Glorious October Does Its Thing

A corps de ballet of gold and orange leaves sweep across my gardens in backlit sunlight. A pair of ring-necked doves performs a par de deux among fluttering bushnits and juncoes, while varying hues of grey clouds scud and bunch high above my neighbor’s red maple. Any day now, I expect to hear a formation of geese honking over the neighborhood, louder than the diesels on the highway. One year, their base baritone tubas startled me so much that I ran outside to see what was the matter. To my amazement, two long strands barely cleared the tree tops at tremendous flight speed. The excitement was over in less than a minute.

Last night’s wind storm shook loose brown needles from the back neighbor’s pine tree and laid them across perennial beds and lawns like delicate lines sketched with a brown pencil, nature’s art, awakening vivid memories of our Southern gardens we mulched every fall with pine straw. The grownups would rake it off the grass and mound it at the base of trees and shrubbery, especially acid-loving azaleas and dogwoods, as well as spread mounds down country driveway tire ruts as a shield against mud from winter rains.

Children used to braid the three-prong needles and make bracelets for ourselves. The more creative among us braided bunches of straw strands to fashion a mat, of sorts, the way our grandmothers used to braid fabric strips for chair pads and floor rugs. These grannies hand stitched long strands of fabric, end to end, then braided and shaped the strands into an ever-widening concentric circle until it reached the desired size.

Practicality directed this country artwork as a means of recycling old clothing no longer fit for wear. My mother, on the other hand, cut up worn out shirts and dresses into scrub rags and stored them in an old pillow case hung from a nail in the “washing room”—the proverbial rag bag.

In her later years, my mother bought a machine-made braided rug for her polished pine floors in the living room, adding a sense of coziness in front of her unlit fireplace on chilly fall days. I once found an old one in somebody’s yard sale when my children were small. It was perfect for the family room where they could sit and play when rainy days kept them inside.

Is the hand-braided rug a lost art? Not at all. Begun in England and Europe to cover bare floors in winter, braided rugs evolved from necessity into an art form passed down through generations. The early colonial settlers brought over the craft with them as a way of recycling worn clothing. What began one year as floor covering for the front “keeping room” with its stone fireplace would be rotated the following years around the house, from hearthrug to kitchen to back door or back porch, eventually ending up as winter cover on garden beds. The worn fabric eventually would compost into the soil. This endless recycling kept the rag rug tradition alive, with at least one new rug each year, but not as heirlooms to be treasured and passed down to children and grandchildren. Thus, few samples survive today.

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Putting the Garden to Bed

Before the first hard frost, I cut the proverbial “last rose of summer” and thought of Shakespeare penning that line in one of his sonnets, only it wasn’t the Old Bard at all.  Thomas Moore wrote it after having been inspired by a specimen of Old Blush. He’s not the much earlier Sir Thomas More, an English lawyer, social philosopher, author, statesman and noted Renaissance humanist whom Henry VIII beheaded, but the Irish poet (1779-1852):

Tis the last rose of summer
Left blooming alone;
All her lovely companions
Are faded and gone . . .
I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one!
To pine on the stem; . . .

Not one but three full-blown heads of the Grand Dame rose hung from weakened necks. I relieved them from shedding petals to blanket their feet, brought them into the kitchen and stuck them into an old canning jar. They never perked up but, one by one, dropped their petals onto the marble.

My Red Rose of Lancaster has crowned herself with red and orange hips, her blooms long faded along with Cicero’s ancient Damascena bifera, sometimes called Rosa d’Castile. All the other roses are long gone except for The Fairy, our real “last rose” until winter snows smother the blooms. I hate to cut back the canes while their pinks remain vibrant in October’s brilliance.

The last of the herbs, except wintering sage, parsley, and sorrel, are drying on screens on the kitchen counter. I think I’ll cut the parsley, anyway, and freeze in little Zip-Loc bags for winter stews.

I’ve cleaned out summer urns, repotted geraniums and brought in huge Boston ferns and the ever expanding gardenia in its own blue urn. I washed and oiled my garden tools and hung them on nails driven into one wall of the tool shed already re-organized and  the clutter cleared away.

But I’m still not sure what to do about the ginger lilies. Perhaps leave them in their protected corner? Dig and store the rhysomes? Dig and pot up for indoors? I may do that. The rhysomes alone must be wrapped in a piece of old burlap before they are stored in paper bags. At any rate, I can’t dig any until  their green tops turn brown with frost.

