Saturday, September 22, 2012

Farewell to the Joys of Summer

Weather is such a safe topic of discussion in New England.  I sometimes wonder what people talk about in sunny California.  We have infinite variety here in the East – dramatic thunderstorms, heart-stopping rainbows, exhausting heat waves, exhilarating blizzards.

Even our change of seasons offers good conversation -  the first heady days of spring as the earth turns green; the lazy, languid days of summer; the precious days of autumn when we soak up the turning of the leaves and the last harvests of fresh vegetables and flowers.

You can’t really argue about the weather, just rejoice or complain.  Mother Nature goes right on about her business.  Even discussing a coming hurricane or a winter blizzard is pleasant compared to talking about the candidates in the coming election.

I have to admit that knowing Jack Frost will soon return from his summer vacation is a bit of a downer. Seeing a flock of sparrows gather in the locust trees to discuss the best route south or watching the last golden maple leaf float to earth make me feel as melancholy as the cricket’s sad lament.  How much I will miss the sweet smell of new-mown hay, the fun of picking bouquets for the house and vegetables for the table, playing exhausting but delightful tennis games.

This may sound silly, but one of the things I will miss the most will be fresh corn on the cob.  Oh, I freeze plenty for the winter, but it doesn’t compare.  I don’t grow corn since the Fords who rent my pastures and hay fields let me pick mine straight from the vast acres of corn behind their farm stand. 

I can’t remember eating corn as a kid.  What I do remember is hiding under the branches of a bridal wreath bush in the backyard and pulling the dried silk from a few ears with my cousin, stuffing them into a corncob pipe and puffing and coughing.  Do you know what corn silk’s real purpose is?  Each of those pale yellow threads is the style of a female flower.  If you think back to your school days you may remember that the female flower is called the pistil and consists of an ovary, a style and a stigma.  Deep within the immature husk, each filament of silk is attached to an ovary, which will grow into a kernel of corn when fertilized.

At the other end of each silk is the sticky stigma, waiting to catch a grain of pollen.  Under a microscope the thin strands look like feathers, each one covered with tiny hairs.  Since there are close to a thousand kernels on an ear of corn, there are also a thousand silks, which anyone who’s husked corn well knows.

The male flower is the tassel that blooms at the tip of the corn stalk.  It is made up of hundreds of pairs of spikelets, each pair containing six anthers, each anther producing about 2500 grains of pollen.  When a grain slides down each silk it fertilizes an ovary, turning it into a kernel. 

That plethora of pollen is spread by the wind and can travel hundreds of miles. It isn’t fussy about where it lands, but happily most varieties of hybrid corn will not accept pollen from a different variety. The one exception is pop corn.
 My sheep love eating all the husks as I strip them from the ears.  Mmmm.  Almost dinner time.  Guess I’ll drive down and get two or three ears for my dinner.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Greensward

One of the few improvements man has been able to make in Mother Nature’s landscape is a well-mowed lawn.  Her prairies and mountain meadows may look smooth and beautiful from a distance, as do pastures that have been grazed, but they’re not much fun to walk over in bare feet.

This summer as the price of gas nearly doubled I didn’t see that anyone had stopped cutting their lawn to save a few pennies. Even this parsimonious old lady mows the weedy lawns on Locust Hill pictured above each Friday. They always look just fine on the weekend. 

There is just no real substitute for the incredibly green green of freshly mowed grass in spring, or the deep blue-green of a maple-shaded summer lawn, or even the pristine white blanket that stretches beyond the window in unbroken splendor after a winter snow.

Do you remember back in 1972 when the Arabs treated us to an oil embargo?  Environmentalists urged everyone to turn his or her lawn into a meadow full of wildflowers.  That idea may sound appealing, and would certainly eliminate the weekly chore of cutting the grass, but I wouldn’t call it an adequate substitute of the greensward.

When I was growing up in West Hartford, one of our more prosperous neighbors put in a six hole golf course in his front yard.  A few years later the Second World War’s gas rationing forced him to let it turn into an unmowed field. My friends and I played far more delightful games than golf in that luxurious meadow, matting down secret tunnels and serpentine paths that led to incredibly soft nests on the overgrown putting greens.

Most country clubs kept their golf courses mowed during the war by using their members’ pooled gas coupons.  But I can remember one in Vermont that found a better way.  I don’t play golf so maybe “different” would be a more appropriate adjective.  That golf course was fenced and grazed by sheep.  Each ewe was outfitted with a football helmet to protect  her from the flying golf balls.

We are so lucky in New England compared to the West and South where drought so often turns everyone’s lawn into ugly dry dust.  We usually have just enough rain to prevent such discouraging landscapes.  The last drought  I can remember that was serious enough to turn the lawns on Locust Hill brown was in 1999.

Plants sweat in hot weather, just the same way we do, but it’s called transpiration, not perspiration.  We sweat to cool our bodies, but plants do it to get rid of excess water.  Their roots need that water to carry minerals up from the soil to all parts of the plant, but once it’s been released, the plant gets rid of the water through its leaves in transpiration.

When temperatures soar into the 90s as they tend to do more frequently every summer, a maple tree can lose several hundred gallons of water in a day; an acre of pasture grass can release up to 400,000 gallons during a growing season.  So next time your tennis game gets washed out in a summer storm or all the shirts drying on the clothesline get drenched, don’t complain.  Be thankful. 

On September 24th two years ago,  Golda Meier, our 25 year old goldfish, died.  I thought it would be nice to put her picture up for those of you who didn’t read the column I wrote about this remarkable old lady. 

Many readers have asked about the new fish I bought to replace Goldie. A tiny Comet, silvery white instead of orange, whose name, Ben Hur, I chose from among many suggested by my readers.   Shortly after I released him into the pond, we had a tremendous rain storm, so drenching that the pond overflowed the dam.

You know that song “…and he swam and he swam, right over the dam!”  I’m afraid that is exactly what little Ben did as I haven’t seen him since.  If I don’t see him by next spring, I guess I’ll get another little fish who will hopefully be strong enough by the autumn hurricanes to survive.