Signs and Symbols of Summer

It’s something that we still haven’t quite got use to: the speed with which summer advances here. And that is even after a solid month of low-slung leaden skies, ceaseless rain and temperatures way below the norm: on one day in May it was colder than it had been on Christmas Day. Someone somewhere had, it seemed, put summer on hold. Rainwater stood for days in the sludgy furrows of fields where seedlings struggled to keep their heads above water, and vicious thunderstorms raked blossom from the trees in damp, clinging swirls, like confetti at a winter wedding. But on the first day of the new month, that same someone somewhere simply flicked a switch, turned the summer back on, and normal service was resumed. From one day to the next the slate grey sky was replaced with pure, dazzling blue, temperatures doubled, and the puddles began to recede. The birds resumed their morning song and the crickets and fireflies resumed their nightly son e lumière. The crops shook themselves off, lifted their faces to the oh-so-welcome sun and got back to the serious business of growing.

It is late afternoon a few days after the summer solstice. The shadows are lengthening and the sultry heat is just beginning to ease, so I’m sitting outside at the small folding table that stands in the dappled shade of the olive trees down in the south-easternmost corner of our land. The line of trees that forms our southern boundary rises up behind me towards the road, and the line that forms the eastern, seaward-facing boundary stretches away to my left. Their branches mingle with those of the line of fruit trees and sections of tall hedge that form our inner boundary, creating a corridor of cool green. The land falls away here, and shielded by a couple of sturdy conifers in the garden-proper, I am completely invisible from the house.  I feel as if I am perched at the end of a grassy peninsula that extends out into a lake of shining wheat that surrounds the house on three sides. It rustles and ripples in the breeze that ruffles its spiky-haired tips. Only in the last week or two it has ripened, first from green to bronze, and now to burnished blonde.

In the next couple of days, I am certain, one of the local fleet of growling yellow leviathans will take to these wheaty waters, churning up a golden wake of straw as it labours up and down and back and forth, and pours its precious catch of grain into its dusty depths. But for the time being, in just a couple of paces I could plunge in thigh-deep and wallow in its dry, fragrant heat. As it is, though, the cats are the only ones who choose to dive in. The wheat is home to countless tiny rodents and so provides them with a rich hunting ground, although it is only Matilda, the female, who actually catches anything. While her eye is keen, her paws and jaws are gentle, and we can usually rescue whatever prey she brings us and release it back into the field.  Stanley, her softer, slower brother, is in there now, and a clump of vigorously twitching stalks to my left reveals his position. With a cross but muffled ‘miaow’ he tells me that he can’t find his way out – again. I smile and leave him to it: he’ll work it out for himself; he always does, eventually. My gaze wanders up the valley to the right. Golden drums of tightly wound hay lie like giant cotton reels scattered  across recently mown fields  where new growth is already re-covering the hillside in a fresh carpet of lush green. Vineyards that only a few weeks ago still showed broad stripes of buff-coloured soil between narrow stripes of green now bear only thin lines of buff between thick, bushy tracts of vivid green. The maize that for so long was barely taller than the wheat now stands almost as tall as me in dense, deep green swathes, the glossy plume-like leaves dancing in the breeze. But absolutely best of all, the bright green sunflower fields are now heavily stippled with yellow: these glorious symbols of a Mediterranean summer are just beginning to open their great fist-sized buds and break into enormous, beaming yellow smiles. I am still as captivated today by the breath-taking sight of thousands upon thousands of these proud, strong, bold beauties as I was the first time I saw them on our first camping holiday together over thirty years ago. But their utterly life-affirming presence is more welcome and meaningful than ever this year and symbolic of so much more than summer. For with their upturned heads and defiantly cheerful expressions they are a much-needed and well-timed reminder of the truth of Helen Keller’s famous saying that is my mantra: ‘Turn your face to the sun and all shadows fall behind you. It’s what the sunflowers do.’

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