Saturday, October 29, 2011
A Clearing in the Mist
In spite of the fact that the October landscape is often wreathed in mists, I find autumn to be a season of clarity. The clarity comes in part from a sense of ease, the space to breathe, that accompanies the end of the growing season. Everything that comes with summer, whether pleasure or chore, builds together to create a sense of busy-ness that, by late August or early September, can be as oppressive as July’s humid heat. There’s the garden to weed, mulch, water, harvest, preserve, reseed…. There are trout to be caught, mushrooms to be foraged; then apples to be picked, pressed, dried, sauced. The Haggis needs reblacking, we ought to get a shed. And the city house is no less demanding.
Comes a day, after the frost, when, whatever one did accomplish from that never diminishing list, it doesn’t matter. That list is over. Did you set that extra gallon of sour dills to brine? Nothing to be done about it now, either way. When the September freeze in Connorsville brought an abrupt end to the sweet corn season, there went my chance to try Amy’s aunt’s method of preserving it; also vamoosed, the obligation to trot out the corn spoonbread recipe I’d meant to put up on the blog. Big plans to test out various methods for keeping hen of the woods mushrooms were dispatched by the September drought.
If those examples seem a little on the negative side, it may be because autumn does confront us with many scenarios of subtraction, but in what is taken away we also find benefit, and renewal—the leaves drop from the trees, but give us back the bones of our Bide-A-Wee hills, and a new sense of trees, stark and graphic, perhaps, but beautiful, too. As the corn is stripped from the fields, the last cutting of hay rolled into shining round bales, we see the contours of the land again; I take an elemental sense of reassurance from that.
On the topic of hay I could become ponderous—mainly because, while I find it utterly compelling, I don’t really know that much about it. It seems to me the most basic of crops, the least intrusive form of agriculture, almost in line with foraging. While it doesn’t occur without human intervention, still it seems a nearly pure form of the alchemy of soil and sun that drives the planet and all life thereon; in the rituals of the haying season, hardly changed since people first cut grasses to store as livestock feed through the winter, it ties us to early ancestors. Hay gives us milk, butter, cheese, meat. The wedge of cheddar is the iconic Wisconsin headwear, but I’d like to see people here sporting haybale hats.
I spend a fair amount of time driving around the Wisconsin countryside, and at this time of year I notice a change in the residents of the small towns. I notice less traffic, for one thing, fewer people moving to and fro. I also sense (could be it’s just me) subtle changes in how they interact. I see pairs of pick-ups parked cab to cab on the side roads, the drivers chatting, in no hurry to be anywhere. In town a white-haired lady will cross the street to lean in the window of a car that pulled to the side of the road and called out. Small groups of people, just pairs or trios, linger in front of the post office, the grocery store, the cooperative. They are mostly older, and in the afternoon sunlight that slices through low gray clouds, and filters through the waning leaves, there is something poignant in how that light, at once forgiving and foreboding, brings out the features of their faces: they seem extremely human. As if Grant Woods got together with Edward Hopper to paint these tableaux.
The days are short, and even for an autumn-lover like me, now shrinking with alarming pace. The light compels remembrance. Try not to let it slide into nostalgia, which once was thought to be a fatal disease. But the stillness of an October day of sunlight and cloud, warmth in the light and a penetrating chill in the shadows, seems to require one to reflect. There are no endings that are not as well beginnings, but the balance isn’t always doled out equally to all, with passing years. See entry “Nostalgia, as fatal disease…”. Let’s move along.
I go out looking for something to forage, as if finding wild harvests will suspend the season here, or at least the day. By the parking area of a hunting ground I find the wild plum trees plum-less, but strung with grape vines thick with dark purple fruit. Many of the grapes are shriveled half to raisin state, but when I taste them I find that they are some of sweetest wild grapes I’ve ever found. I pick a small sack full; I have no idea what I will do with them, but I feel a responsibility to find a use for them. In a streamside woods I go digging for ramps—a thin tan stick topped with a monochrome starburst of small black seeds is the giveaway; the pungent bulbs lie beneath. I gather just a few, because it’s hard to work around the edges of a clump when you don’t have the leaves to guide you, and I don’t want to remove whole clumps.
In the Bide-A-Wee north woods I seek out the stinging nettles patch, and find that quite a few small plants have sprouted from seed late in the summer. The head-high patch of mature plants has mostly vanished, flattened by frost, wind, falling leaves of oak and maple. Back at the cabin I make a glass of nettle tea, sweeten it with maple syrup from trees growing in that same woods, tapped for sap that was boiled last spring into this perennial sweetness. The tea is clear, slightly green-gold. It’s a libation with all sorts of implications that I think would be spoiled if I tried to sort them out.
I sit down at the laptop on the tippy table of white pine that Ivan Schrock made, and start to write about autumn, its sense of clarity.
Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw