You know you have a gardener’s touch when you not only have to give tomatoes away (which is normal), but you begin the growing season with more tomato plants than you can use. This is not me I’m describing. It was one of my colleagues at a former workplace, and she was distributing the plants around the office. When she came to me, I politely declined on the grounds that I am not good at growing things. Somehow, though, she convinced me that tomatoes are so easy to grow that even I could do it. I left work that day with a tomato plant.
I’m not sure how it happened, but when I got to work the next morning, the tomato plant was still in the car with me. I did not take it into the office, but put it up under the rear window, where it would get some sun. Tomatoes need sun, I had heard somewhere. They grow them in greenhouses, under glass … like my window.
It might have been about a week later when I thought about the tomato plant the next time. In the back of my car, between the two rear speakers, was a hard, brown, sticklike object where I had left the plant to luxuriate in the nourishing rays of the sun. That was the end of my first tomato-growing season.
I had made only one mistake, my wife argued. Just don’t leave the plant in the car next year, and all will be fine. So we bought a couple of plants from the local not-quite-Amish-but-some-kind-of-conservative-Anabaptist nursery family and planted them near the patio. I can’t remember where they all were, except the one that was actually on the patio in a huge pot. That was the one that survived.
When the remaining tomato plant got about a foot tall, we tied it to a dowel rod to hold it up, because that’s what I heard you were supposed to do. How tomato vines managed to grow and produce tomatoes while crawling across the ground for the millennia before people started tying them up, I don’t know, but they must have, because the species didn’t die out. I, apparently, would be responsible for that.
Summer wore on, it was hot and dry, and we watered the plant occasionally. A few little yellow blossoms appeared. We were excited. One little green ball developed, got a little bigger than a golf ball but not quite as big as a tennis ball, and held on. School started, Labor Day came and went, and the daylight hours diminished as the Earth plunged headlong toward the autumnal equinox. Still our aspiring tomato remained hard and green, until it fell off and rotted. Season 2 was over.
After that we took a break from tomato-growing for a couple of years.
This year, we were visiting the quasi-Amish plant people again, when my wife said, “Do you want to try a few tomato plants?” I thought she surely must have suffered a sudden attack of amnesia. It struck me the same way as when my mother asks me if I watched the latest episode of Shark Tank, a show in which she knows I have absolutely no interest. Though I thought it hardly necessary, I launched into my litany of reasons why growing tomatoes just doesn’t work for us. But my wife, whose Native American name is She Who Plans, had apparently been giving this some thought. This year would be different, because her father had given us some topsoil/compost that we had put, among other places, in a raised bin where she had previously grown some herbs. Tomatoes would grow just fine there, she was sure.
What happened in that bin seemed to me like a fantasy film. Every night the plants seemed to double in height. Before we could think of dowel rods, they were too big for that. I cut walking-stick-length supports, which were a challenge to rig up for a 5’5” senior citizen because the vines were already planted on a three-foot-high platform. Even so, they were soon drooping back down toward the bin and even the ground, intermingling with each other, and full of yellow blossoms. Finally little green clusters appeared on some of the grape tomato plants.
As they turned rosy and then orangish, I kept wondering when things would begin to go wrong. Finally, one Saturday, with a sense of disbelief, I walked out and plucked off a handful of ripe, red grape tomatoes. When I posted a picture of them on Facebook, a member of our Sunday School class commented, “Bring some to class tomorrow!” Clearly, she didn’t have any idea of our tomato-growing history and assumed our production was normal, that is to say, prolific. I had to admit to the entire digital world that this handful was, so far, our entire harvest.
Still, it was a harvest, and though tiny, for us it was huge. And the vines continued to grow. We started scrounging around for anything to attach them to – plant hangers, a trellis, pieces of tree branches. Grape tomatoes started reddening daily, and full-size tomatoes appeared and began to ripen on the other plants. For a family picnic we were able to decorate a seven-layer salad with a perimeter of our own, homegrown grape tomatoes. I began having tomato slices on my sandwiches almost every day for lunch, and my wife started making tomatoes her main course.
Now, the backlog has finally become unmanageable, and tomatoes fill the counter. My wife has learned to freeze them in plastic sandwich bags, sucking the air out with a straw. We take tomatoes to social engagements. There is a feeling of unreality about it, as if we were Jed Clampett, eking a living out of the backwoods one day and pulling into the Beverly Hills mansion with the cee-ment pond the next, not quite knowing what to do then.
But we’ll think of something. And I’m pretty sure one of us is already making plans for next year.
