Casaubon's Book

in High Summer

We shared two cherry tomatoes this morning, the first ripe ones of the year, and that, to us, is the proof we’re fully into high summer. If I don’t pick the zucchini every day, I’m sorry. The weather is hot and sultry, the apricots are close to ripe and the peaches are following. The boys drown in fruit every day – it is the one thing I can’t say no to. The fireflies sparkle like fireworks. The kids live in the creek and under the sprinkler, and seem to stretch out daily, getting taller, stronger, learning new things. Tonight we’re headed to a baseball game (local minor league) – what more perfect summer evening activity is there? Without precisely planning to, we are replicating the idyllic American farm summer of nearly everyone’s childhood dreams. Even if you didn’t live it in your youth, you know this somehow.

The calves have moved from being wobbly babies to young cattle, busy at the important work of grazing. Most of the summer crop of babies are born – seven so far, Midori, Amaretto, Margarita, Tequila, Kahlua, Grog and Stout. Only Selene and Calendula are left to kid in the next week or two. The pregnant goats waddle crankily in the summer heat, ready to be over with this nonsense, while the new moms call anxiously back and forth to their little ones.

The first crop of pickling cukes has turned to jars of pickles, the second is fermenting in buckets. The blueberry jamming will start this weekend. The raspberries have been coming in for weeks, but I never get any – the boys regard our plentiful canes as their own private snack bar. Raspberries, what raspberries?

The boys grow lean and strong on summer the way goats fatten on browse. Their knees are always scabbed, they are nearly always dirty, but it is rich, healthy dirt, like the best soil. They grow like zucchini in wild excess. The younger boys earned their pocketknives at the end of June, and I watch 7 year old Isaiah cut the twine on a bale of hay or carve a stick to a point. Asher lifts a full water bucket and staggers to the goats with it. Simon tells me airly that this year he can help me load hay, and is strong enough to lift a bale. “Feel my muscles!” they beg, and I do! Eli cracks 5’5. Simon masters lighting a fire with a flint and steel “I can show you how, Mom.” He’ll have to – I never could do it without the magnesium.

Dinner makes itself. Take some sweet corn and tomatoes (the farm stand in the valley has plenty already – they are always 10 days ahead of us or more), a sprinkle of basil, the last of the snap peas, some sliced zucchini… there’s so little that is needed after that. Don’t know what to make? A vast salad of mixed greens and herbs, into which go what you have – some new goat cheese, crumbled, a couple of handfuls of blueberries, a hardboiled egg, tiny new carrots, cukes, a fresh pulled beet… Sprinkle with flower petals – sweet daylilies, cucumber flavorted borage, licoricey anise hyssop, bergamot flavored bee balm – and devour.

Ravenous boys and adults will eat anything fresh and delicious, particularly if they pick it themselves. Asher gnaws on a raw zucchini – I wonder who taught him that, and taste it. The Costata Romanesco zucchini are delicious raw! The livin’ really is easy.

And not. There’s so much work to do on the farm in summer. Move fence and animals. Barn the hay. Pull the weeds, scythe the grass, put up the blueberries, ferment the cucumbers, fix the gate, make cheese, feed the calves, move the chicks, pull the bolting bok choy, dry the herbs, make the tinctures, cut back the tansy, move the rabbit tractor, side dress the kale, transplant the last broccoli crop, and always, always look ahead. Because even though it seems on these long, hot days that it will always be summer, winter is coming – darkness and cold are on their way and the more summer we can contain in jars, the more growth we put on the animals with fresh grass, the better we prepare, the better the living will be when it isn’t quite as easy.

Everyone knows this, not just us. There is a purposefulness in all this biology – or so it seems. “Eat, darling, winter is coming” say the mother goats. “Outside and scratch – the grasshoppers won’t always be here” calls Mama hen to her babies. It is fanciful, of course, but true as well – they know, we know that these days can’t last.

