Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ordinary Things

Three of my co-workers have birthdays this week. Our boss treated us to lunch this noon at a nice local restaurant, then back at the shop we had dessert--a lemon meringue pie I made by request.

Charlie watches early morning bird visitors. He finds the flickers quite exciting.

Teasel washing her paw.

Pebbles is on her feet more the past two days, which is good. She would like us to know that she is starving on her new diet. [Wretched Horse!]

The flickers were busy this morning. You'll probably have to enlarge the photo to get a glimpse of this one. There were four of them avidly bashing on tree trunks.

J. set down an empty carton and Charlie thinks it is his. He is not pleased that Teasel has appropriated it. A moment after I snapped this she reached out and gave him a good whack.

Charlie claims the box.
There was only a dusting of new snow overnight, less than predicted. The day came on grey and chilly, but an afternoon sun melted away some of the snow. With such an early onset of winter I shall be quickly tired of posting photos of snow!
We feel that we are in a waiting mode, a time of hunkering down, dependent to a degree on decisions that others will make.
I had to be up extra early, which delighted the cats. They have used considerable energy ushering in the stormy weather this week, so they were content to loll about after their breakfast.
At the quilt shop this is a busy time with special orders to make up and stock items to have ready for Cowboy Christmas, a huge sales event held in Las Vegas in December concurrently with "rodeo finals."
Corn chowder simmering for supper---chopped onion, bits of turkey bacon, potatoes, corn and some evaporated milk to make it creamy. It doesn't get much simpler than that!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

What Next?

Snow was threatening yesterday. By late afternoon the wind was howling and these ravens teetered in the blast. We woke to snow on the ground and continued wind, the foothills obscured with snow clouds, roads closed. Our son was planning to come over the mountain today, but phoned at the last minute asking me to check the WYDOT website. The webcams on South Pass showed a dirty grey/white blanket which obilterated all visibility. The road was posted as "closed" and the "barriers" in place to prevent any attempts at travel. I just listened to the evening weather report on Public Radio: more snow tonight and well into tomorrow for the entire state. The list of road closures was so inclusive that in this state with so few major highways it seems like traffic must be at a standstill.
I find I don't have what it takes tonight to work on the current quilt blocks or compose the several interesting blog posts which have been brewing in my mind. I've been enjoying the essays in "The Countryman Companion" sent to me on the airmail wings of friendship from BB in Wales. I read more than half of the latest Maisie Dobbs mystery last evening and will probably finish it as soon as I escape to my battered wing chair.
I had to prepare the yearly financial statement for our bank today--one of those tasks I dislike. I finished a large quilt at the shop yesterday and started today on another round of placemats. I feel justified in huddling with my books and my mug of tea and any cats that want my company!

Pebbles has been a great source of worry these past two weeks. She ate a quantity of grass that had been under the snow--which, we have learned, has a high concentration of sugars and starches not good for a horse with a tendancy to laminitis. She has had the vet. She has been confined to a small rather stark paddock. She has had the farrier. Her feed has been changed. Last evening, driven by her greedy nature, she opened the gate and helped herself to some alfalfa hay with resulting set back this morning in lameness. Blasted, BEASTLY, BELOVED horse! I was near tears of despair--and perversely I wanted to go out and kick her. I opened the window and bellowed, "Wretched horse, do you want to DIE??!!"
She had another dose of bute, was remanded to the paddock and the gate tied firmly shut. Her supply of plain good grass hay has been replenished from a neighbor's stock, since our son couldn't get across the "pass" with the hay he was meant to deliver.

Meals have been simple comfort food, easily prepared, tasty when warmed over for a second round. This was a skillet of beef, potato, carrot, onion, with sea salt, freshly ground pepper, bay leaf and a pinch of thyme.

Fresh loaves cool on the rack, another comfort. The process of mixing, kneading, rising and then the baking, has a homely familiarity.
There are those times when the mild irritations and problems of day to day living and running a business seem to multiply and must be met head on, with little chance to ponder, regroup, rest. We have considered ourselves fortunate that in a period of severe recession our debt to equity ratio has remained favorable. Still, there are many uncertainties, changes, frustrations which we are really powerless to solve.
We are less than ever assured that there will ultimately be a closing on the spec house with the young couple who are renting it. One obstacle after another has been thrown in the way of that happening. At least one aggravating situation that has loomed from a distance for months has moved in as a reality which must be dealt with cautiously, and we fear, rather expensively.
At such times, my mantra becomes, "grant us wisdom, grant us courage; for the facing of this hour"--words which echo in my mind to that grand Welsh tune, Cwm Rhondda.
We have come through various adverse situations over the years, emotional, financial, physical, stressful-- emerging, if not always victorious, still on our feet. I expect it will be the same this time. As we grow older I find I resent the tolls of energy demanded to meet reversals and obstacles.
That said, I'm grateful for the brief retreat afforded by an evening or two of simply collapsing in my corner with a good book.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Family Singing

Dan with his guitar; Mary with "Emily," her double-bass.
Dave, J. and Dan making "country music."
J. with his mother's restored vintage autoharp.

Mary, Sharon, J., Dan, Dave on a summer evening.

Kathy, Mary, J., Sharon, Dave.

