Saturday, October 17, 2015

Ed Zahniser: Sweeping the Garden

“Don’t step too far back in the pantry or you might fall into the cellar,” my mother Alice admonished us kids at our family’s Adirondack cabin Mateskared. Foreboding powers seemed to emanate from our fieldstone cellar walled by the cabin’s foundation.

When I was very young the cellar lurked dungeon-like, unseen below, and haunted with that adult admonition. Its night version—“Howard! What’s that noise in the kitchen?”—audibly whispered from the other bedroom split the pitch-dark, timeless expanse of childhood cabin nights.

We needed no precociousness for Jungian psychology to project psychic content onto the lumpy, dirt-floored, always dark, dank, root cellar. We could enter it only by stooping though a low, crude, cellar door below the front of the cabin or, in early years, via the foreboding back of the pantry. The latter required a spooky descent by rickety, narrow-stepped, open stairway. In the 1950s my mother would commission our carpenter neighbor Ernie Hitchcock to floor the pantry stairs opening with thick plywood. Hardly projecting her Shadow, she wanted to quit worrying that any cabin kitchen night noise — she slept in the bedroom above — might mean a raccoon got in through the cellar.

Pansy and Harold Allen built our place on a plot of land, a wedding gift from Pansy’s parents John and Hester Dalaba. Pansy and Harold stored potatoes in the cellar, root crops from their kitchen garden, apples, and canned items subject to freezing. As agriculture increases in latitude, altitude, or especially both, potatoes may loom large among crops. Past Adirondack farmers might greet spring eating a limited diet of last year’s potatoes and the new year’s early peas.

The Dalaba family grew potatoes in fields below and next to our Cabin. The fields were laboriously cleared of and stones and rocks that could be removed by hand or with their team of horses. Indeed, potatoes can seem like analogous rocks, les roches de la terre, to be dug out in perpetuity as though frost-heaving yearly surfaced the new crop.

This local version of the luck of the Irish originated in the Americas. Witness: The French name for potato literally means “apple of the Earth,” pomme de terre. The analogy acknowledges that apples preceded potatoes in Europe. In France and Great Britain our French fries are literally “fried apples,” pommes frites. The apple came to America from Europe. This exchange was among the eventual outcomes of Christopher Columbus’ encounter with some islands in the Caribbean and off the coast of North America.

Mateskared sits at 2,100 feet of elevation, staring across at Crane Mountain, whose summit is 3,254 feet above sea level. A tabloid displayed in the nearby town of North Creek’s one supermarket advised: “Sea level rising 150 feet.” We would be safe here—as long as we required nothing of New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, the whole of South Florida, or most of Washington, D.C. All or most of such places would in that event be under water. The highest point in Everglades National Park in South Florida is just eight feet above sea level.

Agriculturally, since we are pitched on the hill slope of Height of Land mountain, we enjoy a generally longer frost-free growing season than places in the valley right below whose elevation is less than 1,900 feet. Mountains generate air movement, a phenomenon known as orographic winds. Warm air currents rise in the morning and cooler air passes down at evening. “Frost pockets” occur where cold downdrafts deposit colder air. Our former cabin neighbor Paul Schaefer’s daughter Evelyn and husband Don Greene used to garden at the old Putnam Farm below Crane Mountain. One summer Ev and Don had a maximum of 21 growing days between killing frosts.

Christine and I lived at Mateskared from late April into early October the year I completed my Viet Nam-era military service. I set right in to growing a small garden. Preparing the garden plot from sod on a small flat above our cabin was laborious, tedious, and methodical.

“Did you have a garden that summer?”

“Yes, I built one.”

Removing rocks, those rocks I could remove, proved the easy part. I had left one tip of a rock where its probable boulder placed it—the farther I dug down around it, the larger the rock appeared to be. Like a sorcerer’s apprentice nightmare, its mass spread and spread below ground. Perhaps we had luck with that garden because it perched atop a pyramid. I was not shaving that summer, so I did not test this evidently pyramidal rock’s ability to keep razor blades sharp.

