Back in the sun-drenched wilds of August, I met my dear friend Jennis at the brewery just up the road for a beer. It was one of those slant-light-hot-in-the-sun summer’s end late afternoon that feels endless and magical and lovely and surrounds everyone who basks in its light with an aura of possibility. Jennis had brought a friend and her partner and we spoke passionately about the proposed natural gas pipeline that will probably be destroying our valley soon and about history and land and watersheds and adventure and how to ride in a truck with dudes so they’ll take you seriously (good advice to have in one’s dungaree pocket) and somehow the conversation wound its way around to the family business in the wilds of the valley west of us: a Christmas Tree Farm! What an enterprise, what a place to grow up… what magic! So, we sat in the setting sun surrounded by good vibes lifting our glasses and saying: when it comes time for Christmas (which is most certainly impossibly far away) we’ll have to go to your farm to get our tree this year. And, as time moves ever swifter, this past weekend the moment was nigh, with a chill drizzle in the air, for us to hit the roads and head to the great river’s headwaters and grab bow saws, hanging all in a row from wooden pegs, and walk the fields full of soft-needled, bushy white pines (my favorite, and somewhat of a rarity), Jennis and her sweetheart and two excellent children, adept with saws and ideas and silent stalking like ninja-elfs (see below), discussing the necessary merits of the ideal tree: must not have too many holes (but cannot be too perfect), must be somewhat scraggly (but not too scraggly), must have adequate spots for larger ornaments, must also have adequate room for many presents, bonus points for a birds nest. Geese overhead, the air grey and misty and magical and lovely in its own blustery right, merry Christmas, and god bless ye hairy gentlemen, it’s time for hot toddys.
I’ve always loved plants, flowers, blooms. Made forts in boxwoods, learned and loved the evocative names Mama had planted in the gracious swooping beds surrounding our house, onomatopoetic almost, Bleeding Hearts, Johnny Jump-ups, Naked Ladies, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Poet’s Laurel, St. John’s Wort, Harry Lauder Walking Stick. I held dear The Secret Garden, Peter Rabbit, and a book called “Flower Fairies of the Garden“ (my copy of which my Mama brought back to me recently for use as a research tome). I’ve always loved plants, but it’s been like how you love Paris or how you love Vermeer or how you love Virginia Woolf. You love them from afar, through the lens of where you are, they’re distant, somehow, you appreciate their beauty and softness and worldly majesty when you are lucky enough to brush by it, but Paris is not yours, the Vermeer isn’t in your care, and you will never truly understand Virginia Woolf, no matter how many times you re-read To The Lighthouse. I’ve always felt the same way about plants. I love them, but that they are not meant for me to understand. And when I try, one of us usually ends up a shriveled brown mess.I think this has a lot to do with our relationship with time. Talking about this crazy winter, the forsythias straggled in just last week, leggy and blown like a horse ridden to far too fast. In deciding whether to cut it back drastically or let time take its course, the words got tossed around we’ll just have to see how they do next year. It’s unfathomable for a person of 25 to be thinking about what a plant is going to do a year from now when they don’t know what they’re going to be doing six months from now. The rare young birds that do have very old souls indeed. You have to be in a place where you’re ready to put your own roots down before you can be worrying about anyone elses.
Understanding a plant takes commitment, the delicate pruning of the lilac, the blooming off of new-wood-old-wood argument of the Azalea (what, that takes 3 years to understand?), and the dauntless perennial bulbs that are springing to life right now, a testament to the staying power of loveliness and perhaps proof of the rightness of civilization. Miss McKay says that her mama told her that if you see daffodils in the country, it means a house used to stand there, the plants become the record of the people, and are still there after decades. And this is the, ahem, root of it. The best kind of plants have a kind of permanence (like Paris, like Miss Virginia) that, literally, takes root and hangs on for years, you are their steward, you have to be in it for the long haul, and if you do your job well, the roots you put down will outlast you. I discovered a stand of daffodils in the back woods, near where some mysterious stone columns have sat, fallen for years like an Appalachian Ozymandius, the dark green shoots bursting from bramble, proof that someone cared here. And I care here now.
Six inches of snow yesterday in our quiet little farmhouse world, Mama and Daddy got “stuck” here in the name of icy road safety, so we spent the afternoon holed up at the kitchen table nestled by the woodstove watching the songbirds have a total freakout at the bird-feeders (which D and I had judiciously refilled on Sunday when it was 65 degrees out and the bees were flying). Flurries of sparrows, titmice, gold finches cloaked in brown for winter, blazing red cardinals and their dun lady friends, (Robert) downey (jr.) woodpeckers, red winged blackbirds, and the occasional bad grackle and squirrel are all swooping down and around, 30 at a time (!), a serious all-you-can-eat buffet. And this morning, Mama found the tracks of a solitary wanderer among the ice diamonds on the front porch. It’s probably safe out there in the world, but we’re going to keep it quiet, snuggled in, and snowbound for as long as we can. Time to go refill the feeders.
And back in the bosom of the sweet sunny south, where it is pretty much never a kick in the guts and when, after a day of glorious physical labor stolen from the computer desk, after filling the bird feeders with dark seed and fresh suet and watching the menagerie return one by crimson-feathered one, when the sun is setting over these mountains, beers are are only $3.