All the perennial beds have been covered in rich bark mulch, smelling like fresh sawn wood from the lumber mills across the river. Brown pine needles covered that in a recent wind storm; they remind me of our Southern azaleas mulched in loblolly pine straw.

The final mowing is accomplished, the final lawn watering done, and the hoses coiled and disconnected from the spigots. Any seed-bearing plants, such as fleece flower, tansy and yarrow, are left in place for winter birds already returned from the mountains: juncoes, chickadees, bushnits.

Now that the garden has been put to bed, I turn my attention inward: autumn colors for interior décor, aromas of pork roasts and peach chutney from the kitchen, cozy cuddling in a favorite plaid lap blanket, and the sights and sounds of college football from the television. From the library windows, I relish views of the garden in early mornings. Sunlight slants his rays across dewy lawns and tickles maple and magnolia leaves. Little winter birds flit about from the hanging gazebo feeder to the blazing dogwoods and back again. A pair of white, ring-necked California doves peck among grass blades for any spilt seed.

Charlie, my cocker spaniel, has learned to be content merely to observe these goings on behind the confines of glass without clamoring to get outside. Instead, he is rolling his eyes around to see if I notice. I do.

Autumn Bliss

The front porch has been decked out in autumn bliss since late September, but not the back. That view from our library was less than appealing, now that the geraniums are fading, so yesterday afternoon I transformed the courtyard with clusters of dried Indian corn tied with twigs of maple leaves and pyracantha berries hung from the pair of black lanterns at the back door, and repeated on the post lantern. On the table I set an old blue basket I found in the tool shed, and filled it with a collection of pumpkins.

Voila! It’s autumn.

Except for the Indian corn, none of those elements from nature came from the garden at all but from an assortment of decorative items gathered over the  years from Pier 1 Imports. Real pumpkin and gourds from country farmers’ markets don’t last. I tried storing them on shelves in the tool shed, only to find them shrunken with gooey rot and mold the following spring.

What a waste of money, not to mention the fruit itself. I should have piled them in the corner of the garden for the winter. I could have smashed them with a shovel after the snows. I could have raked the seeds into wet soil and waited for a new crop the following fall.

But I didn’t. Hence, Pier 1 has become my supplier of autumn décor.

However, I do clip branches of dried rose hips, twigs of dogwoods and sweet gum leaves turned orange and red, collect pomegranates from Safeway’s produce stand, and add to a wreath of twisted grape vines gathered from some long-ago trip to a vineyard. Entwined within lies memories of family outings in an October orchard, picking peaches when the children were still little, and learning to preserve fruits for the coming winter months.

Last week, I put up several jars of peach preserves and an equal number of peach chutney, the first time for four years. No jams or jellies for me. I prefer chunks of fruit, with the peeling left on for color, as topping for French toast or waffles, with little sausage links, for Saturday brunch.

I think of chutneys as accompaniment to a roast, as cranberry sauce – or chutney, much better! – is for Thanksgiving turkey, so yesterday I opened one of the jars of the new peach chutney for our oven pot-roasted pork shoulder Sunday dinner. C’est magnifique.

Later this afternoon, I’ll cook up a pot of green tomato chutney, using the same recipe as for almost any chutney. You can, too, with  your own left-over tomatoes still green on the vine.

For a small batch yielding four pints, chop up the fruit into one-inch chunks and add to a soup pot or small Dutch oven, yielding two quarts. Add one-half cup of chopped onions, a cup of raisins (I prefer golden raisins for their sweetness), one and one-half cups brown sugar, two cups apple cider vinegar, one-eighth cup mustard seed, a teaspoon each of curry, cumin, and ginger. Stir to blend, and heat over medium heat, uncovered.

When this lovely concoction begins to steam and bubble, turn down the burner to a simmer, stir, and leave it to do its business with occasional stirring for about three hours.

In the meantime, sterilize jars in a dishwasher cycle, and the lids in a pot of hot water, boiling for five minutes, then keeping warm on the stove.

After the chutney mixture is thickened, stir one final time. Pour into sterilized jars, up to a half inch to the top. Wipe jar rims with a damp paper towel before adding the lids. Screw rings tightly. Turn jars upside down and place onto cake racks until they cool. This is the self-sealing method not requiring a canner. Your first reward is the almost musical ping-pings of lids popping inward.

