Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nothing Gold Can Stay

The fall of the year reminds me of Robert Frost's poetry. He was not the New England sentimentalist that everyone thinks: his poetry could be haunting, dark and sad. As a poet he was a natural brooder, as a man he was often depressed. I'm not on long tonight but couldn't resist stopping by to post some favorite poetry lines and muse about the clear and cool autumn weather that has arrived on our ridge after several weeks of murky, tropical torpor. It feels like fall in Kentucky at last. PHOTO: The September view from Irene's porch on the day we helped "fill silo" at her farm.

In the meantime, projects are being accomplished and I'm "getting my house in order" for the holiday season and indoor months ahead when I can also focus on more writing–and blogging–again.

My November Guest

My Sorrow, when she's here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She's glad the birds are gone away,
She's glad her simple worsted grey
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise.
~ Robert Frost

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Filling Silo" and Fall Cleaning

They's something kindo' harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here...
the air's so appetizin'; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days

Is a pictur' that no painter has the colorin' to mock–

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

–James Whitcomb Riley, "the Hoosier Poet" [1847-1916]

I'm a fall cleaning kind of gal. The spring is busy with gardens and being outdoors, enjoying the light. Even though I'm a putterer and like puttering around, I rarely accomplish much unless I set out to tackle something and focus only on that project (how I get any completed writing done is a mystery but then again so is the mystery of ADD-addled people having the ability to truly focus on a task that they can manage and enjoy). In the spring and summer I also come to life myself and am far more sociable again–you see, I like to hibernate. I'm not a complete recluse but am certainly more reclusive in the winter months, a deliberate member of "The Clan of the Cave Bear." In the summer we are busy with so many things and again, the house becomes secondary: the boys are home from school for a long stretch from early May to early August and we enjoy each other, our friends, plan day trips and longer vacations or are busy with haying and helping friends with their produce. Evening meals are late and languid.

Yet by September, I am paying the price for that languor. I do know that I'm part squirrel (as is my husband): filling pantries (well, a cellar up the road and some closets–one day again, a proper pantry!), and freezers (yes, that's plural and I'm embarrassed to tell you how many), organizing cupboards and cleaning out closets. This is fall work, when the days shorten and the air crisps (even here in Kentucky where it can be warm, often humid, and sometimes just hot throughout the fall months–today we are having lashing tropical rains from the Gulf). I find, even in this more temperate climate that I am welcoming fall and even our "winter" months ahead. Back in New Hampshire, friends are kindling their wood stoves and will soon have their first frost. (I miss a wood stove, too, but here my Mennonite friends are starting to fire up theirs in the mornings again after cooking on gas all summer long.)

There is something about the autumn that draws us in: "we gather together," like the harvest hymn sings; we draw near the fire of warmth that is our home and family and friends–the comfort of togetherness but also of introspection. We count our blessings and are grateful. I'm also a bit prone to melancholy in the fall and winter: I think it is part "SADD" but also a very large part of who I am. And yet if I can't be introspective for part of each year, I can't emerge again in the spring, renewed and refreshed and ready to be a part of the world again. Like Persephone, I must go to my own inner underworld for a time to reflect, read, and ponder on things. It's just my nature and yes, this too is a fine line and I must be careful that I don’t step too deep into the quieter pool of reflection and inner solitude. So September and October for me have always been about getting back to school or getting down to business–I like to "get my house in order," so to speak, before the holiday season. At least it is something I try to do each year.

Right now in the countryside all around us you will see people cutting corn and filling their silos. The Old Order Mennonites cut corn as a community and go in groups from farm to farm with one corn chopper between them. As they use horse-drawn vehicles, it takes many hands. They'll say, "We're 'filling silo' on Monday at so-and-so's farm." This is the second year that we have helped in this process that lasts several weeks in September when the corn is ready. My husband helps the other men, and our boys pitch in after school or on Saturdays, while I often help the women prepare a hearty noon dinner and early evening supper for up to twenty-five hungry men. These gatherings are also a chance for the women to get together and talk, catch up on quilting or just visit among each other while working. It is a heart-warming experience and we are grateful to be a part of it and to be welcomed as we are into this community.

Their work frolics are truly a joyous, hardworking communal time and remind me of the “Wood Weekends” we used to have at the farm in New Hampshire. My brothers and I would bring our friends up from Boston and help my mother and stepfather, and others, stack at least a dozen split and seasoned cords of wood into the annex between the house and barn. My mother and I made the meals: lasagnas, salads and garlic bread, corn chowder, chili, sandwiches, cookies and apple crisp. There was hot and cold cider and groaning board-style breakfasts of scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and assorted pastries from the Kernel Bakery in nearby Peterborough where I often worked. Each day of the weekend would include a hayride around the farm and maybe a bonfire. It was both fun and purposeful and I’m sure that each of us who participated–and my faraway family–still fondly remember those times “when the frost is on the punkin’ and the fodder’s in the shock.” (to quote James Whitcomb Riley who I also associate with autumn: read the entire poem to your family, aloud!, here, part of which is excerpted above).

