By Donella Meadows
–September 19, 1996–
The sun rises in a new place every morning now. Its first beam hits the garden at a southerly angle. It’s equinox time, and Old Sol is distancing himself quickly, every day lower in the sky. Since June we’ve lost four hours of light; we’ll lose another four by December.
This brief moment between summer and autumn throws our farm into a strange mixture of hurry and stillness. The hurry comes from the pressure of the harvest. The stillness comes as we hold our breaths, and all nature seems to hold still too, waiting for the first frost.
When we started farming in this valley in the 1970s, the first killing frost came like clockwork during the third week of September. Our year was adjusted to that date. It determined when we started the pepper seeds indoors in February and when we thought we could get away with the last corn planting in June.
Lately though, global warming or something is playing havoc with the schedule. Some years we get weeks of grace. The frost has held off as late as October 12. But we can’t count on that. Last year it froze hard right on the equinox — and then we had a whole frost-free month. If we had covered our tomato plants that one chilly night, we could have gone on harvesting almost up to Halloween.
So we’ve turned into gamblers, planting a few late crops that we know might get zapped, or, if we’re lucky, maybe not. We sniff the afternoon air anxiously and keep a close eye on Mount Ascutney. Most of the old houses in the valley face that mountain, “our mountain.” One of the first things our neighbors taught us when we moved in was to watch it on possible frost nights. “It gets a certain look,” they said. “It gets super-clear, like it’s suddenly moved two miles closer. Then you know we’re going to Get It.”
So far the mountain is staying in its place, but we’re scurrying. The tomatoes are ripening at about a bushel a day, so every night there’s canning to do. Last weekend we had a Tomato Taste Test. Fourteen varieties, cut into wedges, ripe and juicy, arranged along the kitchen counter with a clipboard to record our judgements and those of our neighbors and anyone else we could snare. The old-fashioned Brandywine won hands down, but a surprise high finisher was Big Beef, one of those gorgeous modern types, easy to grow and high-yielding, which we usually assume are tasteless. This one isn’t!
The peppers are ripening too, and we have long debates about their relative hotness and how many to throw into the salsa. The table on the back porch is piled with the brown pods of dry beans. When we get a minute, we stop and shuck a few. Glass jars are lined up to receive them — Red Kidneys, Black Beans, Vermont Cranberries, Maine Yellow Eyes, Swedish Brown Beans, speckled Wren’s Egg pole beans. Such a beautiful array, like multicolored garden jewels.
Because any night we could Get It, we try to scoop up every green bean and cob of sweet corn and either savor it for dinner or blanch it for the freezer, which is just about full now. We won’t have green beans or fresh corn much longer, or flowers. So we fill the house with bouquets of dahlias, cosmos, bright red zinnias. No point in stinting. Enjoy every blossom while it lasts.
The crickets still sing outdoors at night, the gnats swarm around our faces in the day. We dash around, spreading compost, tilling up the spaces where onions, garlic, and other early crops grew, sowing winter cover crops. We have to get the plastic on the hoop house before frost. We have to harvest the pumpkins. The late raspberries need picking and the early ones need pruning. Grab the basil and make it into pesto! Last chance for zucchini bread! Hurry!
The birds are hurrying with us; the phoebes chasing the last flies, stocking up for the trip south, the bluejays diving for berries, the goldfinches hanging upside down from the drooping sunflowers.
And yet there are long moments when I just stop. The breathlessness of the land stops me. The greens are fading ever so slowly, beginning to hint at the riotous oranges and reds underneath. The grasses and wildflowers are just about to shatter their ripened seeds. There are no bird songs. The brook that was rushing last spring is a bare trickle now. The wind stops, the sun comes through the pines at its new angle, and I know I’d better soak it in. All this will be gone soon. Be quiet, slow down, love it while it lasts.
It should be a sad time, and by November it will be. But the frost hasn’t come yet. We can still graze on cherry tomatoes while we work in the garden. The yard is cheery with marigolds and gloriosa daisies and even roses. The garden overflows with the abundance that grew from our work and the blessings of the soil and sun and rain. The kitchen is aglow with red tomatoes, purple eggplant, green and yellow peppers.
For now — and in just about a week the trees all over the valley will join in — it’s a time for celebration.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996