Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Late Summer

Tints are in the grasses and color is in our trees as late summer strolls along.

This is the transitional time. Summer mixes with fall. Hot sun is tempered by cooler nights and perhaps a few crisp notes of Canada air. Nuances of change are everywhere.

It’s irrevocably past the late sunsets of six weeks ago. We can’t be tricked into thinking summer is holding on. All the same, it’s too early for the nostalgia that September can lay down with its gold and lavender notes and soft hazy evenings.

At our curb the roses contemplate a second wave of bloom. In late June they were exuberantly pink. They were in full shrubby bloom. 

Heat which came like a blast furnace in July, or their own delicate timing, ended the flowering. It makes this unexpected crop a daily delight.

The roses are companioned by Japanese silvergrass, whose recent growth spurt puts the fronds well above the mailbox in a masterpiece of feathery height.

The untidy but always perky black-eye susans round out the plantings. They've mostly done their own styling for curb appeal after our initial support.

The thistles and nettles that wanted to take hold among the plantings met their match and are gone. They were eradicated one by one with each trip to the mailbox. It made the walk  worthwhile no matter the yield from the mailbox.

Squirrels scurrying across our lawns might as well be pushing wheelbarrows. We’re staggered by the weight in acorns they carry off to hiding places.

The theory is that squirrels collect copiously preceding a winter with teeth to it. Based on our observations investing in a down parka or purchases of knee-high snowboots may not be a bad idea.

Maybe the squirrels are displaying a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines philosophy. The bounty of acorns it appears to be this year could turn the most commonsensical squirrel hyperactive. 

They're seized with the belief they must gather all the acorns in. Never mind that by the time the acorns are needed for winter food they’re exquisitely buried and never to be found.

Watching the gray squirrels work almost feverishly it’ll be interesting what January brings.

These are the weeks to fit in a summer drive or short getaway before such activities wind up on the fall list. We had our short session away not too long ago. We relaxed in the country which basked in the peace of late summer and its proximity to harvest.

The morning star was very bright over the tallest pine in the yard where we were. Early sun skimmed the fields. Late summer fog rolled up from the lake to blanket the shoreline road.

Gazing upon the fog bank from our somewhat higher location the scene seemed vaguely familiar. I realized why. It reminded me of numerous air trips.

Flying through clouds the plane climbs above them into brilliant sunshine. You blink into its blinding dazzle reassured it has been there all the time. 

Above the gray dome of fog on the ground the air was crystal clear, which any driver would soon discover getting through to the other side of it.

The morning was so still that the blur of a rabbit moving like ninety was bound to catch the eye. It was going so fast I figured, with some concern, that it was at the tag end of a not so very hilarious game of pursuit.

I watched for a predator to come charging after. Distance prevented me from doing anything heroic towards saving the bunny should it come to that.

It felt like some role was necessary to take. Being the eyewitness account was the best that occurred to me.

Nothing came along. The bunny sprang deeply into green cover. My conclusion was  there'd been no chase. It was simply an agile cottontail enjoying the free and fresh early air.

Being away from routine, for a short break or a more definite amount of time, is beneficial. For many of us it’s the reason for summer.

Summer is not just for the obvious things like crops to grow and the rain to fall and children to grow in the months away from school.Come to think of it, school vacation is immensely routine-busting as perhaps it was meant to be.

Vacations of any kind, including “down time” of any length, give opportunities for exposure to other kinds of learning and experiences.

They offer chances for unstructured hours where creativity hides out sometimes under the names of boredom and too much time on my hands.

One learns there are places that foster observations and insights. Being away from usual work spots or study spots can be among the best places to hone skills of paying attention – to the world around and to what’s inside.

Each place is different for every one of us. We have our own spots. We know them by the degree of detail we take in or by the plans or new ideas that come with being there.

It's neat to have these places wherever we are. Some of us find these places within a season. It triggers within us reactions clearer than other times of the year.

Each season, as with each place we make our own, can release some idea or perspective perhaps not met with before.

Ro Giencke – August 29, 2012


Friday, August 24, 2012

Cool Green Tent

Last night a tree fell on our home. 

