Home and Shop Companion 0127
Home and Shop Companion 0127

Rural Ramblings – Winter 1981
Ralph C. Miller

We’re well into the early days of autumn as I write. Crisp, but foggy nights, and the warm sunny afternoons of bright October. I won’t belabor the subject of ‘Indian Summer’ except to say that whoever deserves the credit has my gratitude. It’s a fine time of year, last gasp or not. Along with the obvious benisons of nature, it is harvest time – a plus by any reckoning.

The frost held off pretty well so we got a little more out of the garden patch than expected. The last of the tomatoes and peppers, tomatillos and a few stalks of celery; no pumpkins this year but a goodly store of winter squash (baked with a dab of butter and a little brown sugar or honey very few things taste any better). The carrots and parsnips will stay in the ground until we come back in Spring; we still have late lettuce, broccoli, New Zealand spinach and a couple of zucchini, plus parsley, cilantro and other herbs.

Not a great year for apples (the pears picked last month), but the Red Delicious are gathered and wrapped, the Kings peeled and canned or made into pies for the freezer. The grapes make juice as do a few of the apples. It’s a busy time in the kitchen where Friend Wife, that Master Chef, juggles all the garden gather with a little help from her rambling spouse.

Not the least of the labors of these last few days … Succotash! As I used to do as a boy I picked and shelled the leftover green beans (never heard of limas), then the final harvest of late sweet corn is shaved into whole kernels with a big sharp knife; the menial tasks completed, the Chef takes over, adds salt, seasoning, and chopped onion, plus a dash of magic, and cans the delectable golden combination for our later enjoyment.

Succotash is a homespun treat to more jaded palates but modern science confirms that corn and beans together are nutritionally much better than either alone. Old fashion in so many things is frequently the latest discovery.

Samoset and Squanto knew the goodness of succotash and convinced the Pilgrims at Plymouth long years ago. This time of year – harvest time – often takes us back to the Puritan Colony beside the Bay. I guess most people associate the beginnings of America with the founding of what would become Massachusetts. Of course, the Pilgrims did have a pretty good press, so they have managed to fool a good many (including educators), that they led the rest of us into untrammeled wilderness.

I mentioned Samoset and Squanto, the Indians who helped the Colonists through that first Winter. Now the Pilgrims couldn’t have expected a Welcome Wagon hostess when they stepped down from the fabled Rock, so they should have wondered at the warm reception by ‘Savages’ who had never before seen white men. Especially when some spoke a little English!

There is a very good possibility that one of the Indians (Samoset?) had even been to London. I wonder why none of the teachers, historians or historical muckrakers ever gave us that glimpse of early New England? John Cabot explored the East coast in 1497. Are we naive enough to believe that no Englishman was smart enough, intrepid, ambitious or greedy enough to take advantage of this Great Continent for 120 years?

The Spanish were colonizing the New World by 1500 with or without Royal approval. So what if the English Monarchy was heedless or tardy. Englishmen too were sailors, fisherfolk, adventurers and not always law-abiding citizens of the Crown. The early pioneers, fishermen and poachers weren’t asking for charters. They were too busy taking out timber, furs and fish by the shipload.

I don’t know how many settled there, how many traders wintered over with the Indians or how many colonial children were born before 1620, but I’m sure there were many. I doubt that Virginia Dare was the first white child here; I even doubt that Samoset was the only Indian to visit England. It was just that the 6 o’clock news failed to report it. Those people weren’t stupid. They knew that as soon as the King took official notice there would be Inspectors, King’s Ministers and Tax Collectors in swarms. They were right. They’re still right!

Can I prove any of this? Maybe not, but I have seen a sign outside a small town in Maine that says “Founded in 1613.” As for the rest, they weren’t issuing birth certificates here then but common sense will tell you it had to have been that way and there have been such stories way down East for as long as any can say.

‘Nuff sed.’ Let’s get back to succotash and other blessings. The treasures of our basement shelves and bins are one of the joys of coming home. We don’t live exactly as my family did when I was a boy but there are enough of those memorable golden similarities to provide a cherished link with my childhood.

I’m well aware that to be relevent this column (and even more so, the magazine) has to be more than just an exercise in nostalgia. I hope it is but after you pass a certain age, seems everything reminds you of things that have gone before. Some time back I read a review and then saw the woman on TV talking about a study that purported to show that children growing up in much of rural America were disadvantaged, culturally deprived. She equated all small farms with the poverty level and was very assertive about their being a poor environment to rear children.

