Friday, April 3, 2009

A Snake's Worth

Grampa and Gramma were organic gardeners. They used nature to fertilize, control weeds and pests, and to "feed" the earth of their gardens. They also believed that wild animals had benefits on a farm as well.

Unlike many people, Grampa and Gramma held snakes in high regard. Two kind of snakes were very valuable around our place: the Garter snake, and the Black snake.
Garter snakes don't grow very large, and are about the color of the ground. Two or three were always in the garden somewhere. There were times when Gram would be on hands and knees weeding a row of carrots, and a garter snake would glide by, as if it regarded my gramma as a well known friend. She'd calmly use her trowel or hand fork to lift it's long, smooth body and place it gently into another aisle. She never "deviled" her garter snakes, and wouldn't abide anyone else doing so either. They were to be respected, never frightened out of the garden and, under no circumstances were they to be killed! Gramma believed the Garter snake would "eat his weight in bugs everyday!"
Another well-respected snake around our place was the black snake. I first encountered one while taking a walk down the old railroad bed in back of our house. As I glanced up, this massive snake was languidly coiled around a few low hanging sasafrass branches just above my head. Scream? Oh, yes, I did! And ran, hell-bent-for-leather, to the house. I was astonished and a bit flustered to discover my grandparents pleasure---yes, pleasure!---with our big, black visitor. "There'll be alot less mice around here, you can bet yer boots on that!" Grampa said.
But I never knew how much snakes were valued on our little farm until one day something happened that will remain in my memory forever.

At one time, the road that ran in front of our house was dirt. Not too much traffic ventured up Stull Road when I was little, and those who did had no time to stop and decide what kind of snake was in the road before running over it. One day, that's just what happened, and I guess my gramma was witness to just such a "smooshing incident." And I was witness to a very unusual sight. Stepping onto the front porch, I heard my gramma exclaim, "Oh! they just ran over it! Poor thing!" I watched Gramma run out to middle of the dirt road and I followed. There, sqirming at her feet were dozens of small snakes, no bigger than nightcrawler worms. The car had hit and killed a pregnant garter snake and the accident had strewn the baby snakes all over the road. Gathering her apron up in front of her, she reached down and filled her hands with the babies. She placed them into her apron, fingerful after fingerful. After she'd gathered every last one, she supported the sack of squirming, aproned snakes and traipsed across the property to the garden. There, she lowered to her knees and let the babies spill out. They slipped off in all directions, and my Gramma sat back with a small smile on her face.

"Well now...those little ones'll take care of the bugs in the garden this summer."

There was a snake, however, that we didn't tolerate anywhere near the house: the rattlesnake. As summer approached, the grass was dilligently kept shorter than ever, and each Monday, the clothes still got hung on the clothesline that stretched the length of the back yard. One particular washday, Gramma had her biggest wicker basket full of wet clothes. She left the back porch and walked across the yard with the basket preventing her from seeing what was at her bare feet. When she reached the clotheline, she heard it. The dreaded rattle of a Diamondback's tail right before it strikes. Gramma knew the snake was at her feet. Somewhere. She froze for a moment, gripped by fear of what she couldn't see. Suddenly a thought came to her, and she let go the basket. Sure enough, the snake was directly below. Needless to say, the weight of wet clothes wrung out with a wringer washer was far and away enough to pin any snake down as long as necessary, which was all the time Gramma needed to get Grampa. Off came the head with a sharp hatchet, and Gramma went on hanging clothes. Just another day in the woods.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Mountain Meals---Spring Breaks

We had two big gardens behind the house where I grew up, but the gardens weren't the only source of our meals. The mountain provided lots of things to eat, and Gramma knew how to find many of them.

One thing she gathered in the spring were "Breaks." Breaks were the the brand new, unfurled fronds of the Braken Fern.

