The Zucchini Festival

For a decade, our little town of West Stockbridge held a Zucchini Festival every August.  The brainchild of the local Cultural Council, it began as a tongue-in-cheek tribute to that most underappreciated and, by the time August rolled round, largely unwanted garden vegetable. Lenox had its Tanglewood. Becket its Jacob’s Pillow. West Stockbridge? We claimed the zucchini. There were t-shirts and hats, games and contests. We sold zucchini breads and zucchini soup.  There was a zock catapult where the lowly summer squash could be launched into the air and land with a gratifying splat many yards away. My husband and I manned the zocket toss, a bean bag game, for the under 5 crowd. Vendors sold crafts and food. As the years went by, we added more games and dancing in the street after dark and fireworks.  There was a pet parade. The crowds grew. Parking became a problem.  The police had to direct traffic.  There were never enough volunteers and tempers began to fray. Like zucchini itself often enough, the festival became bloated and too big for its own good. After ten years, it was decided enough was enough.

I thought of the festival the other day when, poking around in an overgrown vegetable bed, I discovered a zucchini the size of a watermelon.  I had no doubt it would have won the prize for largest zucchini at the festival — and briefly felt a burst of pride.  But then I remembered that, as had been the case for millenia before the festival, nobody really cared that much about zucchini anymore.

Here’s a humorous poem on the subject by Marge Piercy to help lighten the lengthening shadows of these last glorious days of summer.

Attack of the Squash People

By Marge Piercy

And thus the people every year
in the valley of humid July
did sacrifice themselves
to the long green phallic god
and eat and eat and eat.
They’re coming, they’re on us,
the long striped gourds, the silky
babies, the hairy adolescents,
the lumpy vast adults
like the trunks of green elephants.
Recite fifty zucchini recipes!

Zucchini tempura; creamed soup;
sauté with olive oil and cumin,
tomatoes, onion; frittata;
casserole of lamb; baked
topped with cheese; marinated;
stuffed; stewed; driven
through the heart like a stake.

Get rid of old friends: they too
have gardens and full trunks.
Look for newcomers: befriend
them in the post office, unload
on them and run. Stop tourists
in the street. Take truckloads
to Boston. Give to your Red Cross.
Beg on the highway: please
take my zucchini, I have a crippled
mother at home with heartburn.

Sneak out before dawn to drop
them in other people’s gardens,
in baby buggies at churchdoors.
Shot, smuggling zucchini into
mailboxes, a federal offense.

With a suave reptilian glitter
you bask among your raspy
fronds sudden and huge as
alligators. You give and give
too much, like summer days
limp with heat, thunderstorms
bursting their bags on our heads,
as we salt and freeze and pickle
for the too little to come.

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Summer rain

For the rain it raineth every day — from Twelfth Night 

It’s been a month of on and off rain.  Dull steady downpours.  Wild wind-driven tempests.  Lukewarm, almost weightless morning mists.  Thunderstorms have been in the forecast nearly every day — for weeks on end.  More often than not, the clouds that billow and darken into a mountain of threatening postures simply collapse of their own weight and disperse into a patchwork of sunlight and blue skies.  The other night, though, we had a deluge that pounded against the windows and flooded the basement.  In the morning, the ferns lay flattened and pitiful as supplicants and the sunflowers had collapsed face-down in the vegetable garden. I helped them up and roped them to the fence posts just as the Parisians used to do to with their sleeping drunks. Much of the spindly monarda and gossamer cosmos, though, was battered beyond repair, petals strewn like post-parade confetti across the soggy ground.

Here’s a poem by Jane Kenyon on the subject.  She was married for over twenty years to the poet Donald Hall who puts in an appearance (by his absence) in the lines below. Both acclaimed poets, Hall and Kenyon moved in 1975 to Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire which had been in Hall’s family for many generations.  Kenyon died from leukemia in 1995 at the age of forty-eight. Hall, who continued to live at Eagle Pond, passed away in June of this year at the age of ninety.

Heavy Summer Rain

Jane Kenyon

The grasses in the field have toppled,
and in places it seems that a large, now
absent, animal must have passed the night.
The hay will right itself if the day

turns dry. I miss you steadily, painfully.
None of your blustering entrances
or exits, doors swinging wildly
on their hinges, or your huge unconscious
sighs when you read something sad,
like Henry Adams’s letters from Japan,
where he traveled after Clover died.

Everything blooming bows down in the rain:
white irises, red peonies; and the poppies
with their black and secret centers
lie shattered on the lawn.

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More Than Enough

The tissue-thin poppy petals have scattered to the ground just as the dart-shaped buds of the clematis unfurl before our eyes. New shapes and colors are emerging in the garden every day now— and this year, because the spring was so cool and damp, everything seems bigger and brighter than usual. I had to trim dozens of marble-sized pears from the espaliers this week as the branches were already bowing under the weight of so much Continue reading

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A bird at the window

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/By the false azure in the windowpane.

