The leaves have begun to turn color, and the leaf peepers, foreign and geriatric, are arriving by the tour bus load full. The Equinox has passed. We rise and retire in darkness again, and the evenings are turning colder. But it feels as though autumn is still holding back.
The sun shines bright and fierce during the afternoons. We had three miserably hot days last week. At least they were miserable by the standards of people for whom air conditioning is a profligate waste of money and electricity. Cold showers and afternoons naps got us through the worst of it until the humidity broke and the thundersqualls overwhelmed our gutters and threatened our vintage electrical grid. It was odd, standing outdoors in shorts and cracked Tevas, watching red, purple, and gold leaves floating down rivulets in the street and clogging up the street drains. I hardly know what to make of such weather, and I still don’t know quite what season we are in.
Bonnie arrived Wednesday in her car with a new basket of fresh organic vegetables from her farm and a promise of autumn. She is a young woman, perhaps 30, with dark hair and eyes that will be the first part of her face to wrinkle from all the smiling that comes naturally to her face. With her husband Seth, they run Worcester Woods Farm (pronounced “Worster”, as in the comparitive superlative of “bad” – worse than the worst). We have a weekly subscription from their CSA, a symbiotic scheme that provides them with a base income and provides us with a weekly selection of random, organic vegetables.
Seth spends all day at the farm, and Bonnie supplements their income by working at the food co-op. After work on Wednesdays, she makes the deliveries, and as we are at the end of her run, our produce arrives just as we are getting the children ready for bath at night. Bonnie is in no rush. She stops to chat and enjoys our children showing off for her. She might sit for a slice of cake if we have any, as we paw through the greens, potatoes, carrots, fennel, tomatoes, or whatever she has brought that week. For a couple of weeks we even got fresh eggs, but this stopped once the chickens, which are free-range, starting laying their eggs in the woods.
This week’s haul included an invitation.
“Yeah, we pushed the pig roast back a couple weeks this year. We are SO rushed to finish off the last of the harvesting and get the soil ready for next year, and we just thought, you know, it will be so much easier in a week or two.”
“So, what can we bring? … Rose, give that book back to Samuel… It doesn’t matter if you were reading it twenty minutes ago. You left it on the floor and he started reading it. Wait until he’s done… Be patient. He’s two years old, and it has no pictures. He won’t be reading it long…I’m sorry, Bonnie, what did I just ask you?”
“Bring a potluck dish and drinks. We’ll have snacks and vegies and of course one of our own pigs. Not that you care.”
A joke. She knows we’re vegetarian.
Days later drove down. Just as we were about to head down Main Street from the top of the hill, I saw the hills surrounding Montpelier. There was definitely autumn color splashed about, though there was also a lot of leafy green left too. I could see the gash in the hill side above Elm Street where a large chunk of cliff collapsed a year ago, blocking the road, knocking out power, and fortunately harming no one. I had never noticed it from this vantage before which made me think that there must have been some newly bared trees opening my view, but I couldn’t tell. Would someone tell me what season it is?
We drove down Main and cut across to Elm St which carried us miles out of town. In no time, we were traversing a river valley between the hills that skirted the eastern edge of the Green Mountains. There were horses out in paddocks and small farms between the little towns all following the course of a river small enough to wade across. Small business and fancy homes were taking up land that used to be covered with collapsing barns and farm houses. But it was still gorgeous. Beyond the fields and copses, the trees stretched on up to the top of the hills as far as we could see.
By the time we reached the farm, the valley had narrowed so that the surrounding hilltops must cut off an hour or more of daylight. The farm house itself was twenty feet from the road, built when cars passing by were rare oddities. Like most working farm houses in Vermont, it was weathered and rambling. The original house was extended up and back as the family grew. Another fifty feet behind the house was a white barn built into the side of the mountains and nestled among the trees. The trees stretch up and up the hill. All the arable land, not counting the stones and rocks that breed in the soil, lay in a swathe along the road, never gets more than a long stone’s throw from it, though trees blocked most of it from the road.