Our Mennonite friends will not do any work on Sunday, except meals and basic chores around church, even if it is ideal corn or hay-cutting time and if the weather promises to bring rain on Monday. Sabbath is well honored here in the south and I appreciate this tradition and have not really "kept it holy" over the years except in our own fashion of being together as a family. While we have yet to find a church that "fits" and also haven't been as intent as we want to be, either, there is both a religious and secular movement now to bring back the Sabbath as a day of gathering family together, to take needed pause in the week. CBS Sunday Morning recently had a segment on "The History of Sunday" and highlighted a book that I will certainly want to read (to be released in March 2010), The Sabbath World–Glimpses of A Different Order of Time by Judith Shulevitz, who argues for keeping Sunday timeless. Don't you experience a timeless sense about a Sunday, no matter what you are doing? Perhaps that has been God's plan all along for us: to honor the Sabbath–whether it is Saturday or Sunday in your faith or even if you are secular, choose a day and take pause, chillax! [An annoying new word but I love it.] Whether you are church-going or not, Sunday should be a time to take pause and to gather into what would seem to be the cozy "autumnal day" of each week.

As per usual, what began as a brief blog to let you know I would be taking a temporary "blog hiatus" until I get my collective houses in order (there is more truth to those words than you know) and to tackle some projects, has turned into a musing on so much more. Thank you for reading, as always, and thank you even more for coming back or visiting on occasion. I do appreciate it. I won't be gone terribly long, probably no longer than unintentional gaps in the past (although October promises to be the busiest month yet for us, but all in good ways–and we're still "filling silo" for a time).

I just needed to give myself permission and thought it might be nice if I told you, too. In the meantime, I invite you to read back through the archives of 286 posts from the past four and half years (I can't quite believe that, really). It's been a grand journey and only continues to be.

With thanks and blessings,


PS And I will still be on the computer, on occasion, so if you want to order a copy of The Pantry–Its History and Modern Uses for yourself or a friend or loved one, they make lovely gifts and are especially "seasonal" at this time of year. I will not only sign it (or inscribe it for you) but trot it right down to the post office. Sorry for the shameless plug, but the holidays are coming...and I still have lots of pantry goodness to share.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

More Tales of Stew the "Rock" ~ Action Cockerel

Keeping peace in the farmyard has been an ongoing proposition. Since his half-hour chicken fest a month ago, John, our Jack Russell-y, Beagle-ish dog has been humbled by his several hour a day leash-run. Now he happily comes for his biscuits at around 3pm, knowing what temporary fate awaits him, at which time he is tied up until dusk and before the chickens can be let out. [The hens waddle back into their house every night at dusk–which is now just before 8pm when John is freed again.] It was a compromise that has worked. John lies in the shaded grass beneath a cedar tree on the side hill and overlooks the chickens he can not touch. The other morning a hen even got out when I was opening the door into the hen yard. John and Tom ran to see what was going on as I tried, frantically, to get the hen back in the pen. One look and a sharp word was all it took for John to just lie down and watch me. [And I'm sure he was amused that I had to let all of the hens back into their house, keep the gate to the yard open, and wait about five minutes for the stubborn hen to go back in on her own.]

Twin sons with different fathers–isn't that how it works with a mongrel litter?–John in the back and Tom at front.

Meanwhile, Tom, bless his gentle little soft-hearted terrier self, can be without a tie-up and lie among the chickens with no harm done. He is not interested. In fact, he would rather be up near his brother to wait for John's evening release than to kill, or even chase, a chicken. [I should have known that Tom would be the "gentle giant" of the three pups when it was John and Patch who loved to follow me each morning to the hen house and watch through the door, their eyes gleaming like little foxes. And I thought they just wanted to help...]

But Stew the rooster, well, I knew his days were numbered the minute I suspected he wasn't an ordinary hen. At a few weeks old he seemed bigger and more hawkish than the other Barred Rock chicks and even liked to jump up on top of the feeder and look me straight in the eye. He was bolder and more assertive than the rest and my thoughts that he might one day crow were confirmed midsummer when he made his first adolescent chortles. Now, don't get me wrong, I didn't fault Murray McMurray even though I'd ordered a straight run of hens from selected breeds. These things happen with hatched chicks–I don't even want to know how they know at one day old what sex they are–just as they happen with humans. ["You know that baby girl you thought you were having? Well, guess what..."] And besides, I've always wanted a rooster–one that would cock-a-doodle-doo all over the place.

