The weather this weekend has been less than ideal, but more than typical for New England in the fall. If you go by the photographs, the sky is bright blue and the air is clear and the trees are brilliant.
The trees are realistic, that’s true.
But at this time of the year, the bright blue skies are, well, not quite the Holy Grail. But a rarity, to be prized and seized and taken when found. I can’t improve on the words of the amazing Massachusetts poet Marge Piercy, who gives us these lines in her “Nishmat”:
“We must wonder at the sky now thin as a speckled eggshell
That now piles up its boulders of storm to crash down,
That now hangs a furry grey belly into the street.”
Really, it’s impossible to improve on this material when it comes to discussing what the autumn skies in New England are really like. For that matter, it’s impossible to improve on that entire poem. Here’s a link to some ancient typewritten, photocopied handout from a religious service that contains the entire text of the poem. Do yourself a favor and click through there, and read that poem, and take it with you in your heart. It never grows old for me.
Better yet, go buy some of her poetry books on Amazon. This one looks good. Looks so good I just bought it myself. I don’t own a lot of poetry books. I write the stuff myself, from time to time, but I don’t usually read it. I make an exception for Marge Piercy. Reading her poems has the same effect on me as a long cool sparkling drink on a hot summer day. Or a thick mug of hot apple cider on a cold one. These words remind me of who I am when I’m not too busy doing stuff to just be. They make me feel like I’ve just taken a bath.
I wasn’t planning to go off on a Marge Piercy tangent right now, but I just can’t help wondering what she’d have to say about this day. The clouds lightened a bit, the rain stopped, and we set out for a destination we’ve had in mind for years, but never accomplished: The North Quabbin Garlic And Arts Festival.
AKA, as it turns out, Hippie Heaven. New England Style.
Hippie Heaven, Texas Style, involves a lot less in the way of clothing, and a lot more in the way of vendors of exotic weapons and incense vendors.
Hippie Heaven, New England Style, involves quite a bit of clothing – some highly functional, some less so – and large number of woolen vendors. Raw wool. Fleeces. Felt. Spun wool. Dyed wool in hanks. Dyed wool that has been spun. Wool that has been knitted into mittens, sweaters, jackets. Wool that has been felted into children’s toys. Wool from sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas, and possibly other things. I didn’t actually see anyone with live wool-yielding animals, but since this Festival takes place on someone’s farm, they can’t have been too far away. I’d reckon that Wool-Related Vendors were represented in a 1:3 ratio with All Other Vendors.
Excluding the Food Booths, that is. And these were spectacular. Texas Festivals tend to be long on the Fried (fried corn, fried fish, fried jalapenos, fried ice cream, fried twinkies, fried oreos, and my favorite – fried dough). They’re also long on the Meat (barbeque, chili, burgers, weenies, and a huge array of TexMex meat things wrapped up in tortillas).
New England Festivals are shorter on the Fried, although Cider Donuts are going to be a major player at any of the various festivaly things that go on in this season (and they are not to be missed when they appear). They’re long on the Apple dimension (cider donuts, cider cider [hot and cold], apples, pies, dumplings, everything but Fried Apples). And, it being New England, and New England being a surprising entry for Ice Cream Capital Zone of the Nation (and yes, I’m including my former home in Wisconsin as an Also-Ran in that contest), there is always ice cream.
Now, this being a Garlic Festival, we got to see garlic in action in all sorts of interesting places. Garlic tapenade, garlic cream, garlic in olive oil on slices of bread, garlic paste for the pad thai, garlic drizzle for the lamb kebab from the Afghani restaurant booth.
And, it being New England and this being the Garlic Festival?
Garlic Ice Cream.
No shit, there I was. And there it was. And, really, how could I resist?
I didn’t bother. I hoovered down a Garlic Ice Cream in a cone.
And damn, it was good. It was like a really good crystallized ginger ice cream – all nice big juicy lumps of stuff cut up and suspended in the ice cream, only instead of ginger, it was garlic. And it was good. Not, probably, something I’d want every day. But once a year? Sign me up.
So there we are, with a surprisingly good Jam Band on the stage, eating our lamb kebabs with ground pomegranate seeds dusted atop, and our garlic ice cream, and our pad thai, surveying the crowd. Which was a fascinating mix of aging hipsters with bald heads and soul patches wearing a Snuggli with a baby tucked inside…and lesbian moms on a family outing with the three kids…and assorted farmers…and sweet young things in tie-died gauze skirts and henna tattoos…and stocky women brandishing spinning bobbins and covered with lint…and free-range kids sporting face paint and artistic t-shirts swarming around…half a dozen horses pulling covered wagons…dreadlocked hippies of all ages flaunting hooping prowess…bee keepers en veil on their way to demonstrations involving hives…and an assortment of crusty ancients who look like they’d wandered off before putting in their upper plates and had gotten lost on their way to the dynamite fishing grounds. And in a sweeping canopy over the assemblage, lowering dark clouds and bright red leaves.