I grew up as part of a family that has been making music for generations. My maternal grandmother, an accomplished pianist, played "dinner music" at the summer hotels in her youth, sometimes joined by her brother on fiddle, her cousin on banjo. Later she played in a corner of the darkened "town hall" while the reels of a "silent movie" jerked and sparkled through a drama of intrigue and narrow escapes. She provided music for church services, as did her sister, and later, carrying on the tradition, her daughter and her sister's daughters sat at piano or organ on a Sunday morning while choir and congregation raised their voices in hymns of the faith. I have likewise played piano [less often--and less skillfully-- an organ] for my own church and area congregations who found themselves temporarily without a musician.
We lived in several rooms of my grandfather's farmhouse until I was 5. I have memories of relatives coming to visit on Sunday afternoons. When a meal was finished and talk had run down, everyone drifted to the parlor where my mother took her seat before the old piano. Popular tunes from "sheet music" were tried out, followed by old familiars from The Golden Book of Songs. As the sun slanted golden shadows through the parlour's west windows, the group turned to hymns, for which they needed no printed notes or words. Faces shone, the effortless harmonies soared robustly, each voice in perfect pitch.
My Mother taught me to sing before I could read words, years before she began to unfold the mystery of the black shapes which filled the lines and spaces of a musical staff. I can't recall at what point I could look at the "notes" and hear their sound in my mind before it was struck on the keyboard. She taught music in the public schools for many years, was still taking a few private pupils for piano lessons as she entered her 80's. The last time I was with her, at the nursing home where she spent much of her last two years, we played 4-handed piano in the social room. Mother's eyesight and her memory had failed, but we played the hymns and old songs with scarecly a false note.
We had no piano for a number of years after J. and I married. We put records on the 33 rpm turntable and sang with Tennesse Ernie Ford [hymns and gospel songs] or Johnny Cash and the Carter family. We copied words onto paper and sang again with the recordings until we were confident enough to sing for others at church. We sang often when our children were growing up, especially on long winter evenings. We had a succession of old upright pianos--some better than others.
We have found folks to sing with in Wyoming. About every six weeks our friend Dave drives 2 1/2 hours from the town where he and his wife Kathy live, loading his big van with tools, air compressor, high-intesity lamps, so that he can set up in the front of the quilt shop to service and repair sewing machines. He brings his guitar and on the evening that he eats supper with us, we look forward to an hour or so of singing.
This week we had two such occaisions: Tuesday evening at our house and Wednesday evening at Mary's home. Sometimes Kathy can leave her work long enough to make the trip with Dave, adding her strong warm voice and the throb of guitar or mandolin. We sing until someone reluctantly reminds us that we all have to get up for work in the morning.
When we went to Vermont late in August for my Dad's funeral, we took an afternoon away from sadness and tasks to be done, a time to meet with my cousins "across the lake" in New York. We had never made music as a group, but we sang the old hymns that our grandparents and great grandparents sang together; three women who sing harmony seemingly plucked from nowhere, the notes heard in our heads, two of our husbands, a guitar. Sadly, we realized belatedly that no one thought to take pictures. We were too absorbed in singing--just as the generations of our family had always done.
This comment on family singing is from the Farm Diary notes of Henry Beston which end each chapter in "Northern Farm; A Chronicle of Maine."
"How pleasant to spend some time with a singing family! During my own lifetime, one of the most dismal social changes of our world has been the disappearance of singing as part of human life and the work that has to be done. People used to sing, now you scarcely hear anyone even whistle. The world is poorer for the loss. There is nothing like music for giving one a sense of solidarity, and it lightens both labor and the heart."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Formidable Woman