However, it soon became apparent that Stew had an active, um, sex drive and was doing a lot more than just cock-a-doodle doodling. So much so that he had his way with one of the 26 hens every chance he got. I know that's what roosters do but it can take it's toll on the hens: they can lose their feathers, get pecked at, and just get all riled up. It is possible to fix a rooster but there are few around anymore who know how to caponize a chicken successfully–there are websites but those in the know also say that if done wrong, your rooster will bleed to death. It's also something that is done without anesthesia which I just consider cruel. It also has to be done at 6 weeks and the poor little guy will lose his crow as well as his get-up-and-go. The idea of having a capon is to get a faster growing, fatter male chicken.

So far no physical damage had occurred from Stew's fervent attentions to his harem but it all boiled down to (I know, shameless egg pun but it was the first thing that came to mind) the reality that I was outvoted about the concept of my family eating fertilized eggs. Either way, the thought of eating a just-hatched ovum or an aborted chicken isn't exactly appetizing when you really stop to analyze the situation. I didn't mind the thought of a little red speck now and then but my husband, I should point out, is the kind of person who will get physically sick if he finds even the least little bit of eggshell in his food. I suppose we all have our pet peeves.

As we haven't had meat birds since mid-July and a new round of chicks wasn't coming until September, Stew was banished to the "meat bird side" of the hen house. He was joined by the Banty rooster who was an extra surprise from the "exotic" freebie I checked from the hatchery when we got our Cornish X meat bird chicks. Poor Stew. I never named the Banty, who didn't seem interested in the hens anyway, but it was sad to watch Stew looking at all of the hens running around and not being able to go after them. I'm sure John could relate.

On Tuesday Cackle Hatchery called: "Your Cornish X chicks hatched a day early and will be there on Thursday." I had ordered more meat birds from them in July when it was clear Murray McMurray had no more for the season–52 (50 ordered plus two extra) arrived on Thursday as scheduled. So the death knell began for Stew. I had to act fast. We couldn't just let him totally free range as he'd still be around when the hens were out and he would be fair game to John and assorted wildlife. We couldn't have him in with the little chicks, either (the Banty, however, was raised with the first lot of meat birds as a chick himself). We don't yet have a bigger barn or a separate coop where Stew could have lived out his days. I didn't want to just coop either of them up and sell them or even give them away to a stranger. I'd named Stew, the Barred Rock rooster, after all, even if done with deliberate and self-protective irony. I'd listened to him crowing for most of the summer and welcomed his songs. He'd even had multiple photo shoots.

I then thought to offer them to a local farmer friend via Facebook and she soon responded, and I quote:

"Thanks for the offer, but anyone who drags/hatches/rescues/etc. another animal to my house in the near future is likely to get knocked in the head. Myself included."

Crystal had clearly reached her FTL (Farmyard Tolerance Limit). Now, I should add here that Crystal and another local backyard farmer managed to get, kill, dress and bag 200 chickens in a single bound this summer (in two hours flat, I understand). They had some help, too, from their children and husbands but still! I discovered that this had happened, via Facebook, while trying to find a butcher for our 25 meat birds which was embarrassing in light of their productive chicken frenzy. Crystal is clearly a woman who can take a farmyard to freezer in a day if she had to do so (she's dwindling her goat population as we speak). I'm still squeamish on the idea of being involved in this aspect of food-raising, even though, at the age of 11, I helped my uncle, mother and assorted family, put up my grandfather's chickens for the freezer after he died the summer we moved to the farm.

"Let's give the roosters to Anna and Melvin," I suggested. Done. Even so, I felt a loss. Not the same kind of loss as when Patch ran off in July (the third in our "farmyard special" trio of litter mates) and certainly not the persistent heartache I felt after Lucy's death last December. But there was a small pang and a bit of a thump as I thought of our crow-less days ahead.

Yesterday when out and about at a local yard sale I worked up the courage to ask Anna if they'd "done the deed yet."

"Oh, no, I like roosters! I enjoy having them around..."

"You mean you're going to keep him?" I said, incredulously, not really thinking about the Banty, too.

"Well, at least until before he gets too old (to eat)."

"So I can come visit Stew, I mean, him?" thinking that at least, for now, he has a bit more stay of execution.

Anna looked at me a bit strangely but already knows I'm nuttier about farm animals than most people who were raised with them. Then she laughed and said, "Of course..."

