Litchfield County Sketches

By Newell Meeker Calhoun

Litchfield County University Club

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The Procession of the Seasons

THE procession of the seasons, as seen through youthful eyes, along country lanes and up shaded slopes, was the most interesting thing in all the world. The winding roads and the grassy fields, wooded uplands and corn-waving intervales are all there as of old, but the seasons come and go unnoticed by the thousand toilers along city streets and in the marts of trade. The boy, long since a man, watches for the coming of the Spring in Parks and tiny gardens, and sees only in memory the glorious procession of childhood. Spring with her lap full of flowers led the glad troop of the months, heralded by soft winds and sweet odors. With April first the sap began to stir in the trees, and the blood of the farmer and his boys flowed in sweet rhythm with it. Books were put aside for evening use, and all started for the sap bush, to make maple sugar and syrup. The sap ran in those days as if the tree itself would dissolve, and the buckets were emptied into the great kettle, the fire was kindled, and the boiling away process begun. So all day the blue smoke and the savory steam arose as sweet incense on Springtime’s altar. As the twilight fell, and the moon hung low in the west, like a white ghost of the full moon of last month, the sugaring off began. The maple wax from the kettle was poured on the snow, found under the hemlocks up the glen, for the delectation of the children, and afterward each was given a saucer of the sweet liquid from the kettle to stir until it was cooled, when lo! the most delicious of confections, fresh from the earth and the trees. Huyler cannot match the old-time maple wax and maple sugar, home-made and forest-made, eaten as the firelight under the kettle flared and flickered, lighting up the dark recesses of the woods. Such mornings as those were in the sugar camp, when the first bluebirds were calling, and the robins began timidly to show themselves, and all the old wood sounds were heard again. Stumbling along with a bucket of sap, the sharp eyes of the boy discovered the arbutus half - hidden by its green-brown leaves, smiling at him after its long WTinter’s nap. After a few days of sunshine the hepaticas and wood violets keep company with the arbutus, and together proclaim the coming of the Spring to an invalid sister, shut indoors at the farm house. The squirrels and the woodpeckers and all the dear old forest friends are watched for and welcomed. What an education for the eye and ear was this out of doors life to growing childhood! But this was only an interlude between the acts, for the scene soon changed, indeed was changing every hour. The sun mounted higher each day, and its warmth made the grass green on the southern slopes, tempting one to lie down upon it. The sap had something to do now besides flowing into buckets set to catch it, for it must be about its business. There were thousands of leaves to make, and branches to be strengthened, and little twigs to be made longer, and tassels to hang out, and odors to distil, and seeds to provide with wings. So the buckets were put away, and the plough was burnished in the soil, and the brown sod turned over. As part payment for this kindness it offered its incense as a sweet smelling savor, welcomed always by the man who loves the soil. How beautifully the poet Holmes sings of The Ploughman:

“Clear the brown path to meet his coulter’s gleam.
Lo! on he comes behind his smoking team,
With toil’s bright dewdrops on his sunburnt brow,
The lord of earth, the hero of the plough.
These are the hands whose sturdy labor brings
The peasant’s food, the golden pomp of kings;
This is the page whose letters shall be seen
Changed by the sun to words of living green;
This is the scholar whose immortal pen
Spells the first lesson hunger taught to men;
These are the lines that heaven-commanded toil
Shows on his deed—the charter of the soil.”

That “smoking team” was oftentimes a pair of halfbroken steers, led by the family horse, on which the boy rode. This was not an easy job by any means, and not always to his comfort, for a stone at the point of the plough would bring the team up standing, throwing the boy forward on the neck of his steed, or pitching him off into the dirt in a very humbling way. Still he rode a king, and led the van, determining where the rest should follow. Given his choice, however, he would have held the plough, foil he had a way of thinking that the boy was always given the hardest work. He would have preferred to build the wall rather than to pick up stones, cut the grass rather than ted it, and pitch it upon the cart rather than to rake after.