Sophia Davis Lewis
with grand daughter Mildred Ross
circa 1913
She was born 13 August, 1856, daughter of Almeron and Mary [Boyington] Davis. She was the 4th of their five children and is listed as Julia S. Davis in the 1860 census. She gave the name "Julia" to her own daughter but was known throughout life as Sophia. I have only the one photo of her, taken c. 1913 when she was about 57 years old.
Sophia's life had not been easy, although by the standards of the times, perhaps not unusual. Two of her older siblings died, Georgiana during an apileptic siezure and Andrew of infection which resulted from a hunting accident. News notes of the time state that he had tripped and the loaded shotgun he carried had discharged into his chest. Georgianna Davis died in 1874 age 23 and her brother Andrew Davis in 1882 at age 27.
An item in the Ticonderoga Sentinel suggests that in her mid-twenties Sophia was teaching in the tiny frame school house that once stood near the family farm. Sophia demanded of the school board whether the school house, which had burned, was to be rebuilt. There is nothing to indicate that it was, and I think that Sophia spent the next several years at home tending to her aging and ill parents. Her mother, Mary, died in January of 1885 and her father, Almeron, in August of the same year, apparently leaving Sophia in possession of the farm, her two surviving brothers both being established on farmsteads of their own. I can only imagine the bleakness of her situation, as it seems likely that both parents were slowly wasting away from TB. Her father, captured as the aftermath of a battle and taken to Libbey Prison, like so many Civil War volunteers had applied for and been denied a veteran's pension. He and his wife [my g-g-grandparents, were about 61 when they died; not old by today's reckoning.]
Less than 3 months after her father's passing Sophia married William Lewis, a foreman at the Graphite Mines. He was age 38, she was 29, very nearly an "old maid." My mother thought that they had been acquainted for a number of years. My g-grandfather Lewis's history is an elusive one. We think he is the man of that name listed in the 1880 census among the miners who stayed at the local boarding house.
Sophia and William raised three children on the farm in Graphite while William continued as mine foreman until the dreaded "black lung" claimed his health. When William died in 1913, Sophia lived alone for the next 7 years. She rented the mountain farm, bought a property on a back road nearer the hamlet of Hague. In 1920 she married a neighbor, Ed Pratt, who had also lost his spouse. My mother stated that her three children, married themselves, opposed the marriage--tradition doesn't supply their reasons. It may not have been a happy union as by the 1930 census Sophia lived with her younger son, listed as "widow" while her second husband made his home several towns away with his married daughter.
In several editions of the Ticonderoga Sentinel in 1925 the following notice appeared.
"Everyone is forbidden by the law to cut down any wood or timber or remove any from the Sophia Lewis farms at Hague, NY.
S. L. Pratt"
When Sophia issued an order she evidently meant business. My cousin Barb did some housecleaning years ago for an elderly couple and the man of the house told her of a childhood encounter. He and a friend waited until night to approach Sophia's house intent on some small Halloween prank. The house was dark and they supposed she might be asleep or away. As they stalked toward the porch, the door was flung open and Sophia stepped outside with a shot gun leveled in their direction. What she may have threatened or intended is not recorded, but for the rest of his boyhood the man made a wide detour around her property.
Another tale seems to be the stuff of folklore, but does indicate that Sophia was not a person to be safely riled. [I can imagine this "story" growing with re-telling, as heads wagged and each repetition was prefaced with the time-honored phrase.."they say..."] It seems an itinerant peddlar failed to make his usual rounds one season and someone "thought" they recalled last seeing his equipage trundling up the dead-end dirt road where Sophia lived during her widowhood. The rumor grew, that perhaps she had used the shotgun to dispatch the peddlar, burned his wagon and goods and then stuffed his body down her well! That sounds like quite a feat for a woman by then in her sixties! It also leaves the question of what to do with the horse and whether, other matters aside, she would have contaminated her water source with a dead body! The fact that such speculation was voiced does suggest that her temper was short and she was on the defensive!
My mother's memory of her paternal grandmother, whom she called "Grandma Pratt," was of a sturdily handsome elderly woman who was very deaf. When engaging her son in conversation, Sophia got close by and shouted. "My father," said Mother, "didn't seem to mind that."
Grampa Mac entertained me with two stories of his mother. While the happenings show a firm discipline, he relayed them with chuckling as though he admired her spunk.
One fall after the butchering, Sophia made a quantity of mincemeat, packed it into large enamel pans and set them, covered with several layers of cheesecloth, on a high shelf in the woodshed ell where they would stay cold until time to make the Thanksgiving and Christmas pies. Grampa Mac snitched a big spoon from the kitchen and tucked it behind the mincemeat trays. Whenever his chores took him to the woodshed, he scooped a lovely dollop of mincemeat for a treat. Weeks later when the pans were brought into the kitchen and were discovered to have goudges of mincemeat missing, Sophia's first thought was that mice had gotten at it. She soon began looking for a human culprit--and found him! I gather that the next few moments were not pleasant ones for my grandfather.
When Grampa Mac was in his teens, he "pedaled" fresh eggs, berries and garden produce to the nearby summer hotels. Sophia's fresh butter was highly prized and the hotels took all she could spare. The horse was harnessed and backed to the wagon shaft, the garden stuff harvested and washed soon after daylight; berries picked the day before had been layered in containers and lastly the fresh butter pats brought from the cool cellar and carefully placed in a cheesecloth covered crock. One morning as he swung the crock into the wagon bed, the cover came loose and a butter ball bounced to the ground. Mac quickly picked it up, looked it over and decided that it wasn't harmed. He brushed off bits of grass and gravel, prepared to restore the butter ball to its mates. His mother, who had viewed this scene from the kitchen window, burst from the back door in a fury. Her reputation, she told him, was not going to be ruined by the presentation of butter which had been on the ground!
Her three children grew to be responsible, hard-working adults. Thrifty, good-natured, dependable--but not known for light-hearted ways or any silliness. The Davis clan didn't suffer fools gladly.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Quilt That grew

Teasel admires the new quilt while I set up to put on the binding.

The huge [108" x 128"] quilt spread over the extension of my sewing desk and across two chairs, trailing on the floor.

Here it is finished and spread on our wide and high "lodgepole" bed.

Teasel is so beautiful. Her distinctive presence enhances the quilt.

