Saturday, September 16, 2006

Rediscovering Autumn

Late summer edging into autumn has always been my favorite time of year. Unlike some people who see it as a time of winding down and closing in, I love the golden sunny afternoons with just a hint of chill in the air and the mellow growth of late gardens after the frenzy of summer heat. The heat of summer here could hardly be called a frenzy, but the golden afternoons are all the more precious for their respite between the endless light of July and the warmth that leads into evening.

Like a child I am learning all over the signs of the seasons. In lieu of scarlet maple leaves rouging the landscape, I watch the rowan berries moving from orange to red. Autumn comes earlier here but is milder. The roses are still blooming along the cottage walls and my garden is still producing zucchinis, but there is a chill in the evening air and the sun is not rising as high in the sun as it did even last week. The kittens seek the heat of the parked car whenever their favorite sun spot disappears. I don't know yet how I will protect them from the winds of winter, but we still have time to think about that.

There are few trees here, but we have been south and I have seen the leaves begin to turn. The sight made me happy and at the same time made me painfully homesick. Morris asked me what the leaves would be doing in Indiana just now, and when I went to answer a love poem to maple trees fell out of my mouth. The birches are getting golden tips to their leaves down south, but the most interesting tree to me is the larch.

The larch is an evergreen in the technical sense. It is not deciduous; it clings tenaciously to its leaves throughout the season, but the leaves turn brown. When I first saw these brown branches in stands of pine and spruce in their full green glory, I thought the larch was a victim of disease or other eco-disaster. The color jarred so much that I could not notice the graceful ballerina arms dancing in the wind.

Now I have actually come to enjoy the russet red brown of the tiny leaves. Not yet as much as I enjoyed the scarlet maple and the oaks, but I have time to look with new eyes not only at the larch but the other signs of the season here known as Back End, the heel taps of the year.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Windfall for most people conjures up images of winning the lottery or some other unexpected money. Our recent windfall was a more literal one. The apple trees, including one more than 50 years old, have decided that this is a great year to set fruit. I think it is their joy in being liberated from the decade of overgrowth. It is tough even for an apple tree to stand up to nettles, so last year Morris broke the enchantment that held the apple trees captive and they are rewarding us with this bounty.

Last year, every few days he would disappear into the jungle of what he called the tennis lawn. he insisted that they had once played tennis on the grass out there but it was so overgrown that I could not imagine any trace of it was left. He cut branches and pulled out weeds and we filled the front loader three times with the remnants. The apple trees were wraiths against the stone walls keeping out the sea winds. I thought we would have to pull them out the following spring.

Spring came and bit by bit the beds along the edges emerged. Lupines, peonies, daisies, solomon's seal, daffodils, red and black currants, and one lone goosberry bush all began to come out from behind the nettles and dock and ragged robin. The apple trees looked like a poodle after a bad hair cut, but they were still alive. They leafed out timidly as if to cover their nakedness and then exploded into an outrageous display of white flowers asserting themselves back into the landscape that had been theirs. The edge of the old cistern was also now visible along the boundary of the tennis lawn as the bones of the garden began to emerge.

And then I forgot about the tennis lawn until Morris took me by the hand one day and showed me the grateful, resplendent apple trees. He filled a tub left over from the vitamins we give the cattle with apples that the wind had sent to the ground, windfall apples. The names of the apples are a treat in themselves: "Beauty of Bath," "Cox's Sweet Orange" and somebody or other's "Superb." Names like race horses and pedigrees about as long. Apple sauce and cider come to my American mind; chutney and apple jelly to Morris and our friends on this side. The good news is we have enough apples for all that and an apple pie, or two, as well. And we haven't even started on the apples still on the tree, still slowly ripening to perfection.

We each took a side of the tub of apples and put them in the back of his car and set out on an absolutely gorgeous Indian summer day. Our friend Angela had asked for apples for chutney, so we headed for Reg and Angela's with the warm sun filling the car with apple aroma.

When we arrived Reg was there, but Angela was out. He had heard nothing of apples or chutney, but always takes things in stride, so he just laughed as we walked into the kitchen with this large black tub of apples. We talked and laughed and had coffee and as often happens, it got to be dinner time and we were still there. Reg and Angela always manage however many people are around their table with grace and good humour. This time Morris joined Reg in the kitchen. Morris took charge of the apples and a Swede (turnip or rutabaga in American English) that had come from one of our fields.

The meal was a triumph of improvisation and good humour, hopefully the first of many to come from the windfall apples.

