Reading and Drinking Dandelion Wine

July 29, 2011 — When the summer of 2011 started, my inground pool was full of black water and small animal carcasses, the interior walls of my house were sweating from the heat, and everybody I passed on the street had started to show off their bare feet like they were the prettiest things in the world. You see, I'm just not a summer guy. Especially since I’ve become an adult and had my summer breaks revoked. In fact, the only thing I really like about summer is that it means autumn’s next.

But the problem still remains that I have to deal with summer to get to autumn.

The best way I have of dealing with summer is Ray Bradbury's 1957 book, Dandelion Wine. So, to endure, and perhaps even learn to appreciate, my summer of fetid pools, wilting wallpaper, and stranger's feet, I've been enjoying Bradbury's summer of 1928.

More than that, for the first time in many, many summers of reading this story and promising myself, I finally ordered a few bottles of actual dandelion wine over the Internet. It's not made from Illinois dandelions, unfortunately, like in the book, but it is from North Dakota, so there's still Midwest soil in those thin bottles of pale gold on my counter. So, after I finished reading Bradbury’s short but densely meaningful work, I tried the titular concoction, hoping the taste wouldn’t ruin the book for me.

But first, the book itself.

The strange thing about Dandelion Wine is that it’s a book about endings. Summertime doesn’t immediately strike me as a time for that. Autumn and winter, the dying and dead seasons, certainly can be, but summer, summer always seems, not so much a beginning like spring, but a least as a continuation of sorts, that space between beginnings and endings where you’re just living. I mean, you’re sweaty and sunburnt, but you’re living. But not for Bradbury, apparently.

The book starts with an end of innocence for the main character, 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding, and then goes through a layered series of endings, endings of friendships, endings of traditions, endings of lives. Heck, more people die in this nostalgia-rich story than in most horror novels. Green Town, the Illinois setting of the book, even has a serial killer prowling its streets and ravine.

Douglas’s awakening occurs on a forest trek with his father and younger brother to gather wild strawberries and fox grapes. It’s both a joyful and sinister realization. This portion of the book starts with Douglas walking through a wire of spider silk like he’s tripping a booby trap and then ends with a symbolic wound, as he digs his hands into the dark red fruit.

From there, Bradbury transitions from Douglas’s self-awareness right into the central metaphor of the book, dandelion wine. The moment that he realizes he’s alive, his first act is to help his grandfather attempt to preserve time. Each repurposed ketchup bottle of homemade and lawn-grown yellow wine is culled from that morning’s crop of dandelions and represents a day saved for savoring later. For Douglas, being aware is realizing that you’re losing. And according to Bradbury, memory is the only way we have of dealing with that loss.

But Bradbury doesn’t treat memory as completely equal to the task, though. The dandelion wine eventually is all gone, memories start to blur, the human time machine dies, the new sneakers wear out, but that’s good because there are some things you don’t want to remember, either. After all, this sunshiny book about summer has some serious blackness. The startling memory of the death of their infant sister. The serial killer named the Lonely One. Deathly illness. The darkest shadows lie beneath the shade trees of summer.

Stranger still, this book is not a dirge, despite its theme of endings, despite its many deaths, despite its darkness. Bradbury consistently pushes the idea that this is the way life is best experienced, as a series of endings, a continuum of letting go. We see that with Leo Auffmann and his Happiness Machine. Bradbury seems to be saying that we need to retire the various parts of our lives in joy like Green Town’s trolley, else we might run over somebody and find ourselves filled with remorse like in the case with Miss Fern and Miss Roberta and their Green Machine. Live and lose. Live and lose.

He goes even further. Eventually, you need to just get rid of the memories, too, like when Douglas’s family beat all the dust, all the evidence of their daily lives, out of the carpets. As Douglas’s grandfather says at the end of the book, “When the bottles are empty, the summer’s gone for good and no regrets and no sentimental trash lying about for you to stumble over forty years from now.”

Most surprisingly, even though Dandelion Wine is often characterized as a pleasant look at boyhood, we find out later in the book that it’s actually an account of a boy’s worst summer. A summer when nothing goes right for him, when he almost dies, when he loses too much. Self-consciousness is the worst thing to happen to Douglas, it seems. Fortunately, that will end at some point, as well.

Bradbury admits in his introduction, Just This Side of Byzantium, that the work is semi-autobiographical, even down to the Lonely One. So I have to figure that this book is either Bradbury bottling his own dandelion wine or actually drinking it. Makes the title that much more interesting.

Now that I’ve worked through the book, it does make sense for summer to be a time of endings. For school-age children, summer really is that way. Fall is the beginning of the school year, the beginning of a new grade, a more certain clock tick than one’s own birthday because all your friends and peers are experiencing it along with you. The school pencils that Douglas and his brother see in the shop windows at the end of the book are stakes to the heart of their previous year.

Overall, Dandelion Wine is a bittersweet book that feels more sweet than bitter as you read it, but seems more bitter than sweet when you think about it. But that’s life, I guess. You live it and it’s pretty awesome. You think about it too much and it sucks pretty bad.

Speaking of the bliss of forgetting, I’ve got to get to the wine.

The bottles I ordered were 375 mL bottles, about half the size of the regular wine bottles. Apparently it takes a lot of decapitated dandelion heads to make a drinkable amount of liquid. But the color didn’t disappoint, sunshine yellow, like lemonade. Definitely summer “caught and stoppered.”

To try dandelion wine for the first time, my wife and I set up a picnic dinner in our yard. Usually our alcohol consumption is late at night in front of the TV while watching music documentaries about decades we never experienced, but this seemed the most appropriate context to try the wine.

Now, I’m not a wine connoisseur. In fact, I’ve got fewer taste buds than a smoker with an inside-out tongue. But to me it tasted light, thin, and bright, almost like mead, but less sweet and with a bit of a vegetableness to it that turned vaguely bitter at the very end, although not sour like with white wine. Basically, good. The website for the winery that I bought it through described the taste as like “corn on the cob.”

All in all, it didn’t disappoint and both my wife and I enjoyed it enough to open a second bottle almost immediately, despite the fact that "vegetableness" and corn on the cob juice sound disgusting. If it weren’t so hard to get, I would eagerly put this into my summer rotation.

Anyway, summer is past the halfway point, my pool is now sparkling blue, my AC is winning the war inside, and we’re already seeing Halloween merchandise in the stores. People’s feet still bother me, of course, but I don’t know how to fix that.

I won’t be sad to see summer go in another month or so, but according to Bradbury, that’s fine. However, at least this year I can give the season a proper goodbye toast.