I’m actually not much of a fan of the Crimson Hawks, or any other sports team — certainly not enough to wear a team logo out of athletic loyalty. I have this particular sweatshirt because it was a gift from my daughter while she was attending the team’s home, the confusingly named Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
(At family orientation before my daughter’s freshman year, one professor said that when he made long-distance phone calls and identified himself as being from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, people would say to him, “Can’t you just pick one?” This would seem to be a unique problem, created by the odd fact that the university is located in a town called Indiana. But amazingly, it is not — there is also a California University of Pennsylvania.)
No one I’ve met outside of IUP (pronounced “eye-you-pea,” not as an acronym) has ever shown any indication that they recognize the origin of my sweatshirt. And even many IUP graduates might be unfamiliar with the Crimson Hawks.
“Crimson Hawks” is where the university finally landed after a process designed to make its team compliant with collegiate athletic regulations concerning sensitivity toward the concerns of some Native Americans. It’s an issue that a number of better-known teams have also dealt with, but as long as your school, your town, and your county are called Indiana, it’s unlikely you’ll ever escape it completely.
It was that geographical reality that inspired the potentially offensive former team name, the Indians. A press report during the search for a new team name reported that one locally based suggestion had been the Pine Trees, because of all the Christmas tree farms around Indiana, although it was unclear how seriously this was ever under consideration. They could have also gone back into history and again become The Normalities, their name when the future university was founded as Indiana Normal School. I personally would have loved that. Ironically, it would be a highly out of the ordinary name. I guess I’ll have to console myself with the tip of the hat they gave to the Normalities by naming their crimson hawk mascot character Norm.
During my daughter’s first year at IUP, the mascot was what turned out to be a transitional figure known as Cherokee the Bear, and the band, in which my daughter played, still did a stereotypical Native American–sounding fight cheer song during the games. The next year, when they were the newly minted Crimson Hawks and Cherokee was banned, I heard an opposing team’s band taunt them by playing the forbidden tune at the parents’ weekend football game—which I attended not so much for the game, but to hear the band, and of course make random cultural observations.
But if I have to wear a sports team sweatshirt, I’m glad it is at least one that nobody recognizes. If people know the team, they are going to make comments about it, and that will only lead to humiliation on my part. The less I wear sports-related clothing, the more I can exist and function in society without having to reveal my serious handicap — that I know as little about sports as it is possible to know and still live in America.
I know my high school football team’s colors and mascot, and usually even how well they’re doing most years, in very general terms. I’ve worn the maroon and gold of my alma mater on a baseball cap, and even then, a not very attentive bar patron once glanced at it and made some statement about the Redskins, on which, of course, I was powerless to comment. Football, yes. I knew that much.
But even school clothing that is not overtly sports-related is not safe. Once, on a Boy Scout winter camping weekend with my son, I wore a sweatshirt bearing the seal of the University of West Virginia. My nephew had given it to me for Christmas one year when he was attending school in Morgantown. I assumed it was obvious that any sweatshirt that had Latin on it was academic rather than athletic. Me erravisse.
One morning a camp official walked into the cabin for inspection, said hello to everyone, stopped and looked straight at me, and said, “I have a Michigan shirt I can loan you.” He laughed and I laughed, but much in the same way I once laughed on a bus in the Sinai desert, along with a whole busload of tourists, when the machine-gun-toting Egyptian soldier apparently made a joke. This camp official’s Michigan reference meant as little to me as the soldier’s Arabic, but I laughed because he was holding the deadly weapon of sports knowledge, and I was clearly unarmed.
Which is why I like the Crimson Hawks sweatshirt. When someone asks me about the Crimson Hawks, there is a fleeting look of perplexity when they seem to wonder if perhaps I know something about sports that they don’t. It doesn’t last long, and everybody soon realizes the truth; but for a couple of seconds, I can almost imagine what that must feel like.
In the deep, almost hillbilly version of Central Pennsylvanian that more people spoke then than now, we called him “Lem Saulsburg.” What his connection to Kennedys Valley was, I no longer know, if I ever did. But he told us that day that he knew where William Kennedy’s homestead was, and that he would take us there. He was very old, and I don’t think he drove, so what he meant was that he would let us take him there.
We never did.
William Kennedy was my great-great-great-grandfather, for whom Kennedys Valley is named. In our family we passed down a story about how William had been cutting wood and was attacked by a bear, which he then wrestled, tumbling down the hill to a stream in which he drowned the animal. We also assumed, lacking any written record, that it was William who came to Pennsylvania from Ireland.
