Thursday, September 22, 2016

Season Turns

Sweet Gum 
 It's official summer has turned to fall though we've a way to go before we feel the crispness. The fall equinox reaches it's peak when one of the two opposite points at which the sun crosses the celestial equator are equal, meaning that days and nights are the same length of time. Past this point in the northern hemisphere days become shorter and nights longer as we move toward winter.
   The day on which this annual event occurs is September 21st. The boldest phenomena we associate with this time of year is the changing colors of deciduous tree leaves.
   Many environmental factors affect the leaves of trees such as climate zones, atmospheric conditions (cloudy skies), lack of sufficient rainfall, presence of toxic substances in the air, and soil fertility. But the overwhelming factor is darkness or its absence thereof. The steady, by about three minutes a day, increase of darkness giving longer nights and the dropping of night time temperatures institutes the change.
   The sap (much like the human blood stream) that carries the green chlorophyll becomes heavier and begins a slow retreat down into the roots for winter safety and no longer reaches the leaves. If you can spot a single leaf and study it over a period of several weeks you will notice that the outside edge of said leaf turns first. Then as each day passes it gradually acquires increasing color from the outside in to the stem. The higher the leaf is on the tree or the furthest it is from the trunk the sooner its color will change. Unless the wind and squirrels extend a helping hand the very topmost leaves on the limbs of a tree will be the first to fall.
   This makes photographing a tree in all its fall glory difficult because except for maybe one day of perfection there will be bare branches sticking out around the body to the tree.

   The first native trees to lose their leaves in our area (along the 38th parallel) are the black locust and black walnut. It is not unusual to see their leaves gone by the middle of August almost as if they evaporated. The dogwood begins its show of burgundy in the early/middle of September. Elms are the no shows as their leaves seem to shrivel to a drab brown and fall.
   Maples play the vibrant strings of fall color, each species sounds its own footnote. Sugar maples an orange-red, black maples - brilliant yellow, and the red maple produces a blazing scarlet. Yellow poplars play true to their name and sport a burnish yellow.
   Next in line are the hickories with golden bronze and sourwood with its deep crimson. Beech trees produce a golden yellow for a few days, then turn dusty tan with many of its leaves remaining through the winter until they are pushed off by fresh buds in the spring.
   The mighty oaks open the last stage with color of brilliant red or golden bronze depending on their family. There is a story told that during our early days the oaks took allegiance with either the settlers or the Indians. Those who sided with the settlers have round edges to their leaves like the bullets and the oaks that supported the Indians have sharp points on their leaves like arrowheads. Hence we have white oaks and red oaks.
   Two transplants close out the final chords. The Bradford Pear's leaves turn a sturdy burgundy and have a texture like leather which cling to the limbs well into winter.
   The final crescendo is the ginkgo, for a brief time it is a blazing
shimmering yellow even on cloudy days. Then almost overnight it sheds its leaves in a final drum roll of glorious color to coat the grass at its base for one last interlude.
   The symphony of fall color has ended for the season, not in a puttering muting, but in a thundering climax.

Nash Black, author of Games of Death a collection of ghost stories. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Covered Bridges

Unknown Ky Covered Bridge - 1930s
   I suspect the book and film Bridges of Madison County had a great deal to do with the renewed interest in preserving and restoring this famous icon of American travel. We recently saw one waiting to be restored and added to an excellent collection of early log structures in a field outside of Bardstown, KY.
  Covered bridges were not the first bridges to be built, settlers had been on our shores nearly 200 years when the first ones appeared, though Charles Wilson Peale (known for his paintings of George Washington) commented in an essay about wooden bridges in 1797, "it has been advised that a covering be added for protection of the structure."
   Credit is given to Timothy Palmer for the first documented covered bridge in Pennsylvania because he signed his name and dated the structure as 1805. Others copied his idea and most wooden bridges after that time were covered.
   The barn like structure over a bridge served a practical purpose. It protected the wood and allowed it to season, very important as green fresh cut planks and poles were often used in the construction. Visit a lumber yard today and you'll see twisted and bucked planks, even in treated lumber, that did not season properly. The protection also strengthen the structure and made it more durable so it would last longer.
   An old story goes that two drunks drove onto a covered bridge and thought they were in their own barn. They climbed down, unhitched the horses, gave them a smack on the rear expecting them to go into their stalls. The horses took off to find their way home and the men were left to pull their wagon for the rest of the journey.