They seem to pop up wherever they choose, in meadows and odd places throughout the woods. When they're only about six to ten inches tall, their thin stems make them almost imperceptible through the shade of the trees, but once you find one, you've probably found a whole colony! And once you find that colony, remember it's location as you can probably return each year to collect a batch or two. (see picture below)

They can easily be distinguished from other fern fronds by looking for the rusty-brown "fur" that coats the back of their frond "spines" when they are only a few inches tall. The main stem is usually covered by a thin layer of white fuzz that I would call more of a thin "wool." Unlike other ferns, Break stems are sturdy and bulky, sometimes a quarter inch in diameter at the base, but usually when the fronds are no more than a few inches tall. The stems narrow out as the fern gets taller.
(There are other ferns that are edible, but their stems have no fur and the fronds are full of brown papery flakes. These are called Ostrich Ferns. They're just a good to eat, but for some reason we never gathered those.)
When it came time to pick Breaks, Gramma would throw on an old, full-cover apron, gather the dogs, and head into the woods. As the dogs ripped through the sweet fern after imaginary animals, Gram would stroll under the oaks and maples, occasionally settling on the edge of an old stone row to watch them run. The task was to gather Breaks, but I think that was secondary to the walk.
When we found a good stand of short Breaks, Gram began gathering. To gather Breaks, you need to run your hand up the stem to the point where the frond snaps in half. If it bends, continue up the stem to the point where it breaks cleanly. Get it...breaks? Yup, I think that's where the name came from. Don't cut the frond with a knife. It's tempting to harvest the whole veggie, but if you try to cook that lower part, you'll find it woody and unpalatable.
Ants enjoy Breaks immensely! As she gathered a handful at a time, Gram would give the stems a bit of a shake to get the ants off, but many still clung. Into the apron they'd go, right along with the ferns. Once her apron was full, she'd gather the hem around the tender stems and we'd head for the house. There, she dropped the Breaks into a very large pot of water in the backyard with a "good dose of table salt." The ants hated the salt, and within an hour or so they were all gone.
When the ants were gone, the Breaks went into the house and were washed again in the sink. Then they all went into the pot again with a bit of fresh salt, and were boiled for dinner. Gram simply sered them with a little butter and salt and pepper, as one would do asparagus.
The above is my personal experience, however, I did a little research and discovered that many cooks use these raw in salads, and people have been known to pick and eat them along trail sides. Personally, I suppose there's something to be said for eating plants as close to their natural state as possible, but considering how much ants love these little treasures, I wouldn't want to eat them raw.
Don't give up on breaks just because you live in the city. Even though I've never searched them out, I hear you can find these in Asian markets. If that fails, take a drive to the country to locate them. I've even seen these along the roadside. If you find them, don't pass them up. You might never return to asparagus again.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Time for Every Purpose...Wash Day

There's something to be said for the routines of life...something settling and comforting about pacing each day. Just the knowing of daily events somehow puts life into perspective---gives one purpose and direction.

Gramma knew that. Whether she'd been taught that a routine was the proper way to do things(which is probable), or whether it was just another common sense trait, she knew it was vital to the upbringing of two young girls. She had a schedule. For everything...for every day.

Monday was always wash day. Nothing ever changed that fact. If it rained or snowed, clothes could be hung in the garage.
The bathroom in our big, double-block farmhouse was long and paralleled one entire wall of the kitchen. Bathtub, sink and toilet were at one end, and a Maytag wringer washer and rinse tub dominated the other end.
On Monday mornings Gramma was up hours before us. She'd already have filled the rinse tub with warm water and Downey fabric Softener, and the washer tub with hot water and Tide. Sometimes the low drone of the washer motor brought us out of our sleep. Nevertheless, by the time we were to get up for school, she'd already be wringing out the second load of laundry. When we rolled out of bed about 7 A.M., we stripped our beds and threw our dirty clothes, sheets and pillowcases down the stairs. At the foot of the stairs, she gathered everything into an enormous, two-handled wicker basket and off it went through the house to be sorted. By the time we were boarding the bus, she was in the back yard hanging up the 3rd load of wash, and by 10 AM, 5 or 6 loads of laundry flapped merrily on three or four lines out back. These weren't short lines tied, umbrella-like, to a pole. These lines stretched the breadth of the back yard. She'd hang the wash then raise the lines with 6-8 foot tree limbs with a fork at the tip.

