Recently I’ve spent part of each warm afternoon harvesting from my tiny garden: two L-shaped beds about 12 feet long and three feet wide, plus three free-standing pots.
Oregano, culinary sage, basil, thyme and rosemary are all drying in the back of the basement on my homemade food dryer. The heat source is four 60 watt light bulbs, and the temperature this evening is 80 degrees. I also picked tomatoes, which I cooked into several pints of spaghetti sauce. I froze several packages of green beans, and tucked dill leaves and sorrel into a plastic bag in the refrigerator for salads. I arranged a bouquet of marigolds on the dining table, and left a bucket of green tomatoes for a friend’s chickens by the back door. I gave a little water to the clematis and woodbine vines alongside the concrete wall, knowing they will soon brighten the gray expanse with twining red leaves.
Since my harvest is essentially over, I rolled up the plastic tarps I used to cover everything last night, but I tucked a couple of old blankets around the oregano and pepper plants, hoping they will survive the frost that’s predicted. Then I gathered seeds: marigold, gaillardia, cone flower. I rolled up the hoses left drying in the sun a few days ago, and hung them in the garage.
Sometimes I recall nostalgically the great harvests I did in the old days, when I used the big garden that lies east of the ranch house, now a retreat house. I froze and canned pounds of tomatoes, beans, peas; dug potatoes and lugged them to the cellar with shelves full of onions. Picked and shucked and froze ears of corn by the dozens. Helped cut up the steer we butchered after he broke his leg trying to jump the fence. Cut and wrapped and labeled the meat and tucked it into the big freezer in the basement. And eventually had so much harvest that we had to buy a second, smaller freezer. I know ranch wives– younger than I am and with larger families– who have four or five freezers in their basements.
When I went to town for groceries in those days, I might buy sugar, flour, and a few other staples, but much of what we ate came from our own land. I loved living like that. But I’m 75 years old, and aware that even if I stay healthy, my remaining life span is probably fewer than 20 years. What do I want to accomplish with the time I have left?
Conscious of my waning life, I am a member of the local Cemetery Board, and recently spent a couple of days cleaning and tidying on that hillside for winter. I wasn’t able to set up any of the stones that have fallen from age and neglect, or been pushed over by vandals. But I swept grass and dirt off flat headstones, and scrubbed away layers of dirt from lettering in white marble, still visible after a hundred years. Deep in the unmown grass, even in late fall, I found a few roses and bluebells blooming.
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If you are looking at snow outside your window as I am, you may be wondering how I was able to spend the day harvesting from my little garden in December.
I wasn’t. I wrote those words in late September and the printed copy has been standing beside my typewriter since then. Every single day I have intended to get back to this writing. Today is December 4; that ferocious intent just didn’t count for enough against the tide of other tasks that overwhelmed me. In many cases, rather than attending to my primary job of writing, I was responding to requests from people who shouldn’t have a strong enough hold on me to keep me from my work.
I am admitting this delay in part to encourage writers who may lament their inability to sustain their writing habit day after day after day. I can’t always do it, and I am experienced, determined, and have a supportive partner. So don’t waste time beating yourself up; get busy writing when you can.
Like many of you, I was raised to be “nice,” which means that when people write and ask me questions or send me something interesting, I try to respond, even if only by postcard. I’m always guiltily aware if I do not respond, and remember the series of vicious letters– more than 50– sent to me a few years ago by a fan whom I had displeased.
So here I am, with the December darkness filling my windows, writing about September’s harvest. The tomato vines I pulled and piled by my row of buffaloberry and chokecherry bushes are doing just what I wanted them to do: catch snow.
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And suddenly the room brightens with memory. Just this morning I wrote about how the moisture falling– sleet, not yet snow– was brightening the grasses to their September brilliance: redgrass was turning purple, dried alfalfa was glowing gold, and marigold heads seemed to be warm with fire; little bluestem looked magenta in the sunrise, and the splayed tawny heads of switch grass glittered. When we walked in our windbreak trees, we saw coyote scat and tufts of rabbit fur: those howls last night were celebrating a successful hunt.
As we walked out of the trees’ shelter, a rough-legged hawk we’ve been seeing often soared overhead, then dropped a few feet lower and made a circle over Cosmo, who was nosing among the taller grass beside the trail. The hawk turned its head, perhaps estimating weight, apparently concluded that the 28-pound dog was a little too much prey, and swooped off toward the pigeons fluttering at the barn.
The prairie feeds our predators well. A few weeks ago we saw one of the resident kestrels or merlins– they fly so fast it’s hard to tell– zip past with a mouse in its talons. Two harrier hawks hung around the dam below the house for several days. One morning I looked out the bedroom window and one of them was perched on a broken bale of hay, with 11 antelope lying in a half-circle around it, like churchgoers listening to a sermon. The great-horned owl couple seems to have moved away from our trees toward a grove of cottonwoods and a shed that shelters more rabbits. We saw a flock of about 25 grouse often in September and October, but lately we are seeing only two or three at a time. Late one night, we heard geese honking, perhaps stopping by the pond for a rest as they headed south.
Our tiny garden doesn’t provide a great deal of nourishment, though I froze many pints of tomato sauce. But it adds flavor to our lives: all those herbs that were drying in September are now in labeled jars. Pots of basil, oregano, thyme and chives line a south window, jostled by the dogs that likes to sleep there too. We are nourished by the flavor and scent of these herbs all year long.
Our house stands on a windy hill, with a detached two-car garage a few feet south. The two buildings, plus the deck on the house’s south side, form a tiny ecosystem where we can grow herbs, tomatoes, peas, hot peppers, and a few other tasty treats in raised beds. Jerry built the beds of railroad ties we scavenged from the grass along the track where train crews tossed them when they were removed from the railroad bed. Heavily creosoted, they withstand the weather very well. We stacked them two high and filled the resulting rectangles with heavy earth from my former garden plot, enriched by the yearly floods and years of application of manure from the corrals.
But the garden isn’t just for us alone. Besides feeding us, it feeds a busy population of tree swallows, a garter snake, a bull snake that gives us heart palpitations when we startle each other, rabbits. One morning we found a coyote inside the fence, but it leapt away; we may have interrupted its rabbit hunt.
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There. I’ve talked myself out of my guilt at not finishing what I began so long ago. I remind myself that day after day, the cattle I watch outside the window go about their business, which is grazing the prairie grass and making meat while they raise their calves to be weaned shortly. No matter what the weather, no matter what distractions appear– prairie fire on this day last year, a private plane circling, combines making the air rumble– they keep right on doing their job.
Surely an experienced rancher like myself can do as well as the cows: keep on doing what needs to be done. My job is writing. Sometimes I will fail to do it well, or as well as I’d like. Sometimes I will waste time. But I can always come back to it, and do it as well as I am able.
Linda M. Hasselstrom
Windbreak House Writing Retreats
Hermosa, South Dakota
© 2018, Linda M. Hasselstrom
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