from Not That It Matters
There is magic in the woods on Midsummer Day—so people tell me. Titania conducts her revels. Let others attend her court; for myself I will beg to be excused. I have no heart for revelling on Midsummer Day. On any other festival I will be as jocund as you please, but on the longest day of the year I am overburdened by the thought that from this moment the evenings are beginning to draw in. We are on the way to winter.
It is on Midsummer Day, or thereabouts, that the cuckoo changes his tune, knowing well that the best days are over and that in a little while it will be time for him to fly away. I should like this to be a learned article on “The Habits of the Cuckoo,” and yet, if it were, I doubt if I should love him at the end of it. It is best to know only the one thing of him, that he lays his eggs in another bird’s nest—a friendly idea—and beyond that to take him as we find him. And we find that his only habit which matters is the delightful one of saying “Cuckoo.”
The nightingale is the bird of melancholy, the thrush sings a disturbing song of the good times to come, the blackbird whistles a fine, cool note which goes best with a February morning, and the skylark trills his way to a heaven far out of the reach of men; and what the lesser white-throat says I have never rightly understood. But the cuckoo is the bird of present joys; he keeps us company on the lawns of summer, he sings under a summer sun in a wonderful new world of blue and green. I think only happy people hear him. He is always about when one is doing pleasant things. He never sings when the sun hides behind banks of clouds, or if he does, it is softly to himself so that he may not lose the note. Then “Cuckoo!” he says aloud, and you may be sure that everything is warm and bright again.
But now he is leaving us. Where he goes I know not, but I think of him vaguely as at Mozambique, a paradise for all good birds who like their days long. If geography were properly taught at schools, I should know where Mozambique was, and what sort of people live there. But it may be that, with all these cuckoos cuckooing and swallows swallowing from July to April, the country is so full of immigrants that there is no room for a stable population. It may also be, of course, that Mozambique is not the place I am thinking of; yet it has a birdish sound.
The year is arranged badly. If Mr. Willett were alive he would do something about it. Why should the days begin to get shorter at the moment when summer is fully arrived? Why should it be possible for the vicar to say that the evenings are drawing in, when one is still having strawberries for tea? Sometimes I think that if June were called August, and April June, these things would be easier to bear. The fact that in what is now called August we should be telling each other how wonderfully hot it was for October would help us to bear the slow approach of winter. On a Midsummer Day in such a calendar one would revel gladly, and there would be no midsummer madness.
Already the oak trees have taken on an autumn look. I am told that this is due to a local irruption of caterpillars, and not to the waning of the summer, but it has a suspicious air. Probably the caterpillars knew. It seems strange now to reflect that there was a time when I liked caterpillars; when I chased them up suburban streets, and took them home to fondle them; when I knew them all by their pretty names, assisted them to become chrysalises, and watched over them in that unprotected state as if I had been their mother. Ah, how dear were my little charges to me then! But now I class them with mosquitoes and blight and harvesters, the pests of the countryside. Why, I would let them crawl up my arm in those happy days of old, and now I cannot even endure to have them dropping gently into my hair. And I should not know what to say to a chrysalis.
There are great and good people who know all about solstices and zeniths, and they can tell you just why it is that 24th June is so much hotter and longer than 24th December—why it is so in England, I should say. For I believe (and they will correct me if I am wrong) that at the equator the days and nights are always of equal length. This must make calling almost an impossibility, for if one cannot say to one’s hostess, “How quickly the days are lengthening (or drawing in),” one might as well remain at home. “How stationary the days are remaining” might pass on a first visit, but the old inhabitants would not like it rubbed into them. They feel, I am sure, that however saddening a Midsummer Day may be, an unchanging year is much more intolerable. One can imagine the superiority of a resident who lived a couple of miles off the equator, and took her visitors proudly to the end of the garden where the seasons were most mutable. There would be no bearing with her.
In these circumstances I refuse to be depressed. I console myself with the thought that if 25th June is the beginning of winter, at least there is a next summer to which I may look forward. Next summer anything may happen. I suppose a scientist would be considerably surprised if the sun refused to get up one morning, or, having got up, declined to go to bed again. It would not surprise ME. The amazing thing is that Nature goes on doing the same things in the same way year after year; any sudden little irrelevance on her part would be quite understandable. When the wise men tell us so confidently that there will be an eclipse of the sun in 1921, invisible at Greenwich, do they have no qualms of doubt as the day draws near? Do they glance up from their whitebait at the appointed hour, just in case it IS visible after all? Or if they have journeyed to Pernambuco, or wherever the best view is to be obtained, do they wonder … perhaps … and tell each other the night before that, of course, they were coming to Pernambuco anyhow, to see an aunt?
Perhaps they don’t. But for myself I am not so certain, and I have hopes that, certainly next year, possibly even this year, the days will go on lengthening after midsummer is over.