We were literally climbing into bed when it happened. We watched and couldn’t believe it. 

The big hackberry tree in our backyard snapped in two. We didn't notice any precipitating factor that could have alerted us to its imminent demise.

The portion of the trunk that sheared off as we watched looked like a green iceberg sliding into the sea. 

The sea in this case was our yard and rooftop. We looked on in awe with no time even to be fearful. 

The tree fell in slow motion yet quickly. Amazement dulled what should have been instinctive reaction to move away pronto. Frozen in place we waited for the inevitable thud.

The tinkling noises of glass disturbed in the window panes got the adrenaline flowing. I was sure the sounds of breaking glass would be next.  I was in the hallway by that time and that was all that mattered.

In the quiet afterward we checked things out. We counted ourselves extremely fortunate. Boughs on the roof and over the deck had made an unbelievably graceful landing.

It was a perfect drop (not that a tree falling on one’s house can ever be described quite in those terms). One lucky thing registered immediately. No glass anywhere was broken.

Rain (for it had begun to rain) wasn’t pouring in or seeping through the roof. That was good enough for me. I went to sleep.

In the light of day we reassessed the damage. Branches rested up against the upper windows in bushy disarray. They required nothing but to be cleared away. Some roof shingles are messed up. This is minor damage Al thinks.

The deck took the brunt of the fall. It was filled with branches and leaves. Incredibly it sustained no damage.

The tree couldn't have lined up its fall better if programmed by a computer. Considering the welter of boughs and branches poking and projecting every which way the end result was a sense of tidiness.

The tree managed to miss eaves and gutters, rainspouts and deck lighting. It didn't puncture window screens. 

All those branches didn't scratch the deck rails or overturn one piece of deck furniture. 

The deck (newly stained just last week) has a fifteen-inch gouge mark in the center of the floor boards. This can be sanded and restained. A trifle in touch-up when you consider costs with major deck damage.

The large limb spanning the deck created a pergola effect. The greenery was draped as if for an outdoor social event. It made the deck on this sticky August morning seem like a cool green tent.

Someone came over to cut up the tree (goodbye $700.00!) and haul away the debris. The backyard was left with an airier canopy and glimpses of open sky not seen before.

The tree with its encompassing umbrella of shade might be missed next summer. Regret is mixed with great thankfulness.

We're glad the part of the tree rotten at the core could come down relatively gracefully. It shed its thicket of green leaves upon us without doing a nasty number on the house which could easily have happened.

Surveying the mess this morning gave me my first smile. It was at sight of  the blanket of leaves on the deck.

Last evening I was about to sweep the deck. Recalling that the forecast was for possible late-evening storms I figured rain or wind would bring down more leaves, rendering futile any sweeping done.

A clean deck can wait until tomorrow was the decision. I went off to find my big fat fall fashion magazine.

I sat with it out on the deck, mentally previewing my autumn/ winter wardrobe under the pleasant shade of the stand of trees which includes the hackberry.

I saved myself some work was the thought that produced this morning's smile. I’d have swept the deck yesterday only to have to do it all over again.

Then a new thought came. I may have saved myself a bit of work but the tree may actually have saved me. 

The hackberry tree held off on its fall until the deck was empty and we were safely inside for the night.

Ro Giencke – August 24, 2012





Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cherry Nut Cake

Beautiful cherries are in the stores. The trip through the produce section is never better, nor a more visual feast, than now.

With nutrition and health a guiding factor in our shopping list it makes eminent sense to add the deep red fruit, heaped so prettily in proud display, to the food items that will make up our munching and meals in the week ahead.

Cherries comprise what I think of as the Big Four of the summer crops. Along with corn on the cob, blueberries and tomatoes my esteemed cherries, as they seasonally appear, define the best of summer.

With the Olympics just over in London, and its glorious show of competitor spirit and awesome athletic skill endowing August 2012 with special flair, I may even score cherries as the gold medalist among the summer delights. Cherries are simply the taste of summer to many of us.

I like cherries so well that as a girl I settled on Cherry Nut Cake as my birthday cake. I wanted my cake iced with no ordinary frosting. It had to be penuche frosting. If it was going to be my day I knew this was my best time for asking for the things dearest to my heart.