I fumed a bit, but it was so much hogwash that I dismissed it from my mind … but not entirely. Having but recently passed that ‘certain age,’ 65, I received a couple of books from two of my sons who know my tastes. This is not a book review, but I would recommend either or both books to anyone who is interested in the Family Farm, Homesteading in the Wilderness or just enthralling literature. A Book-of-the-Month Club selection The Land Remembers by Ben Logan and the biography Ralph Edwards of Lonesome Lake as told to Ed Gould.

Aside from their literary merit they give a true picture of what it was really like, all the hardships as well as the rosier portions. I’ve never lived as far back as Lonesome Lake in remote British Columbia but 60 years ago the Northwoods of Wisconsin may have come pretty close. As for Logan’s book, ‘Seldom Seen Farm’ outside Gays Mills was only about 12 miles as the crow travels and a matter of three ridges down across the Kickapoo from the ridge I wrote of in my first column, the old Holcomb Homestead where my Grandfather was born. The Land Remembers stirs old recollections from visits, from the stories told in the family and from another more mysterious source.

I propounded a theory – not necessarily original – some time back. I hold that there is a great body of lore accumulated by the human animal over the countless millenia and, by some deep alchemy of our genes, we all have access to it without volition and to varying degrees. To put it more simply, we remember things, we know things, we feel things, we cannot possibly have experienced. It’s the reason why some writing often strikes a chord. We know and sometimes employ skills we have never learned. Especially when called for in emergency.

If this sounds farfetched be aware that science is now studying this in the lower orders. Bees, butterflies, wild birds – many or all animal life spring from the womb, egg or cocoon already equipped with knowledge or instincts necessary for the survival of the species. No matter where you have been raised, the howl of a wolf (mentioned, by the way, in both books) will quite literally stir the hairs on the back of your neck. Atavistic … a throwback, inexplicable, but very real.

By that token I believe Logan’s book and, to some extent, that of Edwards, brings memories of things I never knew as well as many that I did. And of course, the set of values that both books emphasize is outside the ken of that Sociologist who pities us poor unfortunates who were deprived of the cultured environments of the teeming cities. She needs to listen to the howl of a wolf. Nothing strips away the veneers of civilization more quickly. I speak from experience.

Since I know a little more about boys, I’ll direct these things for small boys (one in particular) with apologies to little girls. Ben Logan and I were operating in the same time frame growing up on Wisconsin farms not over 200 miles apart. His book, like my memories, deals with small homily vignettes of what it was like to be a child growing up in Rural America between the wars.

There were depressions and earth shaking events to be sure, but ours was a world bounded by the weather, the seasons, the crops and harvests; by such mundane things as fish, mosquitoes, neighborhood gossip, local and personal calamities and triumphs with our communities and more especially our families. If those were disadvantages we never knew it and can’t believe it now that our horizons have broadened somewhat.

To me, and obviously to Ben Logan, a farm, a real one diversified and with animals, that is run by the family who owns it contains in microcosm all of that world a child needs to grow and find fulfillment. In the event that he does want to venture farther as he gets older he will find the lessons learned on the farm to be better preparation than the city or even much of the trivia touted by academic proponents.

But all this is too high-falutin’ for our earnest tad; he knows these things by the frost on his nose and cheeks in Winter, by the feel of his bare feet in the dust of Summer. A small boy following his father behind the plow watched the fat grubs make a meal for birds, learned of gentleness when his father raised the sickle bar on the mower to miss the nest of meadowlark or kildeer in the hayfield. Reward is their paean of joy every day. He never heard of metamorphosis but he brought home a bucket of tadpoles and changed the water faithfully until their tails dropped off and they hopped out as amphibians.

A small boy pulled the petals of the red clover and sucked the sweet ends to learn where a bee gets nectar – he watched the oriole weave a watertight nest with a hole just large enough for her and too small for the parasitic cowbird. When he saw the first redwing blackbird of the Spring swaying on the willow wand and calling out his pleasure at being back it reminded him to look for golden cowslips in the creek just over the rise and in the clear cold water found the first shoots of wild watercress that spiced his bread and butter sandwich.

At five years old our farm lad went with the dog to the pasture to bring in the cows, a momentous step into manhood and responsibility. Cows are patient and mostly gentle animals who can be counted on for the milk, butter and cottage cheese which he loved. The one exception to patience which had caused him some anxiety turned up as a red hide robe which warmed him then as it would warm his children 40 years later.

He loved to hug the stove in Winter or toast himself at the other one on which his Mother cooked, but he soon learned that the stoves too had a voracious appetite and a stack of wood piled higher than his head in the back porch would scarcely last through until next day. The days of Summer seemed all too short when he played, swam or fished, but they stretched interminably when he hoed, weeded or did chores.

