I didn’t think we were going to have fall this year. The weather stayed summer so long. I figured we’d get a few mild days and then winter would pounce. And as for the autumn color? The prediction was that we would go from green to brown to gone.
Which just demonstrates how bad our ability to predict what nature will do really is. While autumn has lasted maybe two weeks instead of four to six, it has been SPECTAULAR. I was fortunate to spend some time at home in WV just as peak color was hitting. Which meant I got back to NC just in time to enjoy it here.
I love fall. The tobacco, caramel smell of the woods. The russets and golds of the trees. The incredible blue of the sky. Crisp, sunshiny days. Ahhhh. This year all of that seems to have been condensed and intensified. Here’s a sampling for you:
I’ve mostly given up trying to grow our food. I keep a pot of herbs and this year I grew a cherry tomato in a pot near the front porch. Based on what I paid for the plant and the number of tomatoes I picked, I’d say I broke even on that one.
But, like the local bears, I’m opportunistic when it comes to harvesting food. Blackberries, raspberries, apples, pears, grapes, and nuts tend to be plentiful in our area. We pick them wild and have neighbors who are glad to share.
This year, though, there just wasn’t much to harvest. I made an apple pie last weekend and had to supplement with store apples. The walnuts are few and far between. Even the hickory nuts are less this year.
Growing up on the farm, we had walnuts, chestnuts, and filberts (hazelnuts). Walnuts turned our hands (and clothes) black. Chestnuts could be removed from their prickly casing by pinching them between the soles of our boots and pushing them out. Hazelnuts we just let dry a bit and then whacked ’em good with a hammer.
Mom probably made things using nuts, but mostly the pleasure was in just eating them straight from the shell. And eat them we did! Chestnuts in particular were an easy target and the crisp texture and flavor of that buttery, yellow nut was SO good. You can score them and roast them briefly to make them easy to peel, but we just bit ’em until the shell cracked.
Hopefully 2018’s poor harvest is just an off-year–a down season in the cycle. And since there’s not much out there, I guess I’ll leave most of it to the critters. I kind of like it when the squirrels sit on the back deck methodically eating nuts that leave smears of black, walnut leavings.
Reminds me of how God provides for squirrels and growing children just the same. And how what he provides nourished my body back then and my heart today.
I’ve loved Robert Frost’s poem Nothing Gold Can Stay since I first saw The Outsiders movie. I think that’s the hardest I’ve ever cried at a movie. The poem is so gorgeously bittersweet. To me, it’s always spoken of that moment in autumn when nature is at it’s most perfect. You just want to seize the instant and somehow preserve it. Well, Robert Frost did and every time I read his words my throat tightens and my eyes mist.
I love autumn in the mountains. The temperatures cool; the lush, summer green of the woods begins to thin; leaves change color; sunset comes earlier; and you wear sweaters even when it’s too warm for them.
And the flowers fade . . .
If you follow my author page on Facebook, you’ve likely seen my Wildflower Wednesday posts. I’m such a wildflower fanatic, I take pictures all summer. But there are fewer flowers as summer wanes. So, I thought I’d take a moment to look back at a summer’s worth of nature’s glory before we step fully into another Appalachian autumn.
NOTHING GOLD CAN STAY
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
Our coastal home following Hurricane Floyd in 1999. Talk about wanting to head for the hills!
Having lived on the coast of South Carolina I’ve had more experience with hurricanes than I like. We actually moved to the mountains of western North Carolina in large part because of flooding from Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
But the mountains are not immune from the ravages of hurricane weather!
In The Sound of Rain, I centered the story around Hurricane Hazel, which struck the coast near the NC/SC state line in 1954. Thus far, it’s been the ONLY category 4 hurricane to hit North Carolina. But that’s far from the only thing that made Hazel exceptional.
She hit at high tide during the full moon causing an 18-foot storm surge. There are harrowing stories of people stuck in trees, in attics, and swept away never to be seen again. But that wasn’t the worst of Hazel.