We parked on the grass where a half dozen adults were already drinking wine and milling about uncomfortably, too early for the party proper. They were dressed in jeans, casual collar shirts, and old shoes – standard, liberal, white-collar, professional attire for visiting a farm that you do not intend to work on. A few children are scampering around, but they were quiet as clouds compared to the two dogs who came running up to the minivan. My children were instantly terrorized. “I don’t like the dogs. I’m scared of the dogs. The dogs are making me nervous,” they repeat insistently, like some magical incantation that would cause me to suddenly announce in a dreamy, stupefied voice, “No. This isn’t the farm we’re looking for. I must have made a wrong turn. Let’s move along now.”
Dawn and I got out to calm the dogs, a large retrieverish mutt and a small houndish mutt. They sniffed our hands, read us the riot act, and then ran off to chase the childish already scattered about. By the time the coast was clear and we got our own children out of the car, Bonnie appeared from the house.
“Welcome. Are the kids ok? Did the dogs scare them?”
“They’re fine.” I say. “This is nothing compared to last time two years ago. Rose wouldn’t get off my shoulders the entire time.”
“You were here two years ago?” Bonnie asks.
“Wasn’t it last year?” Dawn asks in turn.
“Well, we missed it last year, right?”
“My knee surgery,” Dawn adds. “I missed it. You came with the kids.”
“It couldn’t have been last year. We were here with your Dad.”
As is the habit of married couples, we had to debate this until we got it right. Lots of “Don’t you mean…” and “Wasn’t it that…” and “I thought it was …” which was better than “Of course that’s not right, you idiot.” And this wasn’t just good manners on our part – Bonnie had already left carrying our faux-chicken salad inside and the other guests were too far away to over hear. I suddenly realized that Dawn’s memory is absolutely right. It had to have been last year, because this is only our second year with this CSA. This put me in a sixty-second funk. Not because Dawn was right and I was wrong; our marriage would never survive if I couldn’t handle that sort of humiliation on a regular basis. Rather, it was the proof, like a cream pie in my face, that my long term memory is not reliable for even as recently as a year ago. I don’t like the idea of becoming senile in my forties. But soon we were taking the kids on a tour of the farm and I forgot all about it (about what?).
Because it is an organic farm, run by a couple, do not imagine the enormous Cartesian grids of monoculture that you might see along the Kansas interstates. Picture instead a large amorphous clearing extending back two football field lengths with random patches of sod converted to garden rows. At the end of the first football field, there was a small rise, just high enough that you cannot see over it, and above was the other football field. It was the end of the season and most
of the gardens are covered in weeds where they weren’t bare, but there were still some rows of brussel sprouts, carrots, and onions. One square plot was an enormous pin cushion of six foot cedar stakes that once held tomato plants; the stakes were now bare but the soil was littered with the carcasses of tomatoes that were too rotten or mildewy to eat.
There were other odds and ends. A few small, hand-built, green houses cloaked with milky white plastic housing seedlings and ducklings. A large square plot of sunflowers. A 335-gallon, not-quite-stainless steel tub for washing vegetables; large enough for my children to swim in, though we did not allow them to wet their feet in the inch of brackish rain water inside. A pile of lumber castoffs and palettes would soon be burned for a bonfire. An odiferous pig pen with a dozen hogs not quite as long as I am tall; the smell and grunting kept both Rose and Samuel a respectable distance away. There was no order or plan to any of it that I could discern. Everything was set off wherever there seemed to be room for it, with lots of grassy lawn in between. It was orderly after a fashion, like a big rambling Victorian house in which no two rooms are the same size or shape. Small holes with flag posts sticking out of them could be found everywhere, and I didn’t get their purpose until I learned that Seth was an avid golfer.
Outside the barn we found the world’s largest grill, a black metal contraption shaped like a tube. It was eight feet long and two or three feet in diameter, that split in half and opened on hinges, something like a round coffin. Smoke leaked out of it carrying the scent of pig fat, which hopefully dispersed over the hills before it could carry to the upper field where the live pigs were chewing weeds.