Wash day was an all day event. By the time the bus dropped my sister and I off at the end of our driveway, Gramma was sitting on the back porch folding the last of the sheets and towels. The same big wicker basket was filled with sorted and neatly folded sheets, socks and underwear and taken upstairs for storage. The house had a long landing at the top of the stairs from which all 3 bedroom doors branched. That hall was wide, and held an enormous black bureau that held all the linens for the house. Into that bureau went the freshly folded sheets. Just so.

It's impossible to take an empty jar outside, fill it with fresh air, seal it and store it for later. But my Gramma's sheets succeeded in doing what a jar could not. What a joy it was to climb between those fresh, clean, crisp sheets on Monday nights. They still held the fragrance of the sweet air and sun on cotton, a scent that Johnson & Johnson will never duplicate. I remember wishing that I had a bit more time to lie awake and enjoy the simple pleasure of those sheets before drifting off to sleep.

No matter how much fabric softener you add, line dried fabric is never as soft and lifeless as fabric dried in a dryer. And in the winter, that's a good thing. The fibers of sheets hung out in a brisk, cold winter breeze do not flatten down. The fibers stay fluffy, standing out away from their base. As a result, line-dried sheets tend to be more insulating and cozy. But the cold winter winds on laundry can also be source of entertainment...especially when Gramma added her rare sense of humor.

One cold Monday deep into hunting season, Gramma had hung several pairs of Grampa's long johns on the line to dry. Clothes washed in today's washers spin all but the smallest bit of moisture from the fabric, but fabric sent through a wringer leaves much more water residue in the clothing. And on a bitterly cold day, water freezes.

My sister and I were coloring at the kitchen table when we heard the back door shut and Gramma's no-nonsense voice, "Okay you girls. Here comes your Grampa. You better skeedadle!" We turned to look and there stood Gramma holding a one-piece, full thermal underwear suit up in front of her. The lack of wind that day had dried the clothes flat and straight as they hung off the line, and the breathtaking cold had frozen the moisture in the fabric. The full suit of underwear Gramma held was stiff as a board. She held it at the waist and moved behind it, animating it like a headless ghost.

She stepped into the kitchen still playing the part. Lifting one arm of the suit, she shook it at us girls, "You little whippersnappers better pick every last one of those crayons up, or you get no pie tonight" she growled.

Peering from behind the suit, she smiled. "I guess we better get your Grampa in by the stove and thaw him out, huh?"

If her humorous moments had not been rare, I don't think I would have remembered them as vividly as I do. It always seemed as if Gramma knew when to call forth a bit of humor. On the darker days, the colder days, the days when she sensed that Winter was bearing down heavy on her family, she'd lift us with a chuckle. Even after a full day of dealing with a wringer washer and hanging several loads of laundry in the biting cold, she still found a way to make her family smile when it was sorely needed. Thanks, Gram.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bits and Pieces---the Winter Quilts

