Saturday, October 15, 2011

Autumn’s Altars

The susurrus of tree leaves in their seasonal final blaze of glory adds sound to a landscape of deep blues and purples, all of it set off in subtle shimmers as silvery light from the waning full moon shatters and flows. When the wind blows, it is as if the entire landscape is whispering, murmuring in the ethereal voices of countless spirits adrift and yet calling this place home. All it takes to give independent life to the hairs at the nape of one's neck is the shivering song of a tiny screech owl, that warbling whinny coming from high above. 

This is the edge of hunting season, and already hunters with bows armed with razor-edged steel broadhead tips have eased soft-footed through the woods. A recent rain softened fallen leaves of last year, which were dry enough to crackle sharply at the mere touch of a careless foot. Coyotes roam the forest floor during the nights, looking for discarded 'field-dressing' tissue from whitetail deer. Hunters immediately apply a sharp knife to lighten the load. Dragging out a heavy deer is hard enough without the weight of full entrails and so on. A bled-out deer weighs less and carries less risk of ruining before the meat is processed.

Eventually, discarded feet, rib cages, and other miscellaneous bones or the occasional skull get tossed out, where dogs and coyotes, opossums and raccoons, even the occasional bear, make much of the clinging bits of digestible flesh. To stumble over a disembodied rib, even one alone, adds a macabre touch to a woodland walk for the ordinary citizen. By spring, every small bone will be claimed, with the discarded antlers of the bucks, by squirrels and other rodents starving for calcium that the land itself simply does not have available. Partly gnawed bones are often found among the remains of a hollow tree, in squirrel nests, even those of round steak scavenged from someone's trash. It is a blessing that nothing in nature is ever wasted. The tiniest fragment will be consumed and digested by microorganisms and recycled back into the ecosystem with amazing efficiency. Time is on nature's side, without fail, to return that which is consumed back into use. 

It is a wonderful time of year to be in the country in eastern Kentucky. On a sunny day, the sky is that near-impossible shade of vivid blue, and the trees' color show is like a fine stained-glass window against its brilliance. Though people no longer make corn shocks to preserve fodder for farm animals in winter and to store pumpkins and squash in through the frost season, fields still wave with drying crops of pale corn, and the edges of those fields often reveal sub-crops of squash and pumpkin for sale or winter cooking. Barns are stuffed with every possible scrap of hay, and already blocks of salt and bags of sweet feed or simple grain lie at the ready for the coldest months; hungry animals do not thrive on snow and ice alone. The colors and patterns of every part of the landscape cry out to be enjoyed and remembered in their finest raiment. 

Autumn Wildflowers at Rogers' Farm, Furnace Mountain, KY.  By RLMT

An hour we spent in a small feed-mixing mill at the back of a local business, Heartbreak Ridge Farm Supply, watching custom feed for our elderly horse being prepared was very enjoyable. We asked for special oats, some that look just like 'old fashioned' (five minute) oats, which are highly digestible, with wheat bran added, cracked corn, alfalfa pellets, and flax seed. This we moistened with rich corn oil, and some wonderful-smelling molasses. After a supplement with an added digestive culture, the result smelled good enough to eat for breakfast! This is a 'mash mix', an easily digestible, soft mix specially designed for cooking or steaming, served to the animal still warm. Of course, the old horse simply loves this pampering, and since he is 26 years old (we raised him from a foal) and far too thin, thanks to a week's confrontation with a mini-horse stallion with jealousy issues, it may just get him through the winter with good results. He has grass, a fat roll of good hay and a mineral-salt block nearby, a shelter to munch hay under, and a nearby mountain spring for his personal drinking purposes. Feeding that old horse, smoothing out his lengthening hair and checking his arthritic legs and feet, pleases us as much as it does him, during these last warm days and cool nights. The smell of sunshine on warm, clean horse, green things, clean hay, and molasses-rich feed steaming gently, is one of my favorite combinations. 

Our old horse at feeding time. By RLMT


 This time of year in this area, sorghum cane stands ready in small fields, the best of it picked clean of all signs of the long leaves with careful hands, right up to the seed heads at the top. The tops are often saved to feed to chickens in the winter months. The stalks, however, will be cut very near the bottom, washed to remove any remaining trash material, and briefly stored in a barn or under tarps to keep it from possibly freezing, and then moved in heaps to a place near a mill that makes table-ready molasses the old way. This involves a mill powered by horse or mule, or on rare occasions (if someone in the area remembers the art of training them), an ox. It is hard work, and the animal needs rest periodically, during which time an alternative animal may be put to work.

A big mule, powering a sorghum mill at Gladie Creek, KY, in the Red River Gorge. By RLMT

The mill is fed long stalks of the sweet cane by a person sitting low beneath a long wooden sweep arm hitched to the working animal. The animal walks in a circle around the mill, which presses out the sap into a half-barrel topped with a fabric mesh called 'cheese cloth', which catches and holds some of the pulp fiber. The barrel feeds by means of a pipe into a retaining apparatus. From there, the sap is taken to a segmented pan atop a low, carefully maintained fire, where workers keep the fluid working as excess moisture evaporates. Fresh sap is fed into one end of the tray, and it is slowly worked toward the other end, where another barrel is periodically permitted to catch the finished product. During the process, it is common to see the workers walking around chewing on a peeled segment of the green stalk, which is sweet all on its own.

From one end of that cooking tray to the other, an unprepossessing green plant sap is transformed into a 'sweetening' of amazing versatility. It can be cooked with, or eaten immediately on fresh hot bread similar to scones, called locally 'biscuits', and it is even better with some good butter mixed in. In the years when sugar was not easily obtainable in the hills and mountains, families enjoyed 'sorghum' molasses.

The alternative was either wild or 'tame' honey. In autumn, however, honey is harder to get. Molasses, apples, fresh apple cider, and vivid spices such as cinnamon and clove … those are the scents of Appalachian autumn in old-fashioned households. Those are the scents I grew up with and love. 

The stained-glass windows are again among my beloved 'green cathedrals', these hills and mountains. Every sandstone cliff is an altar to life itself. In this place, I see that which is holy reaching out to teach, to comfort, and often, to claim its own in a way hard yet necessary. It is troubling that all I have for offerings are humble words and some images of memory to lay down upon the precious land of my home.

Some autumn wildflower color and rain caught in a spider's web. By RLMT