The beginning of August heralds the end of summer and the height of the sun’s scorching potential. Here in Castro Valley it is 86 degrees. We’ve closed all the windows and turned on the upstairs and downstairs air conditioning units for only the second time all year. Even with the heat, though, there is a sense of an ending about August, a foreshadowing of fall. There isn’t time to cram in everything I meant to do this summer—organize my office, go kayaking, do more bike rides, finish my novel about jazz musicians—so there’s a feeling of urgency about the month. There’s also a false promise of uninterrupted time. The big chunks of time I had fantasized about never seem to materialize–but maybe that’s not an awful thing. It would be a little scary to have absolutely nothing at all planned for an entire month. And I don’t always make good use of time. With a “to do” list that is 26 pages long and a room full of books that I have never read, I am now rereading a book I bought ten years ago.
The book is an old paperback I found in a used book store. It’s called The Shape of a Year, and it was published in 1967. It’s a memoir written by a woman named Jean Hersey, and illustrated with detailed pen and ink drawings by John Pimlott. I had never heard of the writer before, but I have always been a big fan of memoir in general, and of nature writing in particular, and this book covered both of those genres. It gives a simple account of one woman’s life throughout the course of a year—her rituals of cooking, baking, rug hooking, gardening and spending time with her grandsons, among other activities. I had been reading some of the naturalist writings of Verlyn Klinkenborg and Henry David Thoreau at the time, and I liked this woman’s take on the not-quite-wilderness landscape of Connecticut. Her observations were not always as poetic and lofty as those of Thoreau, but I often found them more interesting because they were more real, the insights of a housewife and mother who never stopped trying to analyze the world around her through her daily tasks. She was clearly not someone jockeying for position in the literary canon. Her writing deals with procrastination, winter depression, acceptance and longing, among other topics, through the use of domestic topics as a metaphor. I liked this book so much that I sent it to my mother ten years ago. This summer I discovered it in her garage, unread, when I went back to visit. I took the book back and am rereading it. It means something different to me now that it did ten years ago.
Here’s a passage from her chapter on August, which has a cheerful tone:
“If July is a rose full out, August is a rose whose first petal has fallen. Everywhere is a sense of a season completing itself. August is ripening grain in the fields, blowing hot and sunny, the scent of tree-ripened peaches, of hot buttered sweet corn on the cob. Vivid dahlias fling huge tousled blossoms through the garden, and joe-pye-weed dusts the meadow purple.”
The chapter on March has a darker tone, and she uses the first person plural voice:
“A restlessness in our bones responds to the wild restlessness of the month. The wind in January wakens a kind of strength. February storms rouse our spirits and hearten our defenses. But a tearing March wind howls through us exposing lonely and familiar areas. We are not at home with the strange impulses and wild, undisciplined thoughts that go blowing through our minds and emotions. Some days confidence shrinks to the size of a pea, and the backbone feels like a feather. We want to be somewhere else, and we don’t know where—want to be someone else and don’t know who.”
I did a search and found that there is very little info on Ms. Hersey, and nothing on the illustrator, John Pimlott. Jean Hersey was born in 1902 (which would have made her 65 when the book was published). She wrote many articles on gardening for Women’s Day magazine and other publications in the 1960s and 1970s. She also wrote about ten books, all of which seem to be out of print but still available used from certain vendors. Before I look at my “to do” list again, I think I’ll order another one of her books.