Saturday, August 1, 2015

In Country

This weekend I'm visiting my dear friend, Ann Shrader, on her acreage outside Floyd VA.

Having moved recently from rural Rutledge MO (where's there's not a single stoplight in the county and our rural electric co-op has the lowest customer per mile of wire ratio in the entire state), I had been missing country life in my new digs in Chapel Hill NC. For four days I'm reprising my homestead lifetsyle of the last four decades.

Well, Annie and I got right to it. I hadn't been on the property two hours before Annie and I were on the front porch clipping garlic. It's one of her cash crops and after spending a month curing in a barn (kind of like tobacco), the moisture level drops to the point where it can be stored for months without molding (if you pick a location where the humidity isn't too high). To aid in moisture reduction, garlic is typically stored in well-ventilated outbuildings with the stalk and roots still attached—they serve as wicks to help draw out the water.

Clipping entails cutting off the dried stalks (about 1/2  to 1 inch above the bulb), neatly trimming back the root hairs, coarse sorting (bulbs that are too small, have been damaged, or with soft spots are rejected for sale), and then rubbing off the dirty outer layer of the paper-thin skin to remove most of the dirt—producing a box of clean, firm bulbs.

Meanwhile we yakked (we've known each other since 1969 and lived together at Sandhill for 25 years, so there was plenty to catch up on) and enjoyed the gentle breeze flowing across the front lawn.

Today I got a cook's tour of the her extensive garden, where the highlights were the bumper crop of cowpeas and the ingenious ways that she's been protecting her precious blueberry bushes from bird predation. 

Otis, her 15-lb bruiser of a yellow tabby, helped point out his personal highlights, such as where he likes to trap young rabbits and the odd frog, which Annie knows about only because Otis then proceeds to bring his new playmates into the house to participate in his own catch-and-release program, providing hours of entertainment for human and feline alike.

Annie has been stockpiling ripe tomatoes in anticipation of my arrival and she's now scouring the neighborhood to see if she can scare up a couple of double handfuls of hot peppers with which to make a batch of salsa. We should be able to crank out 12-14 pints with what she has. While that would be a modest yield by Sandhill standards (where we could fill an entire 3 ft x 7 ft butcher block with output on a serious canning day) that's a year's supply for a woman who lives alone. It's all relative. 

Of course, being in the country is not just preserving homegrown food; it's also eating it. Last night we had a pizza featuring her own tomato sauce and local cheese, augmented by cole saw concocted from contributions from her garden. Tonight we'll fry chicken that was raised in this zip code and enjoy a pie made with equal parts of local blueberries and peaches. Yum.

Time permitting (we may do a local winery tour on Monday) we'll also try to fill her front porch with firewood (now that we've cleared the space by processing the last of her her garlic), trying to get a leg up on winter. Right now there's a big jumble of split wood lying in her front yard—right where the dump truck left it—and it needs to get under a roof to finish seasoning.

And that's the rhythm of country life. There's always some kind of work in season, and something you're wise to do now because it will make your life later on that much easier. It's about learning how to go with the weather instead of fighting it—like cutting the lawn right before a rain, and pulling weeds right afterwards; checking for roof leaks when it is raining, and patching them when it isn't.

It's nice to be in country again, enjoying my connection with an old friend and to feel in rhythm with the land, where there's time to both get the work done that lines up with the weather and to set a spell on a glorious summer day. You should see the amazing field of Queen Anne's Lace (Queen Annie's Lace?) that's blooming in a riot of white in her front yard. I know it's a weed, but it's the prettiest stand I've ever scene.

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