Someimes you just have to get out in it. Even it it’s chills bills and the woodstove is so cozy and you might just make yourself a ham sandwich with the seemingly endless linen satchel of Virginia ham that has been magically refilling itself since late November. THAT, in fact is EXACTLY when you need to get out in it. To the mountains, to the chill, to the frozen longest-waterfall-east-of-the-Mississippi in all its thundering glory, to the frost misted mosses and cantilevered rock faces of the world, full of wonder and ancient magics and secret caves and perhaps-hidden treasures and a few necessary vistas of destiny. And when it’s over, you can make yourself that ham sandwich.
Just up the road from my house there is a monastery where the Trappist sisters wear homespun robes with wide tanned leather belts and make and sell cheese. They are open every day, and you go in and there is no shop, just a sister behind a door and a standard white kitchen fridgidaire filled with glossy red waxed boules of handmade cheese. You give her a check, she gives you a new gouda, heavy and shiny, and silently blesses you as you quietly leave. The whole thing feels like a kind of sacrosanct drug deal. And the cheese. Well, you keep your fingers crossed when you cut into it because since you did the whole shady-monastery-cash-for-cheese re-up you want it to be incredible, and it is. It’s buttery and mild and sweet and just hard enough to go perfectly with a crusty bread and a little white wine. Thank you, sisters.
The south is getting ready to storm vine.co/v/bLqWFQpIXWn
— Susannah Hornsby (@loiseaufait) June 7, 2013
We were out playing music for a party on the big old river last night, I’d call her the first American river, the first one that mattered before we got out to the Mississip, the James, and this old beauty, this magnolia on her banks at the actual site of the America’s first town, Jamestown, blowing hard in anticipation of the torrent of Tropical Storm Andrea. It’s been raining for hours. So ends a week at the beach, scoping rockets, playing music, making delicious noshes, and eating lots of fried seafood. We’ll be back to adventures in country and city life next week (if Andrea doesn’t bury us under feet of water). Happy weekend, dears.
This is what it looks like when you’ve just eaten a raw oyster from your home waters. Very, very good. Growing up in the Virginia lowlands, of water stock, I actually never really understood the sense of place in an oyster. They just tasted like oysters. It wasn’t until I was long out of Virginia, a New York veteran of a few years, meeting McKay and Cakes at Marlow for one of those hours long dinners that meeting those girls at that place requires, that I saw a James River oyster on the menu and ordered it. Oh man. Just the taste of that dusky brine and I was immediately transported to summers on the Mobjack bay, wearing white rubber watermen’s boots and traversing the mudflats like they were my kingdom. Tidewater, in an instant, a taste. I bet the old salts around the bar in Montauk feel the same way about their super saline Long Island Blue Points, but the fact is they’re the exact same oyster species as my fat and sweet-salty Virginia half-shell, they’re just tempered differently by the water they’re in. Per usual, a parable. Back in Virginia, for my big birthday, I was lucky enough to have two bushels brought to me directly from the coast, just a little over 400 oysters. The plan was to roast most and shuck some. Lucky for me, my dear friend Rob came straight from the banks of the York river bearing his oyster knife, super shucking skills, and intimate knowledge of the oyster crab. The little yellow-orange jewel here is a tiny soft-shelled crab, a lady, who is symbiotic with the Virginia oyster. They are friends, and are only found in the best and healthiest oyster beds. The New York Times wrote two separate articles in the early 1900’s on the little buggers- here and here. The Times suggests frying them or covering them with a mayonnaise lightly colored pink with beet juice, but Rob told me to just eat it raw. Incredible. It was the first one I ever found, and I felt so lucky to have had it in Virginia, on my birthday.
So, in the golden hour, Mama and I drove out into the sun in search of the mythical, the soft-needle Christmas Tree, a bushy varietal of great white pine that in New York City might as well be the great white whale. Miniature Forests pop up on every street corner there, but every last one of them only offers sharp needled balsam firs. We drove into the sun out to an old nursery up Afton that, despite rumors to the contrary, apparently no longer sells pumpkins or turkeys or wreaths or trees (pointy OR soft) or any other assorted holiday ephemera but is actually now a mushroom farm. Ok. Luckily, sweetly, the young stoned mushroom farmer came out and told us that there was a place right down the road that sold trees. “I don’t know if they sell the soft ones, but they sure are nice”. We traced our steps back and around and right, lo, by the side of the road were gorgeous orderly rows of fat soft trees growing, ready to be tagged and cut.The wonderful proprietor, who lives in a big, pretty farmhouse with a circular drive right behind the trees, told us to go pick the one we wanted and he’d be down to help us cut and pack it. We walked up and down the long rows, weighing the merits of each tree like Old Hat, New Hat (too leafy, too lumpy, too beefy, too bumpy, too Charlie Browny, too pointy, too townie), until we came upon the one. The slightly skinnier, somewhat awry, quite jaunty, gloriously fluffy, and perfectly soft one. The one that had the birds nest in it. Petit à petit l’oiseau fait son nid, Feather by Feather the bird builds its nest. We’ll take it, this is the one for home.
When leaving NY please have your Va passport stamped at the border as a boarder. Welcome back, I say (pftewy) welcome back hear m’dear to the Old Dominion, the Commonwealth, Northern Virginia (north of the James that is, below Richmond). You may carry your pistol now. ShaBoom