The kids know it too – they revel in summer, and are mostly old enough to know that it won’t always be like this. Brown like nuts, they hurry to make the lists of the things we want to do yet. Can we build a tree house? Can they climb to the top of the hill in the woods all by themselves to pick blackcaps? Can they follow the creek back a whole mile? When is the fair? When is camp? When are swimming lessons? When does Daddy go back to work? When does the pool close for summer? Will there be time for everything?

We’re not there yet, of course and we mostly live in the present, but they know that August is close, and then as August winds down, so will the summer idyll. Not into winter yet – fall is our favorite season with cooler weather and the delights of harvesting. We’ll be ready for pumpkins and apples by then, for new backpacks (ok, well, new-to-them, anyway) and crayons, for days at the creek when you don’t want to be in the water, just nearby, for colored leaves and busier schedules. There won’t be quite so much time to just pick berries or climb trees. We’ll be ready for butchering and getting wood in and the rest. But it is impossible to live on a farm without seeing the cycles of the year and nature come ’round and ’round and always be thinking about what’s next.

You have to. The beets that will nourish us in the fall have been seeded. I’m thinking about when the spinach and arugula crops for overwintering will go in, now that the turnips and kale are set. When best to plant the broccoli for late fall – it doesn’t love the heat, but it has to go in at the end of July. A fall pea crop is always a challenge – but hey, worth a shot! The meat birds for fall arrive any day now, and we count weeks for butchering dates. We must build more rabbit housing for growing out the young ones – they’ll be ready soon and will be butchered in September. Time to think about breeding dates for next year and where the garlic will go. Right now all is lush and abandoned with endless hours of light and infinite heat, but the hours and the heat will gradually decline – the thing about being at something’s peak is that the slide is downwards.

I don’t mind, though. Autumn has never looked depressing to me, as it did to Keats. The Jewish year begins in autumn, and that always seemed right to me – everything starts anew, refreshed by the cool breeze. And in truth, who could keep up this pace all year ’round? Almost all places have a quiet season, whether it is the heat of summer when little grows, too hot, too dry, or the cold of winter when the ground is frozen. By the time the jars have been filled and the treehouse built, the salamanders caught and released a thousand times, by the time corn is no longer new and you long for pumpkin and hearty things, well, it is time.

We live looking forward. We turn to the next season as the work we do now itself lays the groundwork for the fall, winter and spring crops that we will subsist upon. We watch the boys grow big and strong in summer, envisioning the next year and the they next as they mature. We live looking back, remembering as I pull this crop of bolted lettuce the cold, wet spring day I transplanted it. As each goat delivers, we recall the February day that I released does and bucks to their mutual delight, and always cannot but remember the summer farm childhood we all lived or dreamed of. We live in the moment, delighting in the full milk pail, the first harvest, the sweetness of berries, the warmth of the sun, the cold beer in the shade, the first time the boys use their pocketknives or climb to new heights. At high summer, more than at any other moment, past, present, future come together and simply are. The days are so long, they seem to be infinite. We know it is merely an illusion, but we revel in summer, stripped of limits, timeless and beautiful.

Sharon

Comments

  1. #1 Andy Brown
    July 19, 2011

    “In summer, the song sings itself.” (William Carlos Williams)

  2. #2 BinJabreel
    July 19, 2011

    Holy crap. I think I might’ve just teared up a little.

  3. #3 nancy brownlee
    July 19, 2011

    What a nice post- made me quite nostalgic for my days as a yound mother with a big garden and all those dirty little boys- I have a treasured memory of my youngest son, toddling Andy, dressed in only a sagging diaper as he picked and ate his way down a 50 ft row of snow peas. He’s 31 now.

  4. #4 Anna
    July 20, 2011

    As a counterpoint to Nancy, I think this piece might help me through the sometimes heart-rending anticipatory nostalgia I already feel for my 15-month-old daughter’s babyhood/childhood/youth.

    Thank you!

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