Friday, September 08, 2006

An Ear of Corn

Having abandoned corporate America for the wild life of farming in the land beyond the Highlands, I have also landed in the not for profit sector. When not chasing cattle I am working in a complex relationship with the local college and research institute and a housing association to help people address fuel poverty--spending too much of a too small income just to keep warm, barely. It is another big adjustment because I know very little about how things work here--people's homes, lifestyles, and heating and lighting technology are all still baffling from time to time. But I can build on previous skills and so I am staying, hopefully, one step ahead of the people I am meant to serve and learning as I go. Much akin to pedaling even on the downhill slopes.

Among the benefits of my new job are an organic veggie delivery service. A nearby enterprise raises great veg in polytunnels and as a service distributes them to local area. The delivery folks no doubt are used to enthusiasm when people get their packets--there is always a surprise depending on what is bountiful that week, but the new deliveryman was taken aback when I found an ear of corn among my lettuce and tomatoes. I picked it up and smiled from ear to ear while exclaiming, "Corn!"

That one word (maize is what it is usually called over here) delivered in an American accent was enough to tip him to the fact that I was not a lunatic, just a displaced American and a veg enthusiast. He responded more or less in kind,

"Aye, and if you cook it within 6 hours the sugars will not have started turning to starch."

Still cuddling the corn, I smiled even broader, if possible, and said, "I'm from Indiana." And then realized that he would not know that Indiana is synonymous with corn and so quickly added, "They grow corn there. Lots of it."

I could not expect anyone in Caithness to understand what that one ear of corn meant to me. It felt like Robinson Crusoe on his wee island getting a chest washed ashore that contained a letter from home and a new set of clothes and a razor and the one thing that he had been missing the most. I felt like the teleporter was working and the occasional link with Indiana was actually going to work. I felt connected.

We had a good laugh in the office about my enthusiasm for corn, but I thought my husband would understand what it meant to me. I called and said I had corn and would cook it and we could have corn the way it was meant to be. I should have known then that he wasn't really listening.

When I got home, he was out in the steading. I went upstairs to change and before I was back downstairs again, he had sat down to a meal he had been simmering for some time. "What about the corn? I thought we were going to sit down together and have a proper sit down dinner." He gave me the look that says he has only half listened. In fact, I am probably invisible. He has a way of looking and talking apparently with you, but his mind is really somewhere else. His mind was in the barley and he was just going through the motions. My heart sank. He disappeared back out to the barley without even noticing that my heart had slipped somewhere down about my ankles. In fairness, if he had noticed, he would have done something. Maybe not the right something, but something. His heart is in the right place, but he does not realize how painful the not noticing is.

I am now feeling every inch of the distance from the kitchen back to Indiana. I eat my ear of corn standing up at the counter in the kitchen. And then when I feel the distance that acutely, I find myself wandering back to familiar paths. If I were back at my old house and felt this way, the cats would have greeted me at the door, or at least one of them. There is no pretense with cats. You know when they are looking at you that they are paying attention. I could walk out the door and stroll around the neighborhood. I could probably hear my neighbor Cindy's laugh as she walked around or talked with neighbors. I could fall into one of those conversations or just wave and walk by. I might stop in at Michelle's house for a glass of that wonderful sun tea that she makes. I know that this train of thought needs to be stopped because that house, those cats, that whole way of life is gone. The antidote is in my feet.

I take my well worn walking shoes (trainers as they are called here) and head for the sea: "Reconnect with what attracted you in the first place" is some of the best advice I received for homesickness and loneliness. I pick my way as carefully as possible through the manure and mud on the bit of farm road around the new barn, past the field now with rolls of straw where I first walked with a gang of cattle at my heels more than two years ago now, and then to the tall grass to follow the tracks of the vehicles down to the sea.

The rabbits have been working overtime to devise complex networks of burrows and befuddling entrances and exits that would put the anthropormized rabbit warrens in Watership Down to shame. The white scutch of their tails flashes in the tall green grass as I startle them into activity. There are few birds until I get near to the sea.

The tide is coming in, so the steps that stretch into the sea far below the grassy fields are caught between earth and sea. I climb over the tumbled rocks--each one a story in itself-- on the beach and step out onto the great, stair step stretches of sedimentary rock. I linger over a tide pool here and there. The colors of the algae and the rocks are stunning. I make too much noise ever to get a good look at the little fish who dart away to seek the shelter of an overhanging rock. I venture closer to the water being careful not to step on the limpets waiting for the return of the water. I go to the edge and tell myself that I will stay until that far rock is covered by the incoming tide. The water comes so quickly that the rock is covered and the water is coming closer, or so it seems. I return to the safety of the driest part of the steps and sit and watch for awhile. The smell of the sea is refreshing. The regular rhythm of the waves breaking on the rocks and the bright sun glinting on the water soften the ache for lost people and places.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Bike by Bike

From time to time I have mentioned the wind here in Caithness. It was much on my mind today as I was praying for a tailwind to get me home from Thurso on my new bike. I didn't get a tail wind. In fact, most of the time it was in my face. When it wasn't in my face, it threatened to push me off the road, and then when it switched again, it was to push me into oncoming traffic. I kept thinking that it might somehow find its way behind me. It didn't, and so I fought the wind for every inch of the way from Thurso to the farm road.

