The Sorrow of the Late Summer Sky

This time of year the sky can be troubling, fascinating, or soothing. It depends…

This morning, at last, the air smelled fresh and clean. I caught the fragrance of new-mown hay. The subtle but disturbing smell of wood smoke was finally gone.

It’s that time of year when we expect the sky to turn the pale gray color of skim milk and the eyes to burn by day. Of an evening, the light show in the sky is as troubling as it is fascinating, as flashes of cloud lightning circulate the perimeter of our view. Any of them could become a fire.

Going outdoors gives us a constant reminder that there are fires out there somewhere. So far this year Dubois has been spared, but others elsewhere, we can easily tell, have not.

The tourists exploring our town don’t seem troubled at all by the close atmosphere and the hot haze. Perhaps they don’t know about the blue sky and refreshing air that they are missing.

Last week we drove over the mountain to Jackson. Those grand Tetons had entirely disappeared behind the airport. It was as if someone had dropped a huge light-gray blind in front of the mountain range. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

A plane glided down toward the runway, and I thought about the disappointed tourists inside, unable to have a first glimpse of the legendary mountain range they had come to see.

Especially this difficult year, the days of late summer arrive with a tinge of regret–for the lovely days lost to working indoors, for intentions unfulfilled and friends not seen for months, for the simple inexorable passage of time.

Days are shorter now, as the light begins to fade ever closer to dinnertime. But there are compensations. Now I can sit on the back porch and watch the stars without staying up past my bedtime.

On any relatively moonless night in this dark environment, the sky is freckled and sequined with them. The real star-spangled banner is the Milky Way, spreading lazily and visibly across the entire sky above our house.

My view of the night sky is to the north, which is where the action is, both in legend and in reality. There’s a domestic drama up there: Casseiopeia sits eternally on her throne (or rocking chair, in my impression of the image) just to the west of her husband Cepheus. Casseiopeia angered the god Poseidon by bragging too outrageously about her own beauty and especially that of her daughter Andromeda, whose constellation appears just below Casseiopeia.

As the story goes, Andromeda’s venal parents cut a deal with Poseidon: He would back off if they allowed him to chain beautiful Andromeda to a rock in the sea. Perseus cut her loose, rescuing her from a sea monster, and married her.

His constellation appears to the east of Andromeda, living forever below his inlaws and anchoring one end of the Milky Way. In that direction, if you’re lucky, for about a week this time of year you can see some real action: The Perseid meteor showers, which are remnants of a comet falling across the sky.

I wasn’t either patient or lucky this year, and I caught sight of only two or three faint “falling stars” while watching for a few minutes. But on other evenings I have watched some very bright meteors blazing across that sky: So. Slowly. As. To. Beg. A. Wish.

If I take time to rest and watch for a while, I see other bright spots moving across and between the constellations. These are either satellites or airplanes, too distant to hear but recognizable by the rhythmic flash of their light. I lean back on my porch and send a wave of sympathy to the people inside that metal tube, doubtless tired and eager to return to earth.

Around me, all is silence. The deer are settling down in their nests of trampled grass. The hawks must be resting on branches out there somewhere.

I am resting too. My mind is wandering somewhere in the black, silent, and incomprehensibly distant depths, where my insignificant regrets and disappointments vanish.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

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Building Youth for the Future in Dubois

Even in uncertain times, Dubois digs deep when it matters.

Madison Harper gave a theatrical gasp and wiggled her hands as if pounding a silent drum roll. “And the total is — ” (wait for it) “– sixty-six thousand dollars!”

People attending fundraiser for Dubois WY Boys & Girls Club

This was $6,000 more than the goal for the morning’s event.

The 75 people spread out around folding banquet tables erupted into applause. Who would guess that we could raise that much while meeting outdoors for breakfast in the desert chill of a very early August morning, in the midst of a national political crisis and a pandemic?

When I heard the size of the “ask” I was dubious that we could reach the $60,000 goal that morning. I envisioned Madison and her team hitting the phones as soon as they had cleared the tables, working to meet the shortfall.

“Well, that’s typical of Dubois,” remarked a friend afterwards. “We may not be on speaking terms with some of our neighbors, but we will still come together to support a local need.

The need in question that chilly morning was to fill a budget gap for the Boys & Girls Club of Dubois, which provides after-school and summer activities for the youth of this small remote town. Madison Harper, she of the bright smile and seemingly boundless enthusiasm, is the Director.

The Club reopened in June when pandemic restrictions were eased, and set about finding ways, as Madison put it, to help its young members “release their emotions in a safe place and learn how to process everything in a healthier way.”

Around Dubois, that involves going fly-fishing, driving up Whiskey Basin to look at petroglyphs, riding horses near a lodge up-mountain, gardening behind a church and tending bees at an apiary, floating on the river, and playing at the golf course. The options for healthy activities here are considerable.

“I am so thankful that the Club is open,” said a 9-year-old at the fund-raiser. “It has really helped me socializing with other kids, because COVID-19 has been driving me crazy.”

Having no young children, we’ve had little to do with the Club directly, but of course I’ve noticed the children around town. They remind me of my own early childhood in small towns in the Midwest, where I was free to roam — so different from the city life my own children experienced.

That’s why we came to Dubois on vacation in the first place, actually, and kept coming back. It was somewhere the children could run free for a while.

Kids playing in a back yard in Dubois WY

But I have no illusions about the hazards that small-town life can present to kids who have nothing to do.

The organization was born 12 years ago as Dubois Youth Activities, shortly after my husband and I moved here, to give kids in this frontier village some healthful ways to spend their spare time. It has grown and thrived since, serving more than 600 children over the years. It currently serves 126.

The pretext for the fund-raising event was to present an award to Budd Betts, who runs a local guest ranch that serves worthy groups such as cancer survivors and veterans with PTSD. “Most certainly give, give all you can,” he urged as he accepted the award. “Pick a cause, whether it’s the Boys & Girls Club or anything else that’s close to your heart.”

Fortunately, there are still some deep pockets in Dubois, and typically the hands that reach into them are discreet. We were asked to fill out donation cards, and these were collected in baskets.

It was so unlike the school fund-raisers I remember from New York, where parents at auctions would vie loudly to outbid each other with outrageous amounts for weekends on someone’s yacht. You always knew who had the big bucks, and they knew you knew it.

I learned only after the event that Madison Harper began her career by working for several years at Betts’ ranch. The only words on her “About” page on LinkedIn are a quote from Charles Dickens: “No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.”

In her own remarks that morning, Madison cited a different quote, from FDR: “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” In these sobering times, that is a heart-warming goal to have.

© Lois Wingerson, 2020

Thanks for reading! You can see every new entry of Living Dubois by email if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.

Who’s writing? Check out About Me.