The round chicken house was originally intended to be the cupola of Melvin's round barn but it was too large: this is Stew's new home over in the next county (and those are our husbands riding on the wagon out to the watermelon patch–and that's another brother of Tom, John and Patch–Schnoofler–trailing along behind).

Today my husband said that some Mexican men had stopped to buy some of Anna's older hens who aren't laying much anymore (I know, I know, it's something I'll have to face one day, too: the idea of putting a hen, who gave us her best–egg after egg–into our freezer). I mention that they were Mexican only because Anna told me that they often buy live chickens from them because they will use every part of the chicken: body, organs, head and even the feet (which are put into their soups for heightened flavor, cleaned of course). I found this fascinating in my continued quest for knowledge of all things culinary (stay tuned for an upcoming blog on "paw paw" fruit).

While at their farm, one of the men peaked into the hen house and spied Stew in all of his full-breasted glory.

"I'll take the rooster, too," he said. [Anna later said that the man's eyes got as wide as saucers when he saw our big Barred Rock rooster–I immediately thought of the expression John gets when he sees the chickens, mouth open and drooling.]

"No, you will NOT!" chortled Anna.

Melvin just looked at Temple and shook his head. "What are we going to do with our women, I wonder..."

I smiled and laughed and high-fived my husband after he told me this reassuring story. And I did a little chicken dance, too:

"Go, Anna! Go Stew!"

NOTE: Using chicken feet in soup is a Mexican tradition as well as a Jewish and Asian one. Chicken feet apparently add both hearty flavor and gelatinous body to a soup or stock. The fresh chicken feet need to be scalded about five minutes so the skin and toenails can be removed before adding to the stockpot. It sounds gross, but then again anything to do with being a carnivore is quite yucky when you stop to consider it. They are also available in certain urban Asian or farmer's markets.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Libraries I Have Known and Loved

The Horace Walpole Library belonging to Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, taken by Life Magazine in 1944 at Lewis' home in Farmington, Connecticut.

The library as an institution, and as a place in our schools, communities and even our homes, has been on my mind in the past few weeks. Are you as drawn to what books people have on their shelves as I am? Or what they might have piled high from their local library? Or if a person has any books around at all? (I know, I'm just a nosy old poke.) I have been in several public libraries this summer, have reminisced about more, and even have a few librarian Facebook "Friends" and blog readers (and some are also real live friends). So I have had a blog brewing on the subject and this evening the following came in via a Facebook posting by a New Hampshire town librarian. It seems that the library at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts is getting rid of its books.

In this age where print is threatened by the Internet (OK, I'm a blogger but I still read books, magazines and newspapers, and sometimes even write for them, too) and awful gadgety things like Amazon's Kindle (sorry Oprah, but I ain't buying it), the medium of the printed book is even more precious. I have often blogged about book shop finds here at In the Pantry and at Cupcake Chronicles where two friends and I continue to write about the books that we read apart or together. You can't escape the tactile feeling of a book in hand. My eyes might be morphing into a need for driving glasses and reading glasses and no, not willing to concede to bifocals just yet, so how is reading a book on a flickering computer screen good for anyone? The children at Cushing Academy, as all children and adults, need books: bindings to crack, pages to flip, and dusty tomes to dig out of old archives and catacombs.

Andrew Carnegie established a grant program for American libraries in the earlier part of the 20th century, donating more than $40 million between 1886 and 1919 to construct 1,679 new libraries in the United States and about $56 million for libraries worldwide. In one of the greatest philanthropic gestures in our nation's history, we have this Scottish-born American industrialist to thank for much of the great library architecture and collections that remain today. [Image of Andrew Carnegie © Columbia University Library]

The first library I ever visited was the Ayers branch of the Akron-Summit County Library in Akron, Ohio. We lived almost around the corner but drove anyway because the traffic wasn't conducive for my mother to walk with a stroller and three children. The library branch was housed in a large former home on Market Street, in the Tudor Revival style from the 1920s as so many suburban homes of that era were, with a 1950s addition on the back. It was brick and kind of Gothic-y. Inside were shelves of books and cozy corners. We went there often and I was always able to check out an entire pile of picture books. I can still hear the magical and tidy "ka-chunk" sound of the lever pressed on top of the plastic library card through the paper and carbon and well remember the satisfaction of having my own library books to take home. Problem was that I wanted to keep many of those books–even to jump right into many of them–and it was often hard to return them (not for my punctual mother but for her hoarding daughter who liked to linger). I was sad to see a few years ago, like so many buildings in Akron over the years, that the original house-turned-library was torn down (and yes, to make a parking lot for another building). The newer, larger branch is on another street nearby.