   The first outdoor advertising appeared on the sides of covered bridges, a famous one is the Coca-Cola bridge at Portland, PA.
   We refer to some of our interstate highways as turnpikes or toll roads. Toll booths are found along many major highway systems. The travelers pay a fee for using the road. All over the country some back roads are called pikes. Meaning that sometime during the history of the road a pole (pike) was placed across it and the owner collected a toll (fee) from travelers using their road.
   In the very early days livestock went to market on the hoof, even turkeys were herded on foot. The farmer paid a token per animal and often they were sent a bill when the gatekeeper was too busy to calculate the fare on the spot.
  Many covered bridges were built at the entrance to toll roads as a comfortable place to stop while payment was rendered. Builders designed their wares (bridges) so they could be sold and moved, much like the Amish built small buildings we see today. This was another excellent reason to have them spruced up and looking good. Prior to sale building is not a new technique by any means - savvy 'Yankee' craftsmen have been using it for centuries.
  Sadly many covered bridges when they were by-passed by concrete structures were left to rot. Some remained in use until recently. The bridge at Switzer, KY over Elkhorn Creek in Franklin County was in daily use until a flash flood swept it from its pilings and nearly destroyed it. It was moved from its original location, restored, and closed to traffic.
   We found a beautiful bridge in Ohio near Yellow Springs. Someone had hand-carved wild roses up many of the inside trusses. We took pictures, but the film jumped the sprocket in my camera so I didn't get any slides. We planned to go back to the location to take new photographs, but vandals burned the bridge and the roses were lost forever. Later we used those roses in a ghost story.
   We are indebted to the late Vernon White who wrote the first book on covered bridges of Kentucky and Eric Sloane for his fascinating sketch books of early Americana.
   The photography is from the collection of Whipple Townsend Black. Mr. White could not identify the bridge, but the photo was taken in KY sometime during the late 1920s & 30s as he did most of his work before film became unavailable due to WWII.  


Friday, September 2, 2016

Working Shift

   The first Monday of September has been designated Labor Day. The last big holiday weekend of summer to pay homage to people who work at various jobs. It's a time of pure fun and relaxation.
   I looked around my house to find what was the hardest working item I owned. To my surprise after considering a typewriter (computer) I walked in the kitchen and discovered an ancient chicken feed sack, that at one time I'd used to crush and squeeze the pulp of blackberries, hanging from the tea towel rack. This lowly item won hands down in any race for multiple household jobber.
   As mentioned above once the sack was emptied it was washed in strong bleach and used as a strainer for milk or juices of tomatoes, berries, apples, etc.
   A large one made a scary ghost costume for Halloween that was easy to wear as it just popped over your head.
   The coarse ones served as ticking for making pillows from goose down. While very fine flour ones were used for pillowcases, many were embroidered with tiny stitches in patterns of flowers and butterflies and became treasured items in a hope chest. Two made excellent kitchen curtains that were decorated with scraps of printed cloth.
   Aprons were made from the sacks to protect clothes from kitchen and garden stains. It was tied around the waist in a bag fashion, then filled with seeds that were sown across pastures in early spring before a rain. This same apron was used to wave people in from the fields for a meal.
   Our friend has a long and useful life - worn soft by countless washing, which when weather permitted were boiled in a huge iron kettle and beaten with a paddle or scrubbed up and down on a washboard before washing machines and electricity.
   A clean one covered dough while it rose. Sponge sheet cake was carefully upended from the pan to a sturdy special sack, then it was used to help keep the fragile cake from breaking to make a jelly roll.

   Kitchen uses were endless from passing hot pans to dish towels embroidered for show and plain for everyday use. Many a pot, pan, and dish was dried straight from the rinsing pan.
   The feed sack served as a carrier and temperature regulator for both hot and cold dishes for a friend in need when trouble struck or to a church-supper.
   Their work never ended. They made an excellent sling for a sprained wrist or broken arm. Strips were used as tourniquets for major cuts before one could get to a doctor. Smaller strips bound up a cut thumb or finger before Band-Aids.
   Reduced to rags from heavy use they cleaned and polished the stove and table. Scoured and scrubbed from cellar to gable and dusted furniture through out the house.

   The best remembered use for a scrap of a flour sack was as a parachute for a cat named Jack, though he may have had other ideas as he hid for days after his four-point landing.