The time of year has come round again when I have to get physical, despite the heat, and mow the wild-flower meadow on the hillside, rake it into neat rows, and (for want of a better means of disposal) burn it off. This depletes the soil of nutrients, encouraging more flowers and less grass next year.
Being thus involved in a limited version of the agricultural cycle, my impression of the August heat is pretty much removed from the frenetic holidaymaking of families at nearby Lyme Regis. They are executing the summer break from toil they’ve been planning all year, before plunging into work or a new school year with renewed vigour come September.
But the natural world seems to have a different perspective: the work of propagation is over for most, and the high summer means a somewhat relaxed enjoyment of the fruits of that labour and the beginning of planning to batten down for winter. In the case of wildflowers and insects, that means getting ready to die.
And so the mower-blades scythed through the empty seed-heads of many different species of plant, indeed helping to spread their seed for next spring. I also disturbed the odd shrew or field-vole, scuttling off to find a safer home – but they’ve finished their breeding cycle for the moment, anyway.
Our swallows, in the old stable, appear to have completed flight training for their final brood, which have left the place altogether now after a week or two using it as a home base. In the near future, they’ll be gathering with all the others on telegraph wires nearby, in preparation for the long migration to South Africa. Meanwhile they’re getting fat on the later-summer insects.
The wasp nest I wrote about a few weeks ago, whose occupants were fevershly rebuilding after badger predation, have now abandoned the site. Maybe it was predated again, but even so they seem simply to have lost interest, as wasps do at this time of year once the new potential queens have hatched. This can be seen for the way the workers have been turning up to look for sugary sustenance in the house or at patio-lunches, like poor Dickensian ex-soldiers turning up at the door for charity.
Taking the grandchildren fishing for minnows in our local stream tells a similar story: some beautiful blue-green demoiselles are always there, but will soon be dying off. One of the children caught a water-insect in her net, which turns out to be the larva of such a demoiselle: their breeding job is also complete, and the larvae will get on with growing in the water for however long that stage lasts (in dragonflies it can be a few years).
Even on my only recent trip to the coast (a quieter part, fortunately) we took a boat out fishing and found the mackerel had moved on: their activity too is winding down.
This impression of the natural “meaning” of high summer seems to make sense of the character of the Roman god Saturn. Wikipedia’s description is that he is a god of generation, dissolution, plenty, wealth, agriculture, periodic renewal and liberation. In later developments, he also came to be a god of time. His reign was depicted as a Golden Age of plenty and peace.
Superficially that seems a rather mixed bag, and since his festival of merrymaking, the Saturnalia, is in December, the depth of winter, that seems to confuse things more. But Gustav Holst, in his title for Saturn in The Planets, summed it up as “Saturn, the bringer of old age.” He wrote the suite whilst renting a cottage in the quiet north Essex town of Thaxted (an ancestral home of some of my forebears), and it’s easy for me to imagine him being influenced by the harvested wheat-fields and all the other signs of nature’s winding-down that I see around here too.
It’s also something of a reminder of my own increasing age, too (if the arthritis in my hip whilst raking the meadow were not enough). There’s a way to age in a mellow, golden, way that matches the natural cycle of the seasons. The evening of life is beautifully represented in Benjamin Britten’s setting of Charles Cotton’s Pastoral, especially in the imagery of the last lines, with weary harvesters pictured as gathered outside the village inn soaking in the tranquillity of sunset as they converse:
And now on benches all are sat,
In the still air to sit and chat,
Till Phoebus, dipping in the west,
Shall lead the world the way to rest.