To enlarge the garden’s east end I carried buckets of loose soil laboriously scrounged from nearby woods and in and around our old barn. The ground at that end fell off below a rock larger than a hassock footrest. Salvaging the dirt from root masses of the turf clumps was as tough as separating cotton fibers. But any topsoil was too precious to consign to compost in root tangles. To garden was to unearth the Ice Age. Pulling back topsoil’s thin veneer of shallow geological time, you met the unfathomed bed of sand deposited by great, grinding ice masses.

By May 15 that year, striking the sod with the spade produced swarms of black flies. Their pestiferousness made me wish for a return of the Ice Age, like gardeners suffering seasonal burnout in August may pray for a killing frost. Acadians have the best name for black flies: bruleurs, “burners.” Using old curtain material, Christine fashioned head nets for our brimmed hats. But because they were curtain-white, at certain angles to sunlight the glare blinded us. We discerned that commercial head nets are dark green for a reason.

Years after this black fly-besieged garden building I learned the saying of certain Zen monastics: “Nothing to do but to sit and to sweep the garden.” The verb to sit stands for sitting meditation, the focal practice of za-zen discipline. All aspects of community life support that are not sitting meditation come under the rubric of “sweeping the garden.” When the poet Gary Snyder studied Zen in a monastery in Kyoto, Japan, he brought his Oregon small-farm, Mr. Fix-it efficiency to the daily monastery chores. The other monks politely listened to his suggestions but never adopted one. In frustration Snyder eventually asked why?

“All we have to do is to sit and to sweep the garden,” one of the monks explained. “If we get better at sweeping the garden, we’ll have to spend more time meditating.”

A college friend settled for a time in the Illinois River valley where alluvial deposits of topsoil run to 16-feet deep. At Mateskared, on the slight flat above the cabin that held our garden, the topsoil was no more than an inch and a half thick. The fact that still more hardscrabble subsistence farms once stood farther above us here on Edwards Hill, boggles the mind. I asked the late Reverend Daisy Dalaba Allen about them. Daisy was Pansy’s sister and married to Earl, who was Pansy’s husband Harold’s cousin. Earl made maple syrup. I was down at their place for a visit and to pick up our annual syrup ration.

Daisy recalled at least three more farms above us but said they would have been gone by 1939, when her sister Pansy and her husband Harold began building their home we now call Mateskared. When I was a young teenager, a man with the roads commission came up our hill on a tractor mounted with a sickle bar. He said he was a Hitchcock and talked of a relative once farming above us, up the road. The road now ends at our place but once continued straight up from beside our cabin for about 400 feet. It then made a right angle turn due east toward what is now the road to Chatiemac Lake, on the opposite side of the ridge Edwards Hill that gives our road its name. This Mr. Hitchcock said his folks carried their drinking water uphill from our spring — no mean feat. A gallon of water weighs about 8.34 pounds, and you wouldn’t trek down the hill for just a gallon or two.

Daisy recalled that the road once continued beyond Chatiemac eastward to Barton Mines, the former garnet mines on the far side of our near back neighbor Gore Mountain. (At Barton Mines, someone had at last found economic sustenance from these Adirondack rocks. Local garnet is still used for industrial abrasives.) When Daisy said that, I seemed to recall having seen an early 1930s topographical map that showed the old road going through to the hamlet of Sodom. Sodom lies east of us, near where Peaceful Valley Road splits off Routes 8 about halfway between Bakers Mills and Johnsburg. Daisy’s husband Earl said he doubted that the road ever went on to Sodom.

It turns out that Earl Allen was wrong, a rare occurrence in my experience. Recently, cartographer Tom Patterson pointed me to a US Geological Survey website of old topographical maps. Indeed, an 1898 Thirteenth Lake Quadrangle map shows the old road going though to Sodom. It also shows that today’s Chatiemac Road to Chatiemac Lake did not exist then.

I know of at least two former homes above Mateskared. One stood just north of where Edwards Hill Road makes its right-angle turn eastward. Another, evidently smaller place stood a half mile or less east of the turn. The former used to be clearly marked by huge lilac bushes. The latter was evidenced by a cellar dent and a few less-than-random rock placements. I could imagine the dwellings, but I could not imagine their exacting sustenance from these thin soils.


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Ed Zahniser retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer - a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).

One Response

  1. SwilliAm says:

    Fun read. I like your term “cellar dent”.

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