Summers End, but Our Desires Last a Lifetime
NASHVILLE — By the calendar and by the thermometer, autumn feels impossibly distant, the figment of a fever dream. Here in Tennessee, temperatures still push into the 90s nearly every day, and the humidity is thick enough to steam press a blouse. This is insect weather.
The arcing courtship song of cicadas fills the hot trees. Bumblebees and skippers belong to every zinnia in my pollinator garden. A lone gulf fritillary, ragged and faded, has finally found the passionvine winding among the blackberry canes. She is laying eggs on its deeply lobed leaves. It will be weeks yet before the eggs turn into butterflies, but she doesn’t know that. For insects, it is full, glorious, everlasting summer. There is no equinox. There will never be an equinox.
For everybody else in the yard, summer is wrapping things up. The broadhead skink who uses our front stoop as her sunning spot has emerged from the hiding place where she guarded her eggs, curving around them as protectively as any nursing mother. Every afternoon, she is back on the stoop, soaking up the hot summer sun.
The resident hummingbirds are bulking up for the long migration ahead, fiercely defending both flowers and feeder. The peaceful little skippers always yield the zinnias, but they needn’t yield for long. As the time for travel nears, the hummingbirds are more focused on fighting one another than on keeping the skippers and the bumblebees away from the flowers.
By the end of August, most of the baby songbirds are indistinguishable from their parents. I can tell the fledgling robins and bluebirds from the adults only by the fading spots on their breasts. They seem to be adept at hunting insects now, though not always adept at rising from the ground again. I can’t tell the baby crows from the adult crows at all.
But there are two baby red-tail hawks whose piteous cries fill the neighborhood all day long, a shrill Eeee-eee-eeeeeee, Eeee-eee-eeeeeee that pierces the house windows and breaks my heart. They are hungry, following their parents across the sky, but their parents are leaving them to their own devices more and more often as summer comes to a close. Eeee-eee-eeeeeee the young hawks scream, a sharp, echoing articulation of need.
I am long past my own baby season, past even the season of hungry fledglings, but I am not past the nudging thrum of need. It’s something I think about every year at this time. For almost all my wild neighbors, the end of summer coincides with the end of courtship and mating, of childbearing and child-rearing, but it does not signal the end of much of anything for me. A human family remains a family, far beyond the time of nest-building and nest-tending. For a female human, unlike females of almost all other species, desire, too, persists for decades past the time when it serves as a spur to reproduction. Its persistence is one of the great blessings of being human.
I find myself thinking about that blessing even more this summer, perhaps because August is turning to September in my own life, my own body, more visibly with every passing year. Or perhaps it is only because I watched “Good Luck to You, Leo Grande” earlier this summer. In the film, Nancy, a widow played by the brilliant Emma Thompson, hires Leo, a sex worker played by the brilliant Daryl McCormack, to help her find the sexual fulfillment that has always eluded her. Leo, besides being breathtakingly beautiful, is something of a sage. “Desires are never mundane,” he tells Nancy when she apologizes for her plain-vanilla requests.
We all want to be touched, to be desired, even at an age when our culture tells us that we are in no way desirable. If there is any truth more fundamental than the human need to be chosen, surely it is the abiding suspicion that we don’t deserve to be chosen. And yet for Emma Thompson’s Nancy, sexual pleasure is too essential to surrender gracefully, no matter how unworthy of it she feels.
The film involves some onscreen sexagenarian nakedness, which Ms. Thompson approached with “a healthy terror,” she told The Times. I found that statement astonishing; if even Emma Thompson doesn’t feel beautiful and desirable, then there is hardly a soul among our cohort who does. Surrounded by images of unattainable youth, held hostage by the diet industrial complex operating behind a homespun storefront of wellness, who could possibly feel worthy?
But here are the songbirds, for whom the season of full-throated singing has come and gone. Here is the skink, his ruddy breeding colors entirely faded. Here is the irritable chipmunk, building her stores for a solitary winter. For them, the season of desire will not be back until the end of a hard, cold winter — a winter many will not survive.
In other months, I spend my days calculating kinship, cataloging the many traits and behaviors I share with my wild neighbors. In August, I feel acutely how lucky I am to belong to a species for whom yearning has no season. For the gulf fritillaries in my pollinator garden, the sense of everlasting summer is only an illusion — the passionvine will die back with the first frost. For us, passion is considerably more complicated than that, but the desire for it is not.
“Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life,” wrote The New Yorker’s Roger Angell in 2014, “but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love.” He was 93 when he wrote those words.
I need, I need, we say with the fledgling red-tail hawks, with the butterflies, with the cicadas in the echoing trees. I need, I need, I need. For us, there will never be an equinox. Until the end of our days, there will never be an equinox. It will always be full, glorious, everlasting summer.
Margaret Renkl, a contributing Opinion writer, is the author of the books “Graceland, at Last: Notes on Hope and Heartache From the American South” and “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”
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