The wind turned up brisk out of the northwest the other evening, bringing to my nostrils the fresh scent of peppermint and to my brain the confirmation that this strangest of summers is indeed on the wane.
Although perhaps I exaggerate, at least on a personal level.
There was that one summer which I began by selling hot dogs and ended by plucking frozen green beans from a conveyor belt. This is an unusual succession of jobs, it seems to me, even though both involve food.
Or anyway products that many people consume.
I am aware that some people question whether hot dogs are edible.
And I’m a trifle skeptical myself about green beans, and never mind all the vitamins. I’ll concede that my attitude might have been forever altered by watching a few million of the things zoom past fast enough to induce vertigo.
But certainly this is the first summer — for all but the few Methuselahs among us — during which a mask was an accessory far more common than a ballcap.
(And unlike during the Spanish flu pandemic a century ago, these days face coverings are fashionable as well as functional.)
We all have particular personal details that for us mark the passage of the seasons.
These can span the palette of our senses.
For some the trigger might be an aroma — the whiff of woodsmoke on the first morning when frost spangles the grass, or the richly fecund smell of newly cut alfalfa on the cusp of summer.
For others it’s a specific sight such as a skiff of snow on a favorite peak, or the first buttercup beaming from a patch of winter-brown grass.
Even something as subtle as the way the sunlight slants across a distant hill in the evening can pinpoint the fulcrum on which two seasons pivot.
I particularly enjoy the transition from summer to fall, the latter being my favorite season. I have a special affinity for autumn based largely on its trick of balancing the lingering warmth of summer and the frigidity to follow but without, generally speaking, exposing us to the worst traits of either.
(My fondness for the season forces me to forgive the occasional simmering afternoon in early October, or a pre-Halloween blizzard.)
This transition is for me, though, a series of events rather than a single epiphany.
My symbols of impending autumn include the appearance of a pair of yellow flowers — those of the rabbitbrush, which brightens the dun sagelands each August, and the goldenrod, that enhancer of roadside ditches and other scrub ground.
We saw both blooms while driving to a campground on a recent Friday evening, and I felt a brief flutter of excitement, imagining for a moment the inimitable spectacle of orange tamaracks flaming against a crystalline blue October sky.
Yet as the pandemic continues to plague society I fear that certain other moments I have come to relish — to rely on, even — are not likely to be around this year to ease me from summer into fall in the gentle and pleasant manner to which I’ve become accustomed.
The plastic crack of shoulder pads colliding, for instance.
It’s not yet clear how much football will be played this autumn, although quite possibly none at all in Oregon. The annual tradition will at best be a meager version of itself elsewhere.
Nor will I be seeing clusters of kids, brand-new backpacks bouncing off their shoulders as they skip to school (literally skipping, in some cases) on the final brilliant mornings of summer.
This saddens and disappoints me.
What a dismal scene it would be to have my kids, Max and Olivia, stand beside each other on our back porch, posing for their annual first day of school photo. This tradition, so poignant and so perfect in its ability to suspend however briefly the inexorable advance of the years, would have the indelible taint of the ersatz this year. Having beamed for the photo, the kids would turn around and walk back into the house, their destination not a freshly scrubbed classroom, the tabula rasa of public education, but an anodyne computer screen.
Against this grim prospect I submit the purifying properties of peppermint.
Its astringent aroma riding the warm August breeze previews autumn as powerfully for me as the rabbitbrush clumps shining among the sagebrush.
But it seems to me that the moment while I stood in my driveway and first detected that formidable scent was more meaningful than before.
I was reminded that in a summer when so much that is familiar has been replaced by the strange and the frightening, the basic processes continue. The roots take their nourishment from the soil and the sprinkler. The eternal sequence of planting and tending and harvest persists, as it must if we are to do the same.
And so I stood there and breathed, the simplest, and most essential, of all things.
I imagined the scene just a couple miles away inside Ward Ranches’ mint distillery, the source of this scent, so fine and so welcome. I thought about the heavy heat of the boilers, the bubbling stainless steel vats, the puffs of intensely fragrant steam.
Our tussle with the virus continues.
But even as society roils, we must look after our teeth. And we insist that the daily brushings freshen our breath even as they polish our enamel.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.