I was reminded of those opening lines of Nabokov’s poetic masterpiece Pale Fire recently as I watched a female cardinal batter herself against the window of our barn.  She’d perch on the branch of the flowering pear espalier between bouts — then fling herself up against the glass with the messianic fervor of a true zealot. In the case of our cardinal, I’m sure the nesting season brought out her territorial instincts, and the reflection in the window looked to her like a predator. She was attacking Continue reading

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Bird Song

One morning a couple of weeks ago when patches of snow were still scattered across the backyard, we heard the first real sign of spring: the Peter, Peter, Peter of a tufted titmouse. Soon, all around us, the birds who’d lived so quietly in our midst through these last brutal months — cardinals, blue jays, chickadees, and woodpeckers — burst into song.  It didn’t matter to the birds that a snow squall had swirled through the Berkshires earlier or that the ground was still frozen.  Apparently, it’s the light — not the temperature — that acts as an hormonal trigger and prompts our fine feathered friends to start whistling for a mate. As the migrating birds return, I know these first tentative love songs will soon swell into a mighty chorus of such passionate intensity that, by early June, we’ll need to shut the bedroom window in the morning to get a little sleep.  For now, though, the cardinal’s Cheer, Cheer, Cheer seems the perfect toast to welcome a season we were beginning to fear would never come.   The beautiful photos of a cardinal (above) and piliated woodpecker (right) were taken by my brother Anders.

Here’s a poem that features birdsong by the American poet Timothy Steele whose formal mastery is often cleverly disguised by a keen sense of humor. Continue reading

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A Landscape

George Inness, Home at Montclair, 1892

Tucked behind the magisterial Winslow Homer gallery at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, sits a small quiet room of landscape paintings. One could easily walk right through it— en route to the more Continue reading

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Funny valentine

I came upon it recently while looking for something else. Of the dozen or so keepsakes that I claimed when my five siblings and I divvied up my mother’s possessions after her death, this one was easy to overlook: a small, yellowing rectangle of paper upon which was scribbled: “Each day is Valentines Day.” It was written in my father’s often un-decipherable hand, but a certain amount of care had been taken to Continue reading

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The House

The American poet Richard Wilbur died last October at the age of 96. He’d served as Poet Laureate and, over the decades, had had all the usual literary treasures strewn at his feet, including the National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes. But he was never as well known as his teacher and mentor Robert Frost or his contemporaries Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. He was a formalist in the age of the Beats and free verse; restrained and subtle during the heyday of the “confessional” poets. Along with his own eleven collections of poetry, he Continue reading

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Lemon Oil

 

Christopher Columbus seems to have been knocked off his pedestal lately, but, to his credit, he did bring lemon seeds with him when he landed in Hispaniola in 1493. This bright hard sour little fruit has been cultivated for medicinal purposes for millennia and has curative powers that range from alleviating scurvy and dissolving kidney stones … to fighting colds, flu, and some claim even cancer. It’s also a workhorse in the kitchen. I use lemons almost daily: Continue reading

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It’s a word!

As Thanksgiving approaches, I find I’m needed in the kitchen and so have asked my occasional guest blogger to step in this month:

The other day, wandering lonely as a cloud through the recesses of the Strand Bookstore in New York City, who/whom should I exchange elbows with but Henrietta “Etty” Alogos, considered by many linguists to be the doyenne etymologist of our time, a woman who when she gives you her word expects you to preserve it in amber.

“My word,” she exclaimed, “it’s you—Bennett. Or, in French, Benet, a silly little country bumpkin beloved by all.” Continue reading

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Fall, falling, fallen

Summer has lingered far into this strange, dry autumn. It was a welcome  guest at first, especially when it came to lawn work, the spade sinking easily into dirt that is often frost-crusted this time of year. But then, seasons never come and go the way they’re supposed to. Like the calendar, they tend to be just a comforting conceit, an attempt to organize the unpredictable. This is perhaps especially true in the Berkshires. Winter can often seem as epic and interminable as a Tolstoy novel, a siege state of endurance, a long hard retreat through enemy territory. Then, spring brief as a chaste kiss. Continue reading

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The heat of autumn

It was such an unusually cool, damp August in the Berkshires, I think most of us gave up on summer before Labor Day. The trees were already starting to turn. It was too chilly to have dinner on the porch. Every once in a while, the furnace would kick in — a familiar yet ominous sound, like a phone call late at night. And then last weekend summer came Continue reading

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The Language of Bees

The honey bees were back in force this summer, especially in those early weeks when all the world was in fragrant flower. The last few years, their numbers had thinned— making us worry about colony collapse — but, like so many things in nature, their absence seems to have been just part of a larger cycle, at least in our neck of the woods. It’s such a joy to observe bees at their busyness — the meticulous combing of every pollen-dusted pistil, the hoovering across the seed-roughened face of a sun flower. Continue reading

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Fresh mint

It was foolish of me to plant mint in one of the raised beds in my vegetable garden years ago. Mint was born to be wild. It refuses to stay boxed in. Every summer it seems to discover a new escape route — digging underground to pop up in the middle of the marjoram patch or making a bold public grab for purple sage territory. And I have to pull it out by the roots — a thick leggy network that always puts up quite a fight. But the smell that fills the air — that burst of pure freshness — is almost worth the struggle in itself. And then there’s the happy dilemma of what to do with handfuls of fresh mint. Continue reading

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