The children seemed more interested in the golf balls scattered everywhere than in anything else. So Dawn tried to teach them how to use a golf club, putting small yellow balls into the weeds. Then we heard a sound, a familiar sound that we had been waiting for ever since the crows had begun mobbing and cawing and screaming two weeks earlier – the sound of geese honking. Looking up we saw the uneven checkmark of two dozen birds flying across the sky, their dark silhouettes gilded by the setting sun, the first flock of migratory birds we had seen. It must be autumn after all.
We managed to find the snack table and get some potato chips for Rose and Samuel before they were all devoured by the children assembled around it. More people kept arriving and the dogs barked and some children got into the one of the green houses and terrorized the ducklings. The sun dipped below the hills leaving us in shadow with a pink sky pink above us. We brought out fleece jackets for Rose and Samuel as a small fire was started in a ring of stones and benches circled around that.
Rose and a friend of hers from school went exploring. He carried a piece of split lumber as a sword that his father insisted (with good reason) that he not wave around, so Rose got one too and carried it like a walking stick. At one point her friend noticed it.
“Hey, your stick is even better than mine!” he said in an admiring tone of voice. In fact, it was longer and sharper, having been only carried and not banged against dirt and stones for ten minutes like his.
“Do you want to trade?” Rose asked.
He blinked once. “Sure!” he answered, unable to believe the good luck of befriending such a sucker as my daughter. But Rose knew what she was doing. Even though he was a four-year-old boy and even though there were other bigger boys around to play with, he spent at least half of the evening with her. He even showed her a hidden stash of “rabbit eggs” under an rusty, overturned wheel barrow – a clutch of chicken eggs Bonnie had missed.
At 6:00 they brought the pig out of the roaster, laid it on a table, and unwrapped several boxes worth of aluminum foil from around it. It’s pink carcass had been skinned and decapitated. It seemed a fortuitous educational opportunity.
“Rose! Come here. I want you to see this.”
“What is it, Papa?”
“It’s the pig they roasted.”
I held her up so she could see. The head had been disposed of, or at least was not visible from our angle, but the legs and feet still stuck straight up in a rigor mortis fashion. Seth proudly exclaimed the virtues of the bacon and chops, stuffed with apples and onions and basted with maple syrup, to a small assembly of grilling aficionados, while Rose watched silently. When there was an opening in the conversation, she remarked, “I don’t think it looks very good.”
There was a smattering of laughter from this, even from Seth. He was used to squeamish children when it came to their pigs. “You don’t think so?”
“Well,” I intervened, “she’s vegetarian, so nothing you could do would make it look good to her.”
More good-natured laughter, but Rose had seen enough, and I walked away with her knowing that any curiosity she had about eating meat was probably satisfied for at least another year.
Dawn’s allergies were acting up, progressively worsening, and Samuel became obstreperous, deaf to our warnings and calls. Dinner was to be at 6:00, but at 6:30 I overheard Seth calling Bonnie and telling her that the pig was still not ready.
“What do you mean ‘not ready?'”
“As in ‘still raw.'”
He said this outdoors surrounded by several dozen families, all CSA subscribers who had come to enjoy the bounty of the harvest, and who all realized that they would not be eating dinner for at least another hour. As we were not planning to eat meat at all, it became clear that we would be leaving soon. Samuel was riding on my shoulders, saying “Papa. I’m tired. I want to go home.”
While Dawn rounded up Rose, I took Samuel down to the road looking for the river that we could hear but not see. Samuel pointed out a chicken on our right disappearing furtively into the woods. We crossed the road without it and walked along a guard rail overlooking a tree covered slope. From somewhere below, I could hear water rushing, but the trees blocked our view.
“Papa, I hear the rain.”
“You do?” The sky was perfectly clear, blue with tinges of pink and red in the west. “You have very good ears.” I told him.
Just then a car appeared around the curve of the road to our north with an elderly couple inside driving sixty-five miles an hour. They passed within two feet of us pressed up against the guard rail. I saw the tints in her hair and the arthritic grip of his fingers on the wheel. The breeze of their wake embedded leaf litter in the bristles of my beard.
“Oh silly me!” said Samuel. “It was a car. Not the rain.”