The Summer Queen’s Address to the People: A Meditation on the Season
Every year at the Minnesota State Fair, a pretty young person with substantial hair is named Princess Kay of the Milky Way — a sort of dairy state Miss Thing. The young women who didn’t win the title become her “court.” This seems like an invitation for another round of Brutus vs. Julius Caesar, but history doesn’t record the assassination of any Princess Kays.
Unlike earlier princesses with rather different job descriptions, Kay only has to wear the tiara until the next State Fair. Oh, and sit for the creation of a life-size bust of herself, sculpted in butter. No, I’m not kidding. There is a butter-sculpture bust of every member of the court, in fact. I remember one Kay saying she would take hers back to her hometown at the end of the State Fair and host a big corn boil for the neighborhood. The neighbors could butter the ears with her head.
Now here I am, Green Man Review’s Summer Queen. The tiara weighs heavy, even though my term of royalty is shorter than Princess Kay’s. There’s no previous Queen to perform a ceremonial hand-off, instruct me in my responsibilities, and warn me away from the potential media scandals. There’s no butter sculpture. (An oversight, surely; the Queen of Summer ought to host a corn boil, a peach pie social, something to remind her subjects of the bounty of the season. She ought to bless the crowd at the local baseball games, cut the ceremonial ribbon at the gate of the municipal swimming pool, fire up the first lawn mower and the first barbeque grill of the year.)
But it’s possible that this isn’t an award or a title, or even a job description. It’s possible that I’m applying the wrong model. Green Man is, after all, a site dedicated to art influenced by myth. The mythic Summer Queen is symbol, not substance, a walking-on-two-legs representation of the kindest and cruelest quarter of the year.
The shortest version is: Spring is Promise, summer is Abundance. Autumn is Taking Stock, and winter is Endurance. If time were a stretched string, that would do. But time exists in our perception of it, and our perception spirals, doubles back, leaps forward. Every summer arrives with previous summers pinned to its train, or walking before it as heralds, because we have memory. Every summer prompts visions of the next one, or of its own end, because we have imagination.
The existence of Summer describes and defines the Spring before it and the Winter to come, because of the kind of animal we are. For humans, no moment exists independently of its place in time. Summer’s bounty comes from somewhere, is destined for something. The season wouldn’t be half so precious if it weren’t intertwined with the memory of seasons and years past and foreknowledge of those to come.
So if I’m the symbol of Summer for my village (the Green Man Review readers, truly an electronic community if ever there was one), what does that say about the season? I’m a writer, after all; I know that a symbol doesn’t merely represent a thing, but manipulates it. If I’m to be Summer, here’s what Summer knows about herself, and needs to pass on, this time around the seasons:
Summer sometimes forgets she isn’t Spring. She is sometimes wild and foolish, and stays out dancing until one in the morning. She sometimes cries over the impossibly romantic, and not because it’s impossible. She sometimes lunges at change for its own sake, and insists on keeping company with those twenty years her junior.
Summer feels Autumn coming up behind her. She fears that the harvest will be too small after all, and that the apples, when their time comes, will be wormy. She feels cold nights, burnt-brown leaf margins, the inevitability of the end of Abundance.
And Summer is herself, in herself, in spite of all that. The wild breathing thunderstorm that she loved when she was Spring still delights her, not less because she knows now that it grabs nitrogen out of the air and soaks it into the soil for the plants to use. She loves the summer stars more, not less, because she knows their names. Summer ends, and something else begins; but that’s its nature. To value summer requires that one value its end as much as its beginning, because there is no summer without autumn to make it short and precious.
When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the fable of the ants and the grasshopper. The ants spent the summer gathering food to store for the winter, while the grasshopper spent his time playing the fiddle. “You’d better get ready for hard times,” the ants would say as they passed, “or you’ll starve in the snow.”
In the original version of the fable, that’s exactly what happened. But I didn’t read the original version first. What came to me from somewhere was a — you might say Bowdlerized, but certainly softened for Twentieth Century children — version in which, when the snow began to fly and the grasshopper was left shivering in the cold, the ants opened up their nest and invited him in. They shared their food with him, and he played the fiddle for them all the long winter. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.
That, too, is Summer’s lesson. Abundance demands that we give to others, or bounty turns to rot. Summer urges us to give away zucchini, basil, songs, labor, rides to the beach, whatever we have a surplus of that has value to someone else. It teaches us that lesson in the hope that we will remember it come Winter, when there is so much need of it.
The symbol is also changed by the thing it stands for: the manipulator is itself manipulated. To be Summer is to be taught by Summer, because how can I tell Summer’s story until I’ve learned it myself? So I’ll try to live the season as it comes, while living in its memory and its imagined self as well. And I will try to remember that To Have should be the same word as To Give.
Meanwhile, I bless your long, long days, steamy or dry, sunny or stormy. I wish grace on your baseball games and clear skies on your picnics. May your charcoal light quickly and burn evenly. May you know the sweet odor of grass you’ve cut yourself, and the nose-tickling scent of your neighbor’s citronella candles.
May you have a corn boil. With butter.