A dozen years later, I was hitchhiking out of Galway, headed I don’t remember where. I was picked up by a middle-aged couple from Ulster, and when I told them I was an American of “Scotch-Irish” descent, they told me they were headed for Belfast in the morning and to meet them at their hotel if I wanted a ride north to do a little genealogical research, or just to see the land of my ancestors.
I gave it serious thought, but in the end decided not to go. I had no facts on which to base any research. That it was William who emigrated was centuries-old hearsay. I wouldn’t have even known in which of the six Northern Irish counties to start looking. My father assumed that our family was from Tyrone, but only because Kennedys Valley is in Tyrone Township, and he had a great talent for seeing connections that may have been there but just as well may not.
Decades later, we still have scant documentation about William and no specifics of our connection to Ireland. A distant cousin who has looked into these things most diligently has given us a general idea of where in Kennedys Valley William owned land, but it is a wide swath of the valley.
A couple of years ago, I was attending Creation, an outdoor Christian music festival in Huntingdon County. In one of the side tents, singer Robin Mark, from Belfast, Northern Ireland, was performing. Describing how one song came about, he mentioned that he was sitting on the sofa at the time. “Or I guess in America you would say the couch,” he added. He pronounced couch, not with a drawn-out “ow” sound, as in “how,” but with a condensed, raised kind of “ou,” reminiscent of the Canadian “about” but not as far gone toward “oo.”
I was stunned. A piece of a puzzle had suddenly and unexpectedly fallen into place. Because he said “couch” almost exactly the way I say it.
Several times a year, I am asked if I’m a Canadian by people who have heard me say “house” or “out” or certain other “ou” words, and that’s all they can associate it with. But I have no connection to Canada other than having vacationed there, and mostly in the French-speaking part. I have wondered myself where this pronunciation comes from. A perplexed linguistics professor once told me it’s northern speech and is out of place in my otherwise Midland dialect. Yet it is there, and always has been.
But now I know where it comes from. Somewhere in Northern Ireland there is a spot where one day 300-some years ago, someone who talked this way decided he was going to America. Somewhere in Kennedys Valley, there is a site where William’s house stood. And he said “house” the way I do, the way they did in Ulster.
I have missed my chances to try to find out exactly where those places are. But I know where William is. He is in the stories passed down to me, and in some of the words I use to tell them. I find him every time I open my mouth.
View Facebook album: St. Patrick’s Day Pilgrimage
One morning last week, I went outside before dawn to try to catch a falling star. Again.
This time it was the Quadrantids. It was 17°F. There was a gibbous moon, which means it was between its full and last quarter phases, bright enough to hide the fainter shooting stars. I saw one blaze a very short trail almost directly overhead.
This time I did not catch one. Like every other time.
About three years ago, I learned that it is possible to photograph the night sky with a camera I can afford. I was in Hawaii, taking pictures of lava from the Kilauea volcano flowing through a patch of woods and igniting trees at night, and caught the constellation of Orion overhead as well.
Since then I’ve experimented with shots of the moon in various phases, eclipsed and in conjunction with planets. I’ve gotten images of the trails made by airplanes and the International Space Station. And for the past few months, I have been trying, off and on, to capture a picture of a meteor. This is difficult because, for one thing, they are, well, meteoric. You never know quite where or when they will appear, and when they do, they’re gone before you know it.
There are things you can do to increase your chances. Astronomy magazine says there are an average of six meteors per hour on a typical night. But at certain times of the year, Earth’s orbit takes us through areas where various celestial bodies, such as comets or asteroids, have left trails of debris, mostly in the form of small pieces of rock and dust. When these items enter the Earth’s atmosphere, they burn up and are visible from the surface if they’re less than 120 miles away. Most meteors that we see during these “showers” are no larger than a pea.
So I went out during the Orionids in October, the Leonids in November, and the Geminids in December. I saw at least one meteor each time. I had my camera on the tripod, set for a 30-second exposure at fairly high sensitivity to light. I got great pictures of Orion, Taurus, the Pleiades, and Jupiter.
Occasionally a meteor streaked across my field of view during one of those 30-second periods. But it never showed up on the photo, except once, very faintly. When I pushed the shutter button with my finger, it apparently shook the camera slightly, causing all the stars to be blurry. From then on, I used the self-timer, which gave me beautiful, crisp images of starry but meteorless skies.
I’ll keep up my efforts. I’ll play around with other light sensitivity settings and exposure times and apertures. I won’t get a more expensive camera, at least in the foreseeable economic future.
But the quest is worth it if it draws me outside late at night or early in the morning now and then, to feel the cold air, to see pine trees reaching into the indigo sky, to look around the galactic neighborhood. And to observe, if not record, a pea-sized stone that has been orbiting the sun for eons, burning up 100 miles overhead.
