Wednesday, October 12, 2016
Fall and All That
Around this time of year little weekly and freebie papers (as in newspapers, remember them?) that usually focus on phone-sex ads and supermarket coupons give their beleaguered staffs a little freedom. These writers then run sentimental pieces about the season.
Let me essay that with my quivering quill, "The russet leaves of the towering oaks, 'neath which the scampering squirrels nimbly put away their toothsome treasures against the bitter blasts to come. Oh, as I once told Linda, my lost love, summer hath all too short a lease..."
Alliteration. Adjective strings. Really bad infusions of pseudo-Elizabethan English.
Out, damned feel-wistful columns and a pox upon thee! I have other sentiments to express about Autumn. Namely, that it sucks to lose two old colleagues in two days. And all your squash.
First, the humans lost. Both were here at the university when I arrived in 1991; one had been here when my late brother enrolled in '66, only to be booted two years later right into the US Army and, but for the deescalating grace of Richard Nixon, all the way to Danang. Nearly fifty years have flown since then.
Our campus flag flies at half-staff one day for each of my old academic commiserators. A day later, the little slip of paper with information on their lives and accomplishments, put in an acetate holder on the flagpole, goes right to the recycling bin. Game over.
With all that in mind, 'neath the towering oaks around Westhampton Lake, I took a pleasant stroll today to think about what is really important not on a college campus, but beyond its boundaries. For me, it was I learned in a difficult summer about working the land.
The clouds did indeed look like October, and the lake has grown more woodsy since I began walking around it, 'neath various moons, with girlfriends back in the 1970s. Days like this, with a good northwestern breeze, invite reflection. The light is slanted so the blue deepens in the sky.
To a Deist like me, it becomes consolation enough. There was a time thirty years ago, however when I stopped believing in a Providential God and nearly went full-on Paul Bowles into existentialist atheism. You know, The Sheltering Sky. That sky is there, Bowles claims, only to keep us from recognizing the horror beyond it. That type of nihilism is terribly easy.
In 30-plus years, my particular speck will be as gone as my departed colleagues. What will I leave as a legacy? Some furrows where I grew hot peppers fairly well for a local restaurant? A restored tractor that someone will buy at an estate sale?
Or maybe these blog posts, gathering pixeldust in Google's bowels, until some purge or merger leads Blogger, Blogspot, and associated content to vanish?
Say, maybe I'll put them together, with transitions and new content, into a popular book that I'll sign at events like the recent Heritage Harvest Festival! Then tour the entire country, giving talks about buying the right tractor or the right farm pickup! That's it, Immortalitatem Ex Libris!
Or the book will be remaindered for $5 on a side table at Barnes & Noble and I'll report my travel expenses to the IRS and go back to growing peppers.
Thus, the turn to the squash. That, friends, I can not only control under the sheltering sky but even enjoy.
We planted 100 row-feet of Kabocha Squash this year for a customer who wants a few bushels a year for a restaurant special. I was wary of squash bugs, so half my plants began under row cover. These were new beds never used for fruiting plants before. I planted late in the summer to try to avoid the bugs' most prolific weeks. They multiply not arithmetically, but exponentially.
And so they did. Some wilting in the uncovered rows warned me of catastrophe at hand. I opened the covered rows and it rivaled a zombie's feast out of a Roger Corman film: the dead vines, with thousands of squash bugs and nymphs. No application of diatomaceous earth could save the remaining plants. One day I came out to find all the rest withered. So what did I learn? Stop using organic practices and hit the aisle-o-death at Home Depot?
No. A friend brought me a perfect Kabocha she'd grown. I stuffed it with a Middle-Eastern tomato sauce, lamb, and rice, and baked it. And I am drying and saving all the seeds. She used one part Dr. Bronner's Eucalyptus Soap to 9 parts water, spraying weekly.
Bowles, in a haunting and disturbing (like all his work) piece called "Next to Nothing," says "no one can know where he is, until he knows where he has been."
So the desire just to keep going on, mindful of where he has been, can be enough. Try again with different variables: late planting, Dr. Bronner's, crop rotation. Read the paper on the flagpole and remember Irby's hilarious imitations of James Dean, "the worst actor ever to be famous," or Harry, who wrote dozens of well regarded books but never learned to drive until he was in his 40s. His belches in the Dining Hall were Rabelaisian.
These are the lessons of Fall, on campus or on the farm. Remember. Despair is easy in a bitter season, when anger and stupidity contend to see which force is mightier.
Endurance is a harder lesson still. Learn it.