By Bob Butler
Henry James once remarked that the two most beautiful words in the English language were “summer days.” Every year at this time I can readily attest to the truth of this statement. Western New York is often maligned for its cold, snowy winters and fleeting springs but one of the best-kept national secrets is our lovely summers.
Just a few weeks ago my yard was a dismal gray but now is filled with a brilliant assortment of bright colors from our flowers, shrubs and trees. After the long winter it’s a great pleasure to get dirty planting tomatoes, marigolds and begonias. I even look forward to performing normally onerous tasks such as weeding and mowing.
But what I love most about summer is a return to bicycling. Buffalo’s Midwestern topography is largely without the steep grades that make such activity problematic in other areas. So it’s easy to bike 10 miles a day to and from work and take longer rides on the weekends. (Even at age 76!)
This makes a huge difference in my temperament and health. When I drive to work I often feel flustered by heavy traffic and the incivility and carelessness of drivers. But biking allows me to calmly pass by such chaos and come to work mentally and physically refreshed. And when I arrive home, it’s with a robust appetite and blood pressure that’s at least 10 points lower than when I drive.
Driving forces me to assume a tunnel vision that restricts me to keeping sharply focused on the road, thus blocking out most of the surrounding world. But when I bike I can relax and pay closer attention to the life around me. On my way home I can pause and marvel at the beauties of the Darwin Martin House Complex. My route snakes through quiet neighborhoods where I often stop and admire the elaborate gardens of Parkside. And the bikers I meet on my trips are a uniformly friendly, gregarious lot, a sharp contrast with over-caffeinated, edgy motorists I’ve encountered.
Exciting new possibilities have recently opened up for me and my wife with the creation of the Rails to Trails bike path in Tonawanda and Buffalo. Now we can operate without any worries of speeding cars busting through stop signs and red lights. And there are no potholes or steep curbs. We can relax and enjoy the fascinating sights that the trail affords.
An extraordinary profusion of flowers bloom from May to late October – daffodils sunflowers, daisies, Phlox, day lilies and gorgeous varieties we have difficulty identifying.
We also witness an interesting assortment of animal life. One recent week we spotted a family of young groundhogs expertly shepherded by their mother, who was keeping a wary eye on us as they waggled along. Wild turkeys are also common on the track and it’s not unusual to see a red-tailed hawk or a green heron flying overhead. Last November I was surprised by a possum making his ungainly way across the trail, a sight I had never previously experienced.
Wouldn’t it be nice if Americans used more bikes and relied less on automobiles? Think of the money we would save on gas and expensive repairs!
Many cities in Europe strongly encourage biking and design their roadways to make them safer and more enjoyable for cyclists. This has not only made urban life less stressful but has also cut back substantially on the auto emissions that are contributing to the problems of pollution and global warming. As a result, our summers are much more likely to remain moderate and healthy. And the summer days that Henry James so admired will continue to refresh us.
Bob Butler, a resident of Town of Tonawanda, is a professor of English at Canisius College.