My Summer in a Garden, 1870- Week 7

I haven’t done a garden post in awhile. If you remember, I’ve been comparing my garden to Charles Dudley Warner’s 1870 garden diary this summer, here and here. Here we are, already on Week 7.

I am more and more impressed, as the summer goes on, with the inequality of man’s fight with Nature; especially in a civilized state.

“Impressed” isn’t the word that springs to mind when I consider the battle I’m fighting and quite possibly losing, but it is rather remarkable. It’s not even a fair fight. What was a tame little patch of lamb’s quarter that rounded out our salads, is now 5 feet tall and blocking the raspberry patch. The growth is staggering; I’m not sure when it happened.

This talk of subduing Nature is pretty much nonsense. I do not intend to surrender in the midst of the summer campaign… (This is written with the thermometer at ninety degrees, and the weeds starting up with a freshness and vigor, as if they had just thought of it for the first time, and had not been cut down and dragged out every other day since the snow went off.)

Chuck really knows what he was talking about, yes sirree. I’m experiencing the same weather conditions here. I’m not subduing, either; I’m simply trying to wrest a few vegetables from an area of ground that has a one-track mind. It’s determined to be a field of quackgrass, lamb’s quarter, purslane and an array of unidentified weeds and I’m putting up a lame fight.

If it’s not a plant subtly trying to conquer my world, it’s a bug. I’ve been hovering over my summer squash (really, squash–of all things!), in hopes of preventing the squash bugs from destroying my crop once again. And now the Japanese beetles have just moved in again. Here they are having their way with my grapes.

In all honesty, I really do enjoy gardening and all the food preservation that comes with it. But there are some days, like after several days of rain, when I don’t feel I’m making progress. To be fair to myself, I’m the caretaker of an additional garden this summer and while I won’t be asked to be a stop on anyone’s garden tour, I’m holding my own on my flower beds for the first time in forever. It IS work, but it’s not all bad. I’d rather pull weeds than walk on a treadmill in public and subject myself to a tv screen blaring drivel any day!

I, for my part, begin to appreciate the value of frost and snow; for they give the husbandman a little peace, and enable him, for a season, to contemplate his incessant foe subdued.

Amen, Mr. Warner. Is it November yet?

Harvesting Wild Grapes, 1907

Recently I discovered an essay written in 1907 entitled “Wild Grapes for Jelly.” The author writes of the summertime treasure that wild fruit can be to the select few who are willing to claim it. She says this about wild fruits, specifically grapes:

They yield their riches to those who know them best and who most desire them. If you have found them, then it is you only for whom they have ripened, a free gift of nature’s bounty.

It sounds romantic–a warm summer afternoon trot to the countryside, filling a basket with wild fruits, which then becomes a shelf of jam to enjoy all winter.

Sometimes it’s not all homemade lemonade and Little House of the Prairie, though. Consider my recent experience. While on a walk last week I discovered an enormous patch of just-ripening black raspberries. I don’t get many opportunities to play in the woods these days so an afternoon of foraging for berries sounded terrific. I exchanged my sandals for tennis shoes and dabbed a touch of vanilla extract on my bare arms and legs (which up to this point had worked nearly flawlessly as a bug repellent) and set out.

True to form, I was so intent on collecting berries that I crashed around the patch, heedless of thorns and branches. The mosquitoes were more bothersome than usual but I reached my goal to fill my little pail.  It was only on the way home I noticed my agony. Scratches and little streaks of blood all over my legs, with itchy welts springing up everywhere. I was able to count 27 distinct mosquito bites (dang vanilla) and something unknown had stung me on the back of the knee. It kept swelling up bigger and bigger and my homemade salve didn’t help at all. So I spent the evening hobbling around with a plantain poultice tied around my knee. No one dared to say it, but I’m sure I looked as much of a wreck as I felt.

Modernism scarcely approves of all this labor. We cannot suppress a doubt as to the economy of expending so much time and care to catch and imprison a few dozen jars of sunshine.

From a strictly economic angle, maybe it wasn’t the best use of my time. But what else would I have done on a Sunday afternoon? Probably something of very little value, like watching TV, or browsing Pinterest, or alphabetizing my cookbooks…(definitely not).  But I couldn’t resist fresh berries, free for the picking.

In theory, we acknowledge the wastefulness of our effort. But in practice, a great many of us go on preserving, year after year. In fact, we really love the close boundaries of home, and prefer the work that is direct and personal to a bigger work…

I can’t agree that it’s always “wastefulness” but in some situations maybe it’s not a good use of time. In spite of the questionable economics, I consider it a successful afternoon. So far, I possess over 2 pounds of black raspberries, a fruit which can’t be bought at my local grocery stores. I’ll use some in smoothies and some in pancake batter, but most of them will be made into black raspberry syrup, which I’ll can for later use. And it will taste mighty fine this winter. By then, I’ll have forgotten how much I sweated picking them during a ridiculous heat wave and my scratches will have healed and my legs and arms will no longer itch.

Breakfast–yogurt, topped with black raspberry syrup and granola

After all, we but take our place in the long line of women who, since cooking was invented, have gathered the fruits of the earth and stored them up for use and comfort. Every year with the ripening of the fruit has this ritual been accomplished, through ages of unwritten history.

