October 26, 2004

End of apple-picking — and autumn — arrives

For most of Iowa, this week marks the end of apple-picking season. Most of the sacred fruit have fallen from the trees. Walk along a dirt path, the curled leaves crackling beneath the feet, and you might be lucky enough to find a Winesap, the last of apple varieties to ripen. But they're tart to the tongue and best left alone.

For a number of years, most of us have relied on supermarkets or orchards to pick the fruit we eat. And our taste has dulled for it; most are happy with the ubiquitous Red Delicious, which is a pretty good apple, really, but eating only it is akin to having just one shade of red in your Crayon box. No burgundy, pink, maroon, salmon, magenta or copper makes for a dull palette, so to speak.

Picking fruit is hard work, of course. If you want more than a bag, there's a lot of reaching upward, an unnatural direction for blood to flow, and there's the chance you may have to climb a ladder, difficult on the instep if stretching for branches. It's time consuming, too; most people in orchards go for the easy fruit that's at eye level, so if you're not among the first to arrive, there's a lot of walking and searching.

Too many apples, orchard-goers often discover, are cut and bruised, even before they've fallen. There's a certain displeasure in finding an imperfect apple, a sense that one's been cheated. And it's true that one bad apple ruins the bunch; apples with broken skin give off ethylene, a ripening gas, that spoils others in the bag. Call it entropy.

• • •

One way to break North America's wildness, to give it uniformity, was planting apple trees. The Pilgrims planted apples in Massachusetts Bay. The first apple tree was rooted in Iowa soil during 1799 near Montrose.

By the early 20th century, Iowa ranked among the nation's top apple producing states. Farmers soon opted for row crops, though, replacing orchards with cornfields. The deciding moment, however, was a severe Armistice Day freeze in 1940 that killed or crippled most apple trees in the state.

Few orchard growers replanted. Apple trees, with their sweet-scented blossom, instead became an ornament for suburban lawns or a miniscule way for modernizing farmers to keep a piece of the past.

• • •

You can chart a season by the ripening of apples.

It starts the first week of August as the Lodi come to bear. But their flesh rings tart and green. A few days later come Redfree, a little better tasting than Lodi but still not much good for pies.

Next is the Gala, which keeps awhile, and then Mc-Intosh, which thanks to its richly smooth texture when cooked, perhaps is the best known and most useful apple after the Red Delicious.

By mid-September, apple-picking season peaks with the Jonathan. The crimson apple with its flecks of green is my favorite. Each bite yields a spicy tang. It also gets along well with its sister apples; if making sauces or ciders, you can blend it with other varieties and not worry about any strange tastes.

The Red Delicious arrives a couple weeks after the Jonathan and then comes the Cortland, which is best for homemade pies. After that, it's down hill with Golden Delicious and Winesap. By All Hallow's Eve, nothing remains for apple lovers but bare branches and waxed imports.

• • •

I rarely see an apple tree when hiking Iowa's trails. It's not like rural Wisconsin, Michigan or New York, where you're certain in aut-umn to run across a wild tree just as a rest is needed. I suppose the Armistice Day freeze and row crops don't lend themselves to wildness.

But that rare find when skirting the Iowa River valley or a bluff near Dubuque only sweetens the discovery.

Reaching up, I'll cup the apple in my palm and with a snap of the wrist break off the fruit. It's best to hold it against the blue sky and get a good look at the color to judge ripeness. Then comes the true test: biting into it.

The best apple tastes sinfully good.

(originally published Oct. 26, 2003)

October 24, 2004

'Connections': Returning home

The world is more intricate than we imagine. The lesson came home to me once again last week when "TalkSport," a British radio station, asked if I could speak a few minutes on their program about the presidential race's effect on Iowa. The interview was live, 6:15 a.m. London time, meaning post-midnight for me.

Of all my radio appearances this election, "TalkSport" most excited me. Six generations ago, the Bignell family left England via London thanks to an ailing farm economy, settling in Wisconsin not far from Laura Ingalls' little house in the big woods (due to crop failures, she eventually ended up in Iowa). The family never has looked back, though we love British TV.

National and international media often rely on local reporters and editors when they come to states like Iowa. We're happy to escort them around and answer questions; you never know when you might need some reporting favor -- if an Iowa City child undergoes a miracle cure in a Boston or London hospital, I've got a contact.

Just as importantly, our guidance keeps them from thinking all there is to Iowa is cornfields and soybeans.

"TalkSport" asked what Iowans felt about Iraq and which domestic issues might affect votes. The hosts wanted to know why we had seven electoral votes. They wondered where Iowa was, geographically speaking.

I suspect six generations ago a similar question was asked in England: Where is Wisconsin and Iowa?

