My life in the country, for the first several months, was beset by a troubling literalness. Like I was living the pages of a Country Life calendar showing what to expect month by month. We saw a significant thaw towards the end of February. In early spring robins made their appearance with an almost pedantic regularity, and by late spring, does with fawns crept tenuously across the fields. Asparagus jumped up in April, and strawberries too. We ate radishes planted earlier than other crops, and harvested tender lettuce by the middle of May. Throughout the month of May we saw clouds of Mayflies, and I saw my first June bug–literally saw my first June bug–on June first. It’s like these creatures were being paraded out by a stage manager in response to the verses of a song. I almost expected fireworks to spontaneously generate on July 4th.
Then something funny happened. Summer came on, pretty much on cue. But it failed, and continued to fail, in heating up the way summer does. It rained and rained. As a matter of fact, we have only had the hoses out to water our lawn or garden once or twice this year, and everything is as green and ripe as can be. Now we are setting record low temperatures for late July. We have not turned on the air conditioning this week. This morning I am sitting on the porch while a slow drizzle wets the screens, and as the sun comes up, everything in the distance is a blur in thick fog.
People’s reactions to all of this are interesting. Those who claim to doubt the reality of climate change scoff and say, ‘so much for global warming!’–but of course we have seen many record high temperatures broken in the past ten years. This is the first time we have set record lows for a long time. Many people like the lower summer temperatures, but they regard it all warily: ‘We’re gonna pay for this, just wait and see.’
But having spent the past several months researching the myths and the deities who over time have been thought to control the seasons, my thoughts turn to other peoples in other times. What would people three thousand years ago, who counted on a long hot summer to provide bountiful harvests and good hunts to fill larders for the winter months, have thought of all this? What happens if Persephone leaves her mother and returns to assume her throne in the Underworld months too early? Why did it happen? Did we omit some crucial obeisance to Demeter? Did our ceremonies to resurrect Adonis not work?
To me, this is poetic speculation. I know that Canadian cool fronts have been making their way across the American Midwest in response to erratic shifts in the jet stream, and that this pattern will only hold for a while; that summer will return with all its fierce heat and humidity–that we will indeed pay for this. Writers and poets in modern times often evoke myths like Demeter and Persephone or Aphrodite and Adonis, but they are metaphors in their hands, images to enhance poetic vision. There was nothing metaphorical to the ancient people who believed these myths: the winter was quite literally caused by Persephone’s return to the Underworld, and spring by her return to her mother’s embrace. If the spring did not arrive on time, or if signs of an early end to summer were apparent, it was cause for worry. Not knowing the natural causes of meteorological changes, people worked out their own rites and rituals aimed at effecting the desired changes. One can only suppose they approached these rituals with all the fervency of true believers.
Someone (exactly who is still in question) once said that ‘everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.’ This is an ironical acknowledgement of what we knew by the late 19th century, that the weather is ruled by natural forces, that there is nothing you nor I nor any mythical agent can do to change it. The seasons change, they are not changed. We get what we get, even though we expect certain things at certain times, like the pages of a calendar: look it’s April, here are the showers! Look it’s May, here are the flowers!