Best of "Prairie Schooner": Personal Essaysby Kate Flaherty
Called one of the best magazines in America by Nan Talese and "the roots" in Esquire's garden of contemporary literature, and named one of Writer's Digest's “Nineteen Magazines That Matter,” Prairie Schooner—one of the oldest and most prestigious literary journals in the country—celebrates seventy-five years of/i>/i>/i>
Called one of the best magazines in America by Nan Talese and "the roots" in Esquire's garden of contemporary literature, and named one of Writer's Digest's “Nineteen Magazines That Matter,” Prairie Schooner—one of the oldest and most prestigious literary journals in the country—celebrates seventy-five years of continuous publication. This powerful anthology collects some of the best personal essays from the poets, novelists and critics who have appeared in the journal's pages.
Readers will explore a kaleidoscope of memories and experiences, including the power of a planting season, the catharsis that fishing holds for an adolescent boy, the literary fallout from a cousin's death, the lessons learned in the parlor of a Puerto Rican grandmother, the impact of discovering an identical twin's homosexuality, and the revelations of a homecoming.
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Read an Excerpt
Jicama, without Expectation
There never blows so red the rose,
So sound the round tomato
As March's catalogs disclose
And yearly I fall prey to.
This, my first published poem, appeared on the Home Forum Page of the Christian Science Monitor in March of 1953. Forty years ago, in a handkerchief-size suburban backyard dominated by a huge maple tree that admitted very little sunlight, I raised half a dozen spindly tomato plants and first made the acquaintance of the fearsome zucchini. Burpee's was my catalog of choice back then; indeed, I doubt that I knew any others existed. The prolixity and seductive lure of today's catalogs almost exceed my desire to leaf through them. It is not roses I seek; I am in search of the perfect vegetable. Open-pollinated, disease-free, all-season producer, easy to harvest, fun to cook, and heaven to eat. What cultivar is this, as yet unborn?
I have lived long enough to see the sugar snap pea survive its trials and move into the glossy pages of Harris, Stokes, Shepherds et al. I have seen the great viney winter squashes shrink into manageable bush types. A white eggplant has swum into my ken, as have seed potatoes, and giant onions that spring up from seed in a single season. The red brussels sprout has arrived. There is an ongoing revolution in the pepper world: orange, red, yellow, chocolate, and now white peppers are all said to be possible.
Lettuces of every hue and configuration have all but obliterated the boringiceberg head, and Japanese vegetables are so numerous that they now command their own category in the catalog. Central and South American varieties are not far behind, although I have only this winter tried to jump-start jicama, a delightfully crunchy root I first met on an hors d'oeuvres platter in Texas ten years ago. To my surprise, it has a vining habit and will want something comforting to twine itself on.
Climbers of the leguminous persuasion, from heirloom shelling-out beans to a strain of leafless peas, all do well in our soil. Frankly, I am deficient in the pepper department. Capsicum's pod-like fruit mostly just sit and sulk in my central New Hampshire garden, although the long green Buddhas, which I haven't deliberately planted in a decade, continue to volunteer in all the wrong places. As do Oriental poppies, broadcast by unseen birds. These refuse to be transplanted into some other location but dot themselves among the carrots and beets at will.
For just shy of twenty years now I have been gardening in the same spot abutting the forest out of which emerge such menacing outlaws as raccoons and woodchucks, skunk, deer, and black bear. I long to have my garden closer to the house where it would be less subject to depredations. The dogs could keep an eye on it there. But our hilly farm yields only this distant tabletop for garden a hundred yards above the house and barn, and it must serve. The earth dries out slowly there, backed by our pond. But it stands open to full sun and yields eight hundred pounds of produce in a decent season.
Substantial credit for this prodigious yield goes to the New York Times, which arrives Monday through Saturday in the mailbox at the foot of the hill, courtesy of the RFD mailperson and her jeep. On Mondays or Tuesdays the New York Times Book Review comes via the same route. I don't subscribe to the Sunday edition, partly because it weighs too much to carry half a mile north, and partly because I fear it would usurp every Monday to work my way through it.
It makes no difference that the news is a day late when I carry it up the hill, usually on a horse, sometimes on foot. For breadth and depth of coverage, the Times has no peer. Certainly no other newspaper can match, inch for inch, its thick accretion of words, stacked and ready at all seasons in the mud room.
