Wednesday, April 04, 2007

a sad story

I have a sad story to tell this week.

And since its not a story that has to do with vegetables, at least not directly, I will put it after the farm news.

So, this week’s first item of farm, farm news is the weather.

While we’ve had an absolutely beautiful beginning of the week don’t be fooled and begin to put your plants outside.

It’s about to turn cold, very cold. I feel sorry for all of the fruit trees that have been lulled into thinking winter is over. All of those cherries and pears with their blossoms out.

Later this week it’s supposed to drop into the 20’s. Even the low 20’s by this weekend.

That means just about everything that is put outside will be killed or damaged.

For us this could be a disaster.

Right now we have over 50,000 seedlings growing in our greenhouse. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, pac choi, Brussels sprouts, basil, kohlrabi, parsley, thyme, sage, purslane, sorrel, fennel. I could go on and on.

Just think what would happen to all of those seedlings if the greenhouse temperature dropped below 32.

Fortunately our greenhouse heating system is working just fine. And while greenhouses are not the easiest structure to insulate (how do you insulate 6 mil plastic sheets?) I don’t see that 20 degrees Fahrenheit is going to be a problem.

The problem is for plants put outside.

Normally I start putting all of those seedlings outside, starting with the most cold hardy, on the 15th. This year, though, I’m going to wait about ten days. The weather, over the past several years has seemed to have gotten more and more unpredictable, more chaotic.

And there’s no since in losing thousands of plants just to get a few days jump on the season.

This delay, though, means that I’ll be putting back the day I give away free seedlings to shareholders.

Each year I start maybe ten thousand extra plants just so shareholders that want can come out and pick out several dozen plants to take home and put in their yard or window box.

This year I’ve started plenty of seedlings for shareholders. But, since I’m being cautious lets wait until May 10th to pick up seedlings. More on this in later newsletters.

Other questions answered.
Are there shares still available? Yes! A rough count shows us having two dozen shares left. (which means we will be full about April 20th).

Payment. I haven’t gone through the list yet to see whose paid and who hasn’t, but payments are now due for those who signed up before March 1. Everyone that signed up after that date has their payment due 30 days after signing up.

What this means that once our list is full (April 20th?) I will start going through the subscriber list and begin deleting anyone who hasn’t paid (and hasn’t worked out a payment plan) and I will begin reselling those shares. Don’t worry about your check being lost in the mail. I will contact people first before dropping them just incase there was some sort of error made down the line.

Can I visit the farm? Yes, I want you to visit. In fact this spring I will plan several formal tours so I can take people around and show them what goes on out here. (I’ll show off my new top of the line Italian rototiller - sort of like Italian dancing shoes - and the new field we are in the process of clearing. exciting).

Right now its pretty dreary out here though. And while signs of spring are starting to pop up the truth is, its still drab.

However, come the second half of April the farm blossoms into life.

So, given the choice, drab or blooming, I’ll take the latter.

Let’s make May 12th a formal, come out to the farm, get some seedlings, see the farm day.

Mark May 12th on your calendar.

Other farming news.

Right now we are preparing the fields for planting. As soon as I finish with the newsletter I’m taking the rototiller for a run across the cemetery field in preparation for the 20,000 onion and leek seedlings that are scheduled to arrive next week.

How long does it take to put 20,000 scallion like onions in the ground, one at a time? We start that next week (root crops can be planted even if there is a hard frost).

This morning we were out weeding the garlic (garlic around here gets planted in October to be harvested in June). Our garlic is almost a foot high.

Also up and growing larger by the day is last year’s sorrel. Sorrel is a perennial. If you are interested in a batch of sorrel to add to your omelet or to use in a pot of French sorrel soup, we’ll have plenty ready to harvest in about a week.

Which reminds me of Bob.

I remember picking a few leaves of sorrel just after Christmas and giving them to him to taste.

You might remember that we had a fire this winter? The week before Christmas our wood shed went up in flames, igniting three hundred gallon propane tanks, which melted the better part of our greenhouse and most everything inside.

The fire, once the propane started exploding got so hot it melted the three 20 foot long aluminum extension ladders sitting next to the greenhouse.

My current count is a uninsured loss of $42,000 (the insurance company representative when she came out and put a magnifying glass over the small print of our policy and showed where it clearly stated that since the greenhouse was obviously mostly used for business it wasn’t insured.

Oh well. Life is always a learning process. At least that’s the way it seems.

But whining about insurance is not what I set out to write about. What I wanted to talk about was one of my neighbors. A guy named Bob.

Bob showed up shortly after the fire and offered his help.

“Anything I can do, just ask.”

And he was serious about it too. The day after we stood on the hill talking and nibbling on the sorrel he showed up again, this time with his work clothes and work gloves.

He quickly set about helping me sort through the ashes, looking for salvageable remains. Hauling the damaged debris to the dumpster.

