Nuts and game birds. Well, perhaps not here in the big city, except via my local grocery store.
Before I continue my Reading the Year project, I’ll list again the books I’m reading slowly, trying to keep with the calendar as these authors narrate their (or others’) lives over the course of a year. Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence (1991) may be the most familiar title. The other four are This Common Ground, by Scott Chaskey (2005), about an organic farm at the eastern end of Long Island, New York; Gladys Taber’s The Stillmeadow Road (1962), about her country home in Connecticut; Yorkshire Cottage, written by Ella Pontefract and illustrated by Marie Hartley (1984), from their series about life in the Yorkshire Dales; and Lost Country Life, by Dorothy Hartley (1979), which takes us through the country year in Late Medieval/Early Modern England. All have been in my collection for decades, but until now I’d read only two of them.
Up in Connecticut, Gladys Taber is still surrounded by dogs, both her own and those of friends and neighbors. Like the other authors in this group, she is struck by the beauty of her surroundings as autumn moves in, referencing a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay (which you can read here) as she admires the “woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag / And all but cry with colour!” Wild geese begin their southerly migration, and the last patch of pipsissewa “carpets a hidden part of the woods.” For Taber, “October is the jewel set in the hand of time.”
Scott Chaskey’s tasks, on his Long Island organic farm, ease up as autumn moves in. Monarch butterflies, that have enjoyed the milkweed Chaskey planted for them, begin their southern migration. The trip south to Mexico and then back north to the eastern tip of Long Island takes several years, meaning that the monarch butterflies you see next summer are the great-great-great-grandchildren of this year’s cluster. As habitat on the migration route disappears, monarchs find it more and more difficult to complete the journey. Fewer are able to reproduce, and subsequent years’ clusters arriving in the north will be smaller.
About the soil on his farm, Chaskey explains, “It is estimated that almost 200,000 earthworms can reside in an acre of soil. That’s 199,999 more than occupied our hillside field when we took it over.” He also reminds us that “nature can manufacture an inch of topsoil every seven hundred years.” Chaskey planted crops that fed the soil; encouraged diversity in plant, insect and animal life; changed plowing techniques; and avoided chemical fertilizers that provide only short-term benefits — all these paid off, with richer soil, higher yields, and tastier crops. And more earthworms.
Back in the Middle Ages, Dorothy Hartley’s farmers are busy with their flocks of fowl and herds of pigs and goats. She explains that when exporters needed pigs to board ship via a gangplank, they “deliberately drove them away from it. Instantly [the pigs] rebelled and went up it! If it is necessary to lead one pig forward, tie a string to its hind leg and pull backwards; the pig pulls forward and so goes ahead.” Now we know exactly what “pigheaded” means.
Fowl were useful not just for their meat, but also for eggs, feathers, down, and guano (an ingredient in gunpowder). In case you decide to make your own bow and arrows, you must take the feathers “from the same wing for each arrow in order to get the air curve correct for the spin.”
Mayle’s and Pontefract’s narratives are mostly concerned with construction. Each has acquired an old cottage in need of repairs, and each spends much of the year reporting progress.* For Mayle, the situation has become untenable:
There comes a time in the restoration of an old house when the desire to see it finished threatens all those noble aesthetic intentions to see it finished properly. The temptation to settle for the shortcut nags away as the delays add up and the excuses multiply: the carpenter has severed a fingertip, the mason’s truck has been stolen, the painter has la grippe, fittings ordered in May and promised for June don’t arrive until September, and all the time the concrete mixer and the rubble and the shovels and pickaxes become more and more like permanent fixtures.
Of course Mayle’s impatience is stoked by the fact that he was living in the house during the restoration. Pontefract’s situation was somewhat different, in that she and her partner, Hartley, lived elsewhere during the most disruptive period. October finds the two of them settled in their finished home, comfortably sat before a fire. Outside, as Pontefract writes,
October flared forth in all her glory, and showed us that at its best it is one of the loveliest times of the year in hill country. For a period the landscape seen through a filmy haze took on a familiar yet enchanted beauty. One morning during that time a streak of sunlight piercing the mist turned the barn on Croft Hill into a cinnamon house, and transformed the sycamore beside it into a red of gold. A curlew calling a mournful farewell made a last flight across the valley. Cobwebs spangled with moisture made networks over the thorn hedge.
PS: I do believe WITCH WEEK is less than a month away!
*It’s ironic that I chose to read these books while living through my own construction nightmare: work on my building’s roof affected every room in my top-floor apartment. One day, the workmen broke through my kitchen ceiling:
“Is that !@#$%^& daylight?!?” Yes, it is. And this was in mid-January. Here we are, October, and they’re still at it (see second photo, taken at the end of September. “No interior repairs until all exterior work has been completed.” Sigh.