I've been to the downtown branch of the Akron-Summit County Library over the years, but not since its latest transformation. The 1970s library was constructed in the unfriendly and cold "Brutalist" style of architecture inside and out, that filled so many urban vacuums at the time and was laden with modern art and hanging mobiles. I didn't find it very welcoming, just like the newer main branch of the Boston Public Library, but that's just me: I like cushy and cozy in a library.

Meanwhile, the library of my great-grandparents Akron home, now a museum (since 1957), is so inviting that even Helen Keller remarked that it was her favorite room in the house as she could feel its presence. Even though I never knew him, I've always liked seeing the charred wood on the library shelf where my great-grandfather used to rest his cigar. It was also here, on a 1970 tour with my Grandpa with my second grade class, that I first heard of Helen Keller. I became a girl obsessed: a woman who is deaf, blind and mute and could learn to read? I was soon reading all I could about this remarkable woman. How would she manage in a virtual library such as Cushing proposes? Can a deaf and blind person "read" a computer? PHOTO: Helen Keller wrote on her photograph on December 21, 1924, "In witness of three beautiful days spent at Stan Hywet Hall and my sincere affection." [Image © Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, Akron, Ohio and used with permission.]

On summer visits to the Gray Goose Farm to see my grandparents in New Hampshire, I spent long afternoons reading the "My Bookhouse" series that my grandparents had in their extensive multi-generational library, scattered about in bookshelves but especially gathered in what was called "The Toy Room," the southwest parlor at the front of their 1792 farmhouse. [I later bought an entire set at a used bookshop for my children–the same edition as theirs (for $10 each in those days)–and several years ago bought an earlier set still in its original wooden "Book House" from a woman in Connecticut who also collects Country Fare pottery. She gave me an amazing deal on a "Book House" with books because she knew I would treasure it.] I also looked forward to going to the Jaffrey Public Library with my grandmother where I could wander around and check out different books (often cookbooks and where I discovered The Buttr'y Shelf Cookbook for the first time). PHOTO: The Toy Room, Gray Goose Farm, Jaffrey, New Hampshire, summer 2006.

During my high school years in Jaffrey, I often went to the town library after school where I always enjoyed talking with librarians Miss Margaret Priest, an Englishwoman, and Miss Gwyneth Andrews, from Scotland. They also gave the library a natural air of calm and repose and you just wanted to have a nice cup of tea and some scones with them. I last saw Margaret in 2005 when she joined us in Hancock for our Thanksgiving dinner. Margaret was also a dear friend of my friend and children's author Elizabeth Yates McGreal and lived next door to her in "Pineapple Cottage" on Old Street Road in Peterborough for many years. PHOTO: Margaret Priest, Thanksgiving 2005, Hancock, New Hampshire.

One of my relatives by marriage, Wilmarth S. Lewis (don't you love that name?), was a Horace Walpole scholar and collector and had a rare book library that he amassed in Connecticut; it was later donated to Yale University where, since 1970, it has been the Lewis Walpole Library. He gave an old 18th century leather volume, an English hunter's companion if memory serves, as a wedding present to my parents (and my mother was able to sell it at a rare book auction years later). I never met Cousin "Lefty" (I was told my manners had to improve significantly before that could happen–something that was always held in front of me like an elusive gem) but I expect we would have had a lot to talk about, especially years later when I wrote part of my college thesis on Walpole's writings and his vision of Gothic Revival architecture. PHOTO: Annie Burr Auchincloss and her scholarly husband Wilmarth S. Lewis, aka "Cousin Lefty" in the family. [Image © Yale University Library]

That's me on the right in my 3rd grade yearbook photo in the Lower School library of Old Trail School in Bath, Ohio, c. 1970. Three of us in this photo, as well as other would-be high school classmates, have recently connected via Facebook. Most of us left in middle school but are now trying to arrange a 30th reunion for 2010.

I always enjoyed library time at various schools over the years–and really got into the Dewey Decimal system in Library Science in 5th grade at Old Trail School. In the Lower School library I had discovered the delights of Betty MacDonald's Mrs. PiggleWiggle series as well as children's books by Roald Dahl and The Lonely Doll series of live-action photography books by Dare Wright. The Laura Ingalls Wilder books were also favorites. I later worked for the Wheaton College Library (Norton, Massachusetts) throughout my years there. In the fall of my freshman year, the new library wing and its subterranean stacks were christened. I spent many days and evenings in "the stacks" in favorite study carrels, tucked away where time just seemed suspended and in a way that seemed more productive than the hours that seem to be sucked into the computer today. When working I got to put the books away according to a new system for me: the Library of Congress classification (and for some time one of my longest friends from childhood has worked at the LOC). As I remind my children, much to their disbelief, I had an electric typewriter in college, no cell phone, and used a card catalog to find books on the shelves. Furthermore, that was only 25-30 years ago. So in the span of thirty years, the idea of going from a library with real books to a virtual "learning center" with a cappuccino café at Cushing Academy in Massachusetts is, well, preposterous. Call me sentimental.

