In early June of this year, just as the dandelions were fading after that first golden flush (that moment when they are so lush you can almost imagine planting them in your border) and were starting to turn into the first wave of dandelion clocks, Ray Bradbury died. I don’t know anything about Ray Bradbury except that he wrote my favourite book, Dandelion Wine. I call it my favourite book almost out of habit: in truth there are whole chunks of it I can’t remember. I think I cling to it because it is the one whose atmosphere most lingers with me. It is the atmosphere of high summer childhood: that first morning of clear skies and promised heat, when the air smells of possibility and opportunity; brand new pure white tennis shoes on hot pavements; hazy afternoons spent in a ravine on the edge of town, all dust and deep cool shadows.
It is chiefly about a boyhood summer, but the grown ups move through it quite magically too, and there is a passage that I think might appeal to the preservers and bottlers and jam makers among you, as it sort of sums up why we do it. I am just at the stage of taking out my huge jars of last years damson vodka and brandy. They have sat for a year and soon I will strain them off into little bottles and leave them a few months more to sip surreptitiously on cold evenings in front of the fire, and to give away as Christmas presents. When the jars are empty they will wait for the damsons to be ripe. Not long to go now: they already look ready, so a week or two more and they will be. Each jar (recipe alert!) will be filled about a third with fruit, caster sugar poured on until it fills the gaps and covers them a little, then brandy or vodka poured up to near the top of the jar and the jar sealed, put away and shaken occasionally, to slowly – over all that time – turn into something viscous and rich and boozy, and far more than the sum of its parts. This has become my summer ritual. Here (edited a little for space) is Bradbury’s take on something similar, the dandelion wine at the heart of the book, and it’s just beautiful:
The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered. Since this was going to be a summer of unguessed wonders, Douglas wanted it all salvaged and labelled so that any time he wished he might tiptoe down in this dank twilight and reach up his finger tips.
And there, row upon row, with the soft gleam of flowers opened at morning, with the light of this June sun glowing through a faint skim of dust, would stand the dandelion wine. Peer through it at the wintry day – the snow melted to grass, the trees were reinhabited with bird, leaf, and blossoms like a continent of butterflies breathing on the wind. And peering through, colour sky from iron to blue.
Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.
Even Grandma, when snow was whirling fast, dizzying the world, blinding windows, stealing breath from gasping mouths, even Grandma, one day in February, would vanish to the cellar.
Above, in the vast house, there would be coughings, sneezings, wheezings, and groans, childish fevers, throats raw as butchers’ meat, noses like bottled cherries, the stealthy microbe everywhere.
Then, rising from the cellar like a June goddess, Grandma would come, something hidden but obvious under her knitted shawl. The medicines of another time, the balm of sun and idle August afternoons, the faintly heard sound of ice wagons passing on brick avenues, the rush of silver sky rockets and the fountaining of lawn mowers moving through ant countries, all these, all these in a glass.
Yes even Grandma, drawn to the cellar of winter for a June adventure, might stand alone and quietly communing with a last touch of a calendar long departed, with the picnics and the warm rains and the smell of wheat and new popcorn and bending hay. Even Grandma, repeating and repeating the fine and golden words, even as they were said now in this moment when the flowers were dropped into the press, as they would be repeated every winter for all the white winters in time. Saying them over and over on the lips, like a smile, like a sudden patch of sunlight in the dark.
Dandelion wine. Dandelion wine. Dandelion wine.’
Now I dont know about you, but I think this is why I do it. There are practical, sensible reasons, sure, but I think the poetic ones win. Bottlers, wine makers, and preservers, go forth and grasp your last chance to squirrel away a bit of summer now, and when you prise open the lid or pop out the cork come January, raise a glass, a spread, or a pickle to Ray Bradbury, whoever he was.