I’m trying to take the time in my life to rediscover ancient wisdom, such as that found in “Aesop’s Fables” and in conversations with my elders, most importantly my mother. Perhaps during the upcoming fallow season, I will reread one fable each day. Time will tell. At the same time, I’m trying to learn new lessons, from family and friends of all generations. I savor the lessons my daughters teach me with special satisfaction.
The Library of Congress provides a beautiful digital version of these timeless stories along with rich illustrations at Read.Gov. “The Ants and The Grasshopper“ came to my mind while we are scurrying around here bringing in the harvest to can and freeze and preparing the house for autumn. Autumn, we agree, is our favorite season here, but that might change from year to year, and from occupant to occupant of Red Oak House. “There’s a time for work and a time for play,” says the fable. Are you an ant or a grasshopper or some combination of the two in balance some years and out of balance others? Have you learned the lesson of the fable? Speaking for myself, I have to relearn these life lessons on a regular occasion, because I am, after all, a mere mortal.
I was raised by humble and hard-working folks who understood this lesson and lived by it. Potlucks, branding parties, family celebrations — work and play intermingled and was shared by everyone of all ages and abilities. We had no servants — well, there were some “hired men” in Slope County in the years when a small place could afford to pay someone for jobs during the “busy season” of haying and combining. Roll up your sleeves and help! “All hands on deck!” “Many hands make light work,” says my mother.
At this time of the year, my parents were making plans to bring in a large potato harvest (from a field we would have spent spare time in the summer hoeing and removing potato bugs by hand) and we would stay home from school that harvest day, no matter how committed they were to our education. We always kept a close eye on the calendar and knew if we did not work we would go hungry. There was a reason why opening day of deer hunting season became a day off of school.
We raised and butchered our own chickens — my Mama Crook could grab a chicken and wring its neck in a flash and in an hour or so put that chicken on the table to feed her extended family. At the Slope County place, once we had a large freezer, it was more likely to be the “guys” would go outside (after a meal of scrambled eggs and pancakes) and proceed to chop off the heads while we watched and made ready the big boilers inside on the wood stove and sharpened the knives, a full day of plucking and scalding and cutting ahead, while the myriad other chores continued outside. At the end of the day, there would be corn on the cob and new potatoes from the garden served with the fresh chicken that had been reserved for that meal and some tomatoes if we were lucky. (My father stubbornly grew tomatoes wherever we lived and for some reason preferred his tomatoes peeled, as his mother had done for him, I suppose, or maybe he just didn’t like the skin much.) And then dishes to wash and at it again the next day with berries to pick, jellies to make, bales to haul, jobs in town to help make ends meet (my mother was a nurse at the Bowman Hospital) and so on.
Back to the fable. When the work is done, there is time for music and merriment and games and celebration and the World Series. Fall dinner gatherings are a tradition that center on the harvest and, I fear, a tradition that might go by the wayside during the 2020 pandemic. I sure hope that a vaccination brings back the conviviality that is so vital to our lives. I also hope that my housemate can go back to fishing and hunting with his pals, both to put food on the table and to get him out of my hair now and then. I’m sure he hopes for this even more than me. This year, he will have to adjust for perhaps the first time in his life to hunting without a dog. (We have agreed to not have a dog anymore.)
Meanwhile, we put our shoulder to the chores we have here and make plans for the fallow season to come. We dig around in our closets for winter shoes and clothes; we sort the piles of reading material and lay in a supply of firewood and kindling, and our diets shift to roasted food more than grilled and chilled.
When we pause to rest, we watch the migration of birds and butterflies through our yard and think about getting the bird feeders staged in a way that might at least occasionally thwart the pesky (but entertaining) squirrels and rabbits. We watch the pollinators with whom we share the space and acknowledge that with the arrival of yellow jacket season and cool temperatures, we won’t be eating outside as much as we have been. We put away the patio umbrella and pull out the patio firepit and anticipate some quiet evenings before we retreat indoors to our space we heat with the woodstove.
I’ve been cutting back perennials, digging and rearranging some, and giving away extras. In some future year, I may have a perennial sale in the driveway, but it was not in the cards this year. I get joy in giving these away so all is good.
The hummingbirds have been visiting the bright annuals on the patio as they move through headed south, and the Canada geese are overhead. Soon we will hear the large flocks of all sorts of birds here in the Central Flyway, many in the night, following the ancient pathways including the Missouri River. And I try to spend as much time with my mother as I can, despite the lockdown, listening to her stories and talking of the news of the day, sharing with her what I’ve learned and hearing what she has learned and keeping her up with the happenings of her grandchildren.
Because of the pandemic, we have not been eating out and have not been able to easily deliver fresh food to Mother, nor have our family at our table as frequently as we might. I especially miss not being able to have Chelsea over for a meal now and then.
While we are pretty experienced and seasoned cooks and live where delivery is abundant, we have no complaints. We even got creative with the most recent birthday celebration and cooked our own fresh lobster (knowing of the carbon footprint to have that lobster delivered to North Dakota). It was a rare treat and birthdays only come but once a year. All in all, we are pretty frugal and practical and aspire to lifelong learning.
Jim, who holds the vegetable portfolio here, starts to talk about planting garlic and how to avoid problems with next year’s vegetables. Most of the problems this year were caused by the drought. We are thrifty with our water and nature was stingy with the rain in 2020 here in our part of the world.
Soon enough it will be time to clean the fallen leaves from the gutters and put the hoses in storage. Perhaps we will squeeze in a quiet fall camping trip somewhere nearby while we accept that gatherings might need to be virtual for some time to come, for everyone’s sake. Fortunately, we have the tools to do that and there isn’t much point to getting down-in-the-mouth about our lives being topsy-turvy. We may as well strive to be as practical as our ancestors.
Why risk a virus that strains the social fabric more than it is already strained? Why put loved ones and the health system professionals more at risk? It is a luxury to ask these questions, and we do not take that for granted. Some days we figure it out, and some days we are flummoxed.
For today, we savor the rain that has fallen all day and given me time to write this entry of Red Oak House Garden Notes.