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June 30, 2012
CuckooSumer is icumen in," if gentle reader will forgive a brief lapse into the Wessex dialect of Middle English from three-quarters of a millennium ago. "Lhude sing cuccu!"
The song, an exquisite example of six-part counterpoint, has re-woven into popular culture, from TV movies to punk a cappella. It is that famous.
Post-modern irony demands that it be parodied in some way. (I was raised myself on the Ezra Pound version.) And that it be investigated, scientifically. Considerable academic discussion has been devoted to the question whether the phrase "bucke uerteth," later in the lyric, refers to stag, billy-goat, or some other ruminant; and whether the animal in question champs, gambols, cavorts, turns, paws up the ground, or "farts" as many scholars now argue.
But summer is come in, whatever. "The seed sprouts, the meadow blooms, the woods spring up anew. Loudly sing, Cuckoo! The ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow lows after the calf. The bullock stamps, the stag champs; sing merrily, Cuckoo!"
Up here this far into the northern hemisphere, we do not take our siesta each day under our sombreros, but save it up for one continuous drowse through the months of July and August. Except those with jobs paid hourly.
Yet some of us will have to work harder than we do at the office, at some cottage where chores must be done.
Summer, in contemporary life, is the season of power tools, and power recreation. Ontario's lakes are already buzzing with the engines of powered boats and other motorized flotsam. The suburbs ring with power mowers, and the streets of the city with pneumatic drills, from various make-work programmes.
Post-modern man cannot live without the thrill of ugliness, to which he is attracted and from which he is repelled. He seeks peace, then brings his noise with him. Then he whines about it, as I am now doing, and drowns it out with raucous music, delivered through plugs right into his ears. Or "shared" through amplified audio devices.
Even the environmental cases seek to fill the world with giant, beating propellers, that extract the sublimity from every rural view, in order to feed our power grids a supply of ecoelectricity that, rounded to the nearest per cent, comes out to zero. I pity these people, truly I do; but I pity their victims more.
As a man who once lived near the middle of a fairly large city (London, England), in an old workman's cottage sans electricity, I condemn my rival crazies. I could have had it hooked up, of course, but decided against the extravagance.
Likewise I passed on every opportunity to obtain any kind of appliance with moving parts. There was running water out the back, but then, there was running water at Mohenjo-Daro.
Alas, it was a cottage condemned, soon to be replaced by ghastly public housing, once the socialist borough council had got its fiscal act together, and completed the immense legal project of expropriating the genuinely working-class people who owned many of the cottages and fought desperately to keep them. (Yet still the poor fools voted Labour, so I suppose they were getting what they deserved.)
The old cottages were so solidly built, I later learned, that it cost the Lambeth council more per square foot to have them demolished than to build the flimsy structures that replaced them.
Still, through three years, in my 1970s youth, I got to taste a particle of urban slum life as it had been lived a century before, and I remember it as paradise. And, those who visited me at the time, remember it as paradise, too. How much better, had I lived in a croft, or under some other feudal condition in the open countryside.
From childhood I glimpsed what life had been at Homeville, Cape Breton, on a seaside farm, by a little bay that had perhaps never heard the sound of a motorboat. There are photographs, still in my possession, that show the happiness of the inmates; and which contrast sharply with the forced smiles and juvenile poses in pictures I have also of the modern cottage, where much of the pleasure of people "relaxing" is consciously forced.
We bring our noise, including the neuroses acquired from the constraints of contemporary urban life upon the natural human being. Yet we do seek peace, or escape - whether to a cottage, or some commercial resort. We may not find it, but the looking for it is a source of hope.
And, again, Sumer is icumen in. Paradise is a canoe and a paddle, on early morning waters before the jet skis appear.
Or standing in the wood, amid birdsong.
The task is to shut out everything we can, that comes with the logo of "progress;" to recede as far as we dare into the human; and to sing, Cuckoo.
© Ottawa Citizen