Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Rhythm of Seasons

Spring has settled across the north, blurring the hills and fields with shades of green, muted and brilliant, each glance fitting of Monet.  Along the roadways, yard sales and fiddlehead stands have sprung up, bidding passersby to linger and buy, and on the shoulders near the .  The popples have fully bloomed and the caterpillar catkins litter the road like down; while daffodils dance in the constant breeze; trilliums bow shyly beneath the old apple tree; and dandelions bloom against the southern foundation. 
"Peeper"  Male tree frog
In the softness of dusk, peepers chirp and chorus around the vernal pools, and in the distance of the hemlock bog, a northern hawk owl woos a mate, his tremolo call echoing eerily in in the growing dark.
Northern Hawk Owl
Most evenings, there are deer browsing the greening grass, wandering to within less than sixty feet of the house. Some nights they bed down just beyond the large round bales of hay at the edge of the raspberry bed.  When they first appeared, the dogs would find them first by scent. Noses up in the wind, trails aquiver with anticipation they would swing their heads until they focused in on the deer. 
Hannah would hold the point, freezing in mid stride, but impetuous Monty, still barely a teen, would shout at them, startling the deer whose white flagged tails flashed and bounced as they took a leap or two toward the woods.  Then, they would stop, turn slender muzzles toward the dogs, large ears twitching in the twilight. Eventually, with a solid fence containing the dogs, deer and canines reached a peace.  Now when we let Hannah and Monty out, they scent the air, locate the deer and watch with wide eyes for a few minutes before beginning their business, cavorting around the pen with a toy, or settling onto a soft patch of greening grass to enjoy the warmer air.   The deer go back to grazing.
Deer watching dogs
The swallows are frenzied with courting and collecting bits of mulch hay from the garden to build nests in the four boxes we have put up for them.  They call and chirrup to each other as the swoop and dive across the sky, and a pair of flickers have taken up residence in a hollow in a dead popple at the north boundary of our land.  The harrier hawk, silent death on wings, has returned and swoops across the field in early morning and late afternoon searching for mice and voles.  Wild turkeys have spread north and a lone hen has taken over our south field.  Every day, she marches methodically back and forth across the field eating small bugs, grasses and seeds.  That she is alone puzzles us as all winter, the single tom we have seen has been surrounded by a harem of hens.  Occasionally we hear his gobble in the distance at the edge of the woods, and earlier this week, we got a brief glimpse of him as he ranged along the tree line.  We expect that eventually there will be poults following their mama up and down the field.
Hen turkey in the front yard
We have taken stock of this winter’s damage, adding dozens of repairs to the growing list of chores that will fill the long days of summer.  The blueberries and raspberries fared well, and with a little pruning should have big yields.  Lilacs and roses planted last fall in the developing memorial garden weathered the winter and are showing new green, and rhubarb and horseradish, garlic and chives are up and growing.  Our asparagus has been slow to poke up through the thick mulch, but this winter was colder and longer than most, so we are waiting patiently.  Bruce has been busy thinning the iris beds, replanting the gleanings along the cedar post fence. 
The leaves of the maples are as big as squirrels’ ears and so he has moved along to set onion seedlings and sow the first planting of peas.   Inside, zinnia, rosemary, squash, pumpkin, and cucumber seedlings stretch and turn their first leaves to follow the march of the sun across the sky.  Tomatoes are set outside during the day to harden off and brought in at night when temperatures still dip into the mid-thirties.  Soon, we will put in the beets and kale, Swiss chard and lettuce, and the second planting of peas.
Monty is quasi point at a sparrow
When we moved here, we resolved to live as independently and purposefully as we could, and so our relationship with the weather and the land is important.  To do that, we grow or make as much of what we need as we can: vegetables, quilts for the beds, presents and gifts, even furniture and toys as the occasion necessitates.  We work together and separately, moving with the seasons, choosing the chores as the day dictates.
With the coming of spring, we begin emptying the freezers, eating up the corn and green beans, Swiss chard, carrots, parsnips, and kale we still have from last year’s harvest, but our appetites have turned to lighter fare.  The grill is pulled from the shed, cleaned, and oiled and we begin with meals that are mostly cooked outdoors: grilled chicken, tiny lamb chops, boneless pork ribs.  Salads become part of our daily routine, and the first potato salad last week marked the official beginning of warmer weather. 
Onion seedlings
One of our earliest treats, along with fiddleheads of course, is dandelion greens. Unlike an increasing number of people, we don’t try to kill off our dandelions.  To do so is both impractical – eleven acres of fields – and unsustainable.  Dandelions feed bees, on which we must rely for pollinating the foods we eat.  Without bees, no tomatoes or squash or peas.  No apples from the trees, or roses blooming along the fence line. And so, our fields gleam golden with dandelions, in spite of Bruce harvesting several bushels of the young greens every year for us to eat.  We boil the greens twice, throwing in a wedge of salt pork or a few splashes of olive oil, and eat the greens hot with a splash of cider vinegar. One year, we even gathered a bushel of blossoms and made wine, which had a brassy sweetness to it, not quite worth the effort, and still the fields were gold.
Windows are flung open during the day, curtains flap in the breeze, and the stale smells of winter are banished. We bathe the dogs, rubbing them dry with thick towels while the wiggle with delight, then race around the house before we let them outside to roll in the greening grass, bask in the warming sun. The solar drier is back in use now, and decked with quilts and spreads, human and dog blankets and daily laundry that come in from the line bleached by the sun, wrinkles erased by the wind.  At night we lie down in a bed that smells sweetly of wind and sun and greening earth, and we sleep soundly, wrapped in the fragrance of the woods. 