I always looked forward to Winter as I grew up. Aside from the magic of shimmering snow, twinkling trees and gifty secrets, there were Gramma's quilts. As the first fragrant, speckled leaves of Fall spun merrily to the ground, Gramma began one of my favorite yearly rituals. A little second floor attic lay off my grampa's bedroom, and there Gramma and I would go to "wake the quilts," from where they slept most of the year.
The dark brown door to the attic stood out starkly against the pale blue of Grampa's bedroom walls. It had an antique beveled glass knob, and when I was a child I remember pretending it was an enormous diamond. Gramma sat me in the middle of Grampa's king size bed with some toys, and she'd enter the dark cavern of the attic. A few minutes later, she'd return to the bedroom laden with two or three neatly folded quilts. Unfolding each one in turn, she'd flip the quilts high in the air over my head and let them settle over me so I could wiggle my way out.
Within minutes, the big bed was covered with mounds and mounds of bright shards of fabric, neatly forming their own intricate designs. These were the things that would preserve us through the winter. When the weather got too cold, a curtain was pulled at the bottom of the stairway to the bedrooms. No heat went upstairs. It was then that these magnificent covers took over, replacing the warmth of the furnace as efficiently as the furnace itself. One of Gramma's works of art became a permanent fixture on each bed until Spring.
But the quilts did more than keep us warm in the dreadful cold of Pennsylvania winters. When we were ill, the quilts became a comfort and a distraction. All Gram's quilts were made of cast off clothing. Each little, carefully cut and seamed piece was a tiny memory. When the quilt floated out over our sick little bodies, Gramma would sit on our beds, point to a certain pattern in the design and help us remember the garment it came from. We'd remember, then, the days that went with that garment. The summer that little green pop-top became my favorite thing to wear. My sister's yellow dress and the day the dog torn it off the clothesline and danced areound the yard with it in his mouth. My Grampa's favorite plaid hunting shirt, and the day he wrapped me in it as we ran in out of a thunderstorm. A faded red dress of my mothers. One of Gram's many,many worn out aprons. The stories went on and on for hours while we laughed and forgot how ill we were.
Each quilt was pieced by machine, but quilted by hand, something that many quilters have no time for these days. Summer days were spent in front of a breezy window sewing the carefully traced and snipped units together, then the units into blocks, then the blocks into complete tops.
When the chill of Fall arrived, it was time to quilt. The quilting process took place in the largest bedroom of our house, which was mine and my sister's. It was an enormous bedroom, which was needed to accomodate the quilting frame. Gramma pushed my sister's bed and my bed far apart and set up the quilt frame. It was simply a couple finished wood pieces clamped to some wooden sawhorses, but to my sister and I it was much, much more.

At first, the quilt was only a few feet wide, wrapped securely around the wood lengths. But as Gramma quilted, the wood peices were adjusted further and further apart. Soon there was a wide expanse between the lengths and it formed a huge (to a little girl) cloth table. My sister and I, with our Barbies and their clothes and their dollhouses, would scurry under that enormous "roof" and set up house with all our playthings. A big braided rug covered the expanse of floor between our beds, and while Gramma sat quietly quilting and humming, my sister and I acted out chapter after chapter of our Barbie's lives. Ocassionally, when the sun shone into the bedroom, it fell on the quilt and the multicolored patches shone through the muslin lining as muted shades of candy colors.

By the time Winter hit us with the full force of it's fury, we were snuggling under even one more new quilt made with old memories. Gramma's quilts were finer than the most priceless tapestries in any great castle. After all, those quilts were made of pieces of us.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Bears, Pigs, and Roses...oh my!

There aren't a lot of bears in Pennsylvania, and if you want to see one you generally have to hunt for it. But there's always that one-in-a-million time.....

Fall was a wonderful time of year in the little pocket of land between the mountains where I was raised. It was cool, there weren't many bugs, and each day brought a new drift of pungent leaves piling up around the trees. Snakes had gone into hibernation, or were about to, and the air simply cooled your nose and didn't freeze it solid yet.

Our two big gardens held only the stubble of cornstalks, a few discarded brown leaves and perhaps a dropped clay pot. All the gardens were generally beds of dark brown, damp soil, with Gramma's rose garden being the exception. That plot of earth held only the bare limbs of pruned roses, waiting for the spring to bring them back to life. Oh, and a set of deep, unquestioningly identifiable footprints.

Late in the evening, after we were sent upstairs, my sister and I loved to climb out of bed, sneak to the heater grate in the floor, and listen to my grandparents as they sat in the kitchen in quiet, evening conversation. One night, I remember the talk was sparse and to my young ears the words sounded grave. I heard the words "keep watch," and "keep the girls close," and "plain as day," and "crushed one of the rose plants," but couldn't make out anything more.

The next day, we had relatives over. Deer season was about to begin, and Grampa and several uncles had gathered in the kitchen to clean guns and catch up on what each other had been doing for the past year.

At dusk, I decided to go for a walk with my little cocker spaniel, Buffy. An old railroad bed ran behind the house, and along the base of the mountain. The ties had long since been removed and the bed was now a wide flat path that stretched the length of the property and up through the woods. Beyond the railroad bed were our pigs. They occupied a large pen Grampa had fashioned by running the fencing up the side of the mountain and back down. Level with the railroad bed, was the water trough, the feed trough, and the barrel containing the pig feed mash.

