Kate Flora, amazed that suddenly it is August and there is already an unwanted nip in morning air. As I’m sinking into a new book, and feeling like I need a tune-up, I’ve been trying to do some of the exercises I assign to my students to tune up their awareness of the world around them. While we all have many senses to choose from, in August, it is the scents that capture my imagination and send me back through decades of Maine summers.
Last week, I was in Union, picking berries in my blueberry field. I’ve been picking berries in that field probably since I was old enough to walk, and bending down to grab some berries, I was assailed by the blended scents of drying plants, crushed vegetation, and the hot, sweet ferment of berries cooked by the sun. August plants have a rich, slightly tired smell, making themselves known before the sun finishes cooking them or the cold weather comes to put them to be for another year.
If you don’t think August has its own set of smells, take yourself to three or four different familiar places, close your eyes, and inhale. Don’t rush things. Take your time to notice what is coming at you, what the wind currents bring. What your moving feet disturbs. Sage. Beach roses. Hot seaweed baking in the sun. Go to a farmer’s market and don’t just take in the visuals. There are stargazer lilies and cinnamon bread, the first early scents of apples. Close up, the enticements of ripe melon and the almost irresistible sweetness of ripe peaches. The nip of fresh, young onions.
The other day, driving through Portland, the air was suddenly thick with the happy grease smell of fried clams. Years ago, I was behind a man who filled the entire front seat of his car, and the whole vehicle dipped on the driver’s side. He wore a white chef’s jacket and had a bumper sticker: Warning: I Brake for Food. When I caught a whiff of that fried clam smell, I would have braked, too, if I’d only known where to go.
I grew up on a lake, and so my water memory is of the vegetative smell of lake water and the slight tannins of decaying leaves. Twelve years ago, when we got a place on the ocean, I acquired a new set of Maine smells. Walking down the steps to the cottage, I would take deep lungfuls of briny air and feel like I’d been given a tonic. Mackerel Cove is a working lobster harbor and so yes, there is also sometimes the smell of lobster bait.
At night, as a child, I would swing under the old apple tree in the back yard, watching the sun setting behind the hills, while a cacophony of insects screamed out their night songs and, spooky in the growing darkness, the demented sound of the loons echoed around the pond. Now, on Bailey Island, I can hear the changing of the tide by the way the waves suck around the rocks, and the new metal ramp on the dock creaks and groans like a giant trying to throw off its chains. Around sunrise, the lobster boats start chugging out of the cove. Overhead, the osprey give their childlike cries and the crows announce the world belongs to them.
When I forget to be attentive, my characters will remind me. While I’m working on a new Thea Kozak mystery, Death Warmed Over, right now, I spent many months earlier this year with Joe Burgess on a book called And Grant You Peace. Something I have to remember, and focus on, when I’m living in Joe’s head instead of Thea’s, is how observant he is, particularly about the natural world. He may be what a Portland detective once referred to as “a bricks and mortar” cop, but his mother taught him to look and listen, just as mine did, and I need to be attuned to how he sees the world. Burgess will notice the family of skunks beside the road, the bright tail of a disappearing fox, the way the salt marsh changes through the seasons.
Baba Ram Das tells us to “be here now.” In Beyond Your Doorstep, the nature writer Hal Borland talks about encountering the natural world, starting “…in a country dooryard and working out from there, down the road, into the meadow, up into the woods, down along the riverbank and beside the swamp.”
In August, in particular, I am reminded to be here now, and smell, and hear, and see the wonders of the world around me.