Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tribute to a tomato sandwich

Back last winter, when I was knocking together the first of six raised bed garden boxes in a cold breeze and a billowing flurry of snow, I found myself laughing my head off. Who would do a fool  thing like this, and why?

Well, truth was, it was sheer hope for the day that surely would come, when soil had filled the boxes and manure had been worked in and the pebbles and roots pulled out and the first of the German Johnsons and the Dolly Partons and the Brandywines and the Purple Cherokees would grow fat and red and bright and be ready to adorn a slice of bread coated with a nice comfy mattress of mayonnaise.

Tomato sandwiches, yep.  'Mater Sammitches, we called 'em when we were kids.  I liked 'em anyway I could get 'em: open-faced on white bread, stacked on a Ritz cracker or a saltine if we were out of bread, piled up on whole-grain bread with fresh 'cukes, or cheese dreams buried under a slab of toasted cheese or fixed in place by a slice of good sharp melted white cheddar. Poor man's pizza.

Mostly, though, I liked 'em in a sandwich, made at 8 and eaten at noon, when the bread had soaked up all the very essence of a ripe summer tomato, pulled off the vine the evening before, and the whole thing was a soggy mess, heaven in a gooey hand. 

Listenhere, Ben Franklin was said to have observed, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."  If Ben said it, surely he was right.

But lookahere: you can get good beer any day of the week, 365 days a year now.

But you cannot get a good tomato every day of the year.  You cannot, Sam I Am.

Good tomatoes come in for a month, maybe two in an extraordinarily good year. You have to take 'em when you can get 'em, and dream about 'em the other 10 or 11 months of the year.

I once met some good folks from Charlotte who insisted, on a stack of Bibles, that the only way to make a proper tomato sandwich was with Duke's mayonnaise.  But my people were Carolina people, and we didn't have Duke's in the house. So I made do with Krafts and occasionally Miracle Whip. Then one day I watched my future wife make mayonnaise the way her momma had, with egg yolks and vegetable oil dribbled in in the tiniest of streams while the mixer whips the whole thing into a perfect blend that needs only a little lemon juice to make it just right.  Spread on the mayo, easy on the 'naise, and you have got proof that Ben Franklin was probably inspired by a tomato sandwich first before he picked up his Sam Adams.

August's bounty is beginning to thin. We've still got 'em coming in on our vines, and a row of them in the kitchen window, but we can see the end coming.  The garden has begin to peter out; some of the vines have dried up and rattle in the breeze, and I don't think we'll be picking them much longer.

Well, okay, It's been a superb season for nearly a month, and the tomatoes have been among the sweetest we've ever picked.  I expect we'll long remember 2012 as the year the big reds came in on time and hung around long enough to forget the absurdity of working on the garden in the snow. And if Old Ben were here, we'd raise the first toast with a thick slice of summer tomato on it.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Colors of summer

Still a month to go in the summer season, and all looks normal. Wait, what's that red stuff?
Did someone bring some spray paint?

Martha's cosmos

And the hummers are still hanging around

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Hummingbirds and light sabers

Some time ago I read somewhere -- must have been on the 'net -- that Steven Spielberg got the idea for that humming whoosh of the light saber in the Star Wars series from the sound of hummingbirds darting and hovering in the air.  But when I tried to check that out, I found little supporting information -- and a denial from someone who served as a sound engineer for Star Wars and who said that sound came from the hum of electronic equipment. So I dunno.

But if the hummingbirds at your place are anything like the hummingbirds up here, moviemakers could have gotten not only the sound of the light saber from hummingbirds flying around, but also the tactics and in-flight gymnastics of the tie fighters from these little rockets blasting around our deck fighting one another off in an effort to dominate one of our feeders.  One of the feeders is at one end of a 40-foot deck and the other is just off the deck, and sometimes it seems they're reenacting the Battle of Britain over our heads.  There's a ruby-throated hummingbird (ok, probably half a dozen of them, but it seems I only see one at a time) that I think of as the Red Baron (I know, wrong war for the Battle of Britain, but I'm writing this story) flying about at breakneck  speeds chasing off competitors.

 We've gone through about eight pounds of sugar in the last couple of months trying to keep these things fed. I've also tried to keep up with the birds when they've been called out for a sortie.  Good thing the cameras has one of those multiple-shot gizmos on it.  You just can't shoot enough stuff in single shot mode when the birds fly in and out of the frame.  But I won't be surprised if I find one of them wearing a little white silk scarf and goggles, like something out of Dawn Patrol.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The snake in the tree

A few weeks back we were clearing out the tangle of deadfalls and standing dead locusts and rotting logs from the East 40 -- maybe an acre or two of dense woodland ringed by briars and held together by some tough old laurels and rhododendrons.  We had cut and stacked most of the locust for firewood, and hauled five or six trailer loads of hawthorne, greenbriar and moldy half-gone limbs and punky trunks down to the burn pile in the bottom.  I was bringing the tractor in with a chipper-shredder attached to get the last of the green limbs when I spotted a six or seven-foot vine that seemed darker than the others we had cut.

Then I saw why. As I pulled by that limb, it began to slither. It was black, with just a suggestion of a light yellow underside, almost a racing stripe at first glance, and it was gorgeous.  Never mind that I'm so respectful of snakes that I normally go the other direction. A friend of ours, Boyd Allred, used to say, "I'm afraid of only four kinds of snakes: Little snakes, big snakes, live snakes and dead snakes."  That pretty much summed up my attitude.

But this thing was beautiful. I ran to the house for the camera, and by the time I got back it was climbing the trunk of a tree right at the edge of the field.  I could hear the raucus cries of a bird way up in a neighboring tree, and I suspect there was a nest where that snake was headed.  I snapped these pictures before it disappeared into the upper reaches.  When I came back for another load of limbs, I no longer heard the cries of birds.

Monday, August 6, 2012

First faraway hint of Fall

The red leaf in the gravel driveway caught my eye the other day.  So did the first dying fern. And the yellow poplar leaves on the grass just outside the deck. And the cool, misty dawn that broke Sunday morning.  It was enough to make us think of digging out sweatshirts that were put away back in the late Spring.

It's been a hot summer, but thankfully we've gotten fairly frequent rains that have kept the hay growing and the garden flourishing. But in the midst of all that lush green, the turning of the locust trees circling our fields into brown foliage is a reminder that while the season hasn't exactly begun to turn, it has begun to suit up for the big change.  New colors are being called up from the minors, and the roster of autumnal hues has begun to expand for the playoffs.

These old knees and legs are most appreciative of a good, hot summer.  The joints ache less and move more freely, and the same heat that was once oppressive down in the lowlands feels pretty dadgum good up here when it's time to move around.  But there's something in the human psyche that loves a change of scenery, and here in the hills I think you can see it coming every day of the year, if you look hard enough.

There is always something to see. Just down the hill from us we saw three foxes by the roadside a few weeks ago. Coming up the hill from our leaky pond yesterday I saw a magnificent great blue heron take wing and vector in on the road way up yonder.  I was cutting brush 10 days ago and saw a six-foot blacksnake, a beautiful serpent with what looked like a yellow racing stripe, start climbing a big locust tree toward, I guess, that nest of birds squawking a few trees west.

The impatiens and the veronica candles are still in full flower; the butterfly bushes have put out cone after cone of their purple candy; the cosmos are still blooming around the patio and in some places they are four feet tall.  We're down to about one blooming yellow day lilly -- never seem to get enough of those things -- but the scarlet salvia are once again climbing their stubby stalks.

High summer it is, but autumn is putting on its spikes and getting ready to move up to the Big Show.