In March, when I start seedlings in flats on top of the refrigerator and dryer, little cutouts of wet newspaper line the trays and help hold in the moisture. New York City's ten best Szechuan restaurants underlie Johnny's new hybrid pepper seeds, which seem to take forever to wake up and grow. My almost-antique celery seeds that have not failed in four years lie atop Charles Schwab's ad for how to open an IRA account. Germination rates may exceed interest again this year.
A little later in the growing season such directly sown vegetables as beets and green beans are also mulched with "All the News That's Fit to Print." Once the individual plants are well organized with their second set of true leaves showing, I enclose them, tearing slits in three or four thicknesses of paper to fit around the whole plant.
This is tedious and time-consuming, but pays off mightily in shutting out weeds and preserving the soil temperature that suits each variety. Green beans, for example, like warm soil, but want to be mulched before summer's full heat strikes. While kneeling to put paper around them, I can catch up on an enormous range of topics that eluded me when they were current events. If it's windy, though, I have to hurry and weight down the papers with mulch.
A vegetable garden just below a pond, just inside a field bordered by hundreds of acres of forests, clearly needs to be fenced and refenced. To keep down weeds that take tenacious hold in, around, and through the original buried chicken wire fence and the later additions of hardware cloth, screening, and other exotica thrown into the breach when emergencies arise, fat sections of the Times are stuffed into the gaps and pleats, then mulched for appearances' sake.
All around the outer perimeter, whole sections of the newspaper lie flat, weighted and stained with handy rocks. Before I climb over a stile of poplar chunks and into my garden, I sometimes stop to marvel at the Roche Bobois furniture ads, the gorgeous lofts in Chelsea, the halogen lights and sunken marble baths of the back pages. Here where tomatoes overgrow their cages and Kentucky Wonders climb chaotic tepees of sumac branches, I admire engineered closets and beds that fold up into walls.
My corn is not sown here, but in an inviolate space facing south in the uppermost and hottest pasture. A year's worth of book reviews, exactly the correct width when opened out, serves as carpet between the rows. And an opened-out page folded into thirds slips between individual plants, once they're six inches high. It's an Augean labor, but only needs to be performed once. Hay and/or sawdust mulch covers the paper, and nothing further is required except to eat the ears when they're of a size. No, I misspoke. Just before the corn really sets ears, I need to energize the two strands of electric fence that keep raccoons at bay.
Next April, when a general thaw makes it possible to turn the garden once again, nothing much is left of the New York Times. A few tatters with mysterious pieces of words on them are in evidence, but, thanks to thousands of literate earthworms, not enough remains to construct even a minimalist story.
Cultivating a garden satisfies at least some of my deep yearnings for order Everything else has a ragged sort of shape to it. In an old farmhouse, cobwebs cling to exposed beams. Pawprints muddy the floor. Doors have to be propped open with stones, the stair risers constructed two hundred years ago are amateurishly uneven. Wisps of hay ride indoors on our sweaters. It's a comfortably down-at-the-heels atmosphere. Sometimes, guiltily, I think of my mother, who would never have tolerated this welter. But the garden is composed of orderly rows and blocks of raised beds. Weeds do not penetrate the deep mulch. Serenely, plants grow, blossom, set fruit. All is as workable as Latin grammar: Amo, amas, amat among the brassicas; hic haec, hoc in a raised bed lively with parsnip foliage.
You cannot justify a garden to non-believers. You cannot explain to the unconverted the desire, the ravishing need, to get your hands into the soil again, to plant, thin, train up on stakes, trellis onto pea fence, hill up to blanch, just plain admonish to grow. From Pliny to Voltaire, from Thomas Jefferson to St. Exupery, gardening has been an emblem of integrity in an increasingly incomprehensible world.
There is an intimacy to the act of planting as tantalizing as possessing a secret. Every seed you sow has passed through your fingers on its way from dormancy to hoped-for fruition. "Trailing clouds of glory do we come," Wordsworth wrote. Thus come the little cobbles of beet seeds that separate when rolled between your fingers, the flat, feathery parsnip ones that want to drift on air en route to the furrow, the round black dots that will be Kelsae onions, fat and sweet by September, the exasperatingly tiny lettuce flecks that descend in a cluster and the even harder-to- channel carrot seeds.
Some of my seed packets are a decade old, but they've lost little vigor. Stored out of season in an unheated closet, they have amazing keeping qualities. But consider the lotus seeds found under an ancient lake bed in Manchuria. Carbon-dated at eight hundred years old, they grew into lotus plants of a sort that had never been seen in that particular area. Such extravagant longevity makes me hopeful that we humans too will ever so gradually advance into new forms, a higher level of lotus, as it were.
