Sunday, December 30, 2012

January Count Down

January is for dancing. Or it is for slowing way down—and I mean Sigur Rรณs down—and doing some necessary but mundane task. Painting a hallway. Ripping down someone else’s choice of wallpaper. January is for getting a haircut or a new pair of boots, anything to make one feel shiny. January is for making soup.

Crunching through January ice to enter a warm and welcoming greenhouse should be fun. It should be uplifting. But if you’re used to the cheery growth rate of spring lettuce, the happy balance of plant-juice-sucking insects and well-fed carnivores, the satisfyingly speedy April transformation of a handful of arugula seeds to a dark green salad, it isn’t. Fun, that is. It’s work.  As the lettuce seeds I planted two months ago struggle to reach the salad bowl, my spirits sink into their sluggish rhythm. Whiteflies suck our vital juices. We wait. For the sun. 

I need a dance. Or a haircut.

The rate of photosynthesis is dependent on the amount of sunlight. Today, December 30th, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, we were graced by only about 9 hours and 19 minutes of that precious commodity. Tomorrow, we will get an additional 38 seconds. By the end of January the days will be increasing by a full 2 minutes each day, so that on January 28th the day will be 10 hours long, the same as it was on November 12th. Ten, according to Eliot Coleman, is the magic number when it comes to lettuce and other greens. Ten is the number that sets us on the path to normalcy and good spirits. 

In October I planted three full beds of head lettuce in the cooler of the two greenhouses. Even without the supplemental warmth (heated water circulates beneath the soil) they would be doing an admirable job of soldiering though these short days. I harvested the tall romaines first, fearing for their vulnerable tips, and then the splaying ‘Two Star’ heads. ‘Magenta’ is still staged prettily in rows, waiting its turn. Or waiting for the little sap-sucking insects to discover its sweet juices. Which they undoubtedly will. Any day now.
Flowering stem on Dec 30 2012

Spinach is a little more immune to winter bugs. As I cut the leaves I can feel the calcium oxalate crystals on their backs. In fact, I feel them more now, in January, than I do in May—possibly because of their lethargic growth rate. These indigestible crystals cost us the benefits of the calcium, but they profit the plant in some way, either as a repository of calcium, insurance for lean times, or as a defense against chewing insects. Turnip greens have the calcium without the crystals. They also have the bugs. Leaves start out promising and perky but succumb to winter malaise. Two out of three of their ping-pong ball roots turn ugly. Where’s the fun in that?

But look! Phalaenopsis is sending up its lanky stem, its flower buds already visible. I will move it to the kitchen window, where I can watch its progress while making soup and counting, very very slowly, to 10.
9.350 …….

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Crabby Creek Revisited

The big, gracious beech with its carved initials—the one that created its own clearing midway down the steep hill, the one that offered us strong horizontal branches for easy climbing—is gone. No trace remains. Some of the hearts and letters, not all, had been our doing; other climbers had defaced the smooth bark long before we discovered it. A short distance from the void where (we believe) the beech had once stood—much closer, in truth, than in my memory—the challenging cliffs that once served as our wild wild west overlook the creek. Fifty years later, they are still impressive.

The whole of our childhood playground—the cliffs, the creek, the salamanders, the pollywogs—is now a township park, with a sign and all. The fact is, it was always public property, being too rugged for fast-buck developers to easily plop houses upon. But now it is official. With a sign and all. 

The bridges that had made the stream banks accessible to vehicles in the years before we claimed them as our own have crumbled and crashed. That remarkable “road” was probably built between 1935 and 1943, when the United States government provided jobs for eight million men. Back then it’s very possible that humble structures built of oak stood along the banks of the Crabby. Structures that housed families with children. Children who climbed trees and carved hearts in their smooth bark. If so, no surface signs remain. Any trash heaps that may have existed are buried under many layers of forest debris. 

One thing is certain: the dirt road that gave us access to crayfish and adventure predated Green Road, the winding street where our post World War II childhood home still stands overlooking the wooded ridge. 

“You take the low road and I’ll take the high road…,” we used to sing, sometimes walking the low trail by the creek and other times the upper (WPA?) lane as we made our way to the small man-made pond by the railroad tracks. The pond too is gone, a victim of the cul-de-sac built for the convenience of two extravagant houses that replaced our road. The dirt had to go somewhere. 

Why the pond and its associated dam were there in the first place is another question. They were positioned just south of a freight line that was built sometime after the mid 19th century. Was there a practical connection between the two? Maybe not. The pond may have been constructed for the convenience of a wealthy pre-Depression Philadelphian who desired a fishing hole. We do like to control our environment. 

At any rate, the pond is absent and the dam is a useless slab of concrete. Harmless remnants of the past, layered with leaves. I want to walk up the hill to see if blueberries still grow near the house we lived in, or if the deer have changed the plant community that left an indelible impression in my consciousness, but grownup restraint holds me back.

The curved banks of the Crabby have been undercut, in some spots, by waters rushing down hills foolishly cleared of their oaks and beeches. But the surrounding forest is wonderfully alive. Papery beech leaves cling to juvenile trees, and every shade of dirty blonde is represented in the rustle beneath our feet. We see brilliant orange orb weavers, multiple signs of woodpeckers, prints from the cloven hooves of deer. 

Tires lay on the ground near the defunct dam, posed in a distinct pattern, arranged, we guess—we hope—by kids who spend their summer days looking under rocks for salamanders. On hot summer days, we imagine, they “help” the waters of Crabby Creek flow in channels built of stones and sticks, and prod crayfish out of their crevices.

 Maybe they find slim trees that some stunt of nature has caused to bend down, and up, and then down again, and ride them like camels. And maybe, hopefully, they will grow up to know the difference between a white oak and a chestnut oak, and recognize that beeches flaunt their papery leaves far into the winter months, and that dead trees are hotbeds of life. 

They will see white waxy Indian pipes rising from the dark earth, and weave the ghostly images into stories that will play and replay in their minds throughout their lives, triggered by the sweet smell of decaying oak leaves, the rippling waters of a small creek, or the always thrilling sight of the nodding translucent flowers of the elusive saprophyte.

Crabby Creek will live on in their minds as they travel their lives, its steady flow defying attempts to dam or reroute it with sticks and stones. Their future dealings with the natural world—we hope—will be measured by its clarity and its promise. 

This is our best hope.