And it wasn’t just one day he came up to help. He started coming by everyday, visiting and helping me clean up the mess.

Bob, while we worked, picking up the mess to be carted away, laughed and told me a number of stories mostly, I think, trying to get my mind off fire.

He told me how he was a welding instructor over at the neighboring community college.

He talked about retirement, that even though he was eligible for social security in just a couple of years he so enjoyed teaching he didn’t want to leave his job.

And he talked about the house he lived in.

“You can tell that it’s old. The timbers in it are hand hewn. And the chimney, you can tell, is strictly pre-construction code. Someone a long time ago must have gathered rocks right off of the property and stacked them one on top of the other. It’s so old the mortar holding it together is crumbling and falling out.“

He told me that he had gone to the woman he rents from, (the house is owned by quasi state agency called The Virginia Outdoors Foundation) and asked her if he could get the chimney repaired.

“I told her it really needs fixing. Someone needs to get in there and point up the entire chimney before there’s a fire.”

He went on to tell me how he had offered to fix up the house. “I told her that I would do the work myself if they didn’t want to pay someone. I have a friend whose a mason. I told her he would repair the chimney for free but she said no.

“She told me not to do any repairs.”

And while Bob told his stories about the house, I told him what I knew.

I told him that his house dates back to the pre-civil war Virginia. Back then our valley was the home of a small African American communities of free men and woman.

Back when Bob’s house was built there were maybe 30 homestead in our valley. Most of the houses, really by today’s standards, most of them small cabins, were hardly more than several small rooms. One on the bottom and another right overhead with maybe a staircase, but more likely a ladder. Heated with a stone fireplace and chimney (you can still see several of the chimneys standing).

Now, of that community, there are only two houses left, ours, or at least part of our house, and the house that Bob lived in.

By today’s standards, Bob’s house cannot be considered large, In fact it’s rather small. A basement dug into the hillside, a main floor with several small rooms and a narrow creaking attic up above.

I told him about when Wenonah was a little girl and finding an old bible up in the attic with a letter inside written by a soldier off fighting in the northern army (she sent it to the Smithsonian and never heard anything back).

Another story about an Arlington county Boy Scout troop camping out in the valley in the late 60’s and one of the boys finding a marble sculpture of the head of an African American woman in the house and how he took it home with him (and that’s never been heard of since either).

I told him about one of the old timers around here, a man in his 80’s, who was born in that house and could remember when instead of just the two houses there were a dozen standing (in the last several years a cabin with its hand hewn logs and old stone chimney were bulldozed to make way for a huge, modern house to be built on the same site).

In fact, one evening, several weeks later, Wenonah and I had dinner over at our good friends and neighbors who live up the valley and we were talking about Bob and how he had been helping me clean up when fire trucks started coming down the driveway.

There must have been eight trucks. One after another.

At first I was worried about another fire at our house (but who would have called it in if we weren’t home)?

So I got up from the table and ran outside and drove down to our house.

From our deck we can look out on the rest of the valley, down below us, on the other side of the creek was were the trucks had stopped.

Down at Bob’s house.

I watched the lights for awhile and then decided to take the path through the woods, along the trail that ends up down by the creek.

And just a stones throw from Bob’s.

By the time I got there the fire was out. It hadn’t been much of a fire.

I asked the first group of volunteer firefighters what had happened.

“Is Bob home?”

They just looked at me. “We don’t know anything.”

So I walked further down the road to where a tanker truck had backed off of the road and had sunk into the mud up to its axle.

These firefighters were too busy cussing and trying to get their truck unstuck to answer any questions, so I went on past them to where their was a little ford across the stream (this is where there had once been a foot bridge, probably the same bridge where Marshall’s sister and her boy friend had hid back in the 30’s when he shot his mother by mistake as he tried to carry out ‘gods will’ and kill his sister for being a woman of ‘loose morals’).

I jumped from one stone to another crossing the stream and then climbed up the bank and found the path toward the house.

There was a county sheriff’s car park by the side of the house. I started to walk up to him and ask about Bob when I stopped.

Right then something made me look over at the house, to the back door.

And there on the ground, under a tarp was what looked like a body.

“Oh, No.” I cried.

Later I heard that Bob had called 911 to report a chimney fire. “I’ve got it out downstairs but I think something’s burning upstairs.” he told the 911 operator. “I’m going up to see what I can do about it.”

That’s where they found his body.

Since then I’ve been down to the old house several times. Bob’s daughter asked me to keep an eye out for his cat. A bright orange tom.

The house doesn’t seem to have suffered much damage outside of the smoke from the chimney. It’s still a house from an earlier period. Part of the history of this country that we are quickly forgetting. Nothing like the McMansions that are being built over the county line in Prince William.

Next week I’ll write about VOF’s plans to ‘take down’ this historic old house.

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