In T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” April is “the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” I’m not going to argue with one of the greatest of all poets, but I have always been more interested in August. It is, I passionately believe, the cruelest and craziest month, at least in New Mexico. It’s plain crazy.
In August, we are in the middle of summer. So naturally we make our kids put on their shoes, take off their swimsuits, shoulder their book bags and spend the beautiful warm days staring at blackboards and whiteboards instead of rolling in flower-filled meadows and jumping into blue lakes. No wonder many of our kids are lazy, obese and alienated. It’s plain crazy.
August is the month politics pretends to take a breather. The President goes to the beach. The Supreme Court justices go to ground in scattered retreats around the country. Reporters write even more pallid pablum than usual to disguise the fact that they too are really on vacation. Congress, having done nothing since January, prepares to do nothing the rest of the year by taking off the entire month of August (as well as parts of July and September). It’s plain crazy.
August is the month sandwiched idly between the July national political conventions and the theoretical onset of the national presidential campaigns in September. Except in reality the politics never stop, the speeches drag on and on and the pollsters and pundits, policy wonks and consultants continue to try to justify their salaries and retainers by pronouncing daily on who’s hot and who’s not. It’s plain crazy.
August used to be called sextus. Although it sounds sexy, it’s not. The Latin word just means six, for what had been the sixth month. When the Roman Senate adopted the Julian Calendar, it changed the name of the month to kowtow to the currently reigning dictator, Emperor Augustus.
The Senate had previously decided that some months, including specifically the previous month of July (named for the late Julius Caesar) would have 31 days. But that left August in an inferior position with only 30 days. So the Senate, in a Solomonic act worthy of our own Congress, added one day to August to make Augustus’s month equal to Julius’s. To get the extra day without making the calendar inaccurate it robbed February of a day, making it the shortest month of the year at 28 days (29 in leap years). It’s plain crazy.
Not that the calendar wasn’t in desperate need of some fixing. The website Infoplease condemns the old Roman calendar, “which had degenerated into a chaotic embarrassment. Bad calculations caused the months to drift wildly across the seasons—January, for example, had begun to fall in the autumn. The high priest in charge of the calendar, the pontifex maximus, had become so corrupt that he sometimes lengthened the year to keep certain officials in office or abbreviated it to shorten an enemy’s tenure.” That’s a trick our own pols might take a crack at some day—but not yet. It’s plain crazy.
In August New Mexico’s massive triple-digit heat waves of June and July explode into towering thunderheads that crash over our heads, deluge our fields and fell our utility lines. It is, at times, the greatest show on Earth. The brilliant slashes of lightening link sky and ground, heaven and Earth. Our pets run to basements, shrink beneath furniture or snuggle against us as nature’s bombs explode around them. It’s plain crazy.
All year—almost all year—we New Mexicans endure drought. We are leery of watering lawns and gardens. We wait anxiously for bone dry forests to explode in wildfire. We measure our drinking and dish water in ounces and wonder if we really need to shower today. We install low-flow toilets and shower heads and position rain barrels beneath the eaves to catch any stray drops of moisture. We hope snow will fall, then pray that it will not evaporate before replenishing the aquifers. We anxiously watch the water level in our wells drop, foot by foot, year by year. Then comes August, and all of a sudden there is too much water. The ground can’t absorb it. The soil erodes. Our houses and fields flood. It’s plain crazy.
Sprung into life with all the new moisture, wildflowers bloom everywhere. Purple asters and red skyrockets and orange globe mallows and vermillion paint brushes are humbled by the kings of our flora, sunflowers that tower 10 feet or more, creating brilliant forests wherever the soil has been disturbed. We honor these kings in the name of my local park and the annual August fiesta thrown by the town of Mountainair. It’s plain crazy.
The bears are happy in August, filling their bellies with nuts and berries, and when they are happy, they are invisible, protected in their mountain fastness, so that our busy game wardens don’t kill them to protect humans. Unlike the bears, however, squirrels and rabbits and other small animals are not invisible. They are everywhere, multiplying almost before our eyes. Birds, from tiny hummers to huge hawks and ravens, are singing and whirring and cawing all around us, a musical cacophony I would take over the Santa Fe Opera any day. Their music may not be quite as dulcet, but they are nature knocking at our doors and windows, rattling our own cages, life filling our senses. It’s plain crazy.
My perception of the craziness of August, however, may be at least partially a rationalization. I like August, too, because it is the month of my birthday, a day when I try to do something I really want to do. What will I do this year? I have no idea. But maybe it’ll be plain crazy.