Casaubon's Book

Something told the wild geese

It was time to go,

Though the fields lay golden

Something whispered, “snow.”

Leaves were green and stirring,

Berries, luster-glossed,

But beneath warm feathers

Something cautioned, “frost.”

All the sagging orchards

Steamed with amber spice,

But each wild breast stiffened

At remembered ice.

Something told the wild geese

It was time to fly,

Summer sun was on their wings,

Winter in their cry. – Rachel Field

I’m trying to get back to normal – even though things aren’t quite normal here. In the last three weeks my blogging home has melted down twice and my physical home is up for grabs and I admit, I’m a bit discombobulated. But I’m also laying down the question of whether we should move, and putting it in Eric’s hands. My husband both loathes moving more than I do and also worries about money more than I do – so in the end, I think this is going to come down to Eric’s gut feeling – does he fear and loathe moving less than he fears and loathes financial instability? Honestly, this is a question only he can answer.

For myself, I’ve actually sort of settled down on the subject and come to the conclusion that we can both make a go of it here and also make a good go of it there. That is, both options are ok with me – if I’m dissatisfied with the community here, I can work harder at it, and see if I can get more cool people out this way. We can rent out the in-law apartment to make the house more affordable. And while I worry about the tax burden and the costs, I’ve been poor enough in my life that we’d have to just be a lot more unstable for me to freak out. I’m content to make it work here, and I also think there are virtues to trying to make it work there – and I’ll do either one. What *I* don’t deal well with is uncertainty – but this isn’t my decision in some way – I could push Eric one way or another, but I don’t want to live with him when pushed ;-), so honestly, it is in my husband’s hands.

So I’m starting to focus back on my daily life – and there’s certainly plenty to do there. Bazillions of herbs to harvest and dry. Plenty of vegetables, gardens to weed, quarts of peach salsa to can. The shelves are filling up and I have to clean and reorganize the kitchen – and that kind fo work will matter whether we stay or go.

And like the wild geese in my oldest, Eli’s favorite poem, I can feel the tang of winter coming. When you live on a farm, and when you eat with the seasons, winter is always coming in a way – I order my Thanksgiving turkey in February, order the seeds potatoes for my Chanukah latkes just a month or so after we finish eating them, thin our autumn’s apples in June, plant the beets and kale we’ll eat in December in July.

Round and round and round we go, and we we stop we always know. It isn’t like things really stop in winter – there’s plenty to do in the quiet times. But at some point the last of the brussels sprouts and winter greens will be done, the hens will take their annual sabbatical from laying, and the food we have will be the food we eat, with light and judicious purchasing from things far away. Because we want to keep this light and judicious, we are always looking at the abundant plenty now with ideas of how we can put more summer into our pantry for the short, cold days ahead.

There is a moment in summer, usually about halfway through – about now, really, when I begin to feel that tang of winter. It isn’t caused by anything in particular – it is hot and humid right now, no change in the weather to shift my worldview. I’ve been canning and preserving since June, so the pickles and jams aren’t the reason. The hay has been cut for a while now, and the animal’s winter feed has been on our mind since June too. No, it is something intangible, faint, hard to identify, but real. Something is telling me to move my always-thinking-forward cyclical life into higher gear – perhaps an instinct, perhaps a habit born from a life of back to school planning – who knows. But it is time – not to go, but to recognize that steaming amber spice is a transient, passing thing, to be loved, held onto, preserved.

I don’t have to do this, of course – I can buy my thanksgiving turkey at a store, buy apples weekly at the same place. I don’t have to change my diet from season to season – although the tastes and nutritional value and price will change, I could just keep on eating and doing the same things day after day.

I don’t want to, though. Besides the fact that my body craves what is coming, and gets frustrated with the good-looking, empty tasting aseasonal alternatives, those choices come with costs I don’t want to bear. Every time I spend a dollar on food, I vote for what kind of food system I’m going to have – and I want to vote for what I want to see more of. My neighbors with farms can’t provide me with strawberries and tomatoes in February – so if I’m going to vote for them, I’m going to eat those things sparingly – or not at all.

At the same time, the lush abundance of summer in the Northeast is so overwhelming that without a serious commitment, food would go to waste, which seems to me a loss and a sorrow, when I know I will want it so badly in the cold. I can’t eat every zucchini, eat every berry on the bush – we give it away, we share with friends and neighbors and the food pantry, and still, there is more. This plenty, glorious organic excess, produced in tandem with nature would be lost in part if I didn’t put some of it away for winter. And it simply isn’t that hard to do – the returns are so vast, the meals that I’ve done the primary labor for in summer, the short winter evenings that can be made longer by a dinner half ready, and fresh from last summer’s heat, are worth it.