I recommend leaving the jars inverted until they have reached room temperature, then store in your pantry for up to three months, unopened. Once opened, refrigerate, or refrigerate unopened jars for long-term storage.

Enjoy the process and the fruits of your labors all winter long.

 

 

Male or Female?

Early this morning after I let out Charlie to do his business in the garden, I just happened to be gazing at dawn’s pearl grey sky when a flock of Canada geese floated pass, not in formation, but a more or less wobbly line, a good dozen, at least. They emitted no sounds, no flapping, no honking.

My cousin Charley–not the Cocker spaniel but a man–later commented that these are the males getting ready to fly south. How does he know they were male and not female?

Canada geese bear no distinguishing markings or colorings. Both genders sport black heads and necks, white patches on their faces, light-colored chests, and brownish-grey plumage, quite unlike the mallard duck whose male sports a hunter’s green head and the female plain brown.

So, how can a bird-watcher make a distinction between the two? Well, the male is about ten percent bigger than the female, for one thing, and the male honks whereas the female hinks. I’m not kidding. Look it up. While I was looking up this morning, however, these particular geese in that particular formation neither honked nor hinked. And they were all the same size.

And all of them are, indeed, getting ready for fall and winter, just as assuredly as squirrels begin to squirrel away nuts and acorns, farmers and orchardists gather their harvests for market, and I begin to think of preserving winter fruits for chutneys and cobblers and rustic pies.

Yesterday, I processed six pints of sliced O’Henry peaches for the freezer. (I was too late for my favorite Elbertas at Johnson’s Orchards.) Freezing is much easier than canning, but I do hope to put up a few jars of jam and chutney. That reminds me that I must check my pantry for cumin and curry, and restock my supply of yellow Spanish onions — called “Walla Wallas” in Washington state — purchase mustard seed and boxes of golden raisins. It’s been at least four years since I’ve made any chutneys, but I still have bottles of cider vinegars.

Peach chutney goes well with a roast pork Sunday dinner, or spooned over French toast and little sausages on a chilly morning. Tomato chutney makes a delightful accompaniment to roast pork, as well, and with lamb shanks slow cooked in wine and beef broth and plenty of herbes d’provence, and maybe a single bay leaf.

Since I neglected to grow tomatoes this year, I shall have to trek down to Imperial’s farmers’ market in the Lower Valley and stock up. There, however, I’m apt to find lovely, lumpy heritage tomatoes,  and I am loathe to damage the integrity of their poetic bumps and curves. Instead, I shall have to line them up along my kitchen window sill, as Mother used to line up her huge red beefsteaks from the garden until ready for slicing for bread and mayonnaise sandwiches for summer lunches. Maybe Imperial’s will have plain green tomatoes left over.

As for the geese, who knows which gender makes the better roast for Christmas dinner? In either case, tomato chutney would go nicely on the side, I’m sure. Peach chutney is for brunch.

 

 

 

Signs and Wonders

These forest fires worsen instead of abating in valiant onslaughts of our fire fighters. The sun has become an orange orb stuck in ashy skies, as though some artist has wrapped it in orange tissue paper to create orange shadows across the ground. Grey haze reminded me of  early fog on a September morning until brown tinge developed, right before my eyes.

We have begun wearing respiratory masks when we venture out. Some of us report fine ash falling on our heads. It’s almost like the summer of 1980 following the eruption of Mt. Helens.

Meanwhile, as Texas continues recovering from Hurricane Harvey, the Florida peninsula battens down for Hurricane Irma, said to be the worst storm ever to hit the United States mainland, at least in recorded history. Where can our cousins down there escape except mid-state and hope for the best?

Moreover, the worst sun flare since 1859 erupted yesterday, according to NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Its effects on earth are expected to hit the atmosphere tomorrow. Humans and pets are protected, but the electric grids could experience electromagnetic disturbances, the report stated.

I will sow portents in the sky and on earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon into blood. ~ Joel 2:30-31

Nevertheless, . . . see that you are not alarmed. Such things are bound to happen; but the end is yet to come. ~ Matthew 24:6b-7

And so we continue to pray and carry on.

