No matter how often I tell myself “everything dies,” which everything certainly does—hot water bottles, for example, and I have the scald burns to prove it, and my shoes definitely get to the cremation point—still, I can’t deal with anything dying that belongs to the zoological branch of biology except mosquitoes.
I bury ladybirds and feel perfectly Gestapo-ish if my rain boots squash the worms that come out in the wet. Nothing new about this: I’ve been an animal sentimentalist since I rescued the beetle swimming in my semolina pudding at school. This past week a dead chipmunk in a small copse in our garden destroyed the summer day.
The little thing was lying on its back in a bed of pine needles and bracken, the belly so white that it looked like a patch of fungus. The dogs were sniffing it. Eyes open, little claws on extended feet, mouth slightly agape and the tail a limp curl. The striped fur was clean, soft to the touch, and the body felt warm, but that could have been the late afternoon temperature. What to do?
As a child I fed damaged birds with eye droppers of milk, they died and were buried in the garden. I kept grasshoppers under the bed in grass-filled jam jars. But vide Corinthians 13, now I am a man and have put away childish things. The small creature in my hand said otherwise. A chipmunk is one of nature’s metronomes—a crazed streaker clutching a crabapple or berry. A motionless chipmunk, dead, belly-up with no ability to defend itself, strikes a dark pose. Their lifespan is only two to three years, I reminded myself sternly, and they must die and lie in the earth somewhere. I put it in a poop-and-scoop bag with the household trash.
Like all seasons, summer is this mixture of dark and light, only more so. Seasons beguile me. I love to walk in pelting rain. Thunderstorms are the gods’ theatre. All humans revel in the starched crisp of autumn mornings. Summer is my least favourite season, redeemed only by the busy presence of its wildlife.
Heat even in our temperate climate drains me. I suppose that is why many African countries never develop much of a civilization: Upper Volta (okay, Burkina Faso) in the hundreds day after day can’t be good for authors and scientists, let alone calm governance. Saying this is not politically correct, though I have no idea why. I expect Upper Voltans relocated to Switzerland would do very well—it’s the heat, stupid, not the people.
Climate has to be written about carefully these days. In the 19th and early 20th century there were masses of papers on climate’s role in developing human beings’ physical and mental powers, and not all of them were rubbish. Weather is a staple in our conversation and it affects our plans, crime and death rates, moods and productivity. Christian prayer books still pray for good weather and protection from storms (with the possible exception of the United Church, which sees climate as a social justice issue to be looked after by their Poverty, Wealth and Ecological Justice coordinator: just be thankful they don’t pray for global warming to dissolve Israel). Ages ago when human beings thought bad weather was Satan’s meddling, Pope Innocent VIII had a manual prepared to be used by the clergy in foul weather and for the expulsion of demonic forces.
The British live in a moderate climate and think of themselves as a people of moderation, unlike those hot-blooded Mediterraneans and the cold-blooded Scandinavians. When setting about colonizing the world in the 16th century, the British colonial office of the day issued a weather advisory that a cold climate “brings forth a dull inflexible people, obstinately affecting barbarous liberty,” while a hot one could bring on liberty mad to the point of licence. The ancients were big on climate theory: the Roman philosopher Seneca said, “The empire of the world has always remained in the hands of those natures who enjoy a mild climate,” but then he was probably playing up to Nero and much good it did him. He had to take one of those warm baths and sluice out his veins—on a nice summer’s day, I expect.
It’s old fashioned (and in mod-speak “racist”) to talk about the weather in terms of human achievement, but it must play a significant role. After all, if you live in a climate where you can just reach into the trees for lunch and dinner—which is why monkeys live in palm trees and rainforests rather than pine trees and rose gardens—then some of your problem-solving faculties will not develop or may atrophy. Other faculties, like running very fast, may come to the fore, particularly when sharing terrain with Bengal tigers and leopards.
I’ve spent swaths of time (involuntarily) in subtropical Florida, land of nonagenarian tennis-playing Struldbrugs, where my brain activity dissolved into a perpetual search for sunblock and giant insect repellant. Some people go there to enjoy life; I’d go there to die in perfect physical condition because there isn’t much else to do.
I don’t know what killed the little chipmunk in high summer but of this I’m sure: it had a more intriguing and varied life than its larger relatives in equatorial countries. Thank heavens summer will soon be done, chipmunks will go to the relative safety of hibernation, and we will come out of ours. As ever, Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar had the last word on this topic after emigrating to escape the Nazis. Turning to his fellow émigré who was complaining of New York’s sweaty hot summer humidity, he replied, “We didn’t come here for the climate.” Point taken.