“These days, the natural world around us is magnificent as a Baroque painting adorned by blooms and birdsong …”
“The summer of 1914 would have been memorable for us even without the doom which it spread over the European earth,” author Stefan Zweig recalled in his book The World of Yesterday. “Throughout the days and nights the heavens were a silky blue, the air soft yet not sultry the meadows fragrant and warm, the forests dark and profuse in tender greens …”
One splendid June afternoon, Zweig lolled in a Baden park intensely reading Merejkovsky’s Leo Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, “simultaneously aware of the wind of the trees, the chirping of birds, and the music which was wafted toward me … I heard the melodies distinctly … And so it was that I suddenly stopped reading when the music broke off abruptly.” The drifting enjoyers of the day also halted. A hastily posted announcement at the bandstand told of the assassinations of the heir apparent, the disliked frowny Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.
A few weeks later, Zweig walked through the vineyards of a winegrower friend who declared, “We haven’t had such a summer in long time. If it stays this way, we’ll get better grapes than ever. Folks will remember this summer!”
Zweig recalls, “He did not know, the old man in his blue cooper’s smock, how gruesomely true a word he had spoken.”
Jan Davidszoon de Heem, Flower Still-life with Crucifix and Skull, 1630s.
We’ve all pulled into an historical moment. Some of us sensed the arrival of something awful. The political and cultural divisions across the globe indicate that an upheaval is at hand. May still be. Our personal lives are, for now, what is upended.
Here in Richmond, Virginia, our summer proved reluctant to relinquish its humid grip and allow for autumnal progress. The trees barely remembered to flash before leaves dropped, all of sudden, as though exhausted. Winter offered a day or two of snowy dustings that fell short of coating our gritty antique streets in picturesque sheen. These days, however, the natural world around us is magnificent as a Baroque painting adorned by blooms and birdsong. Spring comes a bit early and delightful. The natural world continues heedless of our enforced stillness.
On a recent Thursday around 7 p.m. I took a necessary and joyfully walkable two-mile-either way errand. I carried gloves and scarf for eventualities. For a few moments, this excursion allowed me to escape the noise of news and the house. The streets reminded me of 3:30 or 4 a.m., after the bars close, and people are gone elsewhere, that hour which is “the dead of night.” Dog walkers and joggers. A few nods of connection. Silent skies aside from a single-engine police surveillance plane that made wide circles before surveilling another sector. The usual smear of distant train horns never broke the pleasing air. I felt anxious as though the virus might leap from behind a Dumpster to deliver a stunning clout from a rubber truncheon slathered by fatal infection.
As I was cutting through an alley, an overheard telephone conversation rose out of the quiet from an upper-story back porch. The speaker angry with the other side, declaring, “You said to my face to fuck off. If you want to go see the fucking Aurora Borealis, then go see the fucking Aurora Borealis!”
The other side’s argument likely entailed wanting to see the Aurora Borealis while a way exists to view those spectacular lights.
Harry Kollatz, Jr., a Richmond lifer and eldest writer for Richmond magazine, is the author of two histories, “True Richmond Stories,” and “Richmond in Ragtime.” Carlisle Montgomery, his debut 2019 novel, through Sydney, Australia’s Primer Books, is physically available at discerning outlets and through ebookalchemy.au.com. He’s married to the artist Amie Oliver.