Hurricane Roses

It’s the first day of September! Around the corner will come relief from stuffed sinuses and scratchy throats caused by weeks of smoke. Or will it? Forest fires continue to rage in the mountains between here and Mt. Rainier, with new fires spreading across Montana and Canada. A thick haze grey blankets western skies and obliterates the horizon. Sunlight struggles through orange haze. The other evening, the sun looked like a child’s red-orange crayon drawing  on grey paper.

In the mornings I escape to my courtyard and listen to the water fountain gurgle. Geraniums and large ferns continue thrive in the heat. Roses stage a late summer re-blooming spell with deeper hues, especially The Fairy bushes surrounding the armillary on its pedestal and the once little Hermosa shooting long canes beside Gertrude Jekyll as though outdoing each other. I fully expect the Red Rose of Lancaster to put on a September show, as well, to join hips already formed from June roses.

Cousin Melissa Rose is serving as this year’s president of the Dame Family Association. (The Dames of England originated in Lancastershire; the House of Lancaster color is marked by the Apothecary Rose c. 1300, thus the name Red Rose of Lancaster, distinguished from the White Rose of York.)

I once had a dolly named Rose, and another I called Daisy, when I was a young child. Both hybrid roses and Shasta daisies grew abundantly on our place, as I described in a previous post.

But–oh!–what is happening to our beautiful country? Fires ravage the West. Floods rampage southeast Texas. Another storm churns westward from the mid-Atlantic Ocean in what is turning out to be a busy hurricane year.

Hurricane Flossie that  hit the Florida panhandle in September 1956 is the most devastating storm I lived through. I had just entered high school three weeks earlier. Our “English country gardens” lifestyle drowned in floodwaters rising from rain-soaked creeks and drainage ditches overflowing their boundaries. The water seeped up through the floor boards, although these Southern country houses were built on brick supports for this very reason. Mother panicked. She shouted for us two girls to help her pull all the blankets off the beds and out of the cupboards to staunch the seepage—to no avail. The waters continued to rise to a foot or more inside the house.

My then eight-year-old sister thought the flooding was “fun.” She pretended our house was a boat, and she packed her little blue dolly suitcase for a make-believe trip on this make-believe boat. But Mother would not allow her outside in the floodwaters to accompany me on my own “adventure,” as I considered it, to try to help Daddy save the chickens. Poor things were squawking, flapping wings, piling on top of each other to stay out of the water, thus smothering and drowning the ones beneath them. I don’t know who was the more hysterical, Daddy’s chickens or my mother.

By this time, Daddy had retired and begun a business raising broilers for wholesale. We had two brooder houses. Chickens in the older house were hopeless in the flood, but those in the newer one, built on higher ground, could have had a chance with every available sawhorse set up with loose boards laid across to form some sort of roost. Daddy even had me gather up and drive as many chickens as I could up the steps to the feed loft, but they didn’t like that and kept flapping out to the feed hopper railing to roost like a row of crows. Finally, at dark, he sent me back to our house. On the way, I discovered that rushing waters had all but washed out the little wood bridge separating the main part of the estate from the west side. Only one board remained, attached as it was to the handrail affixed to sunken posts. I made my way back to warn Daddy, then waded back home.

My sister tells me she remembers “the dark and the rain and the water and the sound of your black rubber-clad feet, sloshing through the water inside the house.” The horror hit the next morning when we went out to survey those drowned chickens almost ready for market. Mother could only exclaim, “My stars, Herschel!” I think that’s all. No one else muttered a thing. We couldn’t. It’s still too hard to write about, fifty years later.

Mother’s prized rose bushes were left standing bare, thorns intact. Summer annuals, like the mint, were buried under mud. Adirondack chairs made of heavy oak had floated to the far end of the property. Only the fence kept them from floating right on down the highway to town.

That was the same flood that kept everyone home from school, especially the high school, because the highways were under water and all the creek and bayou bridges had been washed out. The school buses couldn’t run. Those of us who rode them from Ferry Pass were unexcused from our absences, in spite of telephone calls and handwritten notes from our parents. The day after the flood, the Price boy rode over on his big black stallion and offered to take me to school, on horseback. What an adventure that would have been. I would have accepted had Mother not retorted, “Oh, no you don’t!”

