In full-grown late summer it's hard to decipher all the rioting smells of rot and ripeness. They swirl together like complex shades of sand woven by an outgoing tide. So I wasn't sure exactly what was teasing the tip of my nose at the far west end of last evening's walk. The cinnamon-colored bear of the night before? The sad, crushed and tattered leaves of cow parsnip? The camphor stench of flowering tansy, so pungent it was once marketed by apothecaries to repel vermin from the winding sheets of the dead?
No, it was something fresh - goldenrod, suddenly mature and avid for attention as a 16-year-old girl unpracticed in the subtle art of applying perfume. The blossom sprays were like lithesome Washington coast girls hanging out with a gang of weedy friends on the side of the trail. My eyes snapped to them as quickly as they would to a bewitching flute soloist standing in front of an orchestra.
A talisman during the Crusades, a powdered medicine for bleeding, a homegrown substitute for high-priced English tea during the tumult leading up to the American Revolution, useful for clearing the upper respiratory tract of mucus - my botanical references say goldenrod is anything but a mere trash plant. The Latin name for the goldenrod genus is Solidago, from solidus (whole) and ago (to make): in other words, to make whole, or cure.
In addition to other beneficial properties, all goldenrods are a significant source of natural rubber latex. In December 1929, Time magazine reported on the elderly Thomas Edison's retreat from his New Jersey laboratory to his winter home in Fort Myers, Fla.:
"Packed in his five carloads of laboratory material were tons of stalks of a common, ubiquitous weed: goldenrod. Goldenrod, announced Inventor Edison, seemed a likely U.S. weed from which to produce the object of his major research in the past two years: Rubber." He was able to produce a hybrid that yielded 12 percent rubber, but the project quietly died with him in 1931. Apparently, we prefer to make synthetic rubber from oil we purchase at an exorbitant cost from multi-national corporations.
This is the calendar page when I must guard most against anticipatory mourning, the sadness of imagining bereavements to come. As if it weren't enough to grieve losses in their true time, some of us are cursed with pre-living them, writing summer's elegy while many warm weeks yet remain. This year it's harder than most to remember blessings, with a gray ether-soaked gauze of sky stretched tight overhead and forebodings of a La Niña winter to come.
If April is all about birth and creation, the boundless friskiness of life embodied in every horsetail stem and canary-yellow skunk cabbage spathe, then August is the month of incipient destruction.
But context is everything. We are biological organisms. Our peeves, mopes and moods are functions of everything from light cycles to the foods we eat. Writing in his 1679 guide to "this year's revolution, as also things past, present, and to come," Richard Saunders observed "In August Choler [a peevish or irascible temperament] and Melancholy much increase, from whence proceeds long lasting Fevers and Agues not easily cured." Among other remedies, he suggested eating sage and drinking "moderately a glass of good and pleasant Wine."
Even without wine and sage, it usually doesn't take long to bend my mind away these dark and grasping tendrils. Feeling blue about the ebb of the growing season isn't bad or unnatural. The Youth of Eternal Summers - Mother Nature's rambunctious but helpful son - will make certain the atoms from this year's despairing leaves find their way safe into next year's baby sparrows. Goldenrod is his gift.
It helps that this is peak time for berries, peaches and fairs. I am on a full-out pie binge and insensitively told my wife that if a bear gets me, authorities can finger the culprit by looking for traces of huckleberries in his stomach contents.
My daughter and I treasured this year's Clatsop fair, as always. This week brought the far smaller but equally charming Wahkiakum County Fair, concluding Saturday. Pacific County's is Wednesday through Saturday. All these little country revels are deeply satisfying reminders that we are lucky to be alive in times that are plentiful by almost any historical standard.
I wish, though, that the veil of centuries would peel back a little and show me the Bartleme Fair, held on Aug. 24 in olden days in England. It was commemorated by poet George Alexander Stevens (1710-84):
Here are drolls, hornpipe dancing, and showing of postures;
Plum-porridge, black-puddings, and op'ning of oysters;
The taphouse guests swearing, and gall'ry folks squalling,
With salt-boxes, solos, and mouth-pieces bawling;
Pimps, pick-pockets, strollers, fat landladies, sailors,
Bawds, baileys, jilts, jockeys, thieves, tumblers and tailors.
This is life, in all its pitiful and perishable splendor...
Observer editor Matt Winters lives in Ilwaco with his wife and daughter.