The Radcliffe Camera at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England © National Geographic

On two academic trips to England–one for a high school semester and another full year in London–I really got to immerse myself in the full library experience both at Bodleian Library in Oxford (so now you can understand why, despite it's tragic overtones, that I love Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure) and at the University of London library system. I also researched at the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum and other smaller libraries around London. In 1982 I had my first college internship cataloging a donated postcard collection at the library of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, then headquartered in Washington, DC but now a part of the University of Maryland.

During my years in Boston in the mid-1980s I was a regular at the Boston Public Library and in their archives and had a special student pass to the Boston Athenaeum (which, if pressed, is probably one of my very favorite private library experiences–we are proprietors there, too, but never have been able to get down in the past decade or so). In fact, it amazes me to sit here recounting all of my collective library experiences because, with Google and many digital collections at my finger tips, it just seems such an archaic thing to be doing: digging around old books and files for research. However, please don't misunderstand: while Google fills a need and a void made real by time, place and circumstance, I would gladly roll around and encamp in a research library again for extended periods of time. In recent years I have used the on-line LOC collections for research for The Pantry, as well as the fabulous HEARTH [Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition, History] archive at Cornell and other on-line digital collections. Their ease of access, free use and savings on travel and time has been invaluable and their search mechanisms time-saving. However, I would never want to banish books from a library collection entirely. IMAGE: The Boston Athenaeum was designed by architect Edward Clarke Cabot who also designed the Gibson House, built in 1860 and a house museum since 1957 and where I lived as resident guide in the mid-1980s.

For the first twelve years of our marriage, until we moved to rural Kentucky, we lived next door to the Hancock Town Library. Did I visit it much? Surprisingly no, but this was because we had a tremendous library in our own home, now mostly in boxes, and I didn't have as much leisure time to take books out and read them back then (let alone return them on time–yes, even from next door!). Our children and Aunt Cynthia were regulars, however, and it was so nice to have them all be able to go back and forth with ease. Meanwhile, our house library was a multi-generational collection and added to with our own interests and subjects, including many children's books. It was sad to dismantle it but most came along with us and the rest was donated to various friends and other library sales or book dealers. One thing I have noticed about small-town libraries is that the "shush" factor no longer seems to exist. They have become, in many ways, the new general stores of a town–the place to meet and greet, exchange news and well, gossip (but, ssh, you didn't hear that from me...). PHOTO: The Hancock Town Library is at the center of the picturesque New England village of Hancock, New Hampshire, a town, interestingly enough, that also has many resident published writers and others who are in the book business. [I wonder if it is the water, the town's charm or the clear air?]

So I haven't found small town libraries to be conducive for studying or reading in recent years but that isn't to diminish all of the great resources, terrific programs and "Friends of the Library" groups, and enterprising, dedicated librarians that they offer. Besides, Hancock's current librarian, Amy Markus, dared the town's children that if they read a certain number of books this summer, over 700, she would dye her hair pink. How cool is that? (And yes, the children read 729 books and her hair is now pink!) PHOTO: Beaming librarian Amy Markus is also probably wondering, "How long will I have pink hair?" Read more about Amy's transformation here.

Here in Kentucky we have county libraries, some with several branches. A few weeks ago, our boys and I had some time to wait while in Liberty, and decided to pop into the Casey County Library to finish some homework after school. Kathy Goode is a welcoming librarian and friendly, outgoing person and fun to talk with. [She was just back from an enviable trip to England and a library course there.] I was grateful that she offered us the back meeting room where it was quieter and perfect for a quick homework session (and where we wouldn't disturb anyone else). Afterwards, in some limited shelf browsing, I was pleased to discover a memoir by Shirley Jackson called Raising Demons that is a sequel to her Life Among the Savages, one of my favorite memoirs about family life. It is still in print but I took out the first edition pictured here with it's lovely jacket illustration–I had no idea of its existence before. It is now on my nightstand, partially read, and I'm going to have to soon part with it. This might be why I have so many books of my own (and many purchased at used bookshops and "Friends of the Library" book sales over the years): parting is such sweet sorrow and they look so nice on my shelves. I feel secure with a book in hand and nearby in some kind of order (and yes, I've even organized my own books over the years).
PHOTOS: Shirley Jackson was perhaps best known for her chilling short story, "The Lottery" and was a master of modern Gothic fiction. She lived with her husband and four children in Bennington, Vermont throughout the 1950s and until her untimely death in 1965 at the age of 49.