And I’ve joined that long line of women and added one more year to that long history.

Trying out a Simpler Life

This past month we took our summer vacation. We spent a week on a lake in northern Wisconsin. We rented a teeny 1930s-era cabin at an old-fashioned “resort.”  The cabin had electricity, a kitchen sink, and a toilet. (The shower house was a short walk away.)

Throughout the week, I kept noticing ways in which life in our Northwoods cabin differed from our everyday life. Here are a few of things that I noticed the most:

Stuff. I had so few belongings that I used many things for more than one purpose. A mug doubled as a measuring cup. A saucer became the cover on a bowl of leftovers. A rolled up blanket functioned as an extra pillow. A few times I cooked in stages because we had one skillet. We just “made do” with what we had or did without but we got along fine.

Entertainment. We had electricity but no internet or tv. So instead we found entertainment in our surroundings and surprisingly, found no end of ways to stay busy. We watched boaters and water skiers go by and got to recognize some of them. We noticed clouds and fronts move in and out throughout the day and watched the sunset every night. (It’s amazing how different every sunset is.) We watched every day for the duck with 8 ducklings who bobbed around in the water and the loon that came around our dock in the early evening. And time flies when you’re sitting in front of a bonfire and just talking.

Cooking. I made our meals without any recipes and I never looked for online inspiration to help me make dinner. We had a craving for potato salad one day and I made it from memory, with a spoonful of this and that. By golly, it tasted the same as when I follow a recipe and drag out multiple bowls and measuring spoons. I need to trust myself more in the kitchen!

Cleaning! Oh my. After breakfast we’d do the dishes, then sweep out the whole cabin, make the bed, and put away a few misplaced belongings. That sucked a whopping 10 minutes out of the day. Then I had to decide if I would read my book sitting out on the dock or in the hammock.

I realize that I was living a fantasy kind of life. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to live that way permanently. I want more than four outfits, two books, and a week’s worth of food. And let’s not forget my garden, canning jars, and my crafts. I would miss them terribly.

But I did learn a few things that will do me well to adopt back in my “real life.”

-We estimated and brought enough food to last the week. Since we didn’t want to waste any, I found ways to incorporate leftover ingredients into a meal the next day. Because our refrigerator wasn’t jam-packed, ingredients didn’t hide behind the condiments and leftovers and become forgotten and spoiled. I think I was more organized because I didn’t have endless options and I used what I had instead of cooking according to my ever-changing whims.

-We found that overall, we didn’t miss technology, even though at home, a tv, radio, or something is nearly always on.  We spent more time outside because the outdoors was so much more interesting than anything in our tiny cabin, with nothing enticing us to stay indoors.  Because we weren’t distracted by electronic entertainment, we went to bed when it got dark and woke up with the sun. In spite of being on vacation with few responsibilities, I still think we were more well-rested than at home.

It was great to get away and “reset” and see life in a different angle. I don’t plan on giving it all up for a life in the Northwoods any time soon, but I’d like to incorporate a few things into my life for the other 358 days of the year.

Vic and Sade, 1930s and 1940s

A fun way to get a glimpse of home life “way back when” is to listen to an old radio show called Vic and Sade. Vic and Sade was a daily 15 minute show so popular at the time that each episode aired several times a day. Most of the episodes have been lost or destroyed but the ones that remain are available online. You can find some of them right  HERE.

Whether the show is an accurate portrayal of life in the 1930s and 1940s, who can say for sure? Not me. I can only assume it was a realistic reflection of the era. It was certainly a slower, simpler pace.

The family consists of Victor Gook, his wife Sadie, and their son Rush. Vic is an accountant at the Consolidated Kitchenware Co. and one of his primary interests is his lodge membership in the Sacred Stars of the Milky Way, where he serves as the Exalted Big Dipper.

Sadie is a housewife, whose best friend is her neighbor Ruthie Stenbottom. It seems as if the two of them are always shopping at Yamilton’s Department Store to take advantage of a washrag sale and in the evenings, she and Vic often get together with Ruthie and her husband Fred to play 500 and have ice cream.

Rush is their enthusiastic teenage son. He’s always discovering money-making schemes, reading his Third Lieutenant Stanley adventure books, and going to the YMCA with his friends to “watch the fat men play handball.”

The episodes aren’t full of wild adventures, mysteries, and outrageous situations. There are no laugh tracks, punch lines, and only a few sound effects. Instead, each episode is a slice of an ordinary (yet quirky) family’s daily life. Many of the episodes take place in the living room after dinner as the family discusses the trivial happenings of the day.

I feel like I’m eavesdropping on the Gook family; it’s like the social media of the early 20th century. The conversations aren’t exciting, but just like pictures on Facebook of an ordinary family birthday party, you can’t help but look (or in the case of Vic and Sade, listen in). The storylines move slowly enough that you learn the family member’s personalities, pet peeves, and individual peculiarities and feel you know them well.  The shows get funnier over time as I’ve learned the personalities of the family members. The subtle humor often make me laugh out loud.

Give it a try sometime! It’s a peaceful change of pace from the usual blaring TV noise, with its ads and fluctuating volumes. Life seems to move a little more quietly after I’ve listened to a few episodes.