The strawberry moon appeared like an omen that crept around the globe the last week in June. We noticed it as we topped an overpass driving home after dark. A glowing beach ball moon hung over the tree line. As we dipped lower, it vanished as suddenly as it had appeared,
At 2:00 a.m. that night it bounced back. Dazzling light shafts radiated through our bedroom blinds. Would it blind me if I sustained my dumbfounded gaze? Transfixed I wondered what a nocturnal sun might portend.
Morning dawned unseasonably warm. All week our news and weather apps warned of oppressive heat coming to the Pacific Northwest. Friday the high would be a tolerable but not pleasant 95° F, Saturday 102°, past the tipping point, and Sunday 113°, unthinkable.
Native Chicago mid-westerners, we transplanted to the Pacific Northwest scores of ordinary moons ago. Since then we have strategized travel so as to skirt hot and humid summer visits. We hold dear those lush cornfields that furnished our childhood landscapes, but the same spongy fields absorb buckets of rain into 14 feet of sandy loam that just as quickly releases back its watery weight. Humid air is hotter, more oppressive to be sure, where the heat index reaches 110° when the thermometer shows ninety.
The Pacific Northwest is another story altogether. October hints at the rain’s return, but real rainy days begin in November and never surprise us through June. Summers? They’re bone dry. Lawns turn straw-colored. Summer green is the heavy powdery blue-green of 100-foot Douglas fir exclamation points structuring the landscape. We might have one very hot day a year, first week in August. OK, maybe two days. Otherwise the US Northwest stakes its reputation on rain, trees, and clean air.
Well, that was back around the time Madonna came to town. Maybe 1985. In March. When asked how she liked it here, she said she liked that there are lots of trees and everything is green and wet. But I digress.
Summers start cool and windy. Ordinarily a day in June goes like this: nighttime temperatures in the upper 40s. Cool marine air blows in from the coast (an hour west) so that early morning if you sit on your patio, the umbrella will lift right out of its stand and try to blast over the 6-foot wall into the neighbor’s yard. Other than that, you’re not enjoying coffee, say, with the morning paper, because the paper (yes, hard copy) gets rumpled by the wind, and despite the hot coffee, the firs are shading the deck and you’re freezing. Coffee on the patio in early summer is a blanketed affair. Afternoons warm up maybe to 70°. Giant clashing azalea blossoms persist until you’re praying the voluptuous blooms would wilt and be done already. The coherent vibrancy of real summer flowers calls for heat.
June this year it’s 70° F on our deck at 8:00 am. I walk out barefoot, jacketless and sweaterless. There’s a light breeze fluttering a few leaves and lightly billowing the red patio umbrellas. My newspaper stays put. Misting drip sprinklers freshen the air. Two mourning doves lift their ruffled white and tawny wings over the grape arbor. We sit and we breathe. We say it’s beautiful out here.
On about 11 o’clock all is still and waves of heat smother me. I have a new Windex outdoor washer for my windows. I screw it onto the hose and start soaping and rinsing my way around the house, my face up toward drifting spray. The glass now sparkles but the sun glares. Back inside I start to reopen windows, but check myself, ensure they are firmly closed, and adjust the blinds to shut out light.
The weather app has shot up to 108° F, from 106° ten minutes ago. I’ve moved upstairs where we have an air conditioner. Who needs an air conditioner in the Pacific Northwest, we used to say. Driving into our driveway on a 90° day in years past, the air felt 10 degrees cooler when we stepped out of the car. We were surrounded by trees, firs yes, but also willow, oak, birch, maple, dogwood, cypress, spruce, and apple. Lots of trees—pumping out oxygen and moving water around our domestic atmosphere. Inside our house was air conditioned. we could say—by trees. Not today.
Inside the darkened house, I think about the grape vines, not our four little arbor vines of seedless pink grapes, but the acres of vineyards throughout this western part of the state. They grow predominately pinot noir and pinot gris grapes because of our cool, moderate climate. The closest you can get to good French burgundy, they say. Joseph Drouhin’s daughter Dominique (Drouhin a classic producer in Bourgogne, France), founded Domaine Drouhin, about ninety minutes north of us. Nearby Domaine Serene, too, grows Burgundian rootstock. What happens to pinot noir grapes when they get too much heat? Recent tastings tell us the wine is “hot,” that is, heavy and brassy, not light and elegant. What will happen to our wine industry? Will we wind up drinking tempranillo and zinfandel—the cozying winter wines?
We’re now at 109°. I’m sweating in an air conditioned room. My phone’s weather app tells me we’ll be hanging over 100° until 9:00 pm. My poor garden. We do have summer flowers this year. Zinnias, salvia, zonal geraniums, broad drifts of lavender, roses of course, but they’re looking lackluster. My hydrangeas sulk, bowing their mopheads to the heat. “I don’t do heat,” they say. Neither do I. Well, I guess I do.
Last night we talked about how over the past several years, crises have forced us to stay home. Summer 2019 it was my broken leg. 2020 was the pandemic. Last September it was wildfires throughout our region, locked in without good air. Now we are holed in and pent up this time from heat.
I’m thinking about our ideal body temperature: 98.6° F. When we’re up to 108°, isn’t that hazardous territory for the human body, like when you call the paramedics? I read just now that dangerously high temperatures—fevers—range from 104 to 107° F. So when they tell us to stay inside and stay cool, we’re convinced. We stay home.
Then I think that if I had wanted to live in perpetual sunshine and heat, I would have moved to Phoenix. But I didn’t. I moved to the Pacific Northwest, where the people and climate are in sync. They’re chill. This suits me. Now we’re being stuffed into new suits. Heat. Drought. Xeriscape gardening. I want fresh water. I want wafts of cool air and birdsong in the morning. I want green plants. I want rivers and streams that rush over rocks and host trout and salmon.
So many wants. So spoiled are we. We’ve been making choices and getting our way all along: where to live, what to wear, how to eat, how to heat (and cool) our home, what to drive, what to plant, and what to water. Maybe our original sin is to choose that which destroys us. Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From here in the Northwest US, it looks as though fire has the upper hand. Our 2021 climate is what it is, as they say. Doubtless it has become what we have chosen.