Saturday, 05 December 2015 05:14

Versed in Country Things - The Portent

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Versed in Country Things - The Portent

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an Associate Editor of the St. Croix Review. Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks, where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Because I was set up for it and knew what I was doing, sugaring was much easier this year, and I made better syrup with less labor. In the midst of it, however, when I was complacently congratulating myself on the fruits of my foresight, there occurred an incident that could have been a disaster, due entirely to my negligence.

At the beginning of the month, as was my custom in winter, I went up on the roof to clean the chimney. Interrupted by the arrival of a visitor, I left the job half done. Two weeks later at three AM the cat jumped up on our bed, meowing frantically, waking us up to a houseful of smoke, pouring from the joints in the kitchen stove pipe as it made its way across the common room ceiling and up into the children's room. Dashing upstairs, I roused the children, and as I shepherded them out I saw that the pipe where it entered the chimney was red hot, and I could hear the fire roaring in the chimney. Leaving the children in bed with Jo Ann, I ran out, naked and barefoot, through the snow to the barn where some of the number ten cans not in use as sap buckets were stored. Grabbing one, I raced back to the house, slipped on work gloves, ran upstairs, pulled the pipe out of the chimney and jammed the can in its place. Shaking with relief and the shock of delayed fear, I walked slowly downstairs to reassure everyone and put some clothes on. The whole episode had taken less than three minutes.

When I went outside, there was a column of flame like a great torch shooting out of the chimney, casting a lurid light on the snow, even on the trees at the edge of the woods. The roof was of galvanized metal, the chimney was new and tile-lined, and there was no more fear of fire once I had closed the pipe hole, so I was content to let it burn itself out - thus giving the chimney a definitive cleaning. But that roaring flare in the night troubled me as if it were an obscure symbol, a portent. I knew it was no such thing, but so it seemed in my imagination, and because of that, because it burned in the back of my mind, it did indeed perform the classic office of a sign and wonder, a warning that saved me from a dangerous delusion.

The very next evening I was up in the woods tending the fire when I was startled by a footfall in the road below and a voice out of the darkness. Who's there? Miff? I'll meet you at the house. Quickly I topped up the pans, loaded the fire and shut it up, and ran in my moccasined feet down the trail on the frozen snow. Miff was on his way back to Toonerville from a visit to his sister in the village, and he thought he'd stop to pay a social call. The three of us sat at the long table in the glow of the lamp, drinking tea and chatting, and somehow we got to talking about hillbilly music. Miff wanted to know if we had ever listened to it. Jo Ann hadn't, but I had. Right after the war I lived for a year with a relative who kept the radio tuned to a station that played it, and by chance the numbers I heard and remembered were Miff's favorites: "Cool Water," "San Antonio Rose," "I'm Dreaming Tonight of My Blue Eyes," and we recalled them together fondly. Miff had a resonant tenor, and when we were done with our mutual repertoire, he sang a song he had composed himself, conventionally melancholy verses about a lost love, the West Virginia hills, and the sound of train whistles in the night. We talked about the South, and living in a warmer climate, and maybe the three of us could go to the Grand Ol' Opry together, and so on. It was a very pleasant evening. I said I'd walk him part way down the hill.

How long could it have taken us to walk out the door, across the porch, down a short path to the driveway, and then fifteen or twenty yards to the road? Less than a minute certainly, but time enough for me to erect a happy daydream about moving to West Virginia with Miff, helping him start a new life, etc., etc. I have been told that in the literature of social work this is called a rescue fantasy, flattering to the fantasist's ego. The night was clear and cold, and with the part of my mind not playing make believe I was thinking there'd be a good sap run on the morrow as the sap warmed the trees. When we reached the road and turned down hill, Miff bent down and retrieved a bottle of wine from the snow bank. He said nothing, I said nothing, but the movement was decisive: a flame in the night, a warning, a portent.

Starting down the hill, we could see a light on at Otis's, and Miff asked me about him, but it was little enough I could tell. In our first autumn I had seen him a few times, but he was away all winter and I never saw him last summer, although I heard him often enough. He had been carrying on with Alice, a summer resident who lived farther along that road, and at night they'd wander back and forth between the two places, singing drunkenly. In the fall he had taken a job at the creamery in the village, where Miff's sister worked, so we talked about that.

