Havre de Grace. -- Summer, which officially began at 11:14 last night, when the sun shone directly down on the Tropic of Cancer on the far side of the world, is accorded most-favored-season status in many places. Sometimes I think it gets treated with more respect than it deserves.
This is probably because summer happens to be many people's vacation time, which in turn is because the schools choose to close in the summer. (They do so for reasons which haven't been relevant for at least 50 years, but that's a topic for another day.) When you define your life by vacations, it's natural enough that the season in which you take them assumes special significance.
But by objective standards, summer isn't always all it's cracked up to be, at least in Maryland. Around here, the heat and humidity can be overpowering. At the beach or in an air-conditioned office that's not a serious problem, but for people who work outside, the weather makes a difference.
On a farm, summer -- which really begins sometime in May -- means a long list of seasonal jobs to do, with plenty of extra daylight to do them in.
When the weather is benign, the work goes easily, but when it's tropical a long summer day can be pretty tiring, especially for those of us who can't manage to slow down to a tropical pace. At those times, summer is something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
But it has its redeeming moments.
The other afternoon, I started baling hay about 4 p.m. Generally I like this work, but on this occasion I didn't feel much enthusiasm. The hay in the field was dusty and weedy. The day before we had baled some high-quality alfalfa, a product to be proud of, but this stuff was decidedly second-rate. However, it was thoroughly cured and the weather reports were hinting at rain, so it had to be baled.
As it turned out, the job wasn't so bad. In earlier years, harvesting this particular hilly 10-acre field always meant a long, long day's work, but better equipment, new techniques and higher horsepower have made a difference. By 7 o'clock, the tractor was back in the shed and the bales were stacked. There would even be time to shoot a few baskets with my children after supper.
Walking back to the house, I felt a lot better about things, and more positive about summer. There is something very satisfying about the look of a freshly harvested hayfield at the end of a summer afternoon, when the dust has settled, the engine noises have died away, and the long shadows come reaching out from the hedgerows.
If there is thunder rumbling somewhere in the distance, so much the better; it takes sun to cure hay, but rain to grow it. Outside the house I listened, but the sky was clear and I heard nothing but mourning doves, a wood thrush, and the chatter of a house wren that popped out of her tin-can house on the side of the garage to scold me.
The weedy hay I'd baled wouldn't win any prizes, but as feed goes it will still be better than snowballs, as the saying goes. The work done in those three hours produced enough to carry the cows through the better part of a month this coming winter. I had something to show for the hours in the sun. I had tangible confirmation that the time had not been wasted.
On the subject of time, incidentally, I note that by international agreement, at the end of this month -- at midnight, June 30 -- an extra second is to be added to the calendar. It's a leap second, to keep our time in tune with the earth's rotation.
According to Gail Cleere in the June issue of Natural History, the atomic clocks maintained at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington are accurate to within a billionth of a second, while the poor old earth's rotation is irregular, varying by a thousandth of a second or so from one wobbly revolution to the next. Thus a second must be added from time to time so that the earth and the superclocks don't drift apart.
That this is done by night in June I don't suppose has any particular significance, but it seems a nice touch. The late-June nights are the shortest of the year, and it's pleasant to suppose that the government's atomic clock-keepers are doing what they can to balance that out.
Actually, the clock-keepers are probably a no-nonsense bunch and are doing nothing of the kind. They doubtless make their tiny adjustments to the calendar according to well-established rules. But the principle that guides them is a philosophical as well as a scientific one, noted by poets as well as engineers. Time is important, and every second counts.
Peter A. Jay's column appears here each week.