Throughout the summer, we eat fresh from the garden, throwing together meals with what we have from the land and what we have bought from or traded for with friends and neighboring farmers, supplemented from the from-scratch essentials of local honey and maple syrup, organic flours and beans, pastas and rice. By late summer, we are harvesting and putting away quarts and quarts of vegetables, pickles, relishes, jams, jellies, applesauce, blueberries and raspberries, even a vegetable and oat frozen dog food, all grown and harvested by us.  We have placed orders for local poultry and meats from our neighbors and friends who raise livestock, and we have ordered, split and stacked the year’s wood – four cords.  Quilts and blankets are pulled from storage and hung in the sun to air.

Frying partridge nuggets
After the harvest in fall, we add ground lime, compost from one of three bins we rotate by filling them with garden trimmings, vegetable scraps, coffee grounds and comfrey leaves to the garden.  We cover it all up with hay and wait for winter to come and freeze all solid, the bulbs and seed sleeping safely through the cold dark days. Because we rotate our crops for best yields, we keep detailed charts of each year’s gardens, and plan the next from these.  With the first frost, we finish stripping the garden, dumping the dead plants into the compost, and tucking the garden in for the winter under an eight to twelve inch layer of hay.  Bruce cleans the furnaces and chimneys, tunes up the snowblower, puts away the grill and summer furniture. He cleans equipment and prepares for hunting season which yields partridge and rabbit reliably.  In fact, today, he made partridge nuggets to freeze for the grandboys who ask for them just as other children ask for chicken nuggets.  Two pounds went into the freezer today to be offered what for lunch when Kasey brings the boys over to visit.
Fried partridge nuggets
This winter was difficult, frozen in time, filled with loss and sorrow, a reliving of memories of those we have known and loved and lost.  Some days, we were so haunted by those memories, it was hard to put one foot before the other, but the reawakening of the world from cold slumber brings us renewed hope.  We gather our strength from simple pleasures, small delights and the peace of this northern land, following the rhythms of the seasons as Thoreau advised, by breathing the air, drinking the drinks, tasting the fruits of each season, sustained by the life we have chosen.
Planting onion seedlings

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