Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Headin' for the Rhubarb...

... so they say.

While the deadline for removing bob houses from New Hampshire lakes and ponds is not until April 1, I would not recommend waiting until then. 

If you do, you are just "headin' for the rhubarb." 

Colloquially that phrase means you are about to "get into trouble," as explained in Rebecca Rule's New Hampshire dictionary of the same title. 

You can find her book in several libraries in the Mount Washington Valley. See this link here

However, phrases can have multiple meanings, or layers of meaning. In another, seasonal sense, the title of this blog can refer to the traditional role of heading towards the season of rhubarb, one of the early crops we harvest fresh up here. 

Historically in New England the rhubarb harvest is an almost sacred celebration as it represents the end of winter, the end of fear from famine and the promise of a new beginning. 

However in New England, the transition from winter to spring is not often quick nor consistent. 

While the astronomical beginning of Spring started more than a week ago, it will still be a bit before we can actually harvest the rhubarb. 

It will be almost two months before the cows go out, so historically farmers would check the hay left in the barn this time of the year. 

For most of us, this time of scarcity is more of an inconvenience than an actual struggle between life and death as it was for many in the past. 

Meteorologically winter has returned with a vengeance. We hear the weather on the nightly news punctuated with terms like wintry mix (sleet, snow and rain), arctic blasts, record cold and a frigid feel due to the wind chill. 

Charles Dickens wrote about this climatic variability when he said “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.”

Other writers have sung the promises of spring and the harvest to come. Our own Eaton Poet, Thomas Randall wrote in his poem entitled "Birth of Spring and Death of Winter" that ...

Phebus comes with brilliant rays, 
Cuts short the nights t' increase the days; 
He now forsakes the southern pole, 
Around the northern start to roll

Phebus in Greek mythology is also known as Apollo or the sun. 
To learn more about the science behind the seasons see our previous blog here
In the last stanza he writes...

Here now I'll drop these scatter'd lines, 
And hope and wish for better times, 
When nature all shall join and bring 
Some livelier airs that all may sing

FMI see this link here

This optimism of spring is tempered by another, bit more well-known poet, Robert Frost. In "A Prayer in Spring" he opines...

Oh, give us pleasure in the flowers to-day;
And give us not to think so far away

While he refers to the pleasure of spring and the promise of the harvest, he continues... 

As the uncertain harvest; keep us here
All simply in the springing of the year

His underlying theme is to both enjoy the moment, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. 

I had a lot to learn about New Hampshire when we moved here more than a quarter century ago. For one thing, I learned that I will always be a flatlander.  

In her dictionary, Rebecca Rule says in New Hampshire a flatlander is anyone born south of the state line. For those born in the White Mountains a flatlander is anyone born south of the notches. And for those hardy few who man the observatory on top of Mount Washington, a flatlander is everyone but them. 

I literally had to learn to read the signs of Spring. Instead of flowers in March, we get bright orange signs that read "Frost Heaves." 

You can read our previous blog on wicked nasty frost heaves and politics here

I discovered that perhaps the best solution is to laugh it off. See our previous blog here about the droll Yankee approach which coincidentally connects mud, hats, maps, bird feeders and local history.  

In her dictionary, Rebecca Rule tells a short story about frost heaves and politics, but I will leave it up to you to check out her book to read it. 

There is another humorist, Ken Sheldon who performs under the name Fred Marple from the fictional town of Frost Heaves. FMI see this link here and his facebook page here

During mud season the towns also post signs reading "Load Limits." I had to look that up too. 

Another "must read" Rebecca Rule book is Moved and Seconded. Town Meeting in New Hampshire, the Present, the Past, and the Future

You can find info about the book here. You can visit the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room to view our collection of town reports, ledgers and papers for the history of Conway. The Conway Public Library also offers a free public program on all things spring and seasonal for local schools and community groups. 

Not that long ago Conway went to an SB2 form of Town Meeting with the town elections and final voting on the town warrant articles coming up April 12. 
Now that's what I call headin' for the rhubarb!

Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Shrove Tuesday

This is the second in a series of blogs about winter. It follows an exploration of Candlemas here.  A future blog will explore more about how our ancestors survived the winter. 

This blog focuses on food. In a time before refrigeration and other modern technology winter was a time of hardship or even death. 

Living history, like the hearthside cooking event seen in the photo above, can help us understand more deeply the challenges our forebears experienced. In the past, most people were farmers and I consider understanding their basic experiences a significant part of researching family history and genealogy (something we do a lot of at the Conway Public Library's Henney History Room). Those photos and paintings and heirlooms of your ancestors become more meaningful when you understand the way they lived and we  offer many free outreach programs to local schools and community groups to accomplish that goal.

Today is Shrove Tuesday. as well as Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, pancake day and paczki day. All these have to do with the idea of celebrating the survival of winter.  Through living history programs we have taught basic historical skills such as ice harvesting, maple sugaring, food preservation, woodworking, etc. ... all of the skills common folk would have used to survive a cold, dark, New England winter.

Shrove Tuesday was also known as the deadline for weddings before Lent. Living history is also good way to understand how women were trained since childhood for the goal of being a "Good Wife." FMI see the book which you can get through the library here

Farm and time

The photo below helps set the tone for a farmer's winter. 

This plow, currently on display at Banners restaurant, is anxiously awaiting the Spring which starts on March 20. You can see the plow share in the snow behind the sulky seat. You can also see the hand and foot pedals/gears which control the action of the plow itself. FMI see our previous blog here

Another way of viewing the farmer's year is this chart from Thomas Hubka's book Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn

As fresh foods were not easily available during New England winters, many meals relied on preserved foods. For our previous blogs on preserving foods in the autumn for winter see here and here and here

Some of our outreach programs use a series of artifacts to explore technological change over time. For pancakes this might include the differences between a basic cast iron frying pan...

... to a specialized pan... a automatic commercial unit. 

Now back to the little girl in the first photo above. As I said before, we did teach her the skills to survive a cold, dark, snowy New England winter with only nineteenth-century technology.  

However, she decided that the easiest way to survive a New England winter was to move to Florida where the hibiscus bloom in February... 

... and weddings are held under the palms in a subtropical garden. For more on our daughter's bridal path see our previous blog here

While spring starts all over the northern hemisphere on March 20, it will be a while before we can pick fresh strawberries up by Cathedral Ledge. 

In Florida the strawberry harvest festival starts in a couple days. 
FMI see here

March is also the beginning of the "march of the strawberries."

In his book The White Hills; Their Legends, Landscape and Poetry, Thomas Starr King starts his chapter on the Saco Valley with a strawberry story.

“We once heard of a traveller who went down to New Orleans, every spring and came North just fast enough to keep pace with the strawberries. He managed to rise on the degrees of latitude at even speed with the bounteous vines and ascending village by village and city after city plucked and ate and thus extended the spring time for his palate all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to Montreal.” 

Now that is a trip I would like to try myself! You can read the passage in his 1864 online edition, p. 137 here.