The Master Gardeners

A time for Ö any purpose?

Bill Meredith

To every Thing there is a Season, and a Time for every Purpose under the HeavensÖ Ecclesiastes

The 20th of the month is the deadline for submitting articles to the Dispatch, and I waited as long as I could in hopes that something worth writing about would happen, but nothing did. November is like thatÖ an orphan among the seasons, a time when the leaves are practically all gone, so it isnít really fall, but itís not really cold enough to be winter either. Itís a nondescript month. Even the name, November, is simply a number; it came from the Latin word, novum, which referred to its position as the ninth month in the Roman calendar.

Ecologically, this is always a quiet time, and this year the drought has made it more so. The last time it rained enough to register on my rain gauge was October 15, and there hadnít been much rain for several weeks before that. The summer birds left earlier than usual this year, because of the dryness, I suppose. The winter birds arrived on schedule in October, but they havenít started congregating around feeders as much as usual; most of them are hanging out around the creek instead of in town. Local ponds are low or completely dry, and migratory waterfowl are sticking close to the coastline; aside from the resident mallards and Canada geese, Iíve seen only one duck (a bufflehead) and a few snow geese in this area. Audubon Society sources on the internet are saying this will be a good year for northern birds; according to them, boreal chickadees, evening grosbeaks, crossbills and redpolls are headed our way. But they seem determined not to reach Emmitsburg until November is past.

Most plants have hunkered down for the winter. The only exceptions Iíve noticed are a few dandelions who apparently got their photoperiods mixed up and thought the shortness of the days meant it was March, and started blooming. This always happens, though; my college botany professor actually believed the fall dandelions were a different species from the spring ones, but that was in the days before we knew how plants tell time. Life was simpler then.

In my childhood memories, November was a much more exciting time. Early in the month was leaf-burning time. Everyone raked the remains of the gardens and all the leaves in the yard into piles and set them on fire, and they smoldered for days; the whole countryside reeked of leaf smoke. That isnít done any more, and itís a shame; that smell was a common experience that everyone shared, a lost bit of our culture. I understand the reasons we now have for banning fires, but I sometimes think it would be a good idea for the town to collect a few truckloads of leaves, pile them in the middle of the ballfield, and burn them. Fire trucks could be on hand to make sure everything stayed under control. School could be canceled one afternoon for the occasion, and buses could bring the kids in to stand around and smell the smoke. It would expose them to part of their cultural heritage, and it would be as educational as a lot of the field trips they take.

The end of the month was also exciting, because butchering day always was around Thanksgiving time. We always had two or three hogs to butcher, and family tradition decreed that by the time Thanksgiving came, it was cold enough to hang the meat up for curing. Those were the days before deep freezers were available, and also before global warming; it seems to me that winters were colder then. We would get up at 4:00 in the morning and build a huge bonfire to heat the water that the hogs were to be dipped in so the hair could be scraped off the carcasses. Some of our more well-to-do neighbors had steel oil drums for that purpose, and they could be filled with water and set directly in the fire; but we had only a wooden barrel, so obviously we couldnít heat the water that way. We had to put rocks in the fire until they were as hot as possible, and then drop them into the barrel. It seemed to take forever to get the water hot enough. Lifting the hogs into the barrel was a job for at least two men, so neighbors typically got together to do their butchering; it was a social occasion, and it took all day to get two or three hogs hung and cut up. Then the next few days were spent rendering lard and grinding sausage.

Ah, yes, the good old days. I donít think I ever got colder, or more tired, or smelled worseÖ but wouldnít it be nice to do it again just once? I wonder how many permits I would have to get to build a fire in the back yard and kill a pig when the grandchildren are all here for ThanksgivingÖ? On second thought, maybe Iíll just tell them about it.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith