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Posts Tagged ‘autumn’

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Fruit collected in my secondhand bread-rising bowl.

Today I foraged in a graveyard under a canopy of old, old trees in full autumn fire.

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Marker nearby. Lambs and little angels usually guard children’s graves.

I picked wild persimmons from two little trees that my friend Lauren spotted last year when picnicking with her children.

Harvesting anything has always been a Zen thing for me, and it’s something I like to do alone. I love people—I’m no loner—but I always decline company when I’m picking. It’s a communion with the earth, and I can’t look and listen as well when I’m distracted by chatter.*

In this particular location, I’m utterly surrounded by company, but they’re the quiet sort.

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Persimmon tree in the foreground and graves in the back. American flags are abundant when persimmons are ripe; Veteran’s Day was last week.

I often think of ecology and climate change on excursions like this, on days when I get dirt, bits of twigs, and leaves in my boots. I think of how detached most of us are from the earth. (How can we see the connection between ourselves and the earth when we buy most of our food in fluorescent-lit stores hundreds or thousands of miles from the dirt where it grew? Why would we fight for that dirt when we never see it? We might as well fight for the planet Neptune.)

Years ago I read a quote from a new florist who said the flowers were teaching her what to do. When it’s just me and the trees, it’s very much the same. You get to know a plant when you visit it spring after summer after fall.

When it comes to wild persimmons, I’ve learned they’re smaller than the variety you see this time of year in stores, just about the size of a cherry tomato. They’re not ready to pick until they’re soft and black-burnished and somewhat shriveled. Once the leaves are gone and there’s nothing left on the tree but fruit, they’re usually ripe. But—if I tug on a fruit that’s not quite ripe, if it’s still too smooth and firm, it will resist. Not yet, it tells me. No. Wait.

Any stage actor worth the pantaloons he’s in will tell you there is no power in his performance until there’s an audience, that every breath, gesture, word he puts out there needs a human to tell it to. Acting is not just talking; not even a monologue is just talking. It is always a dialogue between the actor and the audience. It’s another communion. Each needs the other. Each feeds the other.**

This is how it is when I harvest: it’s a dialogue between the plant and me, far more immediate and powerful than if I were to choose that same plant from a store. It teaches me without a word, feeds me, and reinforces the connection between this human and the earth.

Harvesting in a graveyard might be the truest communion with the earth there is; it’s the full life cycle in 360-vision. We pick the food from the earth, one day we will be put in the earth, more food grows and is picked, and the cycle continues.

This is my second and last year harvesting at this beautiful spot, though; the church chaplain gave me permission to pick, but gives me the stink-eye when I do. I will miss these trees, but picking that way mars the experience. She doesn’t know that I thank the trees (I’m a goof, but I really do), nor that I always say hello to the folks that surround them (which I’d do anyway, even if I hadn’t just reread Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I had). She doesn’t know that this is sacred to me. I conveyed my enthusiasm, but it didn’t help.

I’ll keep looking until I find more persimmon trees. And in the meantime, I’m making a pie.

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*I’ll give you one exception: my elderly neighbor brought me along on maybe his 70th year foraging for beach plums, and my first year. He was the pensive type, a hunter, and he went off to one thicket and I went off to another. He got it. The communion thing.

Oh…and this is probably why I never went in for religion. Nothing against it for others, but for me, communion with a great Something is too important to be cluttered up with rules, doctrine, pageantry, and a heap of other people reciting in unison. I need quiet.

**When you see a performance that moves you, please applaud, gasp, laugh, sigh, whatever. For 20 years I’ve stood backstage with anxious actors, and you have no idea how much that feeds them. They thrive on your reactions—honest.

 

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Last year I picked corn—like in a corn field—for the first time. It was one of the most exquisitely peaceful experiences I’ve ever had. The field was several yards off a quiet road; no one else was around; the stalks towered and rustled over little me; and I’ve never seen Children of the Corn. All factored into a delicious, unscary sense of being enveloped, especially that last one.

Usually when harvesting I take in the beauty inherent in lush LIFE growing all around—the intense colors and weight of fruits and vegetables, full of water and sunshine, right at the peak of their lives. This year, quite unexpectedly, I noticed the beauty in the other side of the season, in the hints of autumn brushing dustily by, even in the heat of the sun.

In Japanese culture, it’s believed there is beauty not just in fullest life, but also in impermanence and decay. In the U.S., this concept confuses us and tends to make us a little jumpy. What do we do when a flower in a vase begins to wilt? We throw it away; we don’t want to see it once the wheel turns. I’m no different. But I want to learn to appreciate it at every phase.

Oddly enough, I found corn just as beautiful in its dropped and drying starkness as I did green and growing. And I edited in black and white for everything I shot, whether alive or dead, to keep from being distracted by color.