Close up of the stitching pattern [free-hand] used by Sabrina, our machine quilter.
I was inspired last spring to create what a friend of my daughter would call a summer "outfit" for our bed. Customers often leave quilting magazines at the shop and I noticed this very simple pattern in one. The idea was to use up scraps of surplus fabric--something we fabric "collectors" always have. The instructions were for an 8" block. For reasons that now totally escape me, I decided to redraft it to 9 inches. I pulled out stacks of pretty floral fabrics and crouched on the floor for most of a long evening slicing strips of cloth. [I don't usually sit on the floor to rotary-cut fabric and can testify that it is NOT a sensible thing for an aging woman to do!]
I had about 2/3 of the blocks done--ridiculously simple--when I decided that I was terribly bored with the project. I stuffed the thing into the closet, then, several times, took it out, worked on it, decided that quick and easy "big blocks" are not what I really enjoy. When I began at last to lay out the blocks, I didn't like the pattern layout and added "sashing and cornerstones." By this time, the unwieldy thing was haunting me. During a fit of insomnia, I sat at the kitchen table, circled by interested felines, and drew alternate layouts, fed numbers into the calculator and thought I had a plan. The next sessions of stitching the long rows together made me suspicious that 2 a.m. is not the time for math-challenged quilt makers to plot a project.
By then I had named the quilt "Big Ugly". Gone was the conept of flower gardens laid out around a sunny yellow center, separated by paths--the way I had first envisioned the pattern working. There is about a 6 week wait while our machine quilter works her way through the projects signed in at the shop. I didn't have to look at the quilt during that time. I picked it up two weeks ago when she finished the quilting, put it in the closet out of sight until the "get it done" spirit seized me this morning. It took 2 +1/4 hours to apply the binding---that's twice around the perimeter of 472 inches, so allowing that I redid a few inches that weren't quite right, 944+ inches of stitching. The cats got tired of waiting for me to be done and curled up in the trailing wodge of fabric, disgruntled when I hauled in another length and they were spilled out.
In this house, no such thing as a quilt without cat hair.
I suppose since it is no longer summer a "winter outfit" for the bed should be my next goal. There seems to be a goodly fabric stash in waiting.

Comfort Me With Apples

Apples sliced and heaped in a pastry shell with sugar and spice, ready for the top crust.
Apple pie, which will be cut before it cools.

My Grampa loved apples. He grew up in a time when every small hill farm had its fruit trees: pears, plums, apples, the varieties nameless after generations of benign neglect. When I was growing up there were perhaps half a dozen apple trees remaining of whatever home orchard had once flourished on the west-facing slope across the road from the farmhouse. It must have been decades since any pruning or care had been given. The old trees with their scaly grey bark, were twisted, their branches awry. May brought sweet blossoms, in September the gnarled trees yielded a few small apples, most of them sour and unappealing except to worms or wasps. One tree still bore early, soft-fleshed, yellow-skinned globes and we collected the soundest of these for a taste of apple flavor weeks before the several commercial orchards in town were open for picking.
The yellow apples were too watery for a proper pie, but Grampa liked baked apples. Nothing was simpler for a young aspiring cook. Gently washed, the apples were crowded into a tin and poked into the oven of the wood range. An hour later they emerged, mis-shapen, tender, and squatting dumpily in their own juice. These were served as a homely dessert--plopped into a sauce dish, the juice spooned over and drizzled with maple syrup from the syrup jug which lived at one end of the table.
In later years, I became fussier with baked apples, carefully removing the stem and core, stuffing the center with raisins or currants, sprinkling on cinnamon. It was some years before I mastered a perfect pastry.
Once in town with Grampa for the monthly provisioning, I was surprised when passing the bakery next to the "Greek's" shop where he had stocked up on Prince Albert for his pipe, Grampa paused to look at the pies and cakes lined up so temptingly. With only a moment's hesitation, he entered with me at his heels, and stated that he would like to take a pie. When asked, "What kind, sir?" he replied that apple pie was the best for a farmer like himself.
MacIntosh and Cortlands were the stock apples grown commercially at the time, ripening in September, sweet/tart and red-skinned. It was a yearly family excursion to "pick up drops"--ripe apples fallen from the trees. We were cautioned to check them carefully as we piled them into bushel boxes and baskets. Any that were too bruised or smashed were left for the greedy yellow wasps. These apples were the short-term supply, good for a glut of pies, cobblers, or for "putting up" applesauce. For winter keepers Grampa returned to the orchard for boxes of hand picked Northern Spies, which ripened at the end of the season. These were stored in a cold back bedroom, "looked over" frequently in case one should go bad and start an epidemic of spoilage. During a spell of particularly cold weather, the boxes of apples wore layers of old blankets to prevent freezing.
These Northern Spies were the mainstay of winter eating and cooking--large, with yellow flesh and a firm texture. When I stopped at the farmhouse on my walk home from the one room school house these apples were part of an anticipated afternoon snack. School let out just before Grampa started the evening chores. He could be depended upon to trudge up from the barn, rummage out the box of Royal Lunch crackers and a wedge of cheddar. Two or three apples were peeled, the red skins slipping off in an endless spiral. Cored and sliced, the pieces were offered, turn about, on the point of the jack knife which might moments before have been used to cut the twine binding a burlap grain sack or to flick a bit of mud from a horse's hoof.
When J. and I married, his parents owned a farm in the next town from my grandfather's. It too, had its few old apple trees. Several trees were the Wolf River variety. Typically the trees "rested" every other year, but since at least one tree was usually off cycle, we could look forward to a crop of these huge knobby apples.
I have since learned that this variety was first cultivated from a "sport" noticed in the 1870's in Fremont, Wisconsin. Tradition states that a William Springer on his way from Quebec, Canada to take up land along the Wolf River brought with him apples, either purchased along the way or carried from his old home. They are thought to have been a vintage variety called Alexander. Mr. Springer thriftily saved his apple seeds, planted them along his stretch of the river, and noticed that one or more of the resulting trees produced a very large apple. [History seems to gloss over the length of time needed for these apple trees to mature from tiny seedlings!] As cultivation of Wolf River apples became more widespread in Wisconsin and Minnesota, the saying sprang up, "One apple for a pie!" As I recall, that is a bit of a stretch, but surely the pie maker didn't have to handle many apples they were so big. [During the farm years I had learned to make fine pastry, so while I rolled and fitted crusts J.'s mom peeled and sliced the apples.]
During the 1970's and '80's a greater variety of apples began to appear in New England orchards: Paula Reds, Red or Golden Delicious, Empire, McCoun---not new hybrids, but the cautious Yankee orchardists were branching out!
I continued to buy apples at the same orchard my Grampa had patronized until the owner sold out and retired. The property changed hands several times I beleive and the once bountiful orchard was neglected.
The Champlain Valley of Vermont and upstate New York is apple-growing country, and it was never far to a "pick-your-own" orchard or to a farm stand. I brought home Cortlands for cooking, Red Delicious to eat out of hand, and the Northern Spies for the winter months. Good as they always were, they were never quite as special as when passed on the point of a Barlow jack knife to be savored with sharp Cabot cheddar and flaky Royal Lunch crackers.
Nearly Perfect Pie Crust
4 cups unbleached flour
1 3/4 cups shortening
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup cold water
I egg
1 Tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice
Blend the flour, shortening and salt. Add the egg and vinegar to 1/2 cup water and whisk until blended.
Lightly stir the liquid mixture into the flour mixture until it is absorbed. Form into balls, roll on floured surface with a floured rolling pin.
This recipe was published in the Vermont Home Extension Bulletin in the 1970's. Several years ago a variation using butter in place of shortening appeared in one of the glossy "country" magazines.
I use butter-flavored Crisco, or a combination of shortening and butter on occasion. This will yield two 9" pies or, if you roll your pastry thin, there will also be enough for a one crust "shell."

