Ponderous and clumsy like a mare waiting to foal, August arrives bearing summer’s fullness. The days have grown heavy and long and everything – the turtle I pause to watch waddle across the road, the turkey vultures lifting languidly from the carcass left lying in the ditch, even the butterfly whose bouncing from flower to flower has become more of a slide – moves slowly in the wet heat.
My feet produce little more than a shuffle as I propel myself down the road, each small advance like pushing through a wall. Like a puddle that spreads to fill in a footprint, summer claws at me from the woods, the fields, the ponds. Barely restrained by the ditches and fence lines, it has filled in the gaps.
All around me is green. I try to delineate each of the different shades – hunter and emerald and jade and chartreuse. I attempt to segregate the muddy greens, the clear greens, the shiny greens, to evaluate their intensity and separate then by source. Nearly drunk with heat, I walk through what feels like three dimensions of color.
I am rounding the curve at the beaver pond when, out of the corner of my eye, I detect the tiniest flash of white. An eyelash, a dust mote. Turning, I see an egret – the bird we have always called a pond scoggin – folding its wings and gliding to a stop on the exposed end of a log jutting up out of the pond at slim angle. He has joined another egret, equally thin-legged and equally aloof. They turn their necks from side to side, surveying the dense greenness into which they have fallen from the clear blue sky.
The two birds are the only non-green objects within my vision. Like two singular brush strokes, their whiteness sticks out, casts a shimmering reflection into the algae-covered water. The image imprints on the back of my eyelids and I think about it all the way home.
So much green, so little white. Broad water, tall trees, wide spans of grass. Two skinny birds. Light in the midst of dark.
At some point I start hearing the voices. Voices of everyone from my grandmother to the politician of the week holding forth on the power of a single candle in a dark room or the first glimpse of sunrise after a lonely night. Fables and parables, sermons and stories, aphorisms, axioms, and maxims of every sort testifying to the smallest light.
“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness,” says the Chinese proverb. “All the darkness in the world,” said St. Francis of Assisi, “can not extinguish the light of a single candle.” Martin Luther King, Jr. repeated over and over, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” Is that what it’s about? Light and darkness?
I walk through the front door and the cold air seizes me. The haze of the heat evaporates as the sweat flash-freezes and my body shivers. My gratitude for air conditioning has never been greater.
I get water. I sit down. The egrets accompany me. I can’t stop thinking about them, wondering why I noticed, why their small whiteness caught my attention in all that large greenness.
I know why only when I see the back-to-school ads and feel myself cringe at the memory of the things my friends and I did to get noticed, to stand out from the crowd, to make our marks. I cringe because every one of those things – the clothes we wore, the styles in which we wore our hair, the music to which we listened – were all alike and served only to make us indistinguishable. We stood as a broad swath of green, not an egret to be seen anywhere.
I want to run to all those little girls and middle schoolers and teenagers setting forth on their first days of school and block their paths. I want to take their sweet faces in my hands and whisper, “The secret is in the contrast, dear one. Go out there and be an egret.”