Smoke on the Water...
It is the 21st of September, the day we grew up thinking of as the first of fall; this year the equinox does not come until early morning of the 23rd. There will still be an hour more of visible than actual daylight, a standard which holds true across the year. It is such both in summer when the light seems to come so early and linger so long and in deep winter when it feels the day pops fully grown from the ocean and ends with the certainty of a door slammed, locked and sealed shut, when sunrise and sunset are fleeting moments of glory.
The ocean is all blue and white chop off the beach, with two solo kite surfers — or whatever they are called — traversing the waves. It appears effortless, just a matter of holding on until I think of all the competing forces of wind and water. Another sail, small and white, skims along farther from the shore, a tiny sailboat it first appears, then clearly a windsurfer.
It is in every way but by the calendar a real fall-in-New England morning.
In town I am stunned by the weeping willows, huge trees, with long green tresses blowing in the wind. It has been a crazily dry summer, but the land is not as brown as it has been many other years. This is a textbook case of that which does not kill you makes you stronger, these trees, which grow where the earth is damp, are thriving.
There are more here now than there used to be, the ones that come to mind at the edges of wide lawns that used to be wild scrub. They were, when I was a child “mainland trees” which captured my young imagination with their long arched limbs reaching nearly to the ground. They were soft and supple, I was used to maples and the occasional spruce, before all the Black Japanese pine that grew too fast and eventually succumbed to disease were even planted.
I wanted to plant willows, once, down by the big pond behind my house, when the way was still passable, but thought they would grow too tall and eventually block the view of the fields beyond so instead I put tiny pussy willow, barely more than twigs, at the end of the back yard, just beyond the clothes line. They are more than twenty-five feet high, higher than the willows planted at an elevation several feet lower, would be.
That is, had the willows survived, first the cows and then the deer and ultimately the overgrowth, which is unlikely given that those pussy willow trees through which I can now see sky are about all that survived from my planting years.
The Joe Pye weed, an amethyst cloud settled in my front field in August, is a stand of faded clusters I would not find but for knowing where to look and the water willow that rings the pond, unrealistically green in high summer, its roots happily settled in the mucky bottom of the old peat bog, has gone from burnished to blah. But there is a round of goldenrod at the head of the lane, of the many varieties scattered about the one that is brightest at this moment. Asters line the road, fronds of little white flowers and chicory still blooms brighter blue into the day as the sun begins to slip toward the lower arc of winter.
Saturday there was a wall of odd clouds rising, not from the ocean rather from a strange false horizon a space above the real one. Like everyone of a certain age, I know a single line from a long-ago song, “Smoke on the water, fire in the sky” — those few words set to an unforgettable tune that has been in my head since Saturday morning.
I realize I must not be the only one unaware of the background story of Smoke on the Water, of an entire casino complex going up in flames after “some stupid” in the audience of a 1971 Mothers of Invention concert shot a flare into a rattan covered ceiling. That fire, on the shore of Lake Geneva, Switzerland, happened 30 years before the Station in Rhode Island burned and so many died, when pyrotechnics ignited ceiling insulation. The Station was 30 years after the Coconut Grove burned, a Boston nightclub decorated with synthetic palm trees, killing hundreds and changing fire code awareness — everyone thought —forever.
The Saturday morning the clouds looked, only at first, like smoke on, or above, the water. Someone remarked “Stonehenge Clouds” and another echoing my own reaction hours later said it much resembled a scattered city skyline, eerily reminiscent of Sept. 11. To me it was more an unreal metropolis rising as one might in the fantastical novel I spent a whole winter reading, the prose-rich but very long Winter's Tale. I had it out of the library for months but no one else had any interest in it and my renewal requests were processed over and again.
My cousin's flute-maker husband, one of the lobster and corn cookers at my house last weekend, already back in the Pacific Northwest, offered various scientific terms before coming out with what I suspected was most on his mind, a declaration of “missing the island!” There were more comments: I am always partial to anything referencing the apocalypse; smoke signals gave me pause; then there were the somewhat plausible but totally fabricated names from someone I should know was just having fun with words.
Still, re-reading reactions after a few days I have to admit my favorite response to my what-kind-of-clouds-are-these query was imprecise and non-scientific: “kooky ones.”