Right there near the end of the "J" section in the book "How to Speak Santa Cruz" -- which would be indispensible if it actually existed -- is the term "June Gloom."
That, of course, is the weather phenomenon common in the coastal regions in Northern California that occurs in the month that most of the rest of the country is experiencing its first big blast of withering summer heat. In Fresno, it might feel like the Congo, while in Santa Cruz, it's friggin' Scotland.
There is certainly no prevailing attitude locally toward the June Gloom phenomenon. Some people dig the smothering, gray-as-death fog and the frigid nights -- the technical term for such people, I think, is "bonkers." On the other hand, there are people who believe that it is written in the U.S. Constitution somewhere that June be the month of short shorts, ice-cream trucks and cold beers pressed to sweating foreheads.
I've experienced more than 25 of these Scottish summers now, but it's only in recent years that they've started to bug me. This year I arrived in June fresh from a trip to Bali which sits right on the equator and where the night air is so thick and sensual you can practically swim in it. Then came that first week of June in Santa Cruz and I'm pulling out the scarves and foghorns.
I grew up in the South where the summers are, uh, just a tad different. And, as the years have passed, I've fallen into the easy habit of romanticizing what as a kid I couldn't wait to get away from -- another very Scottish thing to do, by the way.
In the South, June is the month of the "lightning bug" -- aka the "firefly" and, sometimes, erroneously, the "June bug" -- those floating little creatures who punctuate the dusk hours with brief yellow flashlight pulses, adding a vibe of enchantment and mystery just when everything begins to fade to dark. While the lightning bug provides the visuals, other insects provide the music, from the all-night chattering lullaby of the katydids to the otherworldly drone of the cicadas emanating from the kudzu at the hottest part of the day.
These things are deeply encoded in my psyche, and I revere them in a sometimes pathetic way, like a half-drunk expat in some colonial hotel bar. But I've forgotten about the mosquitoes and the gnats, the urge to shower three times day, the narcotic humidity, sweat hanging off the end of your nose, the feeling when the sun finally goes down of having been dragged from the back of a truck all day. I've forgotten that for most of the rest of the country, summer is something to be endured, a gauntlet of drought, tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes and relentless, pitiless heat. And it's getting more intense every year.
Though my heart continues to embrace an over-romanticized vision of summer, glistening in Springsteen-ian nostalgia, shaped by memories of the hum of suburban air-conditioners and the smell of over-chlorinated swimming pools, my head knows something else entirely -- that the June Gloom is a blessing.
The next time you feel cheated out of a sunny day at the beach by the stubborn marine layer, or you find you have to dig out your tundra coat for your backyard barbecue, think about what your electric bill would look like if you were running an air-conditioner every day for four months.
Besides, June Gloom -- and its cousin May Gray -- isn't likely to go away anytime soon. It may get gloomier and grayer. Summer coastal fog is often a function of high inland temperatures and as climate change becomes an ever more undeniable reality, chronic three-digit readings in the Coast Range valleys and the Central Valley could mean a more-or-less permanent gray sky up and down the West Coast. At least, your skin will be grateful.
Perhaps the best way to learn to appreciate the June Gloom is to go spend a June in Arizona or Indiana or North Carolina. You won't have to pack a sweater, but you'll soon be overly romanticizing the habit of bringing blankets and hot cocoa to the Beach Boardwalk Friday night concerts.
But let's not forget one thing: When the sun does chase away the clouds in Santa Cruz County, a summer day can reach a kind of aching perfection that you'll find in few places in the world.
The beaches are breathtaking on such days, but the glory of the summer days is most deeply felt in places like Pogonip, Bonny Doon or along the San Lorenzo River in Felton or Ben Lomond. The sun burns hot in the exposed places and makes golden the blond dry grasses of the coastal hills. Yet the shade of the oaks offers comfortable respite. It's a thrill to suddenly smell the ocean from high atop a vista in Wilder Ranch, or to walk among the aromas of eucalyptus in the Anzar Hills near Mount Madonna, or to catch the fragrances of summer in the cool groves of redwoods near Scotts Valley.
There is a distinct smell of sweetness that I catch sometimes among the vegetation that hugs the bluffs overlooking the coast at Natural Bridges or New Brighton Beach that always stops me in my tracks. It's an intense, localized fragrance that seems to evaporate as soon as I notice it, and I've been noticing it for years.
But if these crystalline days happened all the time, they would begin to lose their luster. So even if you can't bring yourself to find something inherently beautiful in the gray days of June Gloom, you can at least be grateful for the contrast they provide with the clear days.
Which is an often overlooked essential aspect of the Santa Cruz life -- always being aware of the beauty that surrounds you, a beauty that becomes all the more apparent if you're away from it for a while, even if it will never include lightning bugs and cicadas.
Contact Wallace Baine at firstname.lastname@example.org.