Winding Down; Winding Up

It’s forty-five degrees this morning on our little patch of the prairie.

Bronze fennel in the broccoli bed

Bronze fennel in the broccoli bed

Long underwear weather, and last evening’s rain coupled with the later morning light gives me not-enough-time to prepare for today’s expected-then-abandoned foray to the farmers market. I can’t even see to clean out my car of the various beverage containers, road food wrappers, gallons of water refills, and cases of canning jars both purchased and scored from a friend’s trunk during a chance meeting at the liquor store yesterday–after she and I had forgotten them on multiple trips to each other’s farms over the course of more than a month.

So many details to remember this time of year. When did we last put salt in the softener? How many days after the last pick-up will it take to get the trash cart back up from the end of the driveway? Who has looked in the mailbox in the past week?

These are all the regular chores of day to day living. But there is also, who can we find to scale the peaks and clean out the gutters? When will the outer door be re-framed so the snow doesn’t blow in? Another load of straw for the chickens’ winter bedding, and the gamble of leaving the ripening squash in the field for another week. The last of the onions need pulling (have needed pulling for a month now) from their vast bed of weeds, which also need pulling—and transporting with their full seed heads out of the growing space. The chickens are in the tomato garden again—the groundhog must have made another hole in the fence that needs repair.

Yes, there are onions under those weeds.

Yes, there are onions under those weeds.

The Meander approaches—that great Upper Minnesota River Valley art crawl that provides a big boost to the income of artists, cafes, grocery and gas providers all over the region. Three days of hosting hundreds of visitors to our farm, the preparation for which takes place over the course of months but really winds up in the last couple of weeks.

This year we have the new timber frame studio space to welcome people—a feeling of relief after last year’s set-up took over the entire lower floor of our home, reducing meals to an awkward few bites over the table/check-out area crammed against the wall to open up the “gallery” of the dining room. Easier just to snack on sister Ann’s cookies all weekend and drink too much coffee. I suppose that’s what we’ll do again this year, though excuses for that behavior won’t be as easy to come by.

At 6:30, light begins rising—enough to silhouette the farmstead trees and outline tassel-tips in the cornfield to the east. Venus still shines in the upper darkness, and a lone bat makes a last pass. No birdsong yet—except that Oskar is crowing in the coop, and Wilson, one of our “surprise” cockerels, is emulating with his adolescent cackle. The lower gardens hold deep shadows—protecting rabbits free to forage now that the cats have come in, eaten their kibble, and dozed off in the piles of unfolded laundry on the couch.

Wilson, our handsome Partridge Rock (surprise!) cockerel

Wilson, our handsome Partridge Rock (surprise!) cockerel

Canning is almost a daily affair now—all the food preservation equipment should probably just live upstairs until the gardens give out. The 18 quart roaster’s on the table in front of me; the food mill and pressure canner in boxes on a chair behind, and the boiling water bath is still on the stove-top after last night’s quadruple batch of salsa verde. The dehydrator hasn’t yet made its yearly appearance, but celery leaf is on the agenda (a two-part process, as the stalks get chopped and frozen), and the shell beans will need finishing after the season’s ample rains.

And then there’s the shelf-stable produce–onions, once pulled, need time on the sun porch table to cure—squash is likely to fill up the rest of the area where we ate when daylight was long enough for working late and supping at sunset. At least the garlic is dug, cleaned, cured, and put away—though bags of heads labeled and sorted for seed are waiting out there for re-planting in the next month.

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At 7:30 it’s finally light enough to let the chickens out. My toes feel frozen and I’ve resorted to my earflap cap, but they seem immune—even energized by the sudden drop in temperatures. That’s good—the coop is unheated, and it’ll be a lot colder than this come winter, even with their deep layer of straw. I’ll give their house a final cleaning-out (and my compost pile a top-dressing) before we start creating that heat-generating pack of manure and straw that gives them a little extra insulation against the extremes of the dark season. But not this morning—the early half of the day is prime laying time, and I’ve been scolded enough by perturbed hens to know I should just stay out until the sun shifts west. It’s their house; I’m just the cleaning crew.

Gratuitous earflap cap-sunflower selfie

Ridiculous gratuitous earflap cap-sunflower selfie

Since I’m not at the farmers market, and I’m not allowed in the chicken house, the morning will have to shift the other work. Will it be the twenty pounds of wild plums in the studio fridge, waiting to be turned into jam? Should I attempt the celery project? What about harvesting the squash or pulling the onions? A deep cleaning of the cold storage room would be useful progression.

Best to think on it a bit over breakfast, then take out the compost, wash the dishes, put salt in the softener, and finally bring the trash cart up from the road. I’m sure after all that I’ll figure out something useful to do with my time.

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Ah, Autumn!

Walking into the kitchen after a road trip to pick up pork at Pastures of Plenty for our local Granary Food Co-op reminded me of another prime reason for loving this time of year. Rebecca’s roaster of tomatoes and other vegetables were simmering down to make her signature Smoked Eggplant Tomato Sauce. So intoxicating! So autumn!