Buffy and I crossed the small creek that drained from our pond, passed the chicken coop where the hens had begun their evening acent up the stairs to the warm henhouse, and then started up the small rise to the railroad bed. Suddenly, Buffy stopped and stood as still as stone. As I watched, she began a shudder that encompassed her entire furry frame. With a sound that I'd never heard from her, she backed up and ran, whining and yelping, down the rise and directly for the house.

I peered into the darkness of the woods. Overhanging Witch Hazel branches and beech obscured the view for a few moments. Finally, as my eyes adjusted, I saw a huge dark mass plugging the open end of the overturned feed barrel. In all my young years, I had never seen a bear in real ife, and at first I didn't know what I was looking at.

Ever so slowly, however, it backed out of the barrel. Fascination held me to the spot until the bear was fully out of the barrel. Then it stood up. My brain finally put my legs into gear and I'm sure my feet didn't touch the ground as I ran across the creek, through the back yard, and into the house.

The slamming door caught everyone's attention and I guess the look on my face and my little dog's frantic arrival just before me brought understanding before I could even speak. For a moment there was silence, then suddenly there was a mad rush for the back door. Cleaning rags flew into the air and shotguns were being snapped tight over shells. Gramma sat me in the kitchen rocker, began peeling off my coat and examining me for damage. That done, a cookie cured my fear.

5 men were across the creek within an instant, creeping up the rise to the railroad bed...guns aimed into the murkiness of the woods. Suddenly, as my grampa told it later, they all watched as the bear again backed out of the feed barrel where he'd returned after he scared me off. They all watched as the bear lifted himself to his full, adult height. 5 men raised 5 shotguns. Grampa peered down his site and lifted a hand to stay the others. Saying not a word, he pointed to the bear. There in the deepening twilight of the woods, something shone about the neck of the bear. It lowered itself to the ground and began a slow plod toward the men. Grampa spoke quietly, telling the others to hold off. The bear ambled to the railroad bed, 10-15 feet from the men, gazed languidly at them a moment, then began a slow walk up the bed and into the woods. As it walked, a long chain hanging from the neck swayed to and fro. A tame bear.

Grampa and my uncles looked at each other in wonder. With a few grins and chuckles, the men walked back to the house. Suddenly, there was much more than gossip to discuss.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bowman's Creek