Last week, though, the family returned to the mother country, albeit with a new accent. Could my ancestors have imagined the day when every Londoner might hear one of their own speak from the new home 3,000 miles away?

(originally published Oct. 24, 2004)

October 19, 2004

Baseball reached deeper than just ‘love of the game’

"Spring is the greatest season of all," a neighbor to the farm where I grew up often said. "It's the beginning of baseball season."

Not until an orange leaf flutters in the crisp air each autumn do I usually think of Carl's words, though he said them every April when exhibition season started. Being a kid of the television era, football is my sport. Yet amid homecomings and Monday night games, most of America, myself included, always turn one last time to the golden hopes of spring and those hot, dusty days of summer, for the World Series.

True baseball fans know game by game, sometimes inning by inning, how their team struggled for five months to reach the series. The rest of us just know we're watching the two best squads play, hoping for the excitement of a game that won't require us to sit through foul balls and long stretches of the pitcher getting around to deciding if he should throw the ball or not.

• • •

For Carl, something a little more than enjoyment of the game coursed threw him whenever he talked of baseball.

And though often busy with cattle or crops, Carl still found time to play in an amateur softball league. Once my family would watch him at the diamond next to the Lutheran country church and its cemetery.

While the teams wore matching thin-striped shirts and caps, there was nothing stuffy about the game. Some players donned tennis shoes, others boots. Being farmers, they all wore blue jeans. A cornfield served as the outfield wall. Score was kept on a large chalkboard rolled out of the church basement.

Carl never said how he came to like baseball, but I remember a framed photograph on his desk of a young man decked in the game's garb and holding a bat over his shoulder. A little boy, whose chin and eyes looked awfully similar to Carl's, leaned against the man's leg clutching a huge mitt.

• • •

When only about 22 or so, Carl had inherited the farm from his father. Carl was disking in the field when his wife, Gwen, sped out in the pickup truck to get him.

"'He was just heading out to the grain bins, he was just heading out to the grain bins,' that's all Carl's mother ever would say when anyone asked about what happened," my own mother once told me.

Gwen, who'd been in the house at the time, also was brief. "He just stopped, then reached for the wall and fell," she told people. "There was nothing anyone could have done."

A month after the heart attack, Carl's mother declared she no longer could stand living in the house that conjured so many memories of her dead husband. The following morning, as dew lay like arsenic sprinkled upon the lawn, they saw her off on a bus to live with her other son in Omaha.

• • •

As a kid at the church diamond, I watched the game with indifference, rooting for Carl to hit a homer only because I knew him.

These days, though, I recall Carl's time at bat with much thought. Staring down the pitcher, did he ever find the array of cracked and worn tombstones in the distance distracting?

Perhaps when that willowy voice of Gwen, her belly round with child, rose through all of the cheers, his eyes narrowed on the task at hand.

Maybe the crack of stick against ball threw his spirit into an epiphany, for she'd allowed him to overcome the horror of loss, allowed him to laugh in the face of emptiness. I wonder.

• • •

After the game, Carl's teammates slapped him on the back for the homerun, and the families enjoyed chicken and hamburgers grilled in the open air. He refused to drink beer because Gwen didn't, because of the pregnancy. The guys cajoled him to lighten up, but every woman there swooned at his chivalry.

Sometimes, though, as the sun shined like a glowing tangerine, I'd catch him gazing at the thin break in the grass marking the baseline heading into first. Perhaps he felt guilty about playing and laughing so near his father's grave.

Then, as Gwen wrapped an arm about Carl's broad shoulders, his face broke into a smile. He must have known that was the way his father would have wanted it.

(originally published Oct. 19, 2003)

October 12, 2004

When Indian summer lures us (and others) back outside

Last week I watched a buck frolic through the amber grasses near the Iowa River. Just after dawn, a light, clear blue rose with the sun, but pockets along the eastern wood line remained dark. The buck's horns flashed as its head jutted up then down. Probably in musk, I thought as pausing from my walk, no more than 20 yards away from him.

While I'd seen deer on previous walks - a doe and her two fawns made that part of the river valley their home through the summer - no buck had yet presented itself. Perhaps he'd just moved in; with the arrival of autumn's chill during September, I'd consigned myself to the treadmill for exercise the past three weeks and wouldn't have noticed. But that morning Indian summer had lured me outside.

No doubt it also had inspired the buck. He skipped back and forth across the patch of knee-high grass, strangely like those drawings of flying reindeer in children's Christmas books. Despite the leaves' splay of orange, red and purple, the promise the morning's warmth held offered a respite to our eventual collision with winter. That season does offer its own charms, but too often winter overstays its welcome. Summer, in contrast, always is quick to flit away. Her quick stop at the fence post each autumn never goes unappreciated.

