Summer nears. I can barely remember May—some heat, some rain. And suddenly we’re in to June; “Spring is gone and summer cannot last”: it won’t be long—alas—before we yearn for the rains of October, then May again. There was a time when seasons stretched beyond the horizon—their cities and peoples distant, vast, and beyond. Those horizons have shortened— now I see exactly what summer holds and only hope I have time enough for half of it: finish bucking and splitting the felled oak, re-gravel the courtyard, build a new back step. . . read. . . . and soon the vine-maples go scarlet and the gathering geese let us know it’s time to put away the shorts, mulch the garden because winter’s on its way. Already? Even the normally sunny Horace caught this sense of acceleration in a melancholy ode (IV,vii)
Cold softens in breezes, spring fades into summer’s heat
no sooner felt than doomed
when autumn pours out its harvest fruits, and soon
ice-cold winter steps back.
This would indeed be sad—beyond sad– were it not for porches, Oregon’s impeccable July complexion, and the fact that here in the Willamette Valley we have what must be the epicenter of microbrewing. Local wheat, local rye, and local hops, great water, perfect summer weather– after stacking firewood, picking strawberries, or cycling down Bellfountain, this is the world’s best place to sit on a porch and indulge in a bit of bottled wizardry that has been our near constant companion ever since we (as a species, I mean) stopped roaming, build houses with porches and settled down around fifteen thousand years ago. Beer and Oregon are an uncanny match—proof, as Benjamin Franklin is rumored to have said, that God wants us to be happy. And Franklin never made it to the Willamette Valley.
As with all true friendships, humans and beer go way back. Beer accompanied (some might say precipitated) the greatest change in human patterns we’ve experienced so far—at least before the texting age. After several million years of chasing and fossicking for food, we decided to settle down and raise it. Very bright idea. At the same time, beer (and presumably porches) appeared, as if by magic. High in Vitamin B, rich in protein from yeast, far safer than much water, beer emerged as a result of—or maybe the reason for– agriculture. Beer and bread doubled as wages at least until mechanized tools were invented in the 19th century. Inflation proof, at pretty much the same rate over the centuries—the original living wage. And when writing came about several thousand years after we settled down and could store records of what goods we were also storing, one of the oldest texts introduces us to Ninkasi, the goddess of brewing. Other texts (around 3400 BCE) mention beer by a cuneiform depiction of a jar as its symbol. At the same time, Enki, the Sumerian deity of water and agriculture, is said to have brewed beer for his father Enlil, leader of the entire clan of gods. In retrospect, this may not have been a good idea—Enlil was, by most accounts, responsible for the Great Flood, but so far no one has blamed that on beer. And when Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s wild friend –whose “shaggy hair no one cuts/ He was born in the wilderness and no one raised him” –is civilized, one of the traits that signal this particular rite of passage is knowing how to drink beer—there is no beer outside civilization. He also learned how to wash himself. (It’s sobering to see how so little has changed in these thousands of years.) By the time of the construction of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, workers—state employees, not slaves—were routinely paid in beer, and apothecaries used beer to dissolve various compounds for remedies to treat those same workers.
We can all indulge in a little homo sapiens sapiens nostalgia by calling to mind that after a hot afternoon’s toiling (even if you’re not building enormous geometric monuments), simply by sitting on your porch having a beer (perhaps reading a little Gilgamesh) you are celebrating the not-so-long descent from our Neolithic predecessors, through the cradle of civilization (and its signal beverage, beer). We have not come so far that our origins have vanished from sight, despite the proliferation of devices and achievements (drones, iPads) we often see as evidence of the insurmountable distance we as a tribe have come from those halcyon days.
Of course, the Romans preferred wine, probably because it was stronger and kept better. Or maybe because, German barbarians drank beer, and they gave the Romans only trouble. But that is a story for harvest-time.