Somerset has a brand new brick main branch of the Pulaski County Public Library which houses the Historical Society, a beautiful children's room, and other rooms for meetings and community use. The main reading room is like something out of a modern English refectory with its steel vaulted beams and a hint of Harry Potter in the stacks, complete with nice cushy seats by a northern window with constant light...and WiFi. I am contemplating a portable winter office there. I might not take out many books but I'll put my feet up with my laptop, catch up on some newspapers and magazines, and write. There is nothing like a quiet library away from one's familiar–and laundry and too many to-do lists–for a needed getaway and focus.

Finally, what prompted this (rather long) library blog was a recent email I received from a blog reader ("the Library Lady") at the Emily Taber Public Library in Macclenny, Florida. She kindly wanted me to know that my book, The Pantry, resides in this building and has been checked out many times. That is always good news to a writer. She also writes that they are presently building an addition on the back of the older structure. That's always good news, too: combining the new and updated with the old, historic architectural fabric. PHOTO: The Emily Taber Public Library, courtesy of a blog reader. Don't you love the juxtaposition of the palm trees next to a Greek Revival brick building?

There is a rather over-the-top disaster movie called The Day After Tomorrow that came out a few years ago. After several catastrophic global storms, New York City is besieged by extreme and life-threatening subarctic temperatures. A number of survivors hunker into a reading room in the New York Public Library and start burning books for fuel. This is understandable, given the circumstances, but it is a reminder of the deliberate book-burning episodes in different sad chapters of our country's history (as well as Nazi Germany, to name a few). It also points to what is left when a world culture or society collapses or dies away: artifacts and books or other writings.

Despite our technology, which always seems to have to be improved upon and too quickly becomes obsolete, the essence of a book hasn't changed much throughout history, only in how it is printed and distributed. It remains an extension of ourselves or a window on another time or place. You can pat it lovingly into a shelf, put it next to you on your nightstand, or bring it along in your handbag. [However, that said, a digital archive of collections and photographs is also useful for internet researchers as well as providing a needed back up copy in case of fire or other disaster–such as the ghost rampage at the New York Public Library in the first Ghostbusters movie–remember the card files and books flying everywhere? And that librarian ghost knew how to say "SSSSSHH!"]

The motto over the older Wheaton College Library entrance states: "That They May Have Life and Have it Abundantly" which was paraphrased from what Jesus said in John 10:10 [And I didn't go to the Christian college in Illinois by the same name, but to the former women's college, co-ed since 1985, in Massachussetts.] I suppose, twenty-five years after graduating, I have done just that. I have also realized, or remembered, that my college library was designed by the same architect, Ralph Adams Cram, who designed the Norman-style church, All Saints' Episcopal Church in Peterborough, New Hampshire, that over decades held so many events in the life of my immediate and extended family: marriages, memorial services, christenings, confirmations. No wonder I had such affinity for both places! A library–and the world of a book–opens so many doors into our inner and outer worlds, whether you are able to attend college or not. So in this post-Labor Day back-to-school time, here's to cracking a lot of good books–metaphorically speaking, of course! PHOTO: An image from the Wheaton College archives of a Greek tragedy played out in front of the newly-constructed library in the 1920s.

POSTSCRIPT ~ Tonight, when researching (yes, via Google), I came across this:
"Books constitute capital. A library book lasts as long as a house, for hundreds of years. It is not, then, an article of mere consumption but fairly of capital, and often in the case of professional men, setting out in life, it is their only capital."
~ Thomas Jefferson

PHOTO Library at Monticello, also known as the Book Room © Thomas Jefferson Foundation/Robert C. Lautman.

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Last Watermelon Days of Summer

This August we didn't eat as much watermelon as I'd hoped with all of that mess and cutting–but were encouraged by a study in July that said that watermelon actually boosts metabolism because it is arginine-rich.
We still have some held back in the mud room that we can refrigerate and enjoy throughout the month. Most Old Order Mennonite farmers in Casey County grow acres of watermelon and cantaloupe to sell at their produce stations, auction and even Walmart: cantaloupes (or "mush melons" as they are often called here, and they do get mushy–for more on how I found that out, read here) are picked in July and watermelons throughout August. It seems that watermelon is just a part of summer and here in Kentucky they grow them big and in abundance. There is nothing like getting a watermelon fresh out of the patch, throwing it in the fridge or on the cellar floor, and eating it whole hog.

