Supressing the Urge to Pickle
THERE'S a corner of my kitchen that the early sun doesn't strike until a certain morning in late August. When I see that sharp, strange light, generated by summer's shortening days, I know it heralds the inevitable approach of fall. It traces a message for me, telling me I must begin lists, and phone calls to committees that'll soon be convening. But I rush from the kitchen to take the bull terrier for a walk in the fields. We're both giddy with the new, cool tang in the morning air. The dog plunges into a stand of knotweed, his course charted by wildly thrashing stalks and grasshoppers that spring up before him like gaily painted click toys.
Yet even outside, away from prickling thoughts of responsibilities and duties, I'm restless with the thought that summer is running down. The long days with their lazy, leisured steps are ending, and to what purpose have I put them? To dispel these thoughts, I flail at some weeds with the dog's leash, releasing clouds of golden pollen.
I seem to hear the voices of my ancestors, like whispers of scythes parting grass. They reproach me for squandering the summer days, reminding me that again I'm unprepared for fall, having neither preserved, jellied, nor pickled summer's bounty.
My ancestors, Anglo-Saxon peasants, knew August as Weod-Monath, when they gathered blossoms and leaves from plants, then distilled, dried, and pounded them into simples medicinal compounds and syrups. But I cross sun-crisped fields with the dog, collecting only the wildflowers' names, fancifully preserving their leaves and racemes in metaphors and similes.
The weeds' names evolve into a jingle as I stride along railroad tracks. Evening primrose, sow-thistle, moth mullein, butter-and-eggs ... suddenly, unexpectedly, I'm cheerful. Like a child with a counting-out rhyme, I chant more names; morning glory, ragweed, loose-strife. My legs are scratched by Joe-Pye weed, Queen Anne's lace, and bouncing Bet, all tumbling in a ditch, colorful as a gypsy's caravan.
The end of August also brought harvest's peak for those forebears of mine, clans of Barneses, Biddingers, and Stewarts; names as rough and stubbled as the fields they sickled. They tied summer up in stooks, piled it in wains, hauled it with carts and kegs. Families reaped away those golden afternoons with a watchful eye on the phase of the moon or the Saint of the Day, harvesting for existence, existing till harvest came again. Let in by Lammas-tide on the first of August, shut up by Michaelmas in September, it was a vital, anxious time, for gnawing winters took toll of those who didn't glean with industry and care.
I tend a tiny garden casually, every summer forgetting tomatoes till they drop and split, or overlooking zucchini till it grows to gargantuan size. Here the crow and cutworm forage unchecked, profiteers of my ease and idleness, for my immediate existence is not ruled by the seasons.
Still, these hot days and cool nights make me uneasy. A brooding atavism insists that this is tallying time, when June, July, and August should lie stacked in bundles in a loft. By a feeling in my bones I'm compelled to scavenge fields and carry something home with me.
So I stoop to collect wild plums, their bottoms thin and cool, tops rough and sun-pricked, then irresolutely drop them along the way. I run my fingers down a bronzed stalk of plantain, the tiny, hard beads clinging to the plum juice on my hand. The dog puts to flight a covey of quail without the faintest idea of what he should do next. Feckless, improvident, we finally turn toward home.
I shade my eyes and watch swallows making trial flights, and the bull terrier barks foolishly at killdeer teetering along the asphalt. Starlings, irridescent as oil slicks, whistle us along our way.
Once, laborers shouted ``Ah Har'' to signal the farmer that his harvest was in. Three times they'd whoop ``Ah Har,'' and the farmer would hurry to pay them for their toil.
I've brought in my own harvest today, tramping fields to gather the names of unprofitable weeds, restless birds; distilling and preserving the essence of the month in my mind.
My largess is in the wild fruit juice and brown plantain seeds in the palms of my hands. I've hushed those ancestral whispers and stored provisions for myself until summer comes again.
``Ah Har,'' I shout to the dog as we cross the fields toward home.