One chore he never tired of was berrying. Wild blackberries and raspberries were a sometime thing where he lived; all the more cherished when they did appear. Best of all he loved the blueberries and learned to know every patch over a wide area. Eventually he encountered a swamp where they teemed every year, but of course many others learned of it too. A thing like that is never a secret for long and had to be shared ungrudgingly – even once with a big black bear. The bear fortunately was more of a gentleman than some of the humans and kept to his own corner.

He was told that you never get something for nothing but fishing and picking berries came pretty close since he never thought of either one as work. On the other hand, the tiny, sour, red pincherries or the slightly larger but oh so puckery chokecherries were a mixed blessing. With a seed so big and they left your mouth almost paralyzed – still if you got enough of them for Mother to cook down into jelly the spicy end-product was almost worth it.

He learned work and reward on the farm. That far North, crops were chancy and rewards slim, but a full cellar, larder, bins and brine tubs insured a good table. And he would never in his life make the mistake of thinking that pork chops or potatoes were the product of the butcher shop or the produce market. He helped butcher, picked potatoes, learned early the direct connection between a full belly and sore muscles.

Another lesson absorbed as through his pores was that life and death were two sides of the same coin. Death was inevitable but life leaped just as surely. Baby pigs, calves, chicks were a constant renewal and every Spring new plants sprang forth from the buried husks of last year’s crop. Life was not something to be taken carelessly or needlessly but when it was necessary you did not hesitate. Man’s answer to Nature’s strict demands – a tradeoff rather than exploitation and with rewards and penalties commensurate with accountability. Man could take the increase for his needs but in return had to protect, to build up; preserve and feed the soil and the animals, wild or domestic, or see them disappear along with his own survival. He would never forget it.

Culturally deprived? Disadvantaged? Well, maybe he was, but he never knew it. He knew no philharmonic but stopped often in tall pines to hear sighing winds that moaned through muted concertos or crashed wild crescendos played for his ear alone and never to be exactly repeated. The sibilant sounds of running water, bird songs, crickets, katydids and locusts – the shrill evening songs of tree toads while a great bull frog thrummed an accompaniment; on rare occasions he stood party to the drumroll of the partridge – the ruffed grouse – vaunting his virility to his female from atop a hollow log.

Deepest base of all was the boom of the bittern. This shy cousin of the herons also taught him camouflage. Motionless, with head and long bill pointing at the heavens, he was indistinguishable among the reeds, brown grass and cattails. Pity the poor frog, minnow, tadpole or crawdad who came too close.

Art he would absorb and poetry as they came to reflect the sights and experiences within his horizons. It would be many years before he would visit the Metropolitan, the Louvre, the Prado, the British Museum or the National Museum in Amsterdam; would stand in the home and studios of Rembrandt, El Greco or stare in mute wonder before the Mona Lisa, but he had early marvelled at Moonlight on Northern Lakes, the Aurora Borealis, or a deer drinking at dusk.

He knew a fairy ring deep in the woods, a paling of white birches lining a swift river, the splendor of goldenrod and gentians and in late Fall even brighter than the palette of Autumn leaves was the glory of wild bittersweet. When the Poet sang, “Whither mist, falling dew, while glow the heavens with the last steps of day, – Far in yon rosy depths doest thou pursue thy solitary way,” the small boy knew that it was pure expression of his feelings at sight of curlew, bittern, heron or wild duck winging across the western sky at twilight.

As for drama, as do all small boys, he loved pretending and the fields and woods were by turns Camelot, Culloden or Custer’s Last Stand. But even more than the play acting was the daily drama of life on the farm and in the country. The antics, pitfalls and the narrow scrapes of farm animals and wild creatures, the trials and triumphs of family and neighbors trying to wrest a living from soil and seasons was comedy, tragedy, drama of the highest order … Not entirely deprived, surely.

To get back to Ben Logan, I’ve never met the man but we’re old friends. As the hackneyed old expression has it, ‘We went to different schools together’ … Literally. Most of my grade school days were spent in a one-room schoolhouse twin to the one he speaks of. Nearly everything he mentions in his book happened in like fashion in the old Wheeler School of my boyhood. And the point he makes that by the time you got out of the eighth grade you had gone over every lesson of every grade eight times is exactly my experience.

Not only in school, but in the barn, in the silo, the woodpile, the threshing machine and the strawstack; what he did I remembered because I had been there. But aside from my own memories I would defy anyone to read The Land Remembers and say that Logan was culturally deprived – that the farm or the country is no place to bring up a boy or a girl.

There is much to be said for a painting by DaVinci or Van Gogh, for a composition by Debussey or the poetry of a Wordsworth, but there is still a lot of culture in Agriculture, especially in a creation by Samoset and Squanto and titled ‘Succotash.’

Home and Shop Companion 0127

Home and Shop Companion 0127

Home and Shop Companion 0127