Anyone who is a teacher, child, or parent knows that August marks the beginning of the end of summer. August is bittersweet because you know the end is coming: you see the ads for back-to-school, and you become vaguely aware of the shortening of days, your nighttime forays to catch fireflies ending earlier and earlier even though you aren’t yet bounded by school-night bedtimes.
August marks the beginning of the end because the natural world can continue its unbridled fecundity only so long: the natural world can’t continue summer’s frenetic pace indefinitely. August heralds the end of summer because the sounds of insects—cicadas and crickets alike—grow louder, faster, and more insistent, and there is a limit to how emphatic even insects can sing. An object can spin increasingly faster for only so long: eventually a spinning top will spin itself out. August presages the end of summer because anything that spends itself with the unbridled fury of June and July can’t possibly last: as Robert Frost himself said, nothing gold can stay.
Last year from July into August, we watched a colony of bald-faced hornets build a papery nest in our back yard, beside the gate to our backyard dog pen. Even in July I knew that by winter, all but the queen would be dead, and the queen herself would burrow and hibernate underground. From July into August last year, we watched those hornets build and repair their nest with dogged persistence, reshaping and resurfacing it whenever summer showers stripped away entire sections. This time last year, I knew those hornets would die come winter, but what I didn’t know then was that they’d never make it until winter, growing so aggressive in September that we’d hire an exterminator to kill them in an instant, their once-precious nest left behind as an empty shell.
Human consciousness is both a blessing and a curse. Presumably animals do not know they are mortal; at least, this is what we tell ourselves. We humans, on the other hand, know our days are numbered, but we do everything in our power to deny and ignore that fact. And yet, any creature that devotes itself with one-pointed focus to the tending of its sister’s young—any creature that devotes itself with one-pointed focus to the storing of food for a winter that might never come, or for the nutrition of future young that might never be born—must have some sense of mortality, or at least of impending want, even if that creature’s end comes more quickly than anyone envisioned. No creature who is completely oblivious to impermanence would struggle so mightily to build, sustain, and defend, industry serving as a bulwark against extinction.