I do love a paradox, love disturbing juxtapositions. Maybe I can grow to love a wilting flower, too.

So. Here is summer—waxing and waning.

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Autumn’s the time when the earth shoots and sprouts a bit less and instead does a great deal of dropping, shaking off, and scattering. The fun lies in catching the good stuff before the housekeeping winds of Winter blow it all away.

My usual friendly cautionary note about picking wild edibles goes like this:

1) Be sure that what you’re about to pick and eat is what you think it is. Please don’t wing it. Shoot for old age.

2) Don’t pick anything off your neighbor’s lawn unless a) she owes you one b) she owes you several c) you know she doesn’t use pesticides d) it’s under cover of darkness e) in which case leave my name out of it.

3) Don’t pick anything close to roadsides where they likely have been urologically christened by every domestic pet within five miles, most notably the Alsatian across the street that routinely drinks out of the potholes in the Quik Chek lot.

From left to right:

Crabapples¬†(Malus) I wrote about this little treasure a while back. Wild crabapples are a little grainier in texture than their voluptuous full-sized apple cousins, and for my taste, they need a bit of sugar to be palatable. Making jam from crabapples is a special fall thing for me, even though making it is a bear because they’re so small and their seeds are the size of sesame seeds. Having good music in the background goes a long way. I add a hefty dose of New Jersey honey to the pot, making it 100% local. You can also make crabapple liqueur if you steep them in vodka with granulated sugar.

Rose Hips¬†(Rosa) Another jammy choice, and a vintage one. Folks during World War II ate a lot of rose hip jam because it was full of Vitamin C, which was tough to access then. They’re tart, a little bit astringent like their cousins above (so they need sugar, too) and wildly healthy, full not only of Vitamin C but of antioxidants and lycopene.

Beech Nuts¬†and Leaves (Fagus) As a Laura Ingalls Wilder diehard all my life, I knew beech nuts were edible. She wrote about her husband as a boy, gathering and eating them in upstate New York, describing the spiny little husks and the three-cornered nuts they contained, and saying they were ‘solidly full of nut.’ But the leaves being edible as well? News to me, but cool news. Freshly picked, they can be eaten in salads or even steeped in gin.

Acorns (Quercus) When I took Anthropology in college I learned that American Indians ate acorns. Making them edible takes some doing, and they knew what they were doing; they must be smashed and rinsed with a lot of water to release toxins. I’d love to try them. Has anyone ever prepared acorns for food or eaten them?

Missing from this list: Sassafras. Here I was all ready to dig up one of the 764 and counting plants that grow around my lake and steep the roots to make another American Indian specialty, a primitive form of root beer, when the heavy winds last week blew all of the telltale mitten-shaped leaves off. They’re all out there now, mittenless and mocking, but I’ll hit them up come spring. Stoked to write about it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rose_hip

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beech

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oak

http://www.wikihow.com/Forage-for-Food-in-the-Fall

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A portion of Deal Lake, which almost surrounds Interlaken.

There are many things—garishly colored bug juice, for one—that are pretty much appreciated by kids alone. Autumn, on the other hand, is for grownups. I don’t think any of us can appreciate autumn until we’re finally allowed to disassociate it from having to go back to school. As much as I love summer, autumn is delicious, sensuous in a way that July and August can’t compare—a dazzling, aging beauty, at one moment exuberant with passion and color and at another wistful, melancholy. While summer is two-dimensional, a childlike, right-now-in-the-moment Eden, autumn sees its fate across the calendar. Is there beauty in resignation? Maybe so. I think it’s this inherent wisdom in the season that gives it its sweetness.

In autumn I love walking through my hometown, a place in which, to paraphrase the adage, you can hardly see the town for the trees. It’s a strictly residential community, and to look at an aerial-view map, you’d think Interlaken was a forest. Its trees, many 100 years old or more, are enveloping and comforting. Peering up through their rustling leaves on a late-autumn afternoon and seeing thick, heavy, soot-grey clouds is thrilling, the way, as a kid, you loved watching the Wicked Witch of the West on television as long as your mom’s arms were tight around you.

Leaves in the lake.

We had just begun to enjoy autumn here at the Jersey Shore when Hurricane Sandy hit. And sadly, it took most of the leaves with it by the time it was through with us. Still, I took a walk on Thanksgiving Day to sink into the season, and let it sink into me, before the holidays eclipsed it. The park I visited is in Oakhurst, just a couple of miles inland, where autumn’s stark beauty was everywhere.

Sycamore branch.

Pasture and farmhouse.

Windfall.

Sycamore and pasture.

Today I bought local unfiltered apple cider and had a taste. It was as mellow as the autumn sky. And soon I will be baking a cider cake, making a cider buttercream icing for it, having friends and family over to eat it up with me—and making autumn last just a little bit longer.

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