My wife Jody just excitedly charged into my “command post” beaming with pride and waving two lovely yellow summer squash in my face. These beauties had volunteered in her compost pile that this time of year is a smoldering mound of leaf mould and “black gold” from our local farmer’s cow pasture. Summer may be hot and steamy, but what could be finer than picking your own lunch.
Years ago when I first escaped the big city with my aging Old English Sheepdog Bobbie in tow, we touched down on the fringe of the George Washington National Forest just on the West Virginia side of the Great North Mountain, an ancient Appalachian barrier that forms the western edge of the Shenandoah Valley. There in the woods I took refuge from events that had brought my little part of the world to an end. It was here that I licked my wounds and yanked the beginnings of a new life and a new garden out of the rock-filled earth.
When Jody retired and joined me full time, I was worried how she would adapt from her highly structured work-a-day world to her new carefree life in the country. After taking her temperature a time or two too many to see “how she was doing,” she grew impatient and explained to me that she was fine and was having no trouble in the transition. In fact, she told me she felt as though she were just coming home, since she had grown up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. Nothing could be more fun than just picking up where she had left off.
A friend had suggested that before she arrived after her retirement party we should hang a banner over the long driveway proclaiming “Under New Management.” It was a great suggestion, even if I procrastinated and never got the banner up. The idea did augur well for things to come, though. When Jody and I were first dating and she visited me in what would soon become her home, she told me the place was ideal but perhaps could use a few feminine touches to make it more comfy. In no time, we had a water softening system along with new appliances and countertops. Goodbye Formica, hello Corian!
But it was the garden, fenced in to keep deer and other critters out, that totally caught her fancy. The land is thin and poor in nutrients but rich in field rock up here on the mountain. She knew I had been composting leaves and other organic matter and turning it into the soil for some time. The farm girl in her smiled at my quaint ways and said she didn’t have the time to wait for the improvements to show themselves. She also needed to mend those fences to keep the bunnies and bulldozer-like groundhogs out. She said she had been studying the farms nearby and wanted to get her spade into some of that other organic stuff that beef and dairy cattle leave around everywhere to step in. Before I knew it, she had befriended our neighbor up the road who had been born and raised here. He had cattle, sheep, and chickens. She said that in getting to know him she felt as though she had an accomplice in the bank vault.
Since our wedding anniversary is in early spring and her birthday in late fall, she knew she had two good opportunities to get presents that she really wanted. Instead of being wrapped in jewelry boxes, they came tucked away in forklifts and trucks. The woods heard a new sound when m’lady sighed with delight as the old John Deere tractor putt-putted its way up the drive carrying the first steaming load of manure from the barn. We prefer the cattle kind, but have had horse (lots of weeds) and chicken (too “hot” at first and aromatic to the extreme).
It’s hard to force any money on our neighbor, who still retains some language patterns of his mountain folk ancestors who would have fit in well with their forebears from Yorkshire. We were thus left with the question of how to pay him for his time and effort. Since many of the good people up here are capable craftsmen who can make most of what they need, including their own liquid refreshment, Jody had an idea. On one of her earlier birthdays, this same fellow told her to go down to an old oak tree and to look inside a hollowed out limb wound. There she found a Mason jar with something special in it. Since she also forages, we have a basement full of elderberry as well as peach, blackberry, and this year currant wine, along with rhubarb liqueur and Limoncello, a potent drink made by soaking sliced lemons in vodka. Bingo! The good woman had chanced upon a wonderful scheme of bartering some of her wares for the makings of a rich garden. A certain successful business arrangement had been born.
This morning after returning home from milking a couple of goats belonging to a lady in a “holler or two” over from us, she began her latest batch of goat cheese. In addition, she was busy pressure-cooking beets from the garden. The rattle of the regulator is almost hypnotic as the beets inside soften. She’s also making jars of bread-and-butter pickles that everyone craves. The steamy kitchen takes me right back to childhood when my mother and aunts would spend many a hot summer afternoon putting up the bounty. Proust’s madeleines have nothing on these remembrances of things past. Our basement food racks are full of jellies, beets, pickles, beans, and corn. We even have a number of jars of canned Leatherback mushrooms we foraged last summer.
Just this past week some people in the area organized a farmer’s market to accommodate the needs of the many weekenders who live and work in the Washington, DC, area, about 2 1/2 hours east of us. We are somewhat amused at all the excitement the new market has generated.
Although we have no plans to sell any of our goodies there, we are open to new forms of barter. What really caught our attention, however, was the news that someone is planning on raising Llamas, known amongst other things for their rich fertilizer….