Sunday, October 08, 2006

thousand-pound pumpkins

Every fall around here we have something called a harvest festival. It's probably technically invented to celebrate the close of the agricultural season, something to do with reaping the fruits of a summer's labor -- sort of a field day for farmers, maybe. People, for instance, bring out baked pies and canned preserves and exhibit them.

There's also a pumpkin judging contest, with an award for the biggest (this year, one around a thousand pounds). Horse and buggy rides. Muzzleloading competitions. Archery contests. Lots of antique machinery running, tractor displays, women stirring great pots of stewing apples or somesuch.

The thousand-pound pumpkin was, as one might imagine, tremendous. It lay there prone on the grass, pitiable in its enormous, helpless girth. Put a TV in front of it and you could almost see it on welfare.

"How do you think they got it here?" I asked the children. I like for them to think about what it is they're looking at.
"They rolled it," the first grader said triumphantly.
"All the way here?"
"Maybe," he said.

We stood there looking a while longer.

Then we rode the horse and buggy. Well. A buggy pulled by two Clydesdales. All through the ride I kept pointing out how it must have been for the pioneers, setting out for the West on horse-and-buggy getups like these. How slow their progress must have been, what patience the parents must have had to endure as their children whined:

Are we there yet?
No, son.
How much longer?
Two years. Shut up and enjoy the scenery.

My sons just rolled their eyes at me.

"How much weight do you think these horses can pull," I wondered aloud.
"I don't know," my kids said.
"I wonder if they could pull five sumo wrestlers."
"Mom," the teenager said. "Would you drop it already."

I dropped it.

After the painfully slow going around the field, I bought a pint of apple butter at a tiny stand, even though I make my own (I just haven't had time to, yet) -- because I'm going to make homemade rolls tomorrow and apple butter is delicious on homemade rolls.

I also bought two small tins of Watkins' salves, Petro-Carbo and Mentho-Camphor. With those in your medicine cabinet you can't go far wrong, and for bee stings there's nothing better than Mentho-Camphor.

A lady knitting behind a craft stand had several starter pots of cacti on a baker's rack ($1.50 apiece). I took one of each for $6, because one type in particular that she had, I happen to know, is excellent for burns; break off the tip of one stalk and the juice heals the burn almost magically. I know that it's aloe vera and I could buy aloe vera in a bottle; but somehow, undiluted and unprocessed, it's much more potent.

And anyway, I haven't had a cactus like that in years and it's time I had another one.

The knitting lady put my plants in a cardboard box. Then she offered to put my pint of apple butter in the box with the plants, just to make it easier to carry, and I thanked her for that, yes, that would be great.

Pretty soon some older women saw me toting around this cardboard box of cacti and wandered over to stick their hands in it. This put me off a little bit, I have to admit. But they wanted to see what kind of cacti I had, where I got them, and demand if there's any more where that came from. I pointed them in the right direction, but not before they told me sternly how useful that kind of cacti is on burns.

I know, I said. That's why I bought it for myself.

You'd think that would have been enough, but they kept coming back, these women. They fell upon me later on by the primitive crafts table and started touching the box again: "It's here! Here it is!" And again with the questions: "Where did you say these were?" I pointed, again. Then I led them to it and stood them in front of it: Here. It's right here. Help yourself!

And stop touching my plants! Because they're mine! Mine! Mine!

The kids and I sat on a stone bench while my husband ambled over to the muzzleloading competition; I pointed out the wild onion growing along the grasses. You could smell the onion in the air, mingled with the scent of hot golden sunlight dripping down on the turning leaves like so much honey. I showed them how to tell the onion from the grass (rubbery stalks, the slightly acrid aroma that wafts up when you break off the ends).

The teenager walked over to a nearby stands and bought three birdhouse gourds for a dollar each -- one for him, one apiece for his brothers. Then they asked me: what do we do with these? I said you can dry them out and use them as maracas; or you can carve them up and save the seeds to grow new ones; whatever.

I love this place.

When we drove home I rolled the windows down, as if to get our fill, as much as we could breathe, of this fragrant autumn air, this glorious blast of Indian summer's last, and it probably is.