By Norbert Blei
Working in a converted chicken coop north of Ellison Bay, for 40+ years writer Norbert Blei (8/23/1935 – 4/23/2013) chronicled Door County through the lives of its inhabitants. A revised edition of DOOR WAY: The People in the Landscape, the first book in Blei’s “Door Series,” was published August 2010 and is available at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik in Sister Bay. If you are a first-time visitor and have come to wonder about the true nature of the Door Peninsula, be sure to take a deeper dive into Norbert Blei’s writing. “January Notebook” is an excerpt from a larger writing project, covering each of the 12 calendar months, that Blei developed in the early 2000s.
It slips in at the heels of June, entirely unannounced, but for the usual hoopla surrounding the advent of the Fourth of July. Which in Door County marks the true beginning of the tourist season. The first time of the year when all the motel rooms may be booked, when all the condos may be occupied, when all the restaurants will have a wait, when all the gift shops will experience a field day, and all the major roads through the towns and villages will be clogged with traffic. When one begins to hear, on almost a daily basis, the scream of the ambulance, the flashing lights through towns and villages, down the main two highways, 42 and 57, as paramedics rush to attend yet another roadside accident. Welcome to summer.
But outdoors, in the sun, in the woods, on the water, one barely perceives the drift from one month to the other. Especially if the hot and humid weather, the dog days of July, have not yet appeared. We take whatever is handed us in weather. We remain, still somewhat dazed, in the presence or absence or merely memories of spring. We wait for whatever comes next. And what comes inevitably, hot or cold, rain or shine, is the Fourth of July. The county will not rest again till Labor Day and the slow retreat of the summer tourist. Not complete until Fall Fest, and the waning golden days of October
Aside from the usual Fourth festivities, this is also the weekend when the local economics becomes almost laughable (for those of us who have lived here long enough to witness and criticize the insanity of the summer season) as everyone, including the non-business local, without restaurant, gift shop, gallery, motel, etc., attempts to get in on the act, entice the visiting hordes and cash in, by the only, most rudimentary enterprise available for a local left to his own devices: the ubiquitous yard/garage/rummage sale. When locals (especially those lucky enough to be located along the major Door highways) decorate their lawns and mailboxes with a string of pennants, colorful streamers, balloons, and handmade YARD SALE signs, attempting to hook passersby into slowing down, stopping, turning in, taking a look at all the treasured junk accumulated through the years (or left over from last year) and hopefully sold at bargain prices.
I’m reminded of one house along the main drag of a particular village where each year the owner religiously spreads out clothing and junk on tables and racks outside the garage and down the driveway every weekend of the summer season. Pure peddler mentality. Another negative impact of rampant tourism on local culture. (To be reduced to this…mostly sham, a small part necessity.) Just trying to make a living off the tourist industry, folks. And I’m low man on the totem pole. This is the best I can do. This is all I can do. All I’ve got.
Muggy morning. You can feel the earth gasping for breath. A coolness from the lake, drifting over the woods and fields last night, evidenced by remnants of a vaporous mist in the yellow light of the sun, a sparkling dew brightening the evergreens and tall grasses. The roadside growth yields its mystery, the invisibility of nature’s quiet warfare in such dewy light. A green battleground mined with intricate patterns of ground and aerial spiders’ webs hang, sway, flutter like flags, pocket the lower clumps of grasses like filigree dream flowers, pulsing in the morning sunlight.
A morning after a night of heavy thunderstorms when the earth smells like fresh wash hung out to dry and the wafting fragrance of sweet clover rises like heat from the fallen tangle of vibrant green weeds and wildflowers cut the day before in the ditches along the roadside.
In the backyard, the night air heavily ladened with scent of mock orange, the white flowers filled with their light and perfume.
In the ditch across the road, orange tiger lilies open. (In early July.) Garnet, pink, and white flocks. Black-eyed Susans, Sweet pea in full flower in all the ditches along Highway Q, high above Ephraim.
By the middle of July, though the intensity of summer everywhere still in evidence, careful eyes will note a subtle change upon the landscape. The lush green of the woods and fields has reached a standstill. Now a gradual turning back. A slight fading of summer green infiltrates the undergrowth; a limpness to leaves and blades of grass to be seen and felt. Vibrant green fountains of ferns curl stiffly, tiny leaves turn crispy brown. The once proud sprays extinguish themselves as the plants swoon back to earth. Before the month in over, forest floor, fields, the tops of trees will yield their color dramatically, invisibly, in a slow retreat toward fall.
The hard white cherries in the orchards are taking on a pink sunburn by mid-July.
The dust and heat of haying has begun in those fields, among those dwindling Door County farmers where the land is still worked in the old ways of sustenance and pastoral beauty. Tractors and balers and haywagons. Not as many rectangular bales as the past. Now the huge round cylinders of hay occupy the sunset fields like some prehistoric animals lounging in the landscape. Ah, but what a beauty and holiness to the earth in haying times. What a serenity to fields trimmed and groomed, basking in the early evening, the lavender light of midsummer.
It comes, usually in July. Sometimes ushered in the bedroom windows at night. A sound through the leaves of the maple trees, a scent of freshness like cool water, a feeling of difference in the air wafting over your sleeping body, causing you to reach in the darkness for the sheet, the thin layer of blanket tossed over the foot of the bed in deference to hot summer nights, and loosely gather the body’s warmth of this night’s doman between two exceedinly comfortable areas of repose: a border of partly warm, partly cool. With daylight all of the outdoors seems invigorated, refreshed in this singular moment of cool air rushing over the water, through the flashing leaves of the trees, into the very fields, making the wildflowers dance. The message is as clear as the cool wind: autumn is on its way.
July is just too full of everything; I can’t wait to be left alone.
Late July: red cherries in the trees ,ripe for harvesting
raspberries, red, red raspberries
goldenrod, Queen Ann’s Lace, blue corn flowers,
purple knapweed, milkweed in bloom…mushrooms out-of-nowhere,
suddenly at your feet,
peeking from the damp earth floor…
the green fields fading to straw
all the birds are silent
The first humid, muggy, sticky day…followed by the comfort and theatrics of a resounding thunderstorm at night. And oh the cool refreshing breezes wafting through the upstairs bedroom window.
Driving alone down the backroads in the center of the county, a whiff of ripe manure from the barnyard. A stench so sweet, so real. A reminder of what the county used to be. What the earth is. How we desecrate it, our very nature, through development.