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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Plough Monday…

Anna, hanging outJack Frost loosened its grip on the Valley this week, packed up his fogbanks,  allowed the thermometer to shrug off an icicle or two, and thankfully went polar. Given the upper Midwest’s Arctic cold snap—forty-four below zero at International Falls, Minnesota, (by Jack London standards, that’s 76 degrees of frost, by the way), I guess I’d have to say Jack Frost’s was more a loose handshake than a “grip.”

For several days, however, I awoke to temperatures in the twenties; by day’s end, highs for the day were only in the mid-thirties. And fog clung to the Valley as if it were the setting for a Dickens’ novel. One morning the outside thermometer shivered at twenty-three degrees until early afternoon. That morning I awoke to find the kitchen window hummingbird feeder frozen solid. Not enough sugar anti-freeze at a 4:1 ratio to prevent the water from freezing. I had been bringing the feeder inside at night, rehanging it in the morning. (One cold morning  ice crystals formed in the feeder in less than an hour.) During the cold snap one of our resident Anna’s hummingbirds would roost in the maple tree, making sure there was no more than ten feet between her and her food source. (Somewhere I heard that because of its high metabolism a hummingbird can starve to death in an hour’s time if it can’t find food, a fact I can’t confirm, by the way.) I added a second feeder to the rotation and from time to time would switch out the frigid  feeder for the one I had warmed indoors. Day after day Anna huddled on the same twig and kept vigil over her bottle of syrup. Even though one of the feeders has a perch, she would hover as she fed, perhaps fearing her feet would freeze to the metal perch much like the kid who tongued the schoolyard  flagpole mid-winter. It may only be the end of January, but each time a perky little Anna’s busies itself at the feeder, there’s just the tiniest bit of summer in the air.

The sun came out today, so I took Gladys out for some welcome sunshine. I kicked her tires a couple times to wake her up and wheeled her out of the garage. Nearly a month since we’ve been on the road, but once you learn, you never forget to ride a bike, right? With the exception of routine activity at and around the dairy barns, the Valley still has its winter wraps on. The cornfields are wearing their green long johns, spring grass waiting for some thermal encouragement. A few changes, though: Rosario and crew have finished pruning and wrapping the blackberry canes northeast of Swiss Hall, a job that wasn’t finished my last visit.

In the communal corn patch I see a sign the New Year is creeping forward: a half burned Christmas tree in the middle of the field. The scorched icon reminds me my holiday lights are still swinging from the eaves; I had better take care of that. I don’t want the neighbors to think I’m rushing the season. Besides, Johnny Deck has me beaten anyway; but then he beat everyone else last year, too, come to think of it.

Just past Andy’s place and I ride up on Ginnifer Broers whose dog was taking her for jog. I pointed out a roosting bald eagle keeping an eagle’s eye out from the cottonwood along the river. “Better keep an eye on your dog,” I tease, nodding at the big bird. “The idea crossed my mind,”Ginnifer replies. “But maybe that would be a good thing?” I joke. She frowns and says, “I’m sure Ed wouldn’t mind!” Looks like Ginnifer and her canine companion are the new Mrs. Schmidt and Lucy in the Valley these days.

The flower man Song is taking advantage of the pleasant break in the weather. He’s covering a hoop house with plastic, hoping to jump start some early spring flowers, I imagine. Va, my dahlia friend, will be happy to know the thousand tulip bulbs she planted last fall have sprouted to a height of six or seven inches already. January, and while the big plow tractors hibernate in the equipment barns, a bit of farming has already begun. Now if  this were England two or three centuries ago, preparations for the season’s crop would also be underway. In fact Plough Monday would already be history for the New Year past.

                          Plough Monday, the next after Twelfthtide be past

                           Biddeth out with the Plough; the worst husband is last.


Plough Monday, the English farmer’s first farming feast of the New Year, falls the first Monday after Epiphany according to a book by Dorothy Hartley: Lost Country Life: How English country folk lived, worked, threshed, thatched, rolled fleece, milled corn, brewed mead… As luck would have it, the other day I took a box of books to the bookstore on Main Street, left behind a couple dozen and came away with Harley’s fascinating book. (I dare you to go into a bookstore and NOT leave without purchasing at least one book!)Ye Olde Farming

According to Hartley, Plough Monday is a feast day nearly as old as the hand plough itself and the tradition continued until early twentieth century when farming became mechanized in rural England. According to the tradition, “ploughboys,” young ploughmen in training, would go out of their way to do chores, little odd jobs, for the farmers across the countryside. These menial tasks, were performed gratis, and after the job was completed, the apprentices would remind the recipients, “You’ll remember this on Plough Monday?”

What happened on the eve of Plough Monday is rather like our own Halloween. At dusk, the apprentices would blacken their faces, turn their jackets inside out, and dragging an old ploughshare, would visit the farms in the area demanding “largesses for the ploughboys.” Most farmers would distribute a few coins among the lads. If the farmers were generous, the boys would scratch a line across their drives and that would be that; they were not bothered again. If a farmer was stingy, however, Hartley described the consequence he suffered: “If the household was mean and did not subscribe, the lads would fairly plough up the ground before the door so that it was a sea of mud for weeks, treading dirt into the house and causing endless trouble.” Apparently outhouse-tipping had not come into fashion…and I’m sure eggs were far too dear to pelt a  farmhouse with. The apprentices usually gathered enough loot to purchase a hearty dinner at the local inn, the innkeepers having reserved special space for the occasion.

I was so inspired by the spring-like day and the story of the ploughboys, that I came home, unstrung the holiday lights, took up the rake and shovel and planted some raspberries. My “largesse?” Fresh air, sunshine, exercise, and the promise of  fresh, ripe Tulameen raspberries some months down the road.

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