Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Growing Season

Comes the Growing Season.

And in Piedmont the autumn nights are chill and pungent with pitch and cut wood.  Our shortened days shine in shades of true green, deep blue and butter yellow like Kodachrome memories of my Idaho childhood summers. Sometimes, a steady, massaging rain falls and percolates through the pine needles, the sandy loam and the firm nutritious clay, deep into the forest where you can hear the trees drinking deep while occasionally shaking themselves clean of golden leaves. More often, the sun shines and warms the steaming garden soil causing roots to expand in the dark mulch. This is the Growing Season.

When we first got here, weary from our titanic moves from the New York City fourth floor walk-up to Tiny Town PA, and then from Tiny Town to Piedmont (half a world away), the singeing summer sun was on high broil. Piedmonters, who are steeped in Southern hospitality (which is real,  not some sort of kabuki mask as some Northerners would have you believe) apologized for the heat as if they themselves had been remiss and had left the thermostat up. It's not always like this, they said, mopping their brows in late July. You just wait, yes, you just wait 'til autumn! Why it's like a second spring 'round here!

Our turnip greens.
In September in Piedmont, everyone plants pansies and it's said that their multicolored petticoats will last through December. Lawns are fed and seeded,  bushes and trees are pruned hard, and winter gardens are 'put in'. On our .79 acre and without benefit of mule, we have been working hard all summer and fall alongside our gardener Pinewood L. Palustris and his intense, silent Chiapan sidekicks Bendito and Jesús. It was Pinewood who first mentioned Winter Gardens, a term that for me had always before signified a concert venue in the Financial District of New York City. One day in late August gazing around the yard he said, "Well I guess it's time y'all be wantin' to put in the winter garden," and of course we obediently did; Pinewood is a descendant of the Piedmont's African Cherokees, and we follow his instructions to the letter.

Pinewood smiled tolerantly when he saw how many kale and cabbage seedlings I had bought; he knew it was too much. He showed up one morning unannounced and spread some secret seeds in the the dark, humid soil of the fenced-in vegetable garden. They sprouted within hours, glow-in-the-dark green and promising good things. It's a collection of root vegetables, he told me, probably some turnips and I don't know what else. Within weeks we began to harvest the intense green leaves,  and we marveled at their tenderness and slight peppery taste when cooked parboiled and then sauteed with butter and garlic.

In the growing season the deer and other forest creatures are in rut, and in the early morning and even sometimes in the slanting sun of late afternoon they stand in our forest, still as plaster statues, watching us, unmoved even by the dog's attention. A red fox has taken to pacing the length of one of our fences. And suddenly hundreds of squirrels have descended upon us, as if brought in by buses to winter here. The bird population changes and grows, but the feeder won't be necessary until later because there's an abundant harvest of grubs and seeds for them; by November, petite acorns from the willow oaks stud the ground everywhere. Rabbits lope easily across the back lawn at dawn's early light. This is the Growing Season, when the gentle rains bless the earth and everyone drinks his fill. Cool nights smell of rosemary and pine and promise comfort and joy.

But how to break the habit of seasonal dread? The patterns of 22 years in New York City are built into my bone and muscle and I feel my spirit begin to contract with the old morbid fear of the harsh, concrete freeze to come even as my new garden expands into the soft Piedmont earth, here and now. I feel my habitual resentment of the coming winter and it persists in my spirit, conflicting with my actual knowledge that I have in fact escaped to a kinder, gentler place. It's as if the shortening daylight flips a fear and loathing switch in me that won't quite turn off despite my current circumstances;  I remain alert to this old emotion, stomping out the bitter embers of the bad mood that habitually creeps upon me at this time of year, cleaning it off me every morning so that I don't poison the innocent creatures growing in my southern garden with my own dark, vestigial emotion. Slowly, Piedmont is taming me to see that the world's not so harsh after all.

Remember: There will be no blocks long sheets of ice to walk to work on this year; there will be no layers of  always slightly sodden and smelling woolens, no grim-faced struggles against the unnatural wind gusts slicing through the iced canyons of downtown, the bitter winds that sucker punch pedestrians just for fun and offer constant resistance to every muscle in one's body. There will be no more resentful throngs jockeying for position as they stand waiting for ever-fewer and every-later subway trains on the frigid, filthy platforms. There will be no exhausted trek at the end of the day up four flights of puddled stairs to my small cell of safety, no brooding sense of the dark destruction of all life that turns one uselessly existential. I must remember: This is the Growing Season.

I must remember that here in Piedmont it's the Growing Season, and that we are working the earth. Here in Piedmont, the soil responds to our efforts; it gives us food. There is so much to do, that there is barely time or desire to write about it, a sure sign of contentment. We are writing our lives in this soil, planting our very selves in the woody stalks of pruned lagustrum and nandina, and the new mounds of turned earth around our young fruit trees; we participate in the great process of the earth with inexperienced but eager fingers and, sniffing the fragrant southern air, we slowly train ourselves to believe that it is safe to relax into this dark, soft, southern winter night.