All this aimless chattering as we stepped along in the starlit darkness, our boots crunching on the frozen snow, was an expression of our constraint: I kept thinking of Miff hiding the wine so Jo Ann and I wouldn't drink it, and he must have known he'd made a misstep. Halfway down the hill we parted. Standing for a few moments in the road, I listened to his steps receding, growing fainter and fainter. I called out good night and heard his answer as a distant shout. As I slowly ascended the hill, my mind was a confusion of images: Miff stooping to the snow bank, Miff singing his song, the three of us gathered around the lamp, the sugar fire in the woods, and a voice out of the darkness, and above all, the flame towering from the chimney.

When I got back to the house and saw Jo Ann sitting at the table by the lamp, I experienced a rare moment of clarity. Her love for me and our children was the great truth of my life, and the stupidities, delusions, and wishful fantasies I was prone to were a paltry response, even a denigration of that truth. It would not be honest to say that I at once reformed, but at least I squelched the Miff fantasy. I told her about the hidden wine bottle and my misgivings, and then I wrote to a friend, a medical researcher who could tell me something about alcoholism. Jean, and the books she lent me, told me many interesting things, but what was most important to me then was the conclusion that alcoholism is an addiction, meaning that everything else, including friendship, takes a distant second place after the alcoholic's need for drink. Rescue fantasies, always foolish, are doubly so in the case of drunks. In an unusual show of common sense, I accepted someone else's wisdom, guiding my relations with alcoholics thereafter in the light of that. I don't mean that it cooled my friendships, only that it lowered my expectations, helped me to maintain objectivity and a certain distance, and over the years kept me from behaving foolishly.

A visitor who came to see us in May, confused by my directions, got stuck on the road that ran past Otis's. As I walked back with him to help him out, we passed Alice's summer place where I noticed a large planting of rhubarb, at least twenty hills, growing lushly beside the house. I thought about that rhubarb for the next few days; it was a resource not to be wasted, but how could I exploit it? Stewed rhubarb was one of my favorite desserts, so was rhubarb pie, but the few hills at Corbin's supplied those needs amply. I could can it, but there was much more than I would ever want to can. Looking into our collection of cookbooks, I found nothing of interest until I turned to the original edition of Fannie Farmer's Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1896) and found rhubarb marmalade. I liked the look of it, but it required sugar and oranges. At first, my mind was barren of schemes, but gradually a daring stroke evolved.

That evening, when Otis got home from his job at the creamery, I walked over. He was spading up his garden, no small job because it was almost as large as ours, and we talked about his plans. With a horticulture degree from Cornell, whatever he had to say was worth listening to, if you could stand his dispiriting manner. To look at his tomato seedlings we had to go into the house, something I usually avoided. He had not finished it, neither inside nor out, and it looked like he never would (twenty years later, still unfinished, it burned down). Essentially, it was a storeroom for bundles of shingles, kegs of nails, bathroom fixtures, piles of pipe, stacks of lumber, and coils of wiring, covered with the dust of seven years since he had moved in. His actual living space was a squalid corner walled off by Army blankets hung from the rafters; there he had his cot, refrigerator, kitchen range, and sink. He talked about the seedlings, which looked great to me - dark green, leafy, stocky - in his usual negative way: the claims made for the varieties were probably lies, heh heh, when he set them out there'd be a frost, heh heh, sinking my spirits until I feared I would slink away without making my proposition. "Phil, do you like rhubarb?" I suddenly blurted.

Startled, he took a moment to come up with his vintage formulation: "Well, if it's cooked right - not like they do it around here, stewed to death - if it's cooked just right, it isn't as bad as some of the poisons people give you for dessert, heh heh."

Taking that as ecstatic approval, I unfolded my plan, opening blandly, "Maybe you know the lady down the road. . . ." I wanted him to get permission for us to pick the rhubarb, then I'd make marmalade, ummm, delicious stuff, and we'd give some to the nice lady, and if Otis would buy the sugar and oranges, we'd go halfies with him.

The poor man was at a loss. He had played the part of Cynical Hermit so long that he'd forgotten mutually beneficial ventures could exist. I watched him go through the hackneyed collection of gestures indicating Deep Thought - pulling an ear lobe, scratching his head, rubbing his chin, frowning - when he finally said, "I'm crazy. You'll probably kill me with botulism, but I'll do it, heh heh."

Thus was born the rhubarb deal, as well as our strange friendship with Otis. The rhubarb part was a cinch. Next morning we walked to Alice's, pushing a wheelbarrow in which the children took turns riding, and we filled the barrow, an old-fashioned one with high wooden sides, with rhubarb. We had enough sugar to stew some and begin canning. Otis stopped in after work and to my surprise, was interested in everything, peering into pots, admiring the filled jars, studying recipes. When he had eaten a bowlful of stewed rhubarb and pronounced it "not bad," I knew we were on the way.