For me, the buck's giddiness changed the whole morning. Now, I've seen many deer in my lifetime, sometimes grazing on stubble in a cornfield, on occasion standing against a grove of trees, once even rolling across my windshield as my foot hit the brakes. Perhaps it's a predatory instinct, a carryover from our hunter-gatherer days, that always causes me to glance admirably at their perfectly curved forms, but rarely do my eyes follow them for long. One deer pretty much is like any other.

But I'd never seen a buck gambol.

And then it froze, thrust its head toward me and stared. I think it stopped breathing for a moment. Was I friend or foe?

My own face flushed. There I was, a peeping tom of sorts, gaining some vicarious pleasure from watching its merriment. A dryness filled my throat, and I glanced at the ground.

The buck did not take the opportunity to run, though, and when I slowly raised my head, its own frame relaxed. Had it seen the look of glee in my face as I had in its prance? Anthropomorphizing other creatures goes against my better judgment, but we are both mammals and must share some common emotions. After all, we both were ambling about in Indian summer.

And then it sauntered off, into one of those pockets of dark. Glancing at my watch, there was just enough time to make the apartment and shower before work. I headed back up the dirt trail, a slight leap in my steps.

(originally published Oct. 12, 2003)

October 05, 2004

Autumn not a time of passing, but one of renewal

In literature and modern song, autumn too often engenders themes of old age and approaching death. The browning of leaves, the rising cold as winter nears, the shorter days, all make such symbolism seemingly apt.

Indeed, "Time hurries on," songwriter Paul Simon said in one of his darker compositions, "And the leaves that are green turn to brown/And they wither with the wind/And they crumble in your hand."

But as the shores along the Iowa River dress themselves in vibrant reds, oranges and purples, I suggest that autumn also is a time of discovery, a time for growth.

If one image beyond the falling leaves is weaved into autumn, it is that of returning to school. Once the textbooks have been handed out and the review of what we'd forgotten over the summer is completed during those first humid days in stiff desks, the air begins to cool and the real learning begins.

Are the rustle of leaves upon the ground like that of tattered old papers or are they the turning of pages as those still in their youth read the words of master poets, learn of great battles won and lost, and come to understand the mysteries of metamorphosis and photosynthesis?

That some find such subjects dull is anguishing, for no one should have such a frozen mind.

And while the harvesting of autumn may mark the end of the growing cycle, it also is a time of bounty. As the scent of cinnamon cider fills the air at a market, how could one not be overcome with surprise at the range of apples - Gala, Braeburn, McIntosh, Red Rome and Winesap - when from winter through summer most grocers sell just one type. There are more than 7,000 varieties of apples grown around the world, and most of us only sample four or five at best.

What of the freshness, too, of vegetables and fruits that come with autumn: the plump tomato; the zest of yellow, green and red peppers; the natural sweetness of squash. At any given farmers' market, there are yams, carrots, beans, cabbage, pumpkin, brussel sprouts and rhubarb all to sample. They provide relief from the machine-refined sugars that dull our palates through the other seasons.

Autumn is a time when we can feel most alive. After the languor of summer's heat, we rediscover our connection with the natural world. We may awake to the day shivering and by noon find as the sun shines upon us that we've overdressed for it, then a few hours later be surprised by the evening's invigorating nip.

When fall arrives, we no longer can idly slide through the day as during summer. Me must respond to in, be in concert with the changing temperatures and skies.

For those who turn a wondrous eye at Mother Nature's power, autumn charges the senses, revitalizes the spirit.

"In Algiers," philosopher Albert Camus wrote in a short essay, "one loves the commonplace: the sea at the end of every street, a certain volume of sunlight ..." To maintain an enthusiasm for life, he argued, is to experience the union of man and nature. Autumn reminds us of that path to finding peace in our hearts.

No, autumn is a time of passing and death only for the myopic and immature (Simon was but 21 when he wrote the above-quoted verse).

To those who understand its true potential, it is a hallowed season.

(originally published Oct. 5, 2003)

October 03, 2004

You don’t have to go anywhere

You don’t have to travel too far to experience an epiphany.

Travel physically, that is. The nearest library is as far as one needs to hoof. A good book usually is enough to offer some insight about life.

But sometimes, not even a book is necessary — just look around and take an interest in your surroundings. What seems mundane, say a cornfield or a crescent moon, really isn’t.

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle,” the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said. “But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

There’s nothing New Age about that. It’s a simple acceptance that each of us and the world we inhabit is incredibly special.

(originally published Oct. 3, 2004)