Friday, October 16, 2009

Seasons Between

Early morning sun strikes the foothills to the west, turning snow to gold dust and browned grasses to dusky orange.

The cottonwood by the cabin stands in the glow of morning; its frost-blasted leaves cling tenaciously, while those on the fallen branches below are crisp and dry.

The morning sun touches the foothills before it slants down to warm the dooryard.

The pond this morning. The green leaves on these trees won't have their moment of fall glory--they are pinched and wizened.

The farmhouse [1959] "banked" against winter's snow and cold. You can see the dark lengths of tarpaper and the strips of lath nailed to keep it snug.
Afternoon temperatures the past two days have climbed to nearly 60 degrees F, although the mornings are crispy and dark. When I stepped onto the front porch this morning with my camera to record the burnished gold of the sun's reflection, the bellowing and blatting of the Black Angus cattle a mile or two away carried on the air. Sparrows were at the feeder, but not the cheerful juncos who were such a constant presence while snow covered the ground.
Arriving home from the quilt shop at 5 with several bags of groceries, I shoved the perishables into the fridge, pulled on my shiny wellies and went out to enjoy the last hour of sunshine. There were Mallards on the pond when I approached, at least half a dozen. I tried to creep up on them, but they always sense when I am near. I attempted to focus the camera on them as they rose, squawking and splashing, to wheel away over the house. I had no better luck in catching the Flicker family. They were visible in the top of their special drilled-out tree, but flew away in noisy alarm when they noticed me standing below them in the pasture.
I have always loved autumn, that brief season that defies confinment to a span of weeks on the calendar. As a girl, living next door to my grandfather's farm, I felt that I was a part of the preparations for winter, sensed the urgency of the late harvest, the need for everything to be secure and warm before the killing frosts.
Grampa planted pumpkins amongst a small stand of field corn. Hubbard squash seeds, saved from the year before and flung by the handful onto the black richness of the horse manure pile, yielded an interesting assortment of grey-blue, dark green or orange warty shapes. The pumpkins came up from the field in the bed of the horse-drawn wagon, the squash were trundled through the gate and around to the front porch by wheelbarrow, all to be laid carefully on horse blankets and tarps to cure for a few last warm days.
Potatoes were dug from the patch across the brook, pale brown-skinned treasures eagerly combed from the clinging earth after my grandfather had pulled the withered tops and loosened the soil with his claw-fingered digger. Onions were dislodged from their row in the vegetable garden near the back porch, the dried soil thumbed away before they were taken down to the cool-smelling depths of the cellar, where the potatoes already rested in big wooden bins.
Hardwood, maple, beech and ash, had been culled from the hedgerows and the woods. Now on mellow, blue-sky days the iron-wheeled Fordson tractor chuffed steadily, providing power to run the circular saw which shivered the air with its harsh screech as the men, leather-gloved, shoved the lengths of wood into its metal teeth. The biggest chunks were carted around to the cellar bulkhead to be fed by my uncle into the fire-black mouth of the furnace. Smaller limbwood for the kitchen range and the living room stove went into the woodshed off the kitchen entry, to be meticulously lined against the left-hand wall. Chunks to be split were stacked around the other walls with a space left open for the chopping block. I loved to sit on an upended butt of maple while Grampa's ax flashed in measured strokes reducing each grey-barked round to useable size. When he finished, I would stand with arms out stretched to be "loaded" with pieces to carry to the woodbox, a tidy one with a small square door on the woodshed side and a proper door from the kitchen into the cubby.
Banking the foundation of the house was one of my Uncle's autumn tasks. On one of the first really chilly days, he brought out rolls of tarpaper, insulation batts, some short lengths of roofing tin, strips of lath. A few yards at a time, the insulation and any available dry leaves, old hay or straw, were mounded against the stone and concrete foundation of the house, covered with a length of tarpaper or tin, which was then secured with a strip of lath nailed through to the bottom clapboards of the house. While the north wind swished through the last red leaves clinging to the dooryard maples, we worked our way around the east-facing wall of the kitchen ell, turned the corner to the north end of the house proper, and then, late in the afternoon, finished the west wall which ran the breadth of the old farmhouse. Heading to put away his tools, Uncle would glance eastward to Brandon Gap and utter his stock weather remark, "It's snowing on the mountains!"
I was content on those October days to scuff home from school through drifts of yellow leaves, stopping to watch the squirrels that ran along the stone walls, cheeks bulging with hickory or butternuts. Quickly changing at home to warm play clothes I hurried back to my grandfather's dooryard to sit on the west doorsill soaking in the last hour of sunlight, seeing how each day the grey bones of the trees across the brook were more visible, etched against the darker line of the woods that loomed against the reddening sunset. If the wind came up cold, I retreated to the front porch or climbed one of the hay stacks where my sister and I could rearrange a few bales, making a cavity large enough for two to sit with only our faces taking the chill as early dusk encircled the sheds and barns. The hay stack became a fort, a house, most often a stagecoach, carrying us on to the destination of supper at home, wafted there on the scent of woodsmoke, apples and drying leaves.