Cherries, nuts and penuche as a birthday dessert was triple-tier indulgence. It was like finding a quarter by only looking down and seeing it, so lucky did my party cake make me feel.

The cake maintains its hold on me. It’s wonderful to have a few constants in life. A cake filled with cherries and nuts and frosted liberally with penuche icing puts a smile on me and I’m not counting on that changing.

A copy of Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls, and surely some Nancy Drew detective stories, are the only birthday gifts recalled from childhood. While Christmas gifts did a better job of staying in mind the ones given at birthdays had a more fleeting touch.

What’s remembered instead is the fun of the birthday party with your friends invited, the excitement all around and the supreme moment the cake and ice cream is served and you’re the one who bends in to blow out the lighted candles.

My mom’s love stirred into pink cake batter studded with maraschino cherries and chopped walnuts, and further demonstrated in the floral decorations on my Cherry Nut Cake, is the one birthday gift I’ll never forget or outgrow.  

Cherry Nut Cake

Beat 4 egg whites until frothy. Gradually add ½ cup granulated sugar. Beat until peaks form; set aside.

Cream ½ cup shortening and ½ cup granulated sugar. Add 2½ cups cake flour* and ½ teaspoon salt alternately with 2/3 cup milk. Add 1/3 cup finely chopped maraschino cherries and ½ cup chopped nuts.

Fold in meringue. Pour into two 9” lined cake pans.  Bake in 375 degree oven 25-30 minutes. Cool and frost.

Penuche frosting: Melt ½ cup butter in saucepan. Add 1 cup brown sugar. Boil over low heat for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in ¼ cup milk. Bring to a boil stirring constantly. Cool to lukewarm. Gradually add 2- 2½ cups powdered sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Beat until right consistency to spread.

* to substitute all-purpose flour: 1 cup minus 2 tablespoons flour for each 1 cup of cake flour the recipe calls for                                            


Ro Giencke – August 14, 2012




Monday, August 6, 2012

Three Violins

August is like glancing at your watch and realizing it’s later than you think. 

It makes it important to get in the remaining summer highlights before the calendar runs out.

Fishing is Al’s intent as he pictures lazy August mornings ahead. My interest is for the other end of the day.

My pleasure is getting maximum usage out of the summer evening light. It shrinks with each new sunset and fills our rooms with an earlier dusk.

It makes me wonder how the approach of fall was awaited on long ago farms and homesteads.

Perhaps the rural community didn’t look past harvest, the make or break time of the year with its long hours of bringing in the crops. 

But certainly, with the wheat threshed, the corn siloed and the hay bales hoisted to the barn loft, the next phase of winter preparation took hold.

At night there may have been lights to see across the fields. These steady beacons connected through the quiet starlight. 

The farm lights, standing out above plowed acreage and neat belts of planted windbreaks, told the scattered farms they weren't alone.

Through the winter the farms mostly depended on their own households for company. This often was a mixed group.

It could comprise of family, parents who came to live out their years with them, hired help when it was necessary or could be afforded, or relations on a visit, or waiting out a tough spell when cities could offer no jobs.

Those on hand amounted to your human contact, your support. Everyone else was more or less on the periphery as days shortened and life drew in. 

After chores were done, and the cool night air began to descend, there  were socks to mend by such light as there was, or a bit of harness to repair, or time for storytelling or accounts to balance at the kitchen table.

The children played their own games in a warm corner. The cats – actual house kitties and not the half-wild barn cats who kept the mice population down – curled in balls of comfort completing the scene.

I’m reminded specifically of an old country neighbor. What thoughts were his as August days sloped toward fall?

He was our neighbor in a geographical sense. His farm wasn’t far away.  He was a bachelor. 

I don't think he was a recluse but he was very retiring, almost surely shy. I don't recall every meeting him. Knowledge of him came from what was said of him.

My mother knew him and his family, all of whom were older than she. They were a Norwegian family who came in the early 20th century. It was long after the main thrust of immigration to our parts. 

That first big group settled our area as pioneers of a land just opening up. This family arrived to find their fellow Norwegians well assimilated into American society. 