Sumac shines in the early morning sun just down the road, one of the sure signs of autumn..

Sumac shines in the early morning sun just down the road, one of the sure signs of autumn..

Actually, just smoking the eggplant felt autumn-y in itself … although a couple of racks of ribs might have been even more appealing if not satisfying, with that curling scent of bluish apple wood smoke drifting away from the chimney. We are seasonal eaters, with exception of what we don’t can or freeze, so apple wood has become a staple. As have apples, the prime fall fruit along the wooded river hills around here. Cider. Apple sauce. Apple butter. Pork simmering in a curry with tart apple chunks. Ah, the joys of autumn!

Driving up the Lake Road this afternoon offered numerous signs of the changing of the season. Even in our yard, which isn’t all that close to water, the leaves are losing their chlorophyll, meaning of course, their greenness. We are a few weeks from the peak, yet when I sat on our listening bench in the loop of our grove last Saturday a constant sprinkle of crinkly leaves rained down around me. Although we are hundreds of miles from real woods, there was the smell of a fall even in the grove timber. A crispness. A crinkling, dry feeling. With sunlight filtering down through the canopy. Then, unexpectedly, a wren … small, nervously alert, and beautifully brown, like those dried leaves … flitted onto a nearby branch. Ah, autumn.

The little wren popped up amidst the sprinkling of leaves in the grove.

The little wren popped up amidst the sprinkling of leaves in the grove.

On the prairies around us big bluestem and Indian grass are browning, and those clubbish, naked seed heads of cone flowers defy the prairie winds that give the grasses their freedom of beauty. Golden rod is starkly peeking through the brown. You will likely not find a better time to stroll through a grassy prairie, wading through this dance of autumn as a staunch breeze batters you from the side. I wish I could hear better, to perhaps hear the subtle rustle of the blowing grasses.

Cone flower seed heads stand out from the browning prairie grasses.

Cone flower seed heads stand out from the browning prairie grasses.

Just above the grasses you’ll still see a few dragonflies, although those sweeping, acrobatic swallows have departed. Last year their leaving was much more dramatic. I had been working in my wood shop, which is in the former goat barn of the previous owners, and the swallows had been after me all morning. Buzzing in and out, sometimes swooping within inches of me above the saws and the router in their daring-do. That afternoon the barn was abnormally and noticeably quiet before the sudden realization that the swallows were gone. In a heartbeat, perhaps, the signal had passed among them that it was time to go. To migrate, that great innate passage and mystery science is still trying to unlock.

Golden Rod peeking through the big bluestem on a recent pre-dawn morning.

Golden Rod peeking through the big bluestem on a recent pre-dawn morning.

This fall, though, they flew away without so much as a morning of pronouncement! Just disappeared as abruptly and mysteriously as they so suddenly appeared back on that warm, May afternoon. So, no, the swallows are no more, and the few insects out over the prairie grasses are being seized by those dwindling squadrons of dragonflies.

One early morning this week we both stepped onto the deck off our kitchen with our tea and coffee to an almost eerie hum. It was loud enough that we were sort of looking at one another in question when a sudden “swoosh” erupted from the grove as a murmeration of blackbirds rose in unison from the treetops. Hundreds. Perhaps a thousand. You can’t count a murmeration. Last fall I had posted a picture of a nearby rise of the blackbirds from an oak savanna down the road and an old friend wrote, “I’m so glad you now live out here and can see these things.” Of course, she was right. In talking with people my age who grew up before that last great ditching and tiling of the prairie pothole region in the 1960s, back when there were enough prairie potholes of significance, they reminiscence of murmerations so thick of birds that the sky was blocked by a canopy bird blackness. I’m not the only photographer who has recorded a ribbon of murmeration blackness, and certainly not the only one who can wish for experiencing such a moment from the past … one that will likely never be no more, one mankind has erased from the earth forever.

Thousands of blackbirds rise from the trees ... a murmeration.

Thousands of blackbirds rise from the trees … a murmeration.

Although our neighboring farmers with the pothole wetlands planted corn this year, which now block our views of those wetlands, we can still hear the geese as they begin to gather. A month from now along with the dust of harvest the skies will be full of the sounds and skeins of geese as they seek recently harvested fields to gorge their gizzards before the last long flight of the year. Ah, autumn!

Moments ago we took our nightly mugs of wine out on the deck, and witnessed a small murmeration, the skittish flight of a few dragonflies, the distant honking of geese, and still another sign of the approaching autumn … a distinct chill in the air. A fall wind. Autumn was all there for the taking, for the filling of the senses. Now is a time you begin the morning with a sweater, then work off the layers as the sun climbs in the sky. Cool mornings, balmy afternoons. We call this an Indian summer for some reason.

Our windows are open at night allowing the breezes to caress us with coolness. While it is still warm enough not to send chills down your arms and legs, you awake in the morning realizing that at sometime during the night you must have unconsciously reached down to pull up a quilt; that you had snuggled deep into the warmth of the bed and up against one another.

Ah, autumn!