Even downhill, I had to pedal to help gravity in its fight against the Caithness wind. I keep forgetting I am not in Indiana. As I assemble the pieces of my new life, I get to pick and choose what bits of previous lives I can or want to include on this canvas. I have wanted a bike for three years. Since the first time I saw Caithness, I thought what a lovely place for a bike. Even with the hills and the wind. Despite my aching legs, I still am glad to have my new bike.

With my bike, I can slide by wonderful patches of purple heather that would go unnoticed in a car. After nearly two hours on my bike, on the very last hill before the farm road, I noticed a tiny patch of Solidago in full yellow flower. I would not have seen that otherwise. I have read eagerly and with just a bit of jealousy Ralph's "Out and About" features in the local paper about his biking adventures . Ralph bikes around very interesting places and takes his bike far afield on trains and overland routes. I'll never be that adventurous, but I have enjoyed riding a bike and the adventures associated with it since I was old enough to wobble up and down my driveway trying to believe in training wheels and the scenery here even on a windy day is worth the effort.

I don't clearly remember my first bike. Perhaps I have repressed that because I left it in front of the garage door where we had been told not to leave our bikes. It was smashed flat by one of my parents running over it and my punishment was to be bikeless. For several months I was without a bike in a very bike-oriented gagle of kids. Somehow running up and down the driveway or taking turns on someone else's bike was just not the same.

I remember my green and white Huffy. It had a fringed compartment to keep my toy rifle in. I kept that bike until the seat could no longer be raised. I then graduated to an elegant 3-speed racing bike, the ultimate in biking technology in its day. A high school friend who left Scotland shortly before I got here rode with me all around the back roads near our houses the last summer before I went to college studying corn fields as they ripened through the summer. I thought of him today as I huffed and puffed along. I could have used his encouragement and he would have liked the hills of sheep and cattle.

That may have been the bike that went to college with me. I was noted then for wearing olive green jeans and wearing knee high boots of a russet colored leather about the time that Bob Dylan was singing "Boots of Spanish Leather." I was studying, among other things, French, wrote poetry, and dubbed my bike, "Bicyclette." In the 60's it may have made sense. A friend who is coming to visit me here in a couple weeks one day wrote a note in French and put it on my bike. I don't remember why. Maybe she does.

The next bike phase was matching 5-speed racing bikes after my then husband wrecked the car. I rode that bike to work and to classes and until I was so pregnant that my bike wobbled again as it had in my earliest days lurching from training wheel to training wheel.

When I moved to Philadelphia, I added an infant carrying seat on the back of my bike and my daughter and I traveled the student ghetto until she was too big to fit on the bike. I continued with my bike but in the urban setting, I needed a large chain to keep my bike no matter how secure a site it seemed to be. I must have been quite a sight with my large-link chain slung like a bandolier across my chest. It was not enough to deter thieves. After losing two expensive bikes, I rode for awhile on a bike that was so old and clunky that no one, I thought, could be bothered to steal it. Even that, however, was not safe. Perhaps they stole it because they were annoyed that I had stopped buying fancy bikes that were worth stealing and, once again, I was being punished with a bike-less existence.

I remained bikeless for many years, except for a very brief episode with a moped and a fat-wheeled pink bike for a week in Cayman, until I rewarded myself for getting my master's degree with a blue, hybrid 23-gear bike. I never used all 23 gears in the city but I managed to keep hold of this one even when threatened. Having lived in the city for several years and having lost so many bicycles, I was wary as the man approached me with his hand out as if to shake hands. I extended my hand but kept the other firmly on my bike.

As I suspected, he did not shake hands but grabbed the bike and gave a tug. "Give it to me, he said. It might have been more sensible to have yielded but the ghosts of all those lost bicycles were haunting me. I gritted my teeth and said no, with a few more words that don't need to be repeated here. He had no knife or gun and so we were just locked there in a tug of war until I started yelling. I hollered help without ever really expecting anyone to come, and no one did. Since he was an opportunistic thief, he didn't want publicity and just faded into the streetscape.

That bike moved with me to the small town when I had enough of urban adventures, and, once again, I was touring corn fields. I remember one fabulous golden afternoon turning a corner onto a side road and having dozens of turkey vultures take flight--slowly as if not too bothered by a single person on a bicycle--and then settling in again after I passed on my way. I like that unobtrusiveness of bicycle riding.

And so bike by bike, I am now the proud owner of a grey Giant bike with 23 gears or so. I don't expect to use all of them but Caithness certainly offers more opportunites for that than Indiana ever did.