Summer’s Simple Pleasures

June 19, 2015    BY Jake Miller

Summer is the season to savor. The other seasons are all about anticipating what comes next. In early March I listen for the first singing red-winged blackbird; as soon as I feel a hint of frost in the fall I wonder how long I’ll have to wait for the first pure white snowy morning of winter. And it doesn’t stop there. The first bird of spring only makes me long for the second and the third, and it isn’t long after that first snow hits the ground that I’m waiting impatiently for a good spring thaw. But when you’re doing it right, summer just lingers.

Summer is the season to savor. The other seasons are all about anticipating what comes next

Some of my fondest summer memories are of paddling a single-person canoe into the wilds of the north woods. The first time I stepped into my little boat and pushed off from shore, it felt as if I were floating into a fairy tale: I was a woodland sprite in a boat made of leaves and spiderwebs. The Kevlar and carbon-fiber skin of the boat flexed as I paddled, and I could feel the coolness of the waters of Little Clear Pond against my legs. Sitting below the waterline in the shallow-draft boat, gliding across the water, I let myself relax and fade into the summer scene. I watched the reflections of clouds in the still waters of the pond, keeping an eye open for hawks and eagles soaring overhead, scanning the waters for a loon emerging from the depths. This is an essential part of summer to me—getting close to nature without gloves or winter boots, living in the landscape.

Living in Nature

My favorite paddling trip is the Nine Carries Route, a north woods classic. Some of the ponds are barely more than a puddle, shallow and muddy (like Mud Pond), and some are long, narrow, fathomless lakes that stretch out around a bend and seem to go forever. Each portage—or carry—brings me from one pond or lake to the next. Walking in the woods, I feel the shade of the trees as a gift. The welcome warmth of the morning sun has gotten strong and hot by early afternoon. Some of the carries are quite steep, rising onto glacial eskers. Others wind through low-lying woods. I stick to the center of the muddy path, even as one patch of mud nearly sucks my river sandal off, because the soil and underbrush on either side of the trail are fragile. I pass a fairy circle of spotted mushrooms. They look like a little army of identical twins, dozens of clones sprung from the soil, but really they are just the fruit of a single fungus, one organism living just below the surface, stretching who knows how far in the soil.

Moments like this make summer shine. Sometimes the sights are spectacular—the rays of the sun blasting through a fading summer storm over the Sierra Nevada, or sea stacks and tidal pools emerging from the fog on the edge of the continent on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Sometimes it’s something as subtle as a perfect green leaf floating in an eddy in a clean mountain stream. Summertime’s gentle weather lets us develop a more intimate relationship with places that so often seem huge and inhospitable. A spectacular rugged winter landscape can make you feel small, but summer landscapes make you feel embraced. Once I spent the Fourth of July in Montana, where I recall standing on the side of a mountain road with snow all around. One patch where the snow had melted had exploded into a pyrotechnic display of tiny gorgeous alpine wildflowers. They weren’t as showy as lowland roses or garden azaleas, but when you knelt down close enough and saw the different varieties and colors, and the rugged soil they had taken root in, it was as spectacular as any display of flowers I’ve seen.

Summer has its own special sounds, too—the ethereal, flutelike song of a wood thrush, or the roar of a snowmelt-fed river that fades from tumultuous in the afternoon to a gentle rush in the cool of dawn, or the roar of waves on the beach, best heard from a gently swaying hammock.

Letting yourself become a part of the habitat—drifting in a tiny boat or lounging on the edge of the ocean—is the perfect way to encounter wildlife up close: instead of chasing them, let them come to you. One night, camped near a mostly dry creek in Utah, I spent the half hour before dark watching hummingbirds sip tiny gnats out of the air, so close that if I’d sat up they would have bumped into my head. I’ve floated in a kayak within a paddle’s length of a mother and cub sea otter rolling in the gentle waves of Monterey Bay. 

These close encounters with wildlife are all the more wonderful when shared with young children. It doesn’t have to be anything as exotic as wild sea mammals in the Pacific—a crayfish in the backyard stream or a swallow’s nest under a bridge can be just as magical when seen through their fresh eyes.

Back Home: Sorbet and Friends

Summer has its particular social pleasures, too, with the chance to spill gatherings outdoors and linger into the long evenings. It would take more than a chance to spot a rare bird or eat a handful of wild berries to convince my wife, Rose, to carry a canoe on her head on a muddy trail between ponds. Rose likes homemade chocolate sorbet—and I like to make it for her. The recipe is deceptively simple—mix together cocoa, sugar, salt, vanilla, and water, and add cold—but the ritual of the preparation gives it a kind of magic. I often make it when we have friends over for dinner (because sorbet is best when shared generously) and begin the freezing process after we finish the meal. The ice cream maker sits at my feet. At first no one pays much attention when I bend down to stir it every few minutes, but after a little time has passed, someone inevitably asks to take a turn. We pass the cooler back and forth until the mixture begins to solidify.