There was a definite change in him when he brought the sugar and oranges the next evening. He was awkwardly jovial, as one performing a dimly remembered act, uncertain of the sequences and rhythms, by turns tentative and blundering. He was making friends with us, shedding much of the Old Sourdough carapace, speaking and acting in an almost normal manner. At the time we enjoyed the friendship without thinking about it; later we conjectured that this was the first friendship, certainly the first with a family, he had had in years.

So the rhubarb was canned and the marmalade was made, and it was a great discovery, far better than I hoped it would be. Every year after that I made kettle after kettle and sold it as fast as I made it.

The friendship developed rapidly. He took us on a tour of the creamery, and when the weather warmed up we went swimming at the dam a few miles away. We helped him set out the plants in his garden - four varieties of tomato, four of cabbage, two broccolis, two cauliflowers, three peppers, two celeries, Brussels sprouts - which gives you some idea of his gardening capabilities. What was more important because he couldn't do it alone, we helped him unroll long sheets of black plastic between the rows, an innovation then. When it was done, the garden was very impressive. I could not have imagined its fate.

Things went along smoothly, Otis dropping in three or four times a week for nearly two months. Then we had some visitors who stayed awhile, and then he stopped coming over. One day I killed a porcupine, and knowing Otis liked the meat, I called across the gorge and he came to get it. The guests were present and he was awkward; he looked askance, spoke only to me, and made a quick getaway. I did not see him again for years. We lived a few miles away then, and he would stop in once or twice during the spring and summer, knowing that I was the only local source for herbs and unusual plants. We were on good terms, but he was always staggering drunk (deliberately, I think) and the happy ease of those weeks that began with the rhubarb deal seemed less a memory than a trick of the mind, a fantastic illusion. At the time I was baffled, trying in vain to recall the discordant word or act that could have affected him. Not until years and circumstances acquainted me with a number of eccentrics did I learn to expect that sudden transition from warm friendship to cool distance at any time, caused by his inability to bear the responsibility of maintaining a normal friendship with all its ups and downs and give and take. The strain is too great, some pretext is invented, and the eccentric is immensely relieved to return to his exclusive conversation with himself, the only person he can trust.

Well, it was fun while it lasted, and we had all those jars of luscious marmalade, and Otis did another thing for us: he told us where mushrooms grew, up a steep wooded hill along the road to his place. "Plenty of Boletes up there," pointing as we were driving by, "You see the dagoes from Barre there after a good rain."

Thereafter I scoured the hillside, often taking the children with me, working all the way around to the bare knob above Alice's, windswept and matted with patches of fragrant wild thyme. I imagine the steep hillside had been logged in the 1930s; now it was covered with a dense growth of young spruce and balsam fir, virtually impenetrable in places. Usually, I beat the Italians to it, but not always; nevertheless, I usually filled my basket because I fared farther and I was willing to crawl on hands and knees through damp thickets. Older men, they were content to stay near the path, an old logging road that meandered up the hill. I could tell when they had been before me by the discarded stem ends, neatly sliced off with their sharp clasp knives, that dotted the ground. We greeted each other courteously when we met, and once I had an illuminating conversation with an old stonecutter on his way up as I was going down. He asked to see my basket. Poking at the variety of mushrooms, buff, yellow, orange, red, he shook his head. "Ah, you shouldn't pick them, only these, the white ones," pointing to Boletus edulis.

But the others are edible, I objected. He shrugged and pointed to the Steinpilz. "These. These are the best."

I asked how he learned. By going with his father, who taught him to pick that Bolete and no other. Well, I said, you'll never make a mistake. Picking my way down the hill, I thought about the two forms of knowledge, the old man's practical experience and my book learning, for I had laboriously taught myself out of a book some years before. Knowledge gained by practice is very useful, especially in the mastery of technique, but that incident emphasized for me the value of book learning for its range, its opening to whole worlds of knowledge. Each has its value and its place, and I am thankful that we are able to move freely from one to the other. Too often the genteel are scornful of practical knowledge, just as the unlettered scorn book learning.

A final episode from that time. Seth and I went for a ramble in the woods beyond the Big Meadow, wandering here and there, looking at dogtooth violets and blue cohosh, unfurling cinnamon fern, and traces of old logging roads. We came upon a plant I had sought for years, the wild black currant, hardly a shrub, just a few spindly stems, one, two, and three - why, there were fifteen or twenty plants there, and as I stepped back to gain some perspective, a tiny dappled fawn leapt up from underneath my feet and tottered a few yards away on unsteady legs. We stood transfixed, watching it for a minute or two before we slowly backed away, leaving the fawn staring after us. *

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