Congressman Bob Sikes, Daddy’s colleague and personal friend, came out to see the debacle, console us, and advise us on legal procedures. Mother served tall glasses of iced tea–without fresh mint as it was buried in muck–as we all stood outside on muddy ground. Daddy followed Mr. Sikes’s counsel and applied for Red Cross and U.S. Government “flood victim aid” to rebuild the chicken business back up, almost from scratch. Three years later, he was dead.

But Mother’s roses lived on.

 

 

 

Herschel’s Folly

HERSCHEL’S FOLLY

We called it the Summerhouse. Folks used to drive out from town to while away lazy Sunday afternoons with us. We all trailed from the main house as Daddy led us across lawns, past sun-blissed marigolds and zinnias and purple petunias, and beyond the scuppernong grape arbor buzzing with bees. Alice and I helped Mother carry linen cutwork cloths and trays laden with pound cake and lemonade and, sometimes, little glass dishes ice cream with fruit cocktail spooned over the top. The ladies giggled, “Oh, dear,” as their heels of town shoes sank into the St. Augustine grass.

One afternoon an assortment of cousins from Apalachicola—a Southern writer visiting from New York, her rather taciturn husband, and two little girls, Jeremy and Cambia—dropped by to visit Mama Nedley, as they were passing through the Florida panhandle. They brought an elderly aunt in a black lacy dress hanging to her ankles. Among such gentility, I felt gawky in my shorts, halter stop and sandals, all adolescent arms and legs. While Mama entertained her guests, Mother sent me back to the main house—for more iced tea, I think—and one of the little girls asked, “Where did the high-up girl go?”

That story got told over and over long after I outgrew the old square table where my sister and I frittered away long summer hours. We carried out sandwiches of cream cheese and green olives for lunches we made ourselves. We played endless rounds of Old Maids and Checkers, read books borrowed from the downtown library, and counted red convertibles swishing past on the highway beyond. We listened to Perry Como and Eddie Fisher on a little transistor radio borrowed from Mama until, one hot day, it smoked itself dead, smelling like burnt rubber. Alice and I shrieked, then laughed and laughed until Mother stormed out from the main house, flapping her apron. The back screen door slapped behind her.

“Hooligans!” she hollered. “What will the neighbors think?” Never mind that the nearest neighbor was at least a couple hundred yards beyond the pine woods.

During the previous winter months, Daddy designed this little screened gazebo. Many evenings he and Mr. Chavers from down our red clay road hunched over the blueprints they laid out on our dining room table. They discussed siting the gazebo under the massive old oak trees where my sister, Alice, and I would scramble like tomboys until Mr. Chavers’s workmen arrived.

I don’t really remember the weeks—months?—of construction, only the finished project. Built-in benches ran along the inside perimeter. The floor was polished green cement, not painted on the surface but swirled within the cement itself—quite an innovative idea back in the 1950s. Daddy built a square table from Mama Nedley’s old cedar chest and six tall Adirondack chairs from cured lumber milled from some of our own pines. My favorite purple Formosa azaleas, from the Southern Indica family, eventually surrounded the eight walls of screens.

One afternoon, a long black Cadillac with shark fins nosed itself through the highway gates that somebody had left open. Tires scrunched over dried twigs on the ground until the car stopped right by the summerhouse. Alice and I sat stock still and watched two swarthy men looking back at us. They murmured to each other, nodded their heads, glanced over at us again. By and by, they swung open the car doors, unfolded their bodies suited in pin-stripes, pointed wingtip shoes toward the ground and rolled out. They stretched, as though stiff from a road trip, then sauntered over to the summerhouse. I rushed to latch the screen door.

“Howdy. You folks live around here?” the stocky one asked.

They pushed back their Fedoras from sweaty black curls, leaned their heads forward and looked all around under the rafters. Merciful heavens! What were they thinking?

“That’s awright. We jesswanna see the house. Nice place you got here.”

They murmured to each other, ignoring us, then turned back to the car. Hinges squawked as they opened the car doors. One man came back and set two oranges on the doorstep, then sprang back into the car and slammed the door. Tires scrunched and spun out onto the highway, back toward town.

Mother, who had been watching from the back porch of the main house, ran out and shrieked, “Don’t you dare eat those oranges! You hear me?”

As it turned out, those men were Greek businessmen, owners of the B & B restaurant downtown. Later, after supper, Daddy told us he had invited them to drive out and look at his Folly. They planned to build one, too.

He was the “somebody” who had left the gates open to the highway.