We didn’t get a proper fall last year because of the hurricane – it blew a bunch of stuff down early, and then made big floods that gave fungal infections to a lot of the trees, so all we had last year was what we got in Texas. The leaves just sort of crisped up and died and came down.
This year, I’m remembering what it’s really like in New England around the beginning of October. People who don’t know think that the whole tree, sort of, goes colors all at once. One day it’s green, next day it’s sort of greeny yellow, then it’s just yellow.
That is how it happens for some trees, but for the sugar maples, you get something entirely different. Whole branches of the trees turn, suddenly, all at once into a flaming red mass. While the rest of the tree stays bright green. They look like they’ve been…polka dots. Some of the other yellow trees do this too. It’s utterly fascinating to look at as you drive, and thanks to Huey’s high maintenance Owie Remediation Schedule, I’ve been getting to spend a lot of time out driving around. Only thing better would, say, be riding my horse around but I don’t want to go there right now. He’s getting better, and we all just have to be patient. Grrr.
On the way home, we stopped by one of the local apple orchards to Score Some Stuff for the horse. There are loads of apple orchards in this region – Johnny Appleseed was from a town about 40 minutes away and definitely left his mark on the area. Most of the orchards have pick-your-own concessions, and nearly all of them will also sell direct to the public (i.e., they pick and sack, you fly and buy). This one we stopped at had a small retail operation as well.
I told Roy to park the car and we’d go in. Unfortunately, the only open parking spot was occupied by a small terrier. This is more of the New Englanders And Their Dogs thing. The dog wasn’t about to move. He looked like someone had put him there and told him to save the spot. Maybe they did. This means that Roy just dropped me off at the entrance to the shop, and I went in to locate apples for the horse.
I got them, yes, I did.
But it was a close thing. I almost just died and went to heaven instead.
See, when you have these retail shops in the apple orchards, you’re usually going to be able to buy pies. Pies made right there, that morning, if heaven is smiling upon your head.
I’d forgotten that this wasn’t one of those orchard shops.
It’s not a You’re Lucky If You Get A Pie Made This Morning shop.
It’s a Making Pies All Day Long shop.
And they had a wood burning oven, too.
Now, it’s my firm opinion that if Heaven has a smell, it smells just like my horse Huey.
But if it didn’t smell like my horse Huey, I would have a hard time deciding whether it smelled more like baking apple pies, or wood fires.
What’s not to love about the smell of a baking apple pie? You get all of that rich browning doughy goodness that you get with baking bread. And you get melting apples vaporizing into an aroma that ignites your nerve endings and makes them tingle like champagne bubbles. And some buttery action, and then the cinnamon, just to make sure you keep paying attention.
Wood fires are the same. All that thick heady fragrance pouring out as the sap heats up and vaporizes, and the deep layers from the wood itself being consumed…and then there’s always that primitive element, that little part of your brain that has been around since before we came down out of the trees, that tells you that FIRE. GOOD. LIGHT. SAFE.
I wouldn’t have thought there was any way to improve on either of these sensations.
I was wrong.
The way to make them better is to combine them.
Walking into that shop, with the wood fired oven cranking out apple dumplings, hot, juicy, tart apples bursting with flavor, wrapped in buttery soft pastry, all of it rising together like the hand of god to smite you on contact.
Yep. I’m lucky I made it out of there alive. Roy was lucky he didn’t get to go in, because I was protected, to some degree, by the fact that my nasal nerve endings have been under continued assault by hay fever for 40 years, and don’t work very well as a consequence. Roy has a sense of smell like a basset hound. I think his brain likely would have fried, had he been exposed to it. No, no, it’s far too perilous.
And later, the meal and the apples behind us, there was a tiny, bijou, storm cell that blew through. At my house it was dropping lighting bolts like Zeus, and raining hard enough that you couldn’t see a quarter mile. At the park, 4 miles away, it was bright and sunny. At the barn, a half-hour before, it had been hailing.
Huey smelled the apples before he could see them. He had his dinner hay all lined up in the bag, and was going to town. I stepped into his stall. He paused and looked at me, and turned back to the hay. I watched the Possibility of Apples percolate down to his brain stem and interrupt the Hay Circuit. He looked back at me. An ear came forward. He looked at the hay, and made a feint towards it, but stalled out halfway there and came to investigate the Possibility of Apples. And they were zipped up tight in the pockets of my slicker. I can only wonder what he’d have done with the aromas pouring through the orchard store. Probably vanished in a puff of smoke, he would have.
On the way home, the polka-dot red and green trees, the rainstorm moving off across the Holyoke Range, and over it all, the biggest rainbow I’ve ever seen.
I wish I could see what Marge Piercy would say.