, from Detroit, from Buffalo, and piles up on the westward wall of the Catskills, until the sun angles long and the air cools, but the land, hot, still, from the day's residue, pushes the front up over the peaks.

If the hot spell lasted more than two days, you have gotten in the habit even this early in summer of closing off the house by 8am, before you head out to the studio or the vegetable patch or the cooler spot by the creek where you hope to read, or the chicken coop or the shop by the barn.

Late in the afternoon, you start to time your move: back to the house to open it up for a spell, when the first cool rushes of the front come down off the mountains and sweep across the ridge and down the hayfield and through the house. Through the house, that is, if you've opened the windows, probably just the ones upstairs, where the black roof has burned the air and the thermostat reports it's 92. Downstairs, it's 80 or so; the house has a dirt crawlspace and a stone corner that brings the last of the winter cold up from the deep earth. Opening those upstairs windows is part of the handicapping game you play, you and the front: you want to push the cool air through the house, but get the windows shut again before the sheets of rain, close to horizontal, drive their way into the bedroom on the northwest side. Racing up the stairs, you trip on the dog, who is heading for the bathtub to cower for the next few hours, as the lightning strikes and the thunder cracks and the hail on the roof makes undulating waves of sound. Did you remember to put the dropcloth back over the plastic bins in the attic crawlspace, where the persistent leak has defied your forays with silicon caulk-gun onto the roof, filling in the crannies between the old shingling and the badly-laid metal flashing? Too late to consider that, now. You are watching as the low spot between the house and the barn grows shiny with wet and then, in a gushing moment, becomes a runoff creek.

Tomorrow it will be cold in the morning, and the runoff will have subsided into long puddles. The grass will seem like a matting that floats on a substratum of water and mud. The creek will have already begun to subside, showing you the new harvest of things from upstream: a cardboard box from, what's left of a screen door, two saplings still verdant and leafy, piles of sticks packed against the fallen tree in a deceptive replica of beaver dams.

The air conditioners are still in the barn. Next week, or the week after, will be time enough to make them your day's chore. Then it will be true summer, and there will be weeks when the roof radiates hot into the loft and the bedrooms get closed off into little cells of cool, while you wait for the break, covet the early morning, doze in the afternoon. This time, though, it's still too early. The body's memory of winter, the burn of frostbite and the stiffness of muscles in the cold mornings, the persistent, raking cough that took so long to subside, the sense that nothing was alive or would ever be alive again, not even you: this is the antidote.

The wind has come up. It's bending the trees, undulating the hayfield, but it's coming from the southeast. It's not time to watch the sky, close up the car, head for the house, turn on the radio. The mountains are still holding the weather at bay. You have some time yet.

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