A few years ago, early in May, while upending a wheelbarrow load of horse manure onto the pile, I noticed some splayed green leaves emerging along the midriff of this sizeable mountain. They were not poke or burdock. They had a cultivated look. By tacit agreement my husband and I began to deposit our barrow loads on the north face of the pile.
By mid-June the south slope was covered with a dense network of what were now, clearly, squash leaves. Male blossoms, visible on their skinny-necked stems, were popping up and a few bees were already working the territory. Let this not be zucchini, I prayed to Mother Nature.
Around the 4th of July, green swellings could be seen at the bases of the female blossoms. The solo plant had overrun the manure pile and was now racing along our dirt road, uphill and down. Every few days I policed the road's edge and nipped back each of the brash tendrils that thought, like turtles, to cross the right-of-way. Thwarted in this direction, the heroic squash began to loop upward, mounting a huge stand of jewelweed in its eagerness to get at a telephone pole.
Well before Labor Day we knew what we had: Sweet Mamas of an especially vigorous persuasion. About ten of these pumpkin-shaped winter squashes were visible from the mountaintop. Several looked tableready.
We watched and waited, despite several frost warnings, secure in the knowledge that the warmth of the pile would protect this crop from an early demise. A two-day downpour flattened some of the luxuriant foliage; we could see that the plant was still setting fruit, heedless of the calendar. After several sunny days when things had dried out a bit, I poked around a few of the giants at the top of the mountain. They had orange streaks and some of the stems were cracking.
Harvest time was at hand. I began yanking the vines hand over hand, as if coiling the ropes of a seagoing vessel. In all we garnered thirty-five beauteous volunteers. Not a single squash bug anywhere. No chipmunk toothmarks, no tiny gnawings of mice or voles. It seems that even the lowliest creature disdains a manure pile.
We compost all our garden and table scraps, from elderly broccoli plants to orange peels to onion skins. The simplest method is just to dig a hole anywhere in the brown mountain, deposit the leavings, and backfill with a few shovelfuls of the usual. Leftovers disintegrate in a few days; sometimes I catch a glimpse of grapefruit rind or eggshell not fully digested. I re-inter them without a backward glance.
Late November is manure pile demolition time on the farm. As much of the mountain as can be moved manually or by machine is returned to the gardens, pastures, and riding ring. In the course of upending and hauling, some ancient Sweet Mama cotyledon must have been stirred to germinate. I like to think of the seed lying there through several seasons before the right combination of sun and warmth, moon and rain awakened it.
Early in October, in Geese Go South Moon, leaves rain down with a muffled sideslipping sound. Dust motes spin in sunlight like flour sifting in puffs onto the beginnings of batter. For the horses this season is heavenly. We haven't had a killing frost yet. All of our fields are open to them, and they wander like sleepwalkers from one area to another grazing intermittently, sometimes standing for long thoughtful moments silhouetted against the backdrop of forest or granite outcropping.
This is the season when tails at last become superfluous. The biting insects have fled, migrated, died off, or entered hibernation. Except for the usual small ectoplasms of gnats that still hover in quiet air, all is benign and salving in the ether. Gone the vicious little trapezoidal deerflies that draw blood from animal and human. Vanished too the horn and face flies, bots and horse flies. The ubiquitous black flies, that penance of the north country, never quite disappear but they are greatly diminished. And this summer's long tenure of mosquitoes appears to be over.
We are in the briefest and most beautiful moment of stasis. Along the perimeter of the pastures, fall flowering asters, tiny blue florets with yellow centers, flourish. A few late blackberries go on ripening, daintily pursued by the greedy broodmare, who rolls back her lips in order to nip them off, one or two at a time, without getting pricked by thorns. The Jerusalem artichokes, harbingers of frost, are in bud and threaten to open in today's sunlight. Toads in the vegetable garden, deprived of their prey now, have begun retreating to the woods after a long and profitable summer. Mushrooms appear everywhere two brain puffballs in the dressage ring, little pear-shaped lycoperdons dotting the pine duff like misplaced miniature golf balls, smoky hygrophorus clustering in the dark corners of the pine grove, and in the rocky acre allotted the ewes, brickies hypholoma sublateritium spring up, breaking their gray cobwebby films. The chanterelles we prized and ate all summer are gone, but clusters of honey mushrooms at the base of decaying oaks are now ready. Sometimes, traversing the woods on horseback, we spot a full bloom of oyster mushrooms swelling on the trunk of a dying tree. Foraging for mushrooms has its own visceral pleasures: we reap where we did not sow, paper, mulch, or water.
