Monday, July 15, 2013


All in a hot and copper sky,
The bloody Sun, at noon,
'Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the Moon.
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, no breath no motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean......
Samuel Coleridge, Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

The colloquial expression was used in Norman Juster's children's book Phantom Tollbooth, in which a place called "The Doldrums" is inhabited by the Lethargarians who follow the same list of activities every day.

"And the KMAland weather forecast...." comes on most days just after the 5 minutes of national news at 6 a.m.  This day there is no local sports profile to snooze through, no recap of Corner Conference baseball, no fishing report from local lakes.  There's a meteorologist, and when the weather speaks, sleep flees. "High pressure entrenched in the southwest will spread north and east...."

Words to chill the blood and stop the heart.  High pressure.  Sun day after day, evenings quiet and warm, temperature and dew point exhibiting bracket creep until, like the apocryphal toad in the pan of water, we are parboiled and senseless.

Senseless...but not numb. July's routine: early up, pour the water through the Bunn, out the back door to pull the hydrant up, hear the sprinkler splutter to life and water arc through the morning air for an hour before we leave to spread more water.  Breathe in. Gauge the first rays of sun for their sear potential later on: is it a high 80s day? 90-92? The blistering side of 95? On which morning will the last faint vestige of cool be undetectable?  It will happen....just like there will be a morning when it a month or two...

The doldrums are defined by fronts that pass far out of radar range, too far for the cloud tops to peak over the horizon or the lightning strikes to flicker: no pillar of cloud by day nor  pillar of fire by night.  The gravel road is ground to moondust; each passerby leaves a plume like the US Cavalry in an old Western. The last clover blooms crunch; I deliberately walk through each small flourishing patch of soft blue buffalo grass on the way to the mum patch.

Weeds still grow where water flows; watering the mums requires stoops and bends to pull crab grass and purslane from the moist circles under the pots.  The weeds that grow amongst the mums are often sown by the emitters themselves and sprout just where we dropped the lead topped leader in June.  The black ground cloth warms quickly but that doesn't deter a multitude of toads from living in the mum pot jungle...whatever else toads eat, they don't digest cricket shells. The soundtrack of pump motors is punctuated by the killdeer cries as the dog wanders through the corn; too close, too close!

Top...bugs. bugs
Eternal vigilance is...the price of growing mums.  Doesn't have the same ring as "liberty", but, as a gardener, Thomas Jefferson probably wrote that too.  You may not want to spend all morning with your nose to the ground but if you read Facebook instead, you may miss the first signs of an impending caterpillar invasion. There are more worms in heaven and earth, Horatio, than there are dreamt of in your philosophy. And they are voracious. In the war between the species, fastidiousness goes out the window; less than a critical diameter, the fastest way to dispose of a caterpillar is to squish it between one's fingers. Above that squish  threshold, pick the creature off and grind it beneath your heel.  'Crush its head', you know, before it 'strikes your heel '.  I realize caterpillars are not snakes, Biblically, but they do creep on the ground.

What caterpillars hath wrought
Mum watering complete, one does what one can to escape the doldrums.  There is hope in the potential bounty of our summer gardens, edible and ornamental.  The first wedge salad, the first BLT, the first cucumber dip, the first bruschetta: all these delicacies await the advent of the doldrums.  The ineffable essence of charcoal and beef sizzling on a Weber flutters on the capricious air currents, first north then south, changing directions without detecting a breeze.  Suppers are grilled meat, crunchy salad, juicy fruits; all without heating the stove and kitchen.  Thanks, endless days of heat and spreading fan of water.

Finally, the doldrums gives us the most carefree, careless, graceful and forgiving denizens of the garden.  The coneflowers, balloon flowers, and daylilies shrug off the white bright hot days like they would a passing shower.  They stand as fresh in late afternoon as they were at sunrise, the hour I stepped out that back door, after I poured the water through the Bunn, ready to start the sprinkler, after hearing the weatherman give us another day of .....the doldrums.

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