"October's Bright Blue Weather"

If you click to enlarge this and look left of center you will see the White Tail doe browsing beneath the old tree.

The doe and her fawn processed across the drive, past the cabin and into the front yard at dusk last evening. I didn't get a good photo of them, but they left their dainty hoof prints in the mud.

Sorry about the duplicate photo. The upload aborted twice.

A flicker siddles along the garage wall under the eaves.

Explosion of cat tail fluff.

The cat tail stand and the trees along the ditch.

Branches weighted by the snow have fallen into the pond.

October's Bright Blue Weather
Helen Hunt Jackson

O suns and skies and clouds of June,
And flowers of June together,
Ye cannot rival for one hour
October's bright blue weather;

When loud the bumblebee makes haste,
Belated, thriftless vagrant,
And goldenrod is dying fast,
And lanes with grapes are fragrant;

When gentians roll their fingers tight
To save them for the morning,
And chestnuts fall from satin burrs
Without a sound of warning;

When on the ground red apples lie
In piles like jewels shining,
And redder still on old stone walls
Are leaves of woodbine twining;

When all the lovely wayside things
Their white-winged seeds are sowing,
And in the fields still green and fair,
Late aftermaths are growing;

When springs run low, and on the brooks,
In idle golden freighting,
Bright leaves sink noiseless in the hush
Of woods, for winter waiting;

When comrades seek sweet country haunts,
By twos and twos together,
And count like misers, hour by hour,
October's bright blue weather.

O sun and skies and flowers of June,
Count all your boasts together,
Love loveth best of all the year
October's bright blue weather.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

"In New England Fields and Woods"

"The starry bloom of the asters."

Frank and Jennie Phelps

Our "neighbors to the east."

Anna Stevens Robinson reading to her husband, Rowland Evans Robinson

From the Centennial Edition of "In New England Fields and Woods"

I was blessed in my childhood to have as near neighbors Frank and Jennie Phelps of Valley Ridge Farm, our "neighbors to the east" as Mrs. Phelps would have said. The Phelps' home was a gracious one with a welcoming side porch, a vast comfortable kitchen, a dining room with bay windows which looked out onto a clump of yellow roses, a parlor with an upright piano which I was invited to play, even when my skills left something to be desired.

The "Phelps Folks" read widely and they read aloud with enjoyment and clarity. They held membership in the Rowland E. Robinson Memorial Association and attended the yearly "Rokeby Meet" at the North Ferrisburgh, Vermont home of the late Robinson family. Frank Phelps [we children called him formally by both names] was often asked to select and read a Robinson sketch or chapter as part of the afternoon's program. Many of the "stories" were written in dialect. One of the characters was "Antoine" who "spoke" in the heavy French-Canadian accented English familiar to any of us in the Champlain Valley. Others used the form of speech which was colloqial in the 1800's in Vermont and New Hampshire.

I found reading these stories heavy going at the time. I have owned a copy of the Centennial Edition of "In New England Fields and Woods" for many years and have opened it with a new appreciation of Robinson's nature writing. I hope you will enjoy "October Days" from this collection.

