Wednesday, July 18, 2012
There's a beautiful soaking rain falling in the Hay Creek valley of northern Dunn County this morning, after overnight storms brought us a blessed half inch. We have not seen the kind of severe drought that southern Wisconsin--and much of the Midwest--has suffered through this summer, but it had been pretty dry since mid-June. More than that, it has been hot, and muggy. The heat has had us feeling like we've been under siege--you just try to get through it, get done what needs getting done, and little more. They're talking about this kind of summer weather becoming "the new normal." Well, normal is as normal does, I suppose, and what's to be done? Even if the whole world smartened up tomorrow and put all possible effort into mitigating the human impact on climate change, I don't imagine the effects would be felt for quite some time--and it does not appear that we're going to smarten up, anyway, but rather, dumben down, if I may coin a phrase. It seems lame to say that we're going to have to get used to it, but that's where I wind up.
I remember hot, sweltering summers from when I was growing up in Eden Prairie, a southwestern suburb of Minneapolis, nights when I couldn't stand to even have a sheet over me, and the still humid air weighed like wet wool. But I recently went online and looked at some weather data from summers in the early 1970s, and while I found lots of 90-degree days in those summers, what was remarkable was the dewpoints (a term I don't think we even used much then, so it must have been figured retroactively from relative humidity readings). Most of the dewpoints on those hot days gone by were in the upper 50s, while the tropical weather we've seen this summer has brought day after day of dewpoints in the upper 60s to mid-70s. It used to be kind of a joke, that "it ain't the heat, it's the humidity." No joke anymore.
As uncomfortably hot and sticky as this summer has been, I must say it has Mary and me feeling pretty good about our decision to move to the country. Our house does not have central air, just a window AC unit in our bedroom, which we have used exactly one night this summer. Yep, in a record-breaking summer we've run the AC just once. On all the other nights it has cooled off sufficiently to make sleeping comfortable with only a fan running. That's the effect of being outside the urban heat island, and at the bottom of a valley. I had a book event in the Twin Cities one hot day in June, an evening talk at a bookstore, and as I got in the car to drive home, around 8:30, the car thermometer read 87 degrees. It stayed there until I passed Woodbury, heading east, when it dropped to the low 80s. The other side of the Saint Croix River, it fell into the 70s, and by the time I reached home the number on the dash read 66 degrees. Granted, it had gotten dark in the meantime, but the temp in the cities was still in the 80s after 10:00 p.m. Even on the hottest days, it seems that the temperature drops around ten degrees as soon as the sun falls behind the trees on the west side of our house. The sweltering days are a bitch, but the cool evenings and mornings make it tolerable.
Still, this summer has felt like a bit of a slog. We worry about the dogs--well, we worry about senior griffon Annabel, who turned 14 this summer, and never has liked the heat. I water our new gardens nearly every day, and still a second planting of carrots and lettuce just burned up before they could get their roots to cooler depths. I've spent fewer days on the trout stream than I have since the day I first picked up a fly rod more than 20 years ago. I hardly saw the shady side of the woods from mid-June to just a week or so ago. But things are starting to look up. This morning's rain gives a chance to take a deep breath, reflect a bit, and look ahead. It's less than a month and a half until September; I think we'll make it.
The chanterelles came in early again, which would seem to be another example of that "new normal." And already we have blackberries, a good two weeks ahead of when I usually expect them. I'm experimenting with black walnuts, since our new old house came with a big old walnut tree in the back corner of the yard. As I was circling around under that tree looking for nuts, it occurred to me that you get to know a tree in a totally different way if you harvest from it. Looked at from a distance, an apple tree is an apple tree is an apple tree. But when you get in there to clear the brambles from around it, take out dead wood, water sprouts and extraneous branches, you really get to see the shape and structure of the tree. When you climb up in one to prune or pick apples, you really develop a relationship with that tree, odd as that may sound. Our black walnut tree had always struck me as an attractive tree, but spending a while in its atmosphere gave me an entirely new appreciation of it--the grandeur of its size, for one thing, but also the grace of its slightly drooping branches, the plume-like shape of its exotic-looking leaves and leaflets. It dropped a filigreed shade around it, and exuded a stately calm. The tree came alive for me; it is now a presence in my mind as well as on our little homestead.
To harvest any nuts, I had to employ the apple picker--that's how high the lowest branches start. I'm pickling a jar full, and will steep some in Everclear with spices to make the liqueur that the Italians call nocino. Here's an indicator of our peculiar microclimate: our walnuts are still soft enough to cut with a knife here on July 18. Just a little bit south of here they've been hard as rocks for at least a couple of weeks now.
It appears that the wild blackberry crop will be excellent this year. That's what I originally sat down to write about this morning, but I had a sort of déjà vu all over again feeling that snuffed out all enthusiasm. I'm into my fifth year of writing this blog, foraging, gardening, hitting the markets, cooking, and eating in the same place, more or less. All the same stuff comes in at pretty much the same time, and I start to get this creeping feeling, Haven't I said this before, and before, and before? Does anybody want to read this perennial rehash?
It's not that I've lost enthusiasm for foraging, or for the foods themselves. Far from it: so excited was I to see a good number of ripe berries on the blackberry canes yesterday that I spent a good hour and a half out in the heat of a stiflingly hot and humid day to pick a shy quart, and take pictures--and had to put the camera away when I noticed I was dripping sweat all over it, a 3-T-shirt day.... I'm imagining all sorts of fun new things to do with the berries this year. It's just the conveying of that enthusiasm that needs some refreshing, I think. Perhaps a new angle is called for, a fresh perspective. I'm not sure right now what that might be.
For the moment, I'll just say that there are few more satisfying ways to start the day than with a beautiful bowl of yogurt and berries with a lashing of maple syrup, such as in the photograph that heads this post. It's one hundred percent local, and a splendid collaboration: the yogurt was cultured here at home from Connorsville milk (the Bartzes' Bolen-Vale Farm), blueberries from our neighbor Tina up the hill and across the state highway, raspberries (wild, I believe) from our Otter Creek friends Don and Joni, our Bide-A-Wee blackberries, and syrup from Brook's Sugar Bush (mailing address Downing, but I think they're actually closer to Connorsville). To me that's an inspiring, as well as delicious and healthful, way to start the day.
I sense a lot of anxiety in the air these days, and it's not just the suffocating humidity. There's the poisonous political climate, international turmoil, economic worries that drag on and on, and then we've all got our own personal burdens, small in the context, perhaps, but plenty big in their immediate impact. I'm grateful for this cool, gray, rainy morning and the opportunity to sit back and sort of parse things out, step out of the just getting through it, and see a brightening ahead. That's the report from Near North Wisconsin, midsummer, 2012.