Sunday, September 15, 2013

Harvest, a gathering together

Approaching Fall

Today the sky is a high, thin blue, scoured clean by the line storms that for four days marched across the state, flooding roads, toppling trees and power lines, and ushering out what is sure to have been the last humid days of summer.  At dawn a thin ridge of pale gray cloud, the only remnant of the line storms edges the western sky, and the freshening wind blows cooler, drying the water bejeweled grasses along the road.  The wild white and purple asters are fading, their starry blossoms drooping toward the spongy ground, poised to drop seed for next year’s bloom, and the goldenrod is withered, brown at the edges of the once golden banners. Jewelweed, Queen Anne’s lace, and Joe Pye weed along the road have faded but Virginia creeper, brilliant scarlet from early frost, climbs alders and cherries, birches and poplars.   

September is moody and capricious, a mix of warm golden days that quickly give way to cold rain and the dark lowered skies that bring violent thunderstorms.   Often, we are rewarded by a rainbow in the eastern sky as the storms rush off to Canada.  We blame the cold fronts sweeping down from around the Hudson Bay, colliding with warm tropical fronts moving north along the coast, and stripping away summer. The days are cooler now, razor-sharp with the promise of winter.  This morning as we walked the dogs, the still damp gravel of the road is littered with pine cone petals dropped by raucous jays that have returned from their summer farther north and red squirrels bold little thieves that are storing up for winter.   The choke cherries are gone and along with them, the warblers and goldfinches that have fed on them the last few weeks.
  This morning as I drove to town, Canada goose families gathered to share breakfast and make travel plans in the newly mown oat fields, and at the big potato farms, workers were out servicing equipment, working in shirt sleeves in the sun, prepping to begin the harvest that grips The County. Although many schools have abandoned the harvest break – two or three weeks off in late September and early October – a few still let the students out to spend long hard days picking and sorting potatoes and rocks as dinosaur-big diggers lumber across the countryside.  Although teens are usually the only ones who still engage in the annual harvest, it is too costly to run buses just for the elementary schoolers so they too are given a few weeks of freedom in what may be the last days of warm weather before the onset of the long, dark winter.  My friend, Shonna Milliken Humphrey, herself a County girl, wrote eloquently, lyrically, and often brutally of the punishing work that agriculture is, and when I find myself picking up her book, Show Me Good Land,  to reread it every fall, I am grateful to those who grow and harvest the food that so many of us take for granted.  There is nothing easy about farming.
The whine of chainsaws and the rattle of wood being tossed into trucks echo from the forests around us, often punctuated by the sound of gunshots – an eager hunter sighting in his rifle before deer season opens.  Woodpiles sprout and grow by back doors, and empty garage bays are filled with fragrant blond maple and birch that will warm toes and souls throughout the snowy days ahead.  Dawn comes later and night arrives earlier. 

The first of September marks the opening of bear season, and guides have been out setting up bait sites and stands for would-be hunters who come north from the southern part of Maine and beyond, hoping to bag a big bear. But bears are elusive, preferring their own company to that of humans, so here they are hunted over dogs, rangy hounds with floppy ears, snared, and at bait sites. Guides and private citizens use old donuts and other food that sweet-toothed bears can’t resist to draw them to one location where hunters wait in tree stands to shoot the hapless and hungry bruins. The practices often draw broad public criticism as being inhumane and unsportsmanlike, and this year, as happens every few years, animal advocates are mounting a campaign to outlaw these practices.   
I’m not sure how I feel about this approach to hunting. On one hand, it runs counter to everything that I was ever taught about hunting, as do “heater hunters” who hunt deer from the warmth of their trucks, getting out only to stand at the side of the road to shoot a deer.  State laws tightly control bear hunting practices, and wardens are aggressive in tracking down those who don’t play by the rules, and bears are elusive, quick to run from the sight of a human.   But I also know that as people push farther and farther into wildlife habitat, and if bear populations grow rapidly, there are likely to be unpleasant encounters between man and animal.   
The cooler temperatures have us longing for heartier meals; pot roasts, mac and cheese, stews and chowders, roasted chickens.   The days of throwing something on the grill are waning fast, and before long, the house will be redolent with the aromas of roasting, baking, and stewing meals.  We quicken our steps as we go throw our own harvest.  The last of the green beans need picked, as do the shell and baking beans, and there are cucumbers for relishes and pickles, a bushel or so of corn, and onions, leeks, beets, and carrots still to be pulled and dug and tucked away for winter meals.
Drying garlic
Apples, a bumper crop this year, hang like heavy rosy pendants from the trees, and sometime in the next week or so, Bruce will take the bushel baskets and head out to pick for cider and sauce that carry us through a variety of dishes and desserts.
We lost most of our tomatoes this year to late blight, caused in part by the unusually wet summer, which rampages through the potato fields and then gets carried in on the wind and by birds to tomatoes, which are in the same family as potatoes.  We wonder sometimes if the local farmers rely too much on chemicals to control a biological condition, which is what blight is. It’s a fungus, designed to cause things to rot and recycle back into the soil, but it can have devastating effects.  Acres of potatoes sometimes rot in the fields, and the fungal spores with them. 
More and more farmers are practicing crop rotation – potatoes followed by two or three years of planting broccoli, canola, oats, buckwheat, and recently wheat – but it doesn’t seem enough.  Some enterprising farmers are opening up abandoned fields or leasing fields that have long been used only for hay as a way to begin to control the blight.  That poses a whole new set of problems in that it leaves those who raise beef or other meat animals for sale and horse owners scrambling to find good hay.
Living this far north and this far out is a near constant gamble and scramble, but it makes us resilient, persistent and adaptable, and in today’s uncertain world, those are good characteristics to have. 

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