This was the second year that we helped with the melon harvest at our friends' farm. Mostly my husband and boys–but I did a bit of melon washing and some of the noon dinners–and Henry often drove the horse-drawn wagon as he did last summer, too. August arrived hot and humid after a cool and rainier June and July (which actually had affected some of the melons) so the shady shelter of their sorting shed was welcome.

I've heard that in meteorological world that the seasons are divided as follows: September-November (Autumn), December-February (Winter), March-May (Spring), June-August (Summer). This seems to jive more with our weather patterns although, light levels aside, summers are long in Kentucky and winters are shorter and more like one extended New England November. With Labor Day weekend upon us, I wanted to blog about watermelon and savor, a bit, our August days spent harvesting and eating it.

Enjoy this last official weekend of summer with your friends and family. Around here it seems to be a traditional family reunion and homecoming time, which makes me rather envious and homesick for something, apart from my immediate brood, that I no longer have in the real kinfolk sense of things. So embrace your loved ones and hold them close as you hunker in for a fall and winter ahead or send your wee ones off for another year of school or college–but first make sure to have one last wedge of watermelon! [And to my dear departed Dad, a Happy 73rd birthday and I hope the heavenly choirs were in full tilt today and that your celestial organ is cranking.]

What follows is a series of photos on the watermelon process–from field to bin–as well as a recipe from a friend for "Watermelon Coolers." There are also some poems (so don't forget to scroll all the way to the bottom of this blog posting for those extra goodies).

There was a favorite poem about watermelons that Mrs. Ann Royce read to us in middle school English (and that we had to write an essay about, I'm almost certain) back in the mid-1970s at St. Patrick's School in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and where I attended for 7th and 8th grade after moving from Ohio. Perhaps you, too, remember reading the poem in your English class?

This was the title poem to an anthology of poetry for young adults, Reflections On A Gift Of Watermelon Pickle (published in 1967 and still in print after all of these years–I have just ordered one for our son Henry's 12th birthday in November and one more for another friend's son). According to the book notes, Tobias' poem was originally published in the New Mexico Quarterly in 1961. I remember how that book helped bring the power of poetry to me for the first time: the revelation of how words, when combined, can be like luscious pairings–a good recipe. And watermelon can still bring out the child in all of us. [NOTE: The photos of our two boys, with a friend, below were taken in May 2006 at our house in New Hampshire–a perfect early summer day with friends...but I'm guessing the watermelon was an import!]

Reflections of a Gift of Watermelon Pickle Received from a Friend Called Felicity
by John Tobias

During that summer
When unicorns were still possible;
When the purpose of knees
Was to be skinned;
When shiny horse chestnuts
(Hollowed out
Fitted with straws
Crammed with tobacco
Stolen from butts
In family ashtrays)
Were puffed in green lizard silence
While straddling thick branches
Far above and away
From the softening effects
Of civilization;

During that summer–
Which may never have been at all;
But which has become more real
Than the one that was–
Watermelons ruled.

Thick imperial slices
Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues
Dribbling from chins;
Leaving the best part,
The black bullet seeds,
To be spit out in rapid fire
Against the wall
Against the wind
Against each other;

And when the ammunition was spent,
There was always another bite;
It was a summer of limitless bites,
Of hungers quickly felt
And quickly forgotten
With the next careless gorging.

The bites are fewer now.
Each one is savored lingeringly,
Swallowed reluctantly.

But in a jar put up by Felicity,
The summer which maybe never was
Has been captured and preserved.
And when we unscrew the lid
And slice off a piece
And let it linger on our tongue:
Unicorns become possible again.

You might also remember this poem from the same anthology:

How to Eat a Poem by Eve Merriam

Don't be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.

It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.

You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

"Watermelons ruled...
Thick imperial slices

Melting frigidly on sun-parched tongues
Dribbling from chins;
Leaving the best part...

...The black bullet seeds,
To be spit out in rapid fire
Against the wall
Against the wind
Against each other..."
[from The Gift of Watermelon Pickle by John Tobias]

"Don't be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin."

[from How to Eat a Poem]

And finally, here is an easy recipe for Watermelon Coolers that my friend Rosemary sent along. They are light and refreshing. Sugar is optional as is the extra addition of water which I found made it a bit too liquid. You could also add rum, gin or any bit of clear alcohol or ginger-ale in place of the water:
  • 3 cups diced watermelon (preferably cold)
  • 2 Tbsps. lime juice
  • 1 Tbsp sugar (optional, or add sweetener)
  • 1 cup crushed ice (or throw in a few cubes)
  • 1/2 cup water (this, too, is optional)
Put all ingredients in blender and blend until smooth. Pour into glasses and garnish with fresh mint sprig or lime wedge. Makes 4 cups or two big servings.

Summer in a glass! Farewell!