Most storms lose their steam after they make landfall. Hazel made her way north, hugging the eastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains through Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Wind gusts near 100 mph were felt as far north as New York. It was also an incredibly fast-moving storm, making landfall in the Carolinas the morning of October 15 and reaching Canada the following day.
The storm wrapped up the worst of her rampage in Toronto where she still had the strength of a category 1 hurricane and caused catastrophic flooding and destruction.
In The Sound of Rain, Judd Markley helps survivors in Myrtle Beach, SC, before heading home to West Virginia to help his family with damage there. While a purely fictional account, it was accurate. My home state was dramatically impacted by the storm–especially in the southeastern part of the state.
I hope, wherever you are, you’re safe from the storm. And I pray Florence isn’t one of those storms we’re still talking about decades later!
While in West Virginia last weekend my brother showed me some ginseng plants. He was checking them to see if they had seeds he could plant to spur future growth. He gathered up the red fruit with seeds inside and sowed them in a new spot. Seeds need 18+ months to germinate so if we’re lucky, they’ll sprout in the spring of 2020.
Ginseng is not for those in a hurry.
The native plant is prized for all kinds of curative properties from preventing the flu to acting as an aphrodisiac. In the Orient, the fact that the root is often shaped like a man with a body, arms, and legs, makes folks believe it has all sorts of body-related benefits. Another name for it is manroot. It’s relatively common in Appalachia, although the fact that you can get $500 or more for a pound of the dried root has caused over-harvesting.
Enter sang hunters.
There are lots of regulations around how and when the roots can be harvested. Plants should be five years old or older before they’re harvested. If you plan to export the root, it has to be 10 or more years old. How do you know how old a plant is? The first year, there will be just one, compound leaf typically with three leaflets. After about five years, the plant should be at least a foot tall and will have four or more leaves each one with five leaflets. The plant pictured above with three leaves, each bearing five leaflets is probably three or four years old. Not ready for harvesting.
If you look closely, you’ll see a wee crown right in the center. That’s where tiny flowers gave way to red berries with two seeds each inside. They’ve been planted now.
Ginseng is going to find its way into my stories one of these days. It’s ripe with potential–poaching, stealing, the solitary act of hunting through the woods, the art of digging the plant so as to keep the root undamaged and intact . . . it’s an art and a mystery.
Just the sort of thing I love to write about.
No, it’s not a pet name for your grandfather.
September is when pawpaws–also known as Appalachian bananas–are getting ripe. A pawpaw is a large, greenish oval that’s the largest, edible native fruit in the U.S. Folks say it tastes like a cross between a mango and a banana with a pudding-like texture. I’ll confess I’ve never had one since I really, really, REALLY don’t like bananas.
They’re beginning to show up in farmer’s markets and some folks are even growing them commercially. They haven’t really caught on at grocery stores, though. They don’t last long once picked and bruise easily. And, of course, our current food system depends on being able to ship huge amounts of produce long distances. Hence rock hard peaches and cardboard tomatoes. (Don’t get me started!)
In the 1800s, Agronomist E. Lewis Sturtevant described the fruit in his book “Edible Plants of the World” this way: “… a natural custard, too luscious for the relish of most people. The fruit is nutritious and a great resource to the savages.”
The fruit has been growing in notoriety since NPR did a piece in 2011 and again in 2017. You can even order frozen pawpaw pulp pretty much year round with the whole fruit available in season.
I’m hoping pawpaws don’t become the next ramp for the local food scene. The last few Aprils in the Asheville area have seen ramps worked into the menu of every trendy restaurant. I kind of like the idea that pawpaws resist being mass-marketed. There should be at least one food that really, truly is seasonal. You may be able to buy strawberries in October and asparagus in January, but here’s hoping pawpaws remain a foraged delicacy of early fall.
Pawpaws on NPR
There’s SO much I love about the Appalachian mountains. Here’s the first of what I hope are many videos sharing some of the wonders of my mountain home with you.