The Norwegian language had been shed, at least in public, and by the children altogether. Born in Minnesota they tended toward American ways. I wonder what the brave little group braced for as they realized the wide gulf in their experience from that of the others.

The family bought land and this was something they shared with the others. They knew how to work hard and tend well their farm animals and their acreage.

They likely attended the little country Norwegian Lutheran church near their farm. They’d have been faithful Sunday congregants.

The strength of the old Norwegian hymns, still sung at church in their native language, would have supplied courage from one week to the next.

There were trips to the country store, hardly a mile away, and perhaps to the cheese factory. They had a small herd of cows which gave them milk they could sell. Cows meant you were pretty much tied to the farm. The black and white Holsteins had their price.

The family consisted of the parents and a son and daughter. The children were possibly ten or twelve when the family moved from Norway to the United States.

In time the parents died. The son and daughter didn't marry. They stayed on at the home. They farmed and were presumably each other’s friend and companionship.

Then the sister passed away. Carl, as he’ll be called here, continued  alone. Big-hearted neighbors of his (the two farms joined) tucked him under their wings like family.

Carl wasn’t social. The couple respected this. But he was foremost a neighbor and this meant checking on him and including him.

They brought him soup and meals. Sometimes meals were fish which the farmwife caught. She was an avid ice fisherman. She had holes on the lake ice out of which many a winter meal took shape.

Perhaps she took over molasses cookies (cookie jars were always full) or buttermilk pie. Norwegians love their dairy in a hundred different renditions.

There were times they’d sit to coffee together. Coffee was an important part of the ritual of rural neighboring. I’m sure Carl visited their farm somewhat easily. They helped each other at harvest and with chores.

We knew very little, just snippets of what we heard. We did hear that Carl drank his coffee differently. We thought it sounded very Norwegian. We put it like that because we didn’t know how else to categorize it.

He poured his coffee, a little at a time, from cup into saucer. The saucer was a small circular plate that held the cup.

The coffee was allowed to cool before he sipped it from the saucer. We kids didn’t think it so much odd as unique. It was a whiff of old patterns our generation found more amusing than anything else.

Coffee served in a farm kitchen came with something ample. Whatever was newly baked would come out now. Or it might possibly be donuts, punched out of yeasty dough and deep-fried at the counter hours ago with the smell of the cooking fat still in the house.

The table might have homemade bread and preserves or fruit sauce, opened from a Mason jar sealed the summer before from high bush cranberries or apples or plums. It was a sufficient feast to tide Carl over if he decided not to fix anything for dinner later at home.

Carl’s farm was in a pretty bend of the river. The house was enfolded in hills. It wasn’t seen from the road as I recall. There was a red barn you could glimpse except we seldom went that way.

As kids Carl scarcely entered our thoughts. He was rarely mentioned and never seen.

We did think his was a set-apart existence. We could imagine the strangeness of coming as youngsters to a place you never quite latched onto.

We were glad for the kindness shown to him by his nearest neighbors, and no doubt there were many others too who looked out after him.

Our children were babies when I learned there’d been an auction at his farm. Carl went as quietly as his years had been spent. It was left to the family items to tell his story.

Friends attended the auction. There were scores of items they said, stopping to visit afterwards.

Among the calls for bids were linens (probably beautifully embroidered), furniture, which included iron beds, three old violins, egg crates and cheese boxes. Typical of a farm sale there were also many tools.

It was the three old violins that got me. I could hear the music. It came to me this is how the long nights of fall and winter were spent. Music chases away loneliness. It instills hope. It unites, soothes and soars.

I wondered who in the family had been the violin players. Three violins among four people could indicate one violin was shared.

Maybe the fourth person was the listener – the audience, the appreciator. Or perhaps the fourth person provided vocal accompaniment.

I can believe this family group sang of their homeland. They came to terms with the new in the healing music of the old.

Summer, which is outward in its energy, changes to fall’s more concentrated air. This family played from their hearts and hopes as the door closed out the cold and darkness of night.

Any sadness, too, I like to think, was kept on that other side as the strains of the violins had their piece.

Ro Giencke – August 6, 2012