Essay: Good-bye, brass heaven

By HILLEL HALKIN
April 27, 2006 15:29
Essay: Good-bye, brass heaven

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It's rare for heavy rain to fall so late in April, as it did in much of the country this week. I wish there had been even more of it. Years ago, but also many years after my wife and I had moved to Israel, someone asked me if there was anything about America that I missed. I thought a while and answered: "Yes, three things. Cherries, blueberries, and summer rain." Well, cherries we now have, our own home-grown ones, and they're quite good. Blueberries, too; they're imported and expensive, but if you're willing to treat yourself, they're available. All that's still missing is summer rain. This week's downpour was about as close as it gets. I love it when it's warm and raining. Always did. As a boy growing up in New York, the summer cycles of clear weather and thunderstorms were so much a part of things that they felt like rhythms of the blood. There'd be a storm, and then a few days of blue skies and crisp breezes, and then the humidity would begin to build up again. The sky would turn grey, then yellow, and the mugginess trickled down your back; and then, when the air was all murky and so glossy-dark that you might think the sun had been eclipsed, a wind would start up out of nowhere, blowing hats off heads and papers up from the gutters, and bang! crash! the first thunder ripped and the rain came down in buckets. People caught in the street would make a dash for awnings and doorways, and I would watch them for a few seconds from the window of our apartment, shout "I'm going out" before my parents could stop me, and run outside. Summer rain has always made me want to get into it, not out of it. The summer after my college graduation, I was bicycling with a friend in Brittany when it started to pour. He got off his bike, opened his backpack, and took out his poncho. I got off my bike, took off my clothes, and cavorted naked on that country road in France, the water streaming off me. I don't think I've ever felt more elemental or closer to God. You can't do that in a winter rain, not unless you want to catch pneumonia. Winter rains are to shut out. You close the windows, light the fireplace, listen to the drumming on the roof, and think how lucky you are to be snugly at home, under a ceiling that doesn't leak. But summer rains are to let in. You lie in bed with the windows open, and listen to the soft dripping from the branches of the trees, and fall asleep half-dreaming that you are a tree branch yourself and that your toes and fingers are its wet leaves. I'VE ALWAYS missed that in this country. The rains stop in March or April, and after that it's one endless fair-weather day until October. Those who live in other climes have no idea how oppressive a blue sky can become. "And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron," says the book of Deuteronomy. That's not a bad description of a rainless summer. So a good rain in late April is something to rejoice over. It comes as a reprieve to a condemned earth. It's all doomed anyway, of course - the flower-bright fields, the lush spring grass, all doomed to wither on the stalk - but it stays the sentence by a week or two at least. After a rain like this week's, who knows but that the last golden chrysanthemums and red poppies begin to imagine they're immortal? The gardener knows that they aren't. It poses a dilemma for him. On the one hand, as long as spring hangs tenaciously on, and the flowers go on bravely blooming, he is loath to cut their lives cruelly short. Yet now that the ground is still wet and not yet turned to iron, it's the ideal time to take to it with a hoe, or simply with one's bare hands, and dig or pull up all one can. The same roots that slide as easily from the earth now as a foot from a slipper will break your back a week from now. Today's silky flower stalk, if you show it any mercy, will be tomorrow's burry weed. There's always that conflict at this time of year, and a late April rain makes it worse. If only you could count on a May or June one! But even miracles have their seasons. Late April is pushing the limit; after that, you've passed it. And so you take your hoe and let the milk of kindness curdle and go to work. The last chrysanthemums, the poppies, the wild carrot, the tangled clover, the white-sapped garden bitter, the plumy pearl millet - out with them all! Bend, grab, pull, yank; swing, strike, unearth, upend: That that thou doest, do quickly. It hurts to have to break up nature's party before it's over. One feels a bit like an impatient waiter who begins clearing tables before the guests have finished their dessert. Their spoons are still halfway to their mouths and you're already snatching their dishes away. And yet who knows? Perhaps it doesn't always have to be this way. Heavy rain at the end of April in Israel is something I never remember happening before. Why not, then, in May? Why not, then, in June? The weather is changing, we're told, all over the world: icebergs melting in the Arctic, January heat waves in the Midwest. The atmosphere is full of hothouse gases, there are droughts in the rain forests and floods in the tundras, the procession of the equinoxes can no longer be counted on, the Gulf Stream, they say, is about to turn around and run backwards. Perhaps this week is a sign that rainy summers are our future. After all, when my wife and I first came to Israel in 1970, did anyone believe we'd have cherries and blueberries?

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