Our book today is The Undiscovered Country, yet another splendid production of the late great soul of Cape Cod, John Hay. As I've written before, these end-of-summer days always remind me of the Cape for some reason, even though I've known that blessed little hook of land in all weathers and all seasons. End-of-summer in New England is the practicum of beauty under siege: heat and humidity still rule the days, but the wind that whispers the trees at night is no longer quite so lazy or aimless, and the reliefs it brings feel increasingly watchful in their mercies. In late August the days are still hot and the sky is still a burnished blue, but if you pause near the edge of a pond or listen to the bird-chatter in a hedge-row, you can hear shorter, sharper notes being sounded: a less forgiving season is approaching. Maybe that's why this stretch of days at the end of August and the beginning of September always call the shores and clapboard houses and salt marshes to mind: because the many beauties of the Cape are all so intense that they feel fleeting. You want each hazy afternoon, each foggy morning, each protracted, glorious sunset to last forever, and you know they won't. There's a quietly penetrating melancholy that suffuses every Cape Cod moment for those with the disposition to feel it.
Hay had that disposition, in abundance. All his books are rife (sometimes - in fact often - over-ripe) with it. For his entire adult life, he was a passionate observer of the Cape in all its moods and especially all its wildlife. And he was able to access an ecstatic wonder over all of it, which he conveys in his frequent Thoreauvian arias, like this one on a favorite subject, fish:
They have mastered the universe of water that covers the major part of the planet. I have met only a few of their twenty thousand species, but each of these has illuminated the place I found them in. They pout, wiggle, and dart. They hang in glassy eyes of water, or in a downstream current. We see them, in their scaly reflections of water and sunlight, shining past our capacity to see. There are silver-sided minnows sailing straight over the brilliant sands; marsh killifish making quick dashes across the bottom of salt-marsh ditches, to disappear in puffs of mud; and in the seas beyond, the mackerel with rippled patterns on their beautiful fusiform bodies, slipping and flashing through the waters.
He's self-deprecating always in his prose (less so in real life, to put it mildly), and he's immensely respectful of the personalities of all the wildlife he encounters. "Being constantly aggravated little creatures," he tells us about that homicidal minuscule speck, the shrew, "they will, I suspect, attack almost anything. I was once faced by a shrew that, as I walked by, slipped out of leaf cover to hold its ground, twittering angrily, and I was the one to withdraw."
All Hay's books are beautifully written, but it's at summer's end that I notice how often he himself seems to feel the melancholy I'm describing. His prose becomes sadder and a bit more brittle when he contemplates the turn of the season, especially this turn of the season:
Beyond the sands, the granite-gray surfaces of the waves line out, whipped by the wind, while the leaden stream of the outgoing creek reflects the last golden light. Gulls lift and dip down into its waters. While the land begins to hunker down and accommodate to the arctic, the offshore waters protect their passions, keep sending in their signs. I found a fishlike cluster of creamy eggs as I walked down the beach, a little glistening ball I could not identify, left by the tide. Life floats in to prove my ignorance, if that ever needed any proof. But out reaching is never finished. These flat lands are like broad wings, stretching toward the cold sky, beyond the grain of the immediate, worlds without end. What should I do, if there were any choice, but fly?
The Undiscovered Country was written in 1981 when the author was in the middle of a fairly frightening health scare. The worst didn't happen, and Hay went on to write half a dozen more wonderful books. But none is quite so beautifully elegiac as this one, and it's this one I nowadays take down from the shelf when bully August finally begins to weaken and September with its change of season is finally sniffing the night air. In all likelihood I won't get to the Cape this season, but Hay's books make it easy to go there at any time.