Thursday, October 16, 2008

Irish Cobblers

As I stepped on my shovel, it pressed easily into the rich and moist soil of my raised garden bed. Frozen flakes had slipped from the night sky and soon melted in the light and warmth of a mid-morning sun. Pork chops simmered in the crock pot and the apple cider gravy needed a bowl of mashed potatoes. It’s been that way for as long I can remember: a celebration of the cooler air and the sun lower on the horizon.

I took care to dig in a wide arc around the nearly invisible brown stems of the once vigorous potato plants: I didn’t want to spear any of the spuds in half. In the first scoop, the yellow tubers surfaced one and two at a time. As I felt them in my hand, I recalled the day I bought the seed potatoes. It was early June and still freezing at night. It was still cold enough, that I feared what I planted might not even produce anything before the end of my 75 day growing season. But I put my hand in the bin anyway and found a few handfuls of the seed potatoes left.

I expected to buy Yukon Gold seed potatoes, but I was too late. I found Irish Cobblers instead, a variety I’d never heard of before. But somehow I liked the name. (Irish Cobblers were first thought to be grown by Irish shoemakers in the northeastern United States around 1876 and prized for their earliness and resistance to disease.) So, I filled my small brown bag and paid for a dozen little seed potatoes. I faithfully returned to my garden and with a pleasure I have never found outside the soft soil, I planted the tubers, relishing the prospect of their harvest on a cool autumn afternoon.

As late as I was to harvest the potato patch this year, I found the potatoes loyally forgiving: still waiting, still alive and well beneath the dark loam. I plied my shovel in and around three plants. I gathered the beautifully thin skinned potatoes in one corner of the bed: some the size of my palm and others, little, itty bitty baby spuds. As I dug, I kept track of the small gathering and kept adding to it until I thought the harvest would feed us. If I had too many, I didn’t mind. I would eat mashed potatoes for lunch tomorrow and feel comforted by their soft warmth.

When the potato pile was just right, I placed them on my shovel and carried them to the house. Rinsed and cleaned, I put them in a pot of hot water and announced to my son and husband that we were having mashed potatoes and pork chops for dinner. They said I could count them in. As we settled in, I spooned the apple cider gravy and mashed potatoes together and savored the first bite of the harvest. I lingered for a moment and in the satisfaction began to remember so many other October days.

I found myself here and then there: I am a young child walking home from school through tributaries of leaves; I am the mother welcoming her children, fresh faced after a bracing walk from school; and I am the gardener, who waits each year for the moment it’s time to press my shovel into the fine and moist soil of my garden bed and discover the harvest within. It is in these moments of remembrance I am brought to life: the earth firmly beneath my feet, rooted in the cycle of spring planting and fall gathering. And I look back and feel grateful for the pull of those little shriveled Irish Cobblers, the ones with a powerful history and nurtured perhaps by an immigrant shoemaker.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Huntin' Woollybears

Fall unfolds with a comforting ease and a pace I wish for every September. The aspens scroll from summer’s life-giving greens to autumn's soulful yellows . With the drawing down of late summer and the rise of cooler days, many citizens in the Elk River Valley and Routt County begin to speculate about the coming winter season, and we do so by sizing up weather-predicting folklore traditions.

I and other local residents may stand next to skunk cabbage to check its height. The height of the skunk will be the height of the winter’s snows. The skunk cabbage is easily 6 ½ feet high this year. We may look for beaver damns. The higher number of beaver damns, the harder the winter ahead and this year there are many. We may refer to the Farmer’s Almanac, or check out how deep the chipmunks bury their nuts, or in my case, hunt down woollybear caterpillars.

Woollybears are a very hairy caterpillar appearing on roadways in mid-September and early October. They are found wandering across byways in search of a rock or log in which to spend the winter in their larval state, sustaining themselves in freezing temperatures by producing their own antifreeze. In the spring, they transform into Tiger Moths, a strikingly artistic black and white insect.

I talk to friends and family every year about the woollybears, how I look for them on the road down by the canyon, half-way to town. This year they’ve been hard to find. There seem to be fewer and I wonder why. In my research, the banded woollybear I search for is less common than the more common species, yellow woollybear and saltmarsh woollybear caterpillars found in Colorado. Maybe that's why it's been harder to find them; or I wonder, perhaps the increase in commuter traffic increases the likelihood they'll be crushed: an untimely end to their purposeful journey.

Folklore suggests that the wider the orange band on the black woolly caterpillar, the harsher the winter ahead. There is however, no scientific evidence to indicate there’s any correlation between the two. The band width is actually a record of when the caterpillar was born: the wider the band, the earlier the spring and shorter the winter; the narrower the band, the later the spring and the longer the winter. With that, my search is actually misguided and futile: a wide band width means a shorter previous winter. So, the band has nothing to do with the winter ahead. But, I hunt woolly caterpillars anyway, as autumn's brilliance slips into the arms of winter’s embrace. I want to imagine a natural world magical enough to believe in. I want to imagine a natural world filled with a wisdom from which I can hear if I slow down enough to listen.