Maybe someday I will catch one of those falling stars. Or maybe I won’t. But I’ll keep shooting.
To see a photo of a starry sky taken while trying to photograph the Orionid meteor shower, click here. Run your cursor over the photo to reveal tags of constellations, stars and other astronomical features.
To see the author’s one photo that actually does show a meteor but has blurred stars, click here.
To see the author’s photo of the constellation Orion over the Kilauea volcano, click here.
We awoke on Thursday morning to find a huge aloe plant on the floor in my office, along with the dirt in which it had been planted. It had stood in a pot on top of a bookshelf where my wife stores books and sheets of printed music. The top of the shelf unit is just about flush with a window between my office and the kitchen, just above the kitchen sink. There is a sliding glass pane in this window, because the inside wall of my office was once the outside wall of the house.
I had removed the aloe plant from the window sill next to my desk because it had been extending its succulent green arms much too widely to be contained there much longer. My wife planted it in a bigger pot and put it on the wider shelf unit. Then we more or less forgot about it.
But the arms, it seems, continued to grow. Mostly I don’t look at the plant in the pot, and if I do, it appears to just sit there. But it was moving – slowly and steadily, toward the edge of the shelf. There was no loud crash when it fell down in the middle of the night. Perhaps those arms acted as a braking and silencing device worthy of NASA Mars probe engineers, I don’t know.
How long had it been on the brink, I wonder, adding a cell at a time to those arms, pushing it away from the window, toward the tipping point? Seemingly inert, its rate of expansion was nevertheless closer to the pace of spilled milk seeping across the table than that of a shotgun pellet on its way to a clay pigeon. But seen from the vantage point of the speed of light, even a bullet seems positively pokey.
Yet the aloe arms changed the landscape, as it were, in a matter of months – breakneck speed compared to the carving of valleys by glaciers or the congealing of planetary systems out of dust clouds in the arms of a galaxy.
We live in a universe in constant motion, where uncountable changes occur in time spans too short to imagine, and where seemingly unchangeable objects are dancing and swirling, rising and falling in time frames beyond our comprehension. There are constantly things going on around us that we cannot see. Until, suddenly, we do.
To a Facebook friend whose tales of hiking around the Pacific Northwest in training for an ascent up Mt. St. Helens, I commented that I, too, was in training for a hike: I had recently ridden my bicycle several blocks to the post office in preparation for my coming assault on the 1.2-mile trail to the summit of Bearfence Mountain and back.
Just to be clear, that 1.2 miles is the round trip.
On an early fall Saturday morning, I pull into the Bearfence Mountain trailhead parking lot on the Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia. Mine is the only car there. I lace up my hiking boots and look at the information panel about the trail.
The ascent is short, and is interrupted by what the sign as well as all the literature describes as a “rock scramble.” My attention is drawn to words like “challenging” and even “dangerous” – put there by the National Park Service’s lawyers, I tell myself. Overemphasize the risk so that no one can testify under oath that they weren’t warned before they did something foolish.
Still, I check to see that I have cell phone reception and make a note of the park’s emergency number, 732-0911 – although why you would call Enola, Pennsylvania, if you had a problem in Virginia is still a mystery to me.
As I start up the trail, the sun is just starting to filter through the trees and making the hay-scented ferns on the forest floor glow golden. That sun is soon obscured by a huge rock wall, standing straight ahead, seemingly right in the middle of the trail.
In fact, the blue blazes that mark the trail climb right up the rocks, ascending and swinging around to follow the spine of a ridge summit consisting of sharp, bare rock, as if the thin skin of topsoil and vegetation that covers the rest of the mountain has been ripped away here. This is the “rock scramble” – not the breadbox- to barbecue-grill-sized stones I had imagined, but the very skeleton of the Appalachians, thrust into the sky 300 million years ago by a collision with Africa.
This camping trip to Shenandoah is an answer to my wife’s question of what I wanted for my birthday. Here, approaching the summit ridge of Bearfence Mountain, I am reminded that it is my 60th birthday and not my 25th, which is how I usually think of myself. I move slowly and stop often, making sure, as much as possible, to have three of my four limbs in secure hand- and footholds before moving the last one.
Once, I stop, take a breath and look out at the view, then down at the rocks in search of the next trail marker. As I turn my head slightly, I am startled to realize there is someone standing right behind me. A young hiker from Washington, D.C., out for the day. After finishing Bearfence, he says, he plans to ascend Old Rag, Shenandoah’s premier peak. He patiently plods along behind me for a few minutes, then I let him pass. He quickly rounds a huge boulder, and when I get there a moment later, there is no trace of him, though the trail is visible for quite a ways ahead.