This is what human beings have done for almost all the time in human history that we have abided in cold climates. I don’t have any idea how much that history is bred into my bones – all I know is that like the squirrel who gathers more acorns and the bear that grows fat with berries, I can feel the whisper of frost. And there’s something energizing and invigorating about that call, that sense of instinct taking over.

I’m not really sure where I will winter – what nest I will crawl into, what fire I will sit before. But I know enough about my cold and pleasant place to know that every taste of the abundance of summer will be welcome, every bit of heat in a jar will be beloved when the cold seeps in the cracks and the quiet time begins. Summer sun is on my back, but winter is in my dreams – and hands.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Sue
    July 29, 2010

    I started feeling it about a week ago. I think when full summer is finally here, and the garden is going bonkers. That’s when I feel it. I start thinking about putting it all up, and wanting to wait…then I remember. Summer is just a fleeting thought here in our corner the world.

    Sue in Maine

  2. #2 tariqata
    July 29, 2010

    Yes.

    I live in a very, very urban area but I still do a lot of canning and preserving, and I’m definitely feeling the itch to start getting ready for winter. Mid to late July is always when I start to realize that summer is (slowly) winding down.

  3. We’ve been feeling this all summer, since it has never really warmed up here. Fruit trees are barren due to the cold, wet spring, and the garden is a month behind, and now the days are getting shorter…much too fast for me.

    Instead of thinking of a warm season glut, I am worrying about the woodpile. Winter will be here soon.

  4. #4 Greenpa
    July 29, 2010

    “Eli’s favorite poem”

    Eli has excellent taste.

    We need to replace our wood cookstove this year. Started working on it 6 days ago.

  5. #5 Greenpa
    July 29, 2010

    “perhaps an instinct, perhaps a habit born from a life of back to school planning – who knows”

    We have a good indicator here; the “autumn crickets”. We hear crickets and katydids all summer; but at the far end of summer another group of crickets kick in. Quite distinct from the earlier sounds; a solid chorus with no breaks. Not annoying, quite pleasant. They continue until a hard freeze; so it’s usually August, September, and most of October; a solid association with autumn.

    They started singing- about 6 days ago.

  6. #6 Zuska
    July 29, 2010

    This:
    And like the wild geese in my oldest, Eli’s favorite poem, I can feel the tang of winter coming. When you live on a farm, and when you eat with the seasons, winter is always coming in a way – I order my Thanksgiving turkey in February, order the seeds potatoes for my Chanukah latkes just a month or so after we finish eating them, thin our autumn’s apples in June, plant the beets and kale we’ll eat in December in July.

    is a very lovely snippet of writing in a very lovely and poignant and true larger post. Just that one line – “winter is always coming in a way” – ah.

    Thank you for this, and for reminding me why I haul my ass out of bed early every Saturday to get to the farmer’s market, to give my dollars to support the local farmers and eat seasonally, and thus more pleasurably and healthily, for me and the environment.

  7. #7 vertalio
    July 29, 2010

    And yet…you can also feel next spring and summer, in the long blackberry canes and the summer apple pruning, in the daffodils gone dormant and the milkweed gone to seed.
    One long never-ending dance; though our awareness of it will end, we will partake in other forms.
    No canning here this year; I’m renovating the kitchen. Very exciting, if scary. Ought to be snug come winter, though, and thick with plants. Yay.

  8. #8 Clelie
    July 29, 2010

    Hi Sharon!

    There has been a definite shift with the bees as well. The focus has moved from increasing the numbers of bees in the hive to maintaining the numbers and increasing honey and pollen stores to get through the winter. The bees are also preparing for next spring- they will be starting to raise brood just as the first plants will be flowering and well before they are going out to forage regularly.

  9. #9 k8
    July 29, 2010

    My dad says it’s the way the leaves rustle. It happened at his house about a week ago. And when he told me I wailed, “Nooooo! That means February is coming.” We are still not over last winter here in South Dakota. As my girlfriend says, “It was scarring.” But as I watch the third batch of peas come in, I know it’s going to be over soon. So I stand out in the garden on even the hottest days and soak it up for February.

  10. #10 Jennie Erwin
    July 29, 2010

    That poem has been made into a very nice piece of choral music too. I sang it a couple of times in Jr and Sr high.

    Good luck with the move decision. Never an easy one to make, and I feel for you.
    -Jennie

  11. #11 Brad K.
    July 29, 2010

    Sharon,

    The days are getting shorter. Perhaps more noticeable, is that the nights are getting longer, both the new moon and the full moon. Perhaps that change could be triggering the geese.

    But it is also go-to-seed time for Johnson grass here, in a big way, and for other unplanned flora (um, weeds, that is). Perhaps the change in nutrients from the early spring rush of sugars and proteins finally crosses a tipping point for the geese. Perhaps the geese have merely been waiting for a bountiful harvest they can follow south, trading days of grazing for the rich seeds harvested from unplanned flora . . as well as raiding agribusiness crops.