October Days

R. E. Robinson

"Fields as green as when the summer birds caroled above them, woods more gorgeous with innumerable hues and tints of ripening leaves than a blooming parterre, are spread beneath the azure sky, whose deepest color is reflected with intenser blue in lake and stream. In them against this color are set the scarlet and gold of every tree upon their brinks, the painted hills, the clear-cut mountain peaks, all downward pointing to the depths of this nether sky.

Overhead, thistledown and the silken balloon of the milkweed float on their zephyr-wafted course, silver motes against the blue; and above them are the black cohorts of crows in their straggling retreat to softer climes. Now the dark column moves steadily onward, now veers in confusion from some suspected or discovered danger, or pauses to assail with a harsh clangor some sworn enemy of the sable brotherhood. Their gay-clad smaller cousins, the jays, are for the most part silently industrious among the gold and bronze of the beeches, flitting to and fro with flashes of blue as they gather mast, but now and then finding time to scold an intruder with an endless variety of discordant outcry.

How sharp the dark shadows are cut against the sunlit fields, and in their gloom how brightly shine the first fallen leaves and the starry bloom of the asters. In cloudy days and even when rain is falling the depths of the woods are not dark, for the bright foliage seems to give forth light and casts no shadows beneath the lowering sky.

The scarlet maples burn, the golden leaves of poplar and birch shine through the misty veil, and the deep purple of the ash glows as if it held a smouldering fire that the first breeze might fan into a flame, and through all this luminous leafage one may trace branch and twig as a wick in a candle flame. Only the evergreens are dark as when they bear their steadfast green in the desolation of winter, and only they brood shadows.

In such weather the woodland air is laden with the light burden of odor, the faintly pungent aroma of the ripened leaves, more subtle than the scent of pine or fir, yet as apparent to the nostrils, as delightful and more rare, for in the round of the year its days are few, while in summer sunshine and winter wind, in springtime shower and autumnal frost, pine, spruce, balsam and hemlock, and cedar distill their perfume and lavish it on the breeze or gale of every season.

Out of the marshes, now changing their universal green to brown and bronze and gold, floats a finer odor than their common reek of ooze and sodden weeds---a spicy tang of frost-ripened flags and the fainter breath of the landward border of ferns; and with these also is mingled the subtle pungency of the woodlands, where the pepperidge is burning out in a blaze of scarlet, and the yellow flame of the poplars flickers in the lightest breeze.

The air is of a temper neither too hot nor too cold, and in what is now rather the good gay wood than green wood, there are no longer pestering insects to worry the flesh and trouble the spirit. The flies bask in half torpid indolence, the tormenting whine of the mosquito is heard no more. Of insect life one hears little but the mellow drone of the bumblebee, the noon-tide chirp of the cricket, and the husky rustle of the dragonfly's gauzy wing.

Unwise are the tent-dwellers who have folded their canvas and departed to the shelter of more stable roof-trees, for these are days that should be made the most of, days that have brought the perfected ripeness of the year and display it in the fullness of its glory."

Reading Robinson's descriptive prose, nostalgia takes over. I see each color, inhale the scents of a ripe October day in Vermont. In particular I think of walking through the woods of maple and beech on an overcast day when all the color is concentrated in the gold and scarlet canopy overhead and a small wind soughs through the tree-tops, while all on the forest floor is still.

Rowland E. Robinson's books are available again, at least in the US. If you would like to learn more about him, follow the link below.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Too Early Winter

It warmed up enough for icicles to drip near the back entry and from the front porch roof.

Teasel gobbled her "tea" and finished up for those who were hesitating. She is now sleeping off her excesses, opening a bleary blue eye when I suggested that she has over-eaten and considerably "stretched" her stripes.

The Flicker's tree

Juncos bouncing under the bird feeder.

This one has a pink-gold blush on the sides which suggests it is an Oregon Junco. We may also have the "slate-colored" race here or variants of the two groups.

Dirty icicles still hang from the truck, which has been inside the garage since our return on Friday afternoon. The running boards are treacherously ice-covered.

I hung out towels on the porch line, had to put them in the dryer to finish.

The cats have become bored with the misty landscape beyond the windows and decided in the wee hours of Friday morning to do some landscaping of their own. Prime suspects are the kittens, Jemima and Chester, probably encouraged by their father, Charlie.

Another morning wrapped in grey snow clouds. A half-hearted sun struggled through for a few hours then gave up and retreated. There has been no wind today, but it is raw with a penetrating chill more suitable for January.

The juncos have come early to the feeder. We haven't usually seen them until later in the season. These bouncy small birds have the common name "snow birds." They are in the general classification of "Dark-Eyed Juncos" and may be a variant of the Oregon Junco. Several of them flew against the dining room picture window yesterday leaving tiny imprints of feathers, and one fell to the ground its neck broken. I moved it this morning, feeling a bit sad at that loss of cheerful life. I'm sure had it been a starling I wouldn't have spared a moment's grief.