The Spring hurried on even faster than this “smoking team,” for it had a way of always being a little in advance of the farmer. The seed must be planted, for a bobolink was seen this morning, and the little leaves on the walnut trees are as large as mouses’ ears, both of which were sure indications to the tiller of the soil. The corn was dropped and covered, and in a very few days the boy could fo]low the rows and drop the small handful of ashes and plaster on the shoots which ambitiously were pricking the soil. After that came the hoeing of corn and potatoes, with a few spare hours at noontime down by the brook, where the speckled trout lay beneath the bank. There was only an alder pole and a coarse line and hook, but the trout were captured all the same. Then those rainy days, too wet to do any farm work, but glorious ones for following the old brook. The grass was wet, the bushes were wet and the boy was very, very wet, but never such sport as that old brook afforded on days when it rained too hard to work out of doors.

Now the days had grown longer and the Fourth of July came round. Very likely the only celebration was that haying was begun on that day. There might be a visit to some celebration or picnic, but if so it was a redletter Fourth. The hay had to be cut by hand in those days, although there were rumors that a machine had been made that would cut both hay and grain. The Litchfield County farmers, talking over the fence, discussed the possibility of ever using machines on such stony soil. The verdict usually was that before it could be done the stones would all have to be dug from the meadows, which promised a great task for many farmers. The dewy rnorning.s now have a music all their own, the cheery sound Of the mower sharpening his scythe, and its soft swish through the grass. The larks begin to be alarmed, for the farmer is not depending on his neighbors, but is early in the field with his boys. As the sun mounts the heavens they rest under the old apple tree, and eat their lunch of hot gingerbread, with sweet milk from the cellar for a drink—food and drink equal to the nectar and ambrosia of the gods. As they rest they look complacently at the long swaths adown the field, and enjoy to the full the smell of the new-mown hay. But the locust saws out his sharp-set music from a neighboring tree, warning them that it will be hot by and bye, and so they spring to their work again. Then comes the rest at noontime, then the raking into windrows, and the carting to the capacious barn, and the stowing away in the great mows, while the grasshoppers and crickets sing their cheery songs of encouragement and approval. Then the shadows fall upon the field of the day’s labors, with its long crinkled ways, and then

“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

The procession moves on, and the awkward cradle lays the ripe grain prone upon the ground, and the cool nights and mornings, together with the music of the katydid in the maples, warn the farmer that the corn must be shocked, the potatoes dug and the corn husked, that everything may be made snug for winter. About this time look out for Thanksgiving. It was never celebrated and never can be in its real old-time glory outside of New England, where it originated. The farmhouse and the country are peculiarly adapted to help in its celebiation. It furnishes such turkeys and chickens, such nuts and apples, and above all such a crisp, bright Thanksgiving air. There are no ovens like those old brick ones, heated with the black alder wood, which was fed into the capacious mouth unstintedly. When your mind turns fondly to pies, where in the world can von find such “pie timber” as on a Litchfield County farm? There they were on the long shelves in the pantry, where the pans of milk had stood in the summer, an inviting and imposing array, actually looking too good to eat on ordinary occasions. They were of every variety and description; savory mince, highly colored huckleberry, marvellous tarts with legendary inscriptions wrought in their crusts, apple pies without crust and with crusts turned over, and last, but not least, golden pumpkin pies. But what were pies and other good things without an appetite, and where in all the world could an appetite be gotten for the Thanksgiving dinner better than on the farm? The air was crisp and frosty, the sermon long and dull, unless the parson had some special reason for giving it to the Hittites and the Perizzites; the ride was invigorating from church, or, better yet, the walk, all combining to make the dinner a never to be forgotten one. Then came the long evening, all gathered around the fire, with stories and blind-man’s-buff, and more pie and walnuts, and the making of molasses candy and popping corn! Oh, those happy faces dear to memory! But the long table grew shorter with each recurring Thanksgiving Day; the circle narrowed around the old hearthstone; crowns of silver graced the heads of father and mother, and chairs were empty that once were filled with beloved forms. Then there came round the day for the home-going, and there was no home. The ashes were cold upon the hearth; the old clock no longer ticked out its glad welcome from its corner; the blinds were closed, the old paths grass-grown, and the prayer, the song and the laughter resound in memory’s chambers only.

“How strange it seems, with so much gone
Of Life and Love, to still live on

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