There is a subtle shift in the air. In the breeze. It’s cooler, somehow. I know that when I look at the thermometer in a few minutes, it will read around 68 degrees, just as it has nearly every morning this summer, except for those few weeks after the June storm when nearly everyone in Virginia lost power. Those days, the temperature rarely fell below 80, regardless of the fact that we are in the mountains and by the New River. No, today, I think, is it – the beginning of the end of the year. I lie quietly beside my wife as dawn just breaks, a little later than last week. I’m canning the last of our tomatoes, the vines of which, despite my care and pleading, have simply stopped producing. My cucumbers have died, carrots wilted and the greens are dead. The apple trees are loaded, producing their fall products. I believe my corn, beaten down by the storms and eaten by greedy deer, will produce once more, but it will be a small crop.
I am not the only one that feels this change, this precursor to our seasonal variations, the small warning of things to come. Without turning my head, I watch a big fox squirrel stuff a cavity left open by a branch torn away from a big white oak tree full of acorns. He fluffs his tail, as he does every morning, but he does not cough out his customary bark. Instead, almost worriedly, he flees back down the huge trunk to collect more of this summer’s bounty, the almost foot deep piles of acorn mast that was prematurely shaken off by the wind and storms.
My Dog, Axl, is a big square-headed Labrador Retriever. I always notice a shift in his behavior this time of year, for, you see, it is time to go hunting. His Sire, Ramblin Man, was one of the most famous working Labrador’s ever. Many times over a world champion, he was a tireless hunter. He was featured on the cover of the publication “Hunting Labrador” as well as in numerous other enthusiast based magazines. Axl’s dame, a beautiful Labrador named Cary, was nearly as famous, and a better hunter than his sire. I have no doubt that their instincts and bloodlines run through Axl as deeply as my ancestors do through me. It is during this time of year that I feel a bit sorry for him, as I watch him listlessly pace through the house and smell deeply of the air at any open window or on the porch. It is this time of year that he is most belligerent that I throw the ball and when he stomps his front feet at the appearance of a firearm. He knows what he is built for – it is a shame that I do not follow his needs.
I have pledged to learn to hunt, and I have no doubt that I will hunt this year, trailing the elusive game bird through the spent fields of corn with my father-in-law and whisper quietly to my brother and dad as we pursue the so-called elusive white-tail deer. But I will do so out of a desire to feed my family, not from the thrill of the chase or the exhilaration of the kill. I will feel a deep sorrow for the animal whose life I have taken, and respect what they have given us – sustenance for yet another year. The pig who has been happily raised will give its life for us, all such that someone else can live.
So, it is no small wonder that I feel a bit remorseful this time of year. To me, this is the ending of yet another year, not the symbolic last calendar day of the year. This time of stacking wood, canning everything, a time of simmering stews, endless jars of chicken stock, a time of butchering – a time of carefully taking life so that life may be sustained.
Each year at this time I look back on the life that I have lived and I wonder – was it enough? This year has been full of change, on a fundamental level. I am going to be a father and my wife a mother, for the first time. I will meet Nolan closer to the end of the calendar year than now, but I am preparing for him. For the first time, it is with sheer love that I put up firewood, can endless jars of tomatoes and store the best food items I can get my hands on.
A young man visited the other day to purchase a bar table from a time well past when Laura and I were a bit more irresponsible than we are today. We walked into the pantry to retrieve it. His eyes became huge. He asked, in a thick European accent, “Are you guys’ hoarders?” I just grinned at him. Nope, I thought. I’m just country – and a Dad.
One of the most common requests that I get are about canning – I can tell you this: Water bath canning is just about the easiest thing that you can do. Out of the risk of someone not following the directions correctly, I’ll hold off on direct instructions, but one of the best books on canning is “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.” It’s a great way to get started and it’s available on Amazon for less than $15! Trust me, you’ll love yourself in February when you open a jar of freshly canned, ripe peaches!