The war against the thistles continues. Day three of eradication, extirpation, elimination, waged by me with a large serrated bread knife and by my helper with a presharpened posthole shovel. I bobble along on my knees, repositioning the kneeling pad that was a birthday present, scraping my knuckles against the inside of these thistle-proof deerhide gloves. I infer from what I see that the thistle is a biennial plant. The great green overlapping swords I am digging up though seldom does the entire taproot come with the plant will be the stalk and flower of next summer. The dried vicious pickets we can pull out, thereby scattering ten thousand new seeds for the future, are no threat for the immediate season. While we're about it, we yank any surviving nettle plants, which ovines will eat if desperate.
Nothing on this farm ever reaches the desperation stage. The several ewes who summer here, leaving their home pasture to the newly weaned lambs, make little single-file trails, over to the pond, behind the pond to the woodlot, thence along the fence line back to the rockpile, and in the heat of the day, into the run-in shed where they lie on green pine sawdust in a flaccid heap like dirty laundry. We are their sabbatical. They arrive sheared and anxious in May and go home in October woolly, plump, and totally at ease, to be bred once again.
In the garden broccoli continues to bud, the Kentucky Wonders still put up beans, and the cauliflower plants left unpulled have, to my wonderment, made multiple tiny new heads. We've pulled and dried and braided our onions. Carrots too cannot stay in the ground, as voles and mice begin to nibble them. Two years ago I left parsnips in their bed to winter over and found not a trace of them by spring; last winter I pulled and scrubbed them, dried them off, and froze them, on the theory that they sweeten in the frozen earth if undisturbed. My theory proved itself, for we ate them with relish all last winter in soups and stews.
Kale, brussels sprouts, leeks, celery root, and three purple cabbages remain. Two five-gallon pails of tomatoes, last of the line, are ripening on the porch. A small group of gargantuan zucchini, somehow overlooked, have already been converted into zucchini bread and/or grated, salted, squeezed dry, and frozen to be sneaked into next winter's recipes a little at a time. They blend unnoticed in winter soups and are barely discernible when spread on pizza dough before the sauce and toppings are added. The freezer is packed with the summer's haul of strawberries, raspberries, peas, corn, green beans, and aye the rest. Part of me the weary part longs for frost. The other, frugal self is happy to receive each day's reduced provender.
November 15. Now I am removed by a thousand miles from my farm and garden. A wet snow is falling in central Illinois, locus day and night of mournful diesel whistles at grade crossings. Here, the campus grounds are littered with crabapples and I find myself mourning that no one cared enough to gather the harvest and make jelly. I think of my own shelves full of blueberry, strawberry, elderberry, and grape jams, and the fifteen gallons of blackberries waiting in the freezer for a January nor'easter so they can be cooked into "that tar-thick boil love cannot stir down."
There are still brussels sprouts to be picked and half a dozen daikons to be pulled, but otherwise the garden is done for. And with it the unremitting labor. Dilled green beans and bread-and-butter pickles crowd the storage shelves, abutting bottles of decorative purple-pink chive blossom vinegar. Mint, tarragon, and dill plants are drying in paper bags hung from the porch rafters.
Visitors to the farm fall into two categories: the urban admirers, nostalgists who long, but only in their imaginations, for gardens to tend, and The Others, who see this as madness. It's not cost-effective, they remind you. Look at the money you spend for seed, blood meal, Dipel, whatever. Look at the fencing (which is now deplorable and needs to be redone). On the other hand, nothing we eat has been drenched with pesticides or fertilized with chemicals. There's also the deeply Calvinist satisfaction of knowing you have earned by the sweat of your brow this delicious feast of fresh asparagus, new spinach, sweet corn, either harvested in situ or now, at this season, brought up from the capacious freezer in the cellar.
"The poet," Thoreau wrote in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, "is he that hath fat enough, like bears and marmots, to suck his claws all winter. He hibernates in this world, and feeds on his own marrow."
