Tuesday, June 16, 2015

First Light Lessons

Montpellier sunrise, photo courtesy of Dominic Carpin, the pater familias at Delli Carpini Farms

"Living six months inside a dog's mouth," is how Novelist and public intellectual James Howard Kunstler describes life in the South during the summer. I have a newly adopted 90 lb dog at my side, an Anatolian / Great Pyrennes mix. She is breathing on me, and there's no way in hell I want to live in that mouth.

Thank God for air conditioning. Yet I can't carry the AC outside on days like tomorrow, when I have to pour 600 pounds of concrete into trenches to make footings / blocks by the dog pen, so the enormous dog does not dig her way out. That means an early start. I will be up at 5am, and my Millennial helper, who has the surprising ability to start early--such a credit to his generation!--will join me at 7.

His peers in my classes cannot bestir themselves before 10 am. Even then they are bleary eyed and feckless. Now what on earth would I do with one of these pampered children on a farm? They'd quit inside of 10 minutes on a day like today, where I was loading 12 bags of quickset concrete into the bed of the pickup while the thermometer read 97and the humidity was at least 80%. But the hard work was already done.

At 6 am, I hung up a trolley-cable run for the dog, so she can stay outside with us tomorrow while we work on her pen. I also took care of some other chores of watering and staging gear for tomorrow, and I was done by 10. It was hot work, but not unbearable. I took a little time to squash some squash bugs and pick cukes for a batch of icebox pickles that I put up after lunch.

I wonder how many of my college kid have even seen a sunrise, unless it was after an all-nighter? It can be a magical event. Last summer, approaching Iceland, I saw the red line of sunrise as a Boston night receded before the Midnight Sun. The sunrise took many minutes, from that bloody line on the curve of the earth to a fully flowering garden of purples and reds. I was stunned enough to not want to nap. I asked the beautiful Icelandic woman serving coffee to bring me a refill. I wanted to see night become day. A nap could wait.

It can be as magical, if not as exotic, to see first light from the seat of a tractor or from the back of the garden. The chickens are already awake. They need no prompting to go on a bug-hunt before the scorching heat of midday drives them into the hard shade under the coop. That is the time to mow hay by hand, to work the chores in the garden, to put soap and oil sprays on young plants before the sun hits them.

The dew is a constant feature of a Virginia early morning. With transpiration rates of about 1 inch weekly in Central VA, and the rainfall ever less certain in our time of rapid climate change, the dew can mean life or death to small plants. I work with wet boots often, dragging hoses to water or, more recently, trucking 35 gallons in the bed of the ATV up to tree-bags around our newly planted fruit trees.

By 10am, unless we are really working it, I'm inside for a shower and another cup of coffee. Some days the heat proves so intense that by 1pm I take a nap. That's an academic's luxury in summer, when we can stay away from the office more,  but then I'd be doing none of this if I were in some cubicle in the land of corporate slavery.

I cannot imagine those poor folks working my garden, either. They'd simply perish. Their experience of heat is that of moving from the car across the parking lot to an air-conditioned office, just in time for the petty humiliations of the work day to commence.

What would have happened if we had no air conditioning in the South? Jim Kunstler has predicted that we'd again become a rural and agricultural backwater. Jim has visited my class and worked with my students; he has a strange fascination with the craziness of The South, and though he and I disagree on some issues about the future, in this regard I find his arguments compelling.

I do know one thing: without air conditioning we would have taken strident action to mitigate climate change. On days like today, the sauna is simply not bearable.

It's the shape of things to come, but for the years I have left, I will have the solace of the cool of day at first light.

Here's the Icebox-Pickle Recipe I pinched from a very old Pillsbury cookbook. It has never failed me:
  • 7 medium pickling cucumbers, thinly sliced. I used gherkins and Asian cukes today.
  • 1 tablespoon pickling salt (DO NOT use table salt, Cheap-Ass. Buy the right salt)
  • 2 medium (2 cups) onion, chopped
  • 1 green pepper, chopped (I omit this)
  • 2 cups sugar (I go light on this)
  • 1 tablespoon celery seed
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seed
  • 1 cup vinegar
In a large bowl, mix the cukes and salt well. Let it stand for 30 minutes, then drain well. Meanwhile, combine the other ingredients in a bowl. After draining the cukes, pour the mixture in the bowl over the pickles. Pack into pint jars and be sure the veggies are covered with syrup. I add a bit of vinegar if it is low. This will keep 3 months in the refrigerator.

Yield is about 3 quarts. Enjoy!