Summer has its particular social pleasures, too, with the chance to spill gatherings outdoors and linger into the long evenings.

We do our best to respect the ritual and follow it through to the end, but I will confess that more than once we have stopped quite a bit short of solid sorbet, instead enjoying the chilled chocolate in a semi-fluid state. Of course, by the time we’re ready for seconds, the sorbet has cured to perfection.

The best summer food is that simple. How can you improve on a sweaty glass of lemonade drunk on a friend’s front stoop on a hot, no-air-conditioner night in the city? Or sweet corn, roasted on the grill and lightly coated with butter? (My friend Sue would insist that cheese on the corn makes it better, and I have learned not to argue.)  

Fruit Fresh from the Tree

Fresh fruit, picked yourself or bought from a local farmer’s stand (where the farmer can steer you to the firmest, sweetest peach and warn you that an early rain made the plums tart this year), is nature’s original summer indulgence. In exchange for the fruit’s blissful sweet taste, we (or the birds and bears) carry the next generation of the tree to virgin territory. (Of course when I’m in the wilderness, I pack out all the seeds.)

One morning my mother stopped at the local farm stand in upstate New York on her way to visit us. When she told the farmers that she was bringing the corn to the city for dinner, they sent one of the boys out into the field to pick a dozen fresh ears so that it would still be at the peak of flavor after the three-hour journey. Summer encourages these lovely unhurried exchanges.

Summertime, in fact, is a wonderful time to immerse yourself in the human habitat. When we lived in Brooklyn, Rose and I used to walk to nearby Prospect Park and sit on a bench in a little patch of afternoon shade that had a commanding view of the Long Meadow. We would sit and watch cricket players from Barbados and Pakistan on one side of the lawn, while soccer players from all over the Americas ran up and down an improvised field in the middle, and Eastern Europeans played volleyball on the other side. The games lasted all day, with players coming and going, joining the action in mid-play and staying as long as they could. We’ve since moved to Boston, but when we return to visit friends (many of us now with babies), we stake out a spot in the same area, unfurl our blankets, and soak in the essence of summer. You can get the same feeling at the crowded farmers’ market near Lake Merritt in Oakland or in downtown St. Paul, where gardeners (some multi-generational locals, some born in Laos or Guatemala) sell local honey and heirloom tomatoes.

Time to Play

Beaches are the playgrounds of summer. My two favorites in New England are quite different—one is a long, existential stretch that seems to go on forever, the other a sheltered cove in a tiny bay. But the two have one thing in common—little pools of water stranded by the outgoing tide that sit in the sun and get warmer as the hours go by.

What more perfect place to hang out than here, calmly contemplating the awesome power of the ocean.

There’s something delicious about sitting in a warm pool with chilly North Atlantic waves crashing on the shore a few yards away while my little cousins bring me handfuls of seawater with tiny iridescent blue crabs and wriggling larval lobsters. Sanderlings run in the waves like overclocked windup birds, prospecting for the same tiny crustaceans as the kids. What more perfect place to hang out than here, calmly contemplating the awesome power of the ocean, admiring seashells, and searching for polished, smooth sea glass or perfectly round blue and red pebbles.

Where do beach pebbles come from, one wonders. One of my beaches sits across the bay from a granite headlands and is dotted with glacial erratics left behind thousands of years ago when the ice sheets retreated, but the other is miles and miles from the nearest rock. If the pebbles rolled a few yards down the shore every day, it wouldn’t take long to make a mile, and in a few centuries they could be anywhere from here to Brazil. 

Whether you’re paddling alone in the wilderness or floating in a sea of humanity, each summer inevitably draws to a close. It sounds bitter at first, but even this aspect of summer has a sweetness that can be savored. As I write, recalling my little boat in the wilderness and the beaches of my youth, I think of all the summers I’ve spent, and all the summers I haven’t known yet. My son, not yet born when I took that beloved paddle, will walk in the ocean for the first time this summer, and the waves will crash, the tide will ebb and flow, and a whole new summer’s worth of memories will be born to linger in my heart—and in his.

Jake Miller
Jake Miller, author of more than a dozen books on nature, science, the outdoors, and community, is a lifelong beginner naturalist and gardener.

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