A flicker landed on the log wall of the garage, braced itself and whanged its long black beak against the wood, but flew off when I inched my way through the mud with my camera. I have been seeing a crowd of long-billed mottled birds which wouldn't stay still long enough for me to get a good look. Grandson D. came in this afternoon and announced that they are the flicker's "babies"--mottled adolescents. He has just returned to say that the flickers are lodging in the dead tree at the far side of the small pasture where the irrigation ditch loops. As we watched the bobbing and pecking of the juncos a pair of Mallards coasted toward the pond. At the last moment they noticed the skum of ice coating most of surface, wheeled around the open end and landed with a splash in the cold water.

As dusk creeps in, a few flakes of snow are twirling gently on the moving air, the tops of the foothills are disappearing in a wrap of cloud-cloaked white. The nearer landscape is an expanse of snow, save along the ditches where mud and spent brown grasses weave a wide swath. Against this monochrome the trees stand out, broken branches hanging, in a dry rustle of green, dull gold and bronze.
There are good pictures of several "races" of juncos in the slide-show at this link.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Small Excursion

Snow and slush from the road froze into this odd starburst formation on the trucks' hubcaps.
J.'s photo
Sand hill cranes and geese. Note the height of the cranes.

Approaching the Wind River Canyon, the mountains lost in snow clouds.

There are a series of three closely spaced tunnels blasted through the rock.

Our destination was a large second hand shop in Thermopolis, Wyoming. Bernie the Cat minds the shop and is bored by the blandishments of customers. Bernie has polydactyl paws, a trait more often seen in cats from the New England area.

This rock chimney stands at the edge of a high rock wall. [There was no hint of blue in the sky--that coloration is the tint on the top of the windshield.]

The Wind River flows through the narrow canyon. Outside the town of Thermopolis the same waterway becomes the Big Horn River.

A railroad track runs along the lower edge of the rock face. The small dark rectangle is the entrance to a tunnel.

Sand hill cranes and Canadian geese forage in a corn field outside Riverton.

The cranes were involved in flapping territorial confrontations.

Canadian geese in the snow covered field.

J. has decided that we should rent the guest cabin as a source of income. It will likely be on short-term lease. It is a rustic cabin and small, but has a kitchenette, bath with shower, a porch that looks out on the pond. It seems that renting it with furniture in place will give us the best options. We combed the storage shed for extra pieces, picked through the high-priced junk in a local second hand barn, and then remembered the shop in Thermopolis where we picked up some decent items several years ago.

It hardly seemed the day for a journey, even the 65 or 70 miles involved. [Trips in the interior west are more often measured in the hours to get there on a good day than by acutal miles.] Morning dawned with dirty grey skies and softly falling snow. J. did some errands and then announced that we needed to be on our way.

The Wind River Canyon is an interesting 14 mile stretch of road on the route to Thermopolis. The highway plunges and swoops between massive rock walls following the curve of the river. On a blue sky day the views are inspiring and there is the chance of seeing big-horned sheep, deer or antelope. Small black ducks swim year round in the swift boulder-strewn waterway. Today on the higher places snow coated the blacktop and clumped icily against the windshield wipers. As we drove into lower levels the snow changed to sleet, rain, then back to sticky flakes and the landscape was a blur of dirty woolen mist.

We stopped for a less than memorable lunch on the edge of town. [Tea made with water barely hot, fried chicken that was cold in the middle!] Later in the day, apparently mulling this, J. announced that eating out isn't always a treat!
We pulled up in front of the second hand emporium, glad to find that it hasn't closed up shop as so many places have recently. I had almost forgotten the cat who rules over the establishment and has the run of the store and its back rooms. The street level has furniture, old sewing machines, crocks, salvaged sinks, an interesting hodge-podge. The lower level has a corner for books, racks of clothing, shelves of china, toasters, crockpots, kitchen oddments.

I spotted an oak end table and claimed it to replace the "shabby-not-so-chic" one in front of our dining room picture window. J. found a nice set of hoop-backed chairs for our dining table, a small base cabinet which he can fit with a top for the cabin, a small desk. Bernie the Cat followed us from one cluster of furniture to another, stalked across a china hutch, bounded down and sat with twitching tail beneath a table when I attempted to make friends. [As J. said, perhaps his personality isn't suited to being chatty with customers all day!]

Our selections made, J. began to load the items into the truck, while I scooted across the street to a quilt shop. I make a quick reconnoiter of the shop--which has recently changed owners--then settled to choose gifts for my co-workers who all have birthdays at the end of the month.
It was a sloggy trip home and when he backed down to the cabin to unload our finds, J. discovered that the slush of the road had spun and frozen into an icy starburst. Coming into our house we were greeted by the cats, with the reminder that it was past their tea time. They sniffed suspiciously at the wet chairs which J. set on the kitchen floor, swished their tails as we wiped off the snow and then turned on the electric kettle.
Darkness came early, snow swirls, silent and unstoppable. The pair of great-horned owls perched briefly in the big cottonwood before floating off through the gloaming, ready to begin their night's hunt. We huddle, caught in this too early winter. This weekend we shall have to sand and paint furniture, give the cabin a final cleaning. I don't relish sharing the dooryard with a stranger, but who knows--maybe he won't be too bad.

Hmmm--wondered where that photo had landed. I am NOT going to mess with removing it at this hour of the night. Given my computer skills the whole post would disappear!