December. Home again, to bountiful snow. Such good cover we can open the fields again, as soon as hunting season passes, to the horses to wander at will. This is the Moon That Parts Her Hair Right Square in the Middle, so styled because of the shortest day of the year and the welcome beginning of longer days. December and the arctic months that follow belong to the writer in a leisurely way, to read, think, scribble, declaim aloud, and develop a dozen fantasies of fulfillment. In January's Help Eat Moon stay inside; too cold to do anything else, so eat more and February's Moon of the Eagle and Hatching Time of the Owl I will suck my claws.
Ruminating in February, I read through a stack of old Smithsonian and Natural History magazines, my favorite provender. When I lift my eyes to the hills that surround us, all visible activity is suspended. This could be a glacial prehistoric era but for the two woodstoves radiating a hospitable warmth indoors and the two domesticated wolves several times removed dozing on the hearth. As I muse on the tenacity of the life force the mice and voles unseen, running along their narrow tunnels under the snow, deer bedded in a hemlock grove far from any road I come upon an article about suspended animation. The technical term is cryptobiosis. Brine shrimp, which flourish in brackish water that other plankton cannot tolerate, manage to survive even after the ponds dry up. They stop consuming any oxygen at all and simply encyst their embryos until conditions improve. Researchers have carbon-dated some cysts they retrieved from sediment found to be ten thousand years old. Amazingly, several of these hatched when placed back in water. I am comforted, and it is not a cold comfort; it cheers me to learn that certain kinds of brine shrimp reproduce by parthenogenesis and have persisted without male assistance for millions of years. This is less a feminist statement than an affirmation of reproductive forces.
Now we have arrived at Groundhog Day, an increasingly trivialized ceremony in this epoch of electric lights and central heating. Once, it was an event that pledged the faith of human beings in the approach of the vernal equinox. Early Slavic peoples celebrated a holiday that translates as "butter week," when, as an act of sun-worship, they devoured mountains of the pancakes we know as blini or blintzes, slathered with melted butter. Preparing, chewing, and swallowing were meant to ensure halcyon days to come with abundant crops, golden marriages, and sturdy offspring to till the fields. I like this story much better than Pennsylvania's Punxsutawney Phil, dragged out of hibernation and paraded before the television cameras to make the feature page of every newspaper in the east.
We have forgotten that we celebrate the coming of the growing season. Most of us are so far removed from the acts of cultivation that we would be unable to recognize a tepee of horticultural beans at twenty paces. But we are evolved from East African hominids that once subsisted on a totally vegetarian diet. This line of herbivorous pre-humans possessed incredibly powerful chewing teeth about five million years ago, but the species did not last. Our molars and pre-molars have shrunk, our craniums have enlarged, and we are less-robust omnivores, and what has it profited us?
It's fascinating to realize that the formal notion of agriculture, of actually sowing, weeding, and reaping plants from the soil for human uses, is only about ten thousand years old, a mere blip on the screen of human/pre-human history. We seem to have evolved in response to varying temperatures, "successive cooling plunges," anthropologist Elisabeth Vrba calls them. Wet forests gradually shrank into dry grasslands and then climatic upheavals probably reversed this action several times. Rainfall amounts and geographical boundaries tend to isolate animal populations, limiting the exchange of gene pools. These smaller groups may then diverge to permit the development of new species, or they may simply die out more's the pity as did our very early vegetarian ancestors. I read that the biosphere is "a living layer, stretched thinly over the globe, responding rhythmically to the beat of the earth" and I think of the holes we are poking in this thin curtain that sustains us. What new species will evolve once we have destroyed the atmosphere we require in order to breathe? What new brine shrimp will we become?
This past winter I've had a sleigh at my disposal, a little two-seater built by the Excelsior Sleigh Co. of Watertown, New York, around the turn of the century. At some time in the past hundred years an importunate horse's hoof has kicked a crescent-shaped hole in one side of it, but this in no way limits its serviceability. With new shafts and a few mended braces, it's sturdy enough to drive across the fields and, before the plow arrives, down the road as well. Twice we sojourned with it to Vermont to attend festive sleigh rallies that looked like events recorded by Currier and Ives.
When conditions are optimal about six inches of snow over hard-pack going sleighing is as exhilarating as the daredevil belly flopping runs of my childhood. Down the steep of our backyard that connected with the Kellys' driveway, around Devil's Elbow and out onto Pelham Road we flew, perilously side by side, in Germantown, Pennsylvania, long ago.
Meet the Author
A professor of English at the University of Nebraska and the editor of Prairie Schooner, Hilda Raz is the author of several books including The Bone Dish. Kate Flaherty, a fiction writer and essayist, is the former managing editor of Prairie Schooner.
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