We can ask James Russell Lowell’s question or we can ask the same question in a darker, more meditative tone as posed by Thoreau, his contemporary, in the journal for June 6, 1857:
“This is June, the month of grass and leaves. The deciduous trees are investing the evergreens and revealing how dark they are. Already the aspens are trembling again, and a new summer is offered me. I feel a little fluttered in my thoughts, as if I might be too late. Each season is but an infinitesimal point. It no sooner comes than it is gone. It has no duration. It simply gives a tone and hue to my thought.”
For almost twenty years I lived at Thoreau’s latitude, three hours to the west, in upstate New York. His trees and flowers were mine. By synchronizing my reading of the journal with the calendar, I could see through Thoreau’s eyes, wearing corrective lenses while observing the natural world. He tutored me in attentiveness.
In the passage above Thoreau captures precisely the nagging anxiety I’ve felt each summer since childhood: “as if I might be too late.” Summer was almost too elusively precious to be enjoyed, and knowing this intensified the enjoyment – an early insight into human longing. June was a consummation and the Fourth of July signaled decline, the waning of summer and coming of fall. One knows winter most deeply in summer, December in June.
Seasons, Thoreau assures us, have “no duration,” but that’s hardly a surprise. We know June’s perfection not for thirty days but for moments, sometimes retrospectively, as we know happiness. What is so rare? Any other day.
[ADDENDUM: A reader in New Hampshire notes: "My aunt used used to say, `After the Fourth of July, we're on a toboggan ride to Christmas.'"]