Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dog days

I grew up in Southern Maryland, not even a half hour from Washington DC. The entire area is famously muggy and not at all cool in the summertime. DC was built on swamp land and for generations, at least until the dawn of air conditioniung, residents were forced to flee the city during summer, when it turned insufferable. In 1993, I moved to south Louisiana, possibly the only place in the country more muggy--and considerably hotter to boot--than the DC metro area. With temperatures never dipping below 90 and with nearly unimaginable humidity, stepping outside your front door in the summer literally felt like entering a sauna. Yet, I was never really all that bothered by weather; I even went running everyday: 5+ miles. I read the newspaper on the front stoop each morning, armed with a big hot mug of joe. All that is to say that I'm a warm climate person, better able to ignore it, withstand it, work in it, move in it, thrive in it, than most. And yet this summer in Arkansas, I must say, has been wicked. It's been at, near, or above 100 for what feels like two months now. According to the weather people, we're well on our way to setting an all-time record for average daily temperature. (Still don't believe in global warming, people?) And by all-time, I mean all-time. Higher than has ever been recorded since they started keeping records in the 19th century. We've been absolutely baking here. Maybe it's a matter of being 13 years older or maybe it's the difference between 95 degrees and 105 (when the high merely reached 97 the other day, it felt like a relief), but I don't remember the summers in Louisiana being as blindly searing as this one in Arkansas has been. Down there, we stewed in June, July, and August; up here we've been frying.

All this makes me think again of Provence, our three summertime visits, and of course Vincent Van Gogh. The region is renowned for its soaring summer season temperatures; its bright and searing sun. I remember reading in one of Peter Mayle's books (I can't remember which) a good-humored account of Englishmen and other visiting Europeans wilting, red-faced and sweating, in the provencal summer. Van Gogh was not exactly immune to the heat. He certainly felt it, but he also felt that he thrived in it. In letters he recounted heading out each morning, planting his easel in a field, and working all day in the blazing climate, "contented as a cicada in a tree." (The cicada, by the way, is the unofficial symbol of the region.) It's no coincidence that the famous "high yellow" of his Arles paintings most accurately characterizes the paintings he painted during the summer of 1888, his only in Arles, and in my opinion when he worked at the height of his powers, reaching an artistic peak that he never found again.

Well, for all of Provence's celebrated heat, and whatever the part, however minor, that it played in bringing on Van Gogh's physio-psychological meltdown in late 1888, I can tell you from experience that Provence has nothing on Arkansas. Yes, the provencal sky is a gorgeous, bold, clear, blue. Yes, the sun is bright. And yes, it's warm. But the climate of Arles in July/August, I assure you, would be a vacation from the July/August of 2010 Arkansas, or for that matter just about every summer we've experienced since moving up here in 1997. (One of the many reasons I'd love to be there right now.) Our dog this morning even uprooted a cicada nesting deep within the grass of our front lawn. He wouldn't leave the poor thing alone, so up it flew, pulling its thick, round body with its buzzing wings, finally reaching a safe place in a nearby tree. There it settled very happily inside the hot hot heat.


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