By Richard Telford
Last month, I noted how long-time New York Times natural history columnist Hal Borland once wrote of June, “The wonder of new beginnings is everywhere […] The world is hushed and waiting.” Several weeks ago, plowing through piles of end-of-semester literary analysis papers, I was reminded of Borland’s words when “June Hymn” by the Decembrists spilled from a random YouTube playlist. In it, Colin Meloy writes, “Here’s a hymn to welcome in the day/Heralding a summer’s early sway/And all the bulbs all coming in,/To begin.” As a teacher, June ushers in a time of spiritual and intellectual renewal for me, just as the natural world renews itself in patterns formed over millennia—bud to leaf, bulb to flower, egg to fledgling, life emerging from death and rushing toward it again. Working in my carrel on that early June day, I paused to jot the torpid fragments of early summer brewing in me, the near apparitions of possibility and rebirth. Borland was right. June is a time of new beginnings.
Each year, June for me seems first to be defined by the sudden emergence in one form or another of visible and vigorous life from its latent, hidden state. This year, it was the explosion of dragonflies sweeping the cut yard of our 1770 farmhouse that brought June fully to life. Common Whitetails (Plathemis lydia) and Twelve-spotted Skimmers (Libellula pulchella) rippled the air, alighting only momentarily to bask in the sun. I have written previously of my passion for photographing dragonflies, but, on this particular day, I did not reach for the camera, as these specimens, fresh from emergence and their teneral state, hurtled unrelentingly in concentric circles, voraciously shoveling prey from the air. Our yard became a complex, irregular, predatory clockworks ticking down the two- to six-week spans of these short, magnificent lives. Several days later, after a late outdoor supper, I brought my two older children, ages three and six, to the edge of our yard, where a shock of dense grape arbor lines a Colonial-era stonewall. There, a Twelve-spotted Skimmer hung vertically by its six spike-laden legs in slumber, having transformed from a gilled creature of the nearby pond to a dominant aerial hunter in the span of a day. June is a time of unrelenting growth hurtling toward an unseen end.
The following morning, I was up at 4:30 am, out at daybreak to see if the sleeping Twelve-Spotted skimmer remained, and it did. Enduring a swarm of mosquitoes rising in the damp dawn air, I set my camera on its tripod and shot a series of images. A host of work-related stressors lingered in the near atmosphere of my mind, the brightening of the day leading inexorably to my departure to face them, but, with my knees in the wet grass and my eye to the viewfinder, I turned away from them and, for a moment, shed them. Pressed for time, I crossed the short span of our yard, my steps arrested by a Red-spotted Purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax) that landed in my path. Once again I knelt down to photograph it for a few minutes, a second, finite shedding of the world’s concerns, a much-needed renewal. June is a time to ground ourselves in what matters, a time for us to grow by sloughing off the inconsequential.
Later that week, driving to a Conservation Commission meeting, I came upon a male rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus) in the center of the opposing lane, one wing splayed to keep itself upright, a few downy feathers plastered to the moist edge of its stout beak. It made no attempt to flee as I approached, nor as I lifted it into my hat. I promptly detoured home, placed the still-stunned grosbeak in a small, open box and, in turn, placed the box in a screened portable crib on our front porch, likewise open-topped. The portable crib on our raised porch, I reasoned, would give adequate protection from predators while allowing the grosbeak an easy exit if it was simply stunned and recovered prior to my return. Before leaving, I gathered my children to examine the grosbeak. My sons and daughter gazed at the white patches mottling the deep blue-black back, the rich scarlet triangle emblazoning its breast, the pale ochre of its angular beak—tones and textures that no high-definition screen image can truly capture. Just as June is a month to explore and to feel wonder for the emergent life around us, it is likewise a month of rescue as that life emerges in the complex maze of human encroachment. We often spend our early summer days moving wildlife across the road—Hyla peepers, American toads (Bufo americanus), eastern spotted and snapping turtles (Chelydra serpentina), to name a few. In these acts, we teach our children and remind ourselves of the reverence we can and must feel for the complex and wondrous systems in which we are privileged to reside. By our advancement we have carved out too deep and detrimental a place for ourselves in those systems, and we must teach and, more importantly, model a better way at all scales. June is a time to praise life, to protect and preserve it.
Today, one day after the June Solstice, small pears and apples hang from our trees, still months away from harvesting. A dense patch of Eastern Hay-scented Fern (Dennstaedtia punctilobula) flanks my small woodworking shop, and the sun’s early rise is cadenced by the raucous orchestra of calling birds of all sorts. The road-struck grosbeak flew from its box later that evening several weeks ago, first to a porch ceiling joist, and then into the dark. I like to think its call is among those I hear at daybreak now. In our woods, the Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) has emerged from the dark, compost-rich soil. Barred owl calls that carried for miles in winter are muted by the swelling canopy. My children’s lives are loosely governed by an open agenda of what the weather brings, and I, when I submit my final grades in the morning, will be free to join them. September, for a short time, perhaps the lifespan of a summer dragonfly, will seem far off. While we can, we will ward off the societal drive to over-program the lives of our children, a drive that has whittled away the unfettered and aimless summers that taught our generation and previous ones so much about the world, so much about ourselves. June is a time of promise, and, in the rich, recurrent rhythms of life, countless promises are made, fulfilled, broken, and made again. June is a time of new beginnings; a time to ground oneself; a time to praise and protect and preserve; a time to rescue; a time to explore; and a time to wonder. Let us begin anew, and end, and begin again.