I think of angel stories and urban legends like the vanishing hitch-hiker, but the aura of mystery dissipates later when he passes me coming down (i.e., he is coming down – I am still painstakingly climbing up). Still, it was reassuring that someone was there, just as I was realizing my limitations and wondering if I had bitten off more than I could chew.
From the top of Bearfence Mountain, I take the gently sloping Appalachian Trail back down, still moving slowly. Back at the car, in the now full parking lot, I’m unlacing my hiking boots when an early middle-aged couple walks up to the sign. “It’s only 1.2 miles and takes two hours?” they say. “What’s up with that?” They turn to me and ask how long it had taken me. I look at my watch. It is 11:10. I left the parking lot at 9:15.
I tell them about the rocks and how slowly I had gone and how I had been passed by young people, of which my vanishing hiker was only the first. I tell them autobiographically that only the most pathetically slow people would need two whole hours to do this trail.
The woman points to her smooth, indoor shoes and asks if I think they would do. I show her my knobby-treaded boots and mention that there are dinner-table-sized rocks with nothing much in the way of footholds. The couple wavers for a bit and then gets back in the car and drives away.
As painstaking as the climb up the rocks had been, as many other hikers as had passed me, as slowly as I had covered even the easy ground, and as painful as my muscles are now (I am beginning to feel as if I had shoveled wet snow for four hours), there is one thing I feel good about. I have done the hike, rock scramble and all.
But I don’t think I’ll be attempting Old Rag when I turn 61.
To see the author’s photos of Shenandoah National Park, including the Bearfence Mountain hike, on Facebook, click here.
At the fairgrounds activity building, home of the locally famous Tractor Twang country line dances, a French teenager stepped up to the microphone at the end of an evening of gourmet American covered-dish dining and internationality mixed dancing and said, “We don’t want to go back to Fraw-nce — we want to stay here!”
It was a nice thought, spoken on behalf of the dozen or so French high school students who had just spent a week in small-town America and professed to liking everything except, in some cases, peanut butter and root beer. But I knew it was a momentary feeling and would eventually pass.
I knew this because I felt much the same way in 1973, when I had to return to the United States after spending my junior year in France. I felt I was not done with Europe yet and not ready to go home.
But that feeling did subside. It just took a return trip, three and a half years of living in Germany and traveling to 19 countries on the Old Continent to reach that point.
That was all in the future, though, as I waved goodbye to the French family with whom I had lived for nine months. During that time I had changed. I was no longer just the small-town American boy I had been up to that point — though that was still my main identity, perhaps more than I then realized. But speaking another language and learning its nuances, meeting people not only from France, but from Belgium and Switzerland, Scotland and Pakistan, listening to music by Véronique Sanson, Gérard Lenorman and Michel Delpech, eating rabbit, quenelles de brioche and fish with eyes intact, making picnic lunches of baguettes and pâté and cheap red wine from the grocery store, drinking coffee out of a bowl, and living with countless other obvious and subtle elements of everyday culture in another country had left its mark on me.
Most of all, I experienced the kindness of strangers — the Touron family, with whom I lived; the Raverdy family, who invited another American student and me to dinner twice a month and took us on excursions around southern France; Madame Coquerel, the retired lady who regularly had several of us Americans in for Sunday dinner; and many others. Often I wondered why they did it, why they took the trouble to reach out to us, to put the extra plates on the table, to put up with our imperfect mastery of their language, to introduce us to practices and elements of culture, not to mention foods, with which we were unfamiliar.
Well, I don’t know why they did it. But I know why I was willing to host a French student when a group of them came to my hometown this month. In no large part, it was an expression of gratitude toward the Tourons and the Raverdys and Madame Cocquerel, and the teachers and students at the university, and the drivers who picked us up hitchhiking, and all those who, in the course of a few months, helped us change from being foreigners to just being people. And in the process they became people to us. I wanted to go back to Europe to experience more of that.
This month I experienced it again, here in rural Central Pennsylvania. On the dance floor at Tractor Twang that night, it was impossible to tell who were the French kids and who were the kids from their American host families. Now that they have gotten a taste of the world, that French student who didn’t want to go back home, or any of the others may come back here, or go elsewhere, or they may, at home in France, reach out to those from far away.
In any case, they will know for sure that the world is made of people, and it’s beautiful when they dance together. And once you know that, you are never the same.
To find out more about being a host family for French students, click here.
To view photos of the author’s year studying in France, click here.