Around here, we are all very interested in when winter is going to show up. I think it’s the New England character, which combines dourness and fatalism with a certain almost jaunty interest in how your discomforts will manifest.
When Chummy, our neighbor, shows up with his annual load of aged cow manure for the garden, we discuss the cooking of rabbit and frogs’ legs. Actually, Chum’s wife discusses these preparations and I egg her on. We keep it up until it begins to get dark, then Chum flashes us his parting leer: “Have a nice wintah!” His benediction ringing ironically in our ears, we watch his tail lights disappear over the hill, and wonder what’s in store, and when.
This year I joined in the haying. I felt very proud to be invited onto the hay wagon to help stack the bales as they came shooting out of the baler. This turns out (of course) to be a bit trickier than it looks. I thought it would take tremendous upper body strength to stack bales all afternoon. In reality, properly dried hay is quite light. The problem is that the chaff on the surface of the wagon makes for extremely slippery going. When the tractor is pulling the baler downhill, with the hay wagon attached at the rear, I found myself scrambling to not fall into the mouth of the baler itself. I offered, even threatened, to bring a broom onto the wagon. Not only that, but the bales come shooting out of the baler hard, and you have to bat them down-- or catch them, before finding the baling twine with which to hoist them into place in the stack behind you.
There’s plenty of time to chat on hay wagon. Since farmers spend a great deal of time second guessing the weather in order to get hay cut, dried, baled and stored, we talked about weather. One farmer predicted that we’d get our first snow on October 13, because you note the first flight of geese south and then add 30 days. When talk moved to winter prediction by deciphering the bands of color on a wooly caterpillar, I got a bit lost. I didn’t tell them that the first flock of geese I saw had been flying—I was sure of it—north.
What do you do? Yell at the geese? Chalk it up to Global Warming? Assume that they knew their route? I opted for the last, but not without some unease.
I sort of assumed that the 30 day prediction wouldn’t work either. I sure , didn’t want it to be accurate—so much to do! There’s wood to split and stack, gardens to weed, cut back and mulch, new bulbs, garlic and blueberries to plant, hay bales to bank around the north side of the house, storm windows to repair and put up, bee hives to insulate, fields to lime, hay to sell so we can make room for the truck in the barn.
Last year I neglected the gardens and was rewarded for my inattention by the sight of spent flowers poking reproachfully through the snow all winter—an ugly reminder to do better this year. There is something hugely satisfying about getting things properly hunkered down for the winter. No small part of it is being a bit in tune with the seasons, the weather.
I like being a servant to the seasons. Well, a slacker at that. The press of seasons brings me forcibly into the present, even as I nervously scan the weather forecasts for good bee days (55 degrees, at least, to open the hive) or garden days that won’t freeze my hands to nubbins. The knowledge that the warmer seasons pass too quickly makes their savoring all the sweeter.
I am lulled by good weather in September. I know the temperatures will plummet, but I can’t quite make myself cut back plants that haven’t finished flowering, so I never get a head start on garden chores. This year’s weird summer weather put all the blooms back, and my miraculously tough hardy hibiscus never did get out of bud by the first frost. It’s pushing my luck, in what is surely zone 4, to have it at all.
I am always astonished when things actually grow, let alone thrive. To partner with nature feels like a wonderful new experiment that often comes out well. The surprise pumpkin vine growing off the side of the compost heap yielded several stout fruit. The tomatoes never got the blight. The beans were prolific and delicious. The shallots obligingly multiplied. I grew my first garlic scapes.
The Pilgrims believed that God put cures for every disease in the plant world, that is was all out there for human benefit. I’m surprised such a dour culture would have so optimistic a view of the environment. They did know enough about plants to notice that jewelweed provides a decent antidote to poison ivy, and often grows nearby.
The second part of their belief—that everything is here to benefit humans alone—is more problematic, and has brought us to the edge of environmental disaster. We humans continue to behave rapaciously, even as we try to start mending our ways. As a past enthusiast user of Miracle Gro, I can say it is far sweeter to get results using methods that do not tax the environment. Using it feels like cheating now.
I’d rather be better connected to nature than living in a manner that is largely unrelated to what’s going on outdoors. Would the use of Miracle Gro have ripened my 100 pounds of green tomatoes? Probably not. I’ve come upon some good recipes to use up the bounty, though.
By the way, it really did snow on October 13. The other day, I saw a caterpillar, and bent down to scrutinize its bands closely, which were of equal length, all three.
It was very, very furry, though. Should I be worried?