    But you have already been working and ordering for your winter garden; how could it not seem that you are halfway to making sure that extra blanket is in the car, that the emergency shovel and sand are ready in the car, and by the sidewalk? (I prefer sand for the sidewalk; it isn’t that much slower than salt or other commercial products, won’t hurt the sidewalk or poison the worms or planned flora.)

    The school changes semesters in discrete chunks. Accountants tote up “quarters” in three-month chunks as if they were equivalent and identical. Live with livestock, garden, and field, and each day unique and changes, day by day. A rainy day is a time to consider whether to defend against or collect rain or water. A windy day is a time to consider the effect on drying grass, paint, or laundry. Clouds, aggregated over late summer and fall, can portend a harsh winter (less light lets more hair grow on the horse and hairy caterpillar, “magically” letting us guess that the accumulation of depressed energy will continue, and make much of the winter seem more “wintery”). For those that work in a cubicle or office, mostly weather is an impact on commute, or leisure activities. For the rest of us, we make our plans in abundance, putting forward each as we may, according to the day we embrace.

    Doing chores in the early morning or evening lets you notice, daily, the splendor of the sky, the vagaries of temperature and temperature changes, the wind and weather, the moon – and how your critters and field and garden respond to these energies for growth or mayhem. Not only is harvest time ongoing, but winter is coming, and spring as well. The appreciation of today, as well as the place today stands in line from yesterday to tomorrow and the tomorrows beyond are precious opportunities.

    As a wise man said, “Live long, and prosper!”

  12. #12 Claire
    July 30, 2010

    For me the signal of winter coming is the surprise lily flowers showing up. I don’t know if you have them in your zone. They get leaves when the daffodils do and the leaves die when daff leaves die, but the flowers don’t come up till around the end of July. They look a bit like small pink amaryllis flowers on bare-naked stalks. When I see them, I know we’ve hit late summer. Time to get the fall crops planted, the potatoes and other abundant summer crops harvested, stored, preserved.

  13. #13 Don
    July 30, 2010

    Claire:
    I’ve never heard them called “surprise lilies” before! I’ve heard them called “magic lilies” and “naked ladies.” They’re Lycoris squamigera, and yes, they’re in the amaryllis family (as are daffodils).

    And I saw some blooming yesterday.

    For me, the end of season sign is when we start waking up in the dark at 5:30 AM. During much of May, early June, and into July, we have light at that time. Now we’re still in the dark.

    (An interesting aside; the ancient Celts divided the seasons not by equinoxes and solstices, or by average temperatures, but by day length. They therefore considered summer to be the months we call May, June, and July, because the daylight hours are longest during those three months. The Welsh name for July is Gorffennaf, which literally means “end of summer.”)

    My purple pole beans have bean pods on them! This is the first time I’ve had any success with beans. The leaves usually get eaten by bugs and they only produce one or two pods.

  14. #14 Lorrieena
    July 30, 2010

    A beautiful post. Thank you for including the poem; it’s one I’ve never read before.

    And I, too, felt winter’s breath a week ago, despite the record temperatures in our area. I’ve been drying foods and am starting to do the canning as well. No garden other than herbs since they are the only thing that will grow on the balcony, so all the produce comes from the farmer’s market. A well-stocked pantry is like an extra blanket against winter’s cold for me.

  15. #15 Julie Mason
    July 30, 2010

    It’s a conspiracy to make me (against my will) think about winter! Your post plus the fact that it’s still dark when I get up and take the dogs out at 5:00 a.m. and now AccuWeather is posting their winter weather prediction tomorrow. sigh.

  16. #16 Vville
    July 31, 2010

    Sharon, I’m wondering about the possible downsides of living in the middle of an Amish community. There are several of these communities near where I live, and while the Amish are inoffensive and neighborly, I still feel uneasy about their pre-Enlightenment worldview. Do you think you would be able to develop the friendships that you have now? Would your children feel at home?

    I admire many things about the Amish – their willingness to live simply, their and stewardship, their strong sense of community. But I don’t think I would feel entirely comfortable making a home in one of their communities.

  17. #17 Jim Thomerson
    August 1, 2010

    Canada geese around St. Louis don’t seem to know about winter. They stay around all year long, and seem content to do so. It surprised me when someone pointed out that days get shorter during summer, and longer during winter.

  18. #18 stripey_cat
    August 2, 2010

    Round here the leaves are turning in dry places (we’ve had a pretty impressive drought so far this summer), the pumpkins are swelling, dahlias are replacing sweetpeas, and the nights are drawing in. I made the obligatory “shopping days till Christmas” joke about a fortnight ago.

    Although it’s still summer, you need to be planning months ahead in the garden, so all the actual thinking I’m doing is about autumn jobs – at this point, the summer takes care of itself.