Across the narrow, barely paved road from the house where I grew up, a bank ran down to Bowman's Creek. The sounds of the creek were a childhood constant. As I played in the yard or worked in the garden, the water giggling over the rocks beaconed me to abandon my responsibilities and come play over there. At night, the creek never failed to sing me off to sleep. In my sadness, the creek seemed to speak to me in sympathetic tones and when I felt happy, it shared my joy with it's laughter.
So many great memories flowed in that water.
When my sister and I were growing up, each season had it's simple joys. Fall was crisp mornings, bright leaves, fresh brown mushrooms, and Thanksgiving. Winter was snowmen and Christmas. But spring was almost magical in that little pocket of the mountains where I grew up. It was the best time of the year, because it meant Summer was almost here and no school!
Spring led slowly into Summer. That was good, because it gave us time to savor the enchantment of everything. Each day there was something new growing. I remember scurrying to put my socks and shoes on so I could run across the road and slide on my fanny down the bank to the creek. Once there, I'd stare down into it's recesses. As my eyes became accustomed to the darkness, I studied the bottom through the shallow clear flow, picking out the shapes of small, new trout lying near the bottom. Their bodies barely moved, the fins swaying ever so gently back and forth to keep them upright.
There was lots to do down there, within reach of my fingers. Violets, their stems still short and close to the warm earth, grew abundantly through the grass clear down to the water's edge. I only needed to walk a few hundred yards into the woods to find a handful of tiny yellow violets to add to the purple ones.
But I knew what I'd take home. A rock. Every time I took a walk, I brought back a rock for Gramma's rock garden. She'd chosen a special spot on the relatively warm side of the house, near the chimney. There, she'd planted a number of wild flowers brought down through the woods that surrounded our home. It was there that each treasured rock I brought home was placed. Dozens were scattered in that garden. Each time I brought home another one, she moved the others closer together and made room for the new one. Each rock was a trip to the creek, a gift for Gramma. And each time I handed her one, she never failed to exclaim how different from the others it was and what a beautiful addition it would make to the garden.
As it got warmer, my sister and I watched the various flowers very closely. We weren't allowed to put our feet into the creek water until a certain plant was in bloom, and it seemed it was a different plant each year. One year, we were to watch the Dogwood. Not until it was in bloom could we "paddle our feet" in Bowman's Creek. Another year it was the Lilac bush out back. Still another year, we were to keep a sharp eye on the apple blossoms. It wasn't until I got older that I realized Gramma had been careful to watch the plants herself and each year she quietly determined which plant would bloom last, putting our "paddling" as far into the spring as possible.
The creek followed the road, for the most part, and this made swimming easy for most people as they had a place to park when they chose a swimming "hole." The various holes for swimming were named by number, the "1st" being the hole closest to town and the "5th" being a great spot quite a bit up the road from my house. The holes were actually wide areas of the creek where the water ran swift and deep. Everyone loved the 5th because it had a outcropping of rock from where you could jump and a sandy spot on the other side, much like a beach.
But if you lived on my road, you knew about great spots the town folks didn't. Barely discernable paths led through the woods to wonderful places where hemlocks bent way over water so deep and dark you could barely see the bottom. The water barely moved in the depths where the catfish lay, almost immobile. I loved to wade out to where the deep water just began, lay down on my back in the shallows, and let the water float me down under the trees until I bumped into the rapids and had to stand up.
Some summers were so dry that the creek level would go very shallow. Those were hard summers, as the reservoir level for the house would drop as well. But we never seemed to worry too much about it. Grampa would bring in buckets of water and Gramma would boil it for cooking, and if we wanted to clean up, she'd send us to the creek with a small bar of homemade soap. Of course, going to the creek to swim---for whatever purpose---was never a hardship for us girls!
I remember my grampa teaching me how to fish from Bowman's. He taught me the process, but he also taught me the ethics of fishing. Bowman's Creek was stocked with trout annually or semi-annually. A truck would drive slowly up our road and dump hundreds of trout into the creek at a given spot miles upstream. Grampa would stand in the driveway as he watched the trout stocking truck go by the house. I remember him shaking his head in disgust as he watched the steady parade of dozens of cars following the truck up the road. They were there to drop their lines into the water the moment the first fish hit the surface of the creek. They'd park behind the parked stock truck, get their poles ready, spread themselves out along the creekbank downstream from the truck and shout companionably at one another as they waited for their dinner to "jump into their hands."
Grampa knew what those new fish were like. "Soft-bellied, yellow, and corn-fed," he called them. Not fit for catching. He felt a trout worth catching had been living in the creek for at least a year, placed a challenge on the fisherman, and had been feeding on natural stuff for a long while. He also felt that a fisherman who followed a stock truck and caught fish as soon as they dropped from it was not a fisherman at all. Where was the challenge in catching a fish that was so used to being fed daily that it would hit on the first thing that went into the water in front of it? Where was the sportsmanship?
Grampa took me fishing every chance he got. And he taught me how to fish with sportsmanship. Find a spot where you don't cast a shadow across the water...a fish worth catching knew when he was being hunted. Noises...don't make any. A fish worth catching knew when it was being hunted. Need to wade out into the creek? Do so slowly, with the water. Plant your feet slowly between the rock. Don't disturb the rocks in the water or on the shore. A fish worth catching knew when it was being hunted. Did the average trout care whether you held a bamboo stick or a brand new, state-of-the-art pole? Nope. All it cared about was what was on the business end of your line. Did it care if that enticing morcel was the latest spinning, girating, snuffling, glinting, attraction or a big juicy night crawler? What do you think?
Thanks to my grampa, I learned alot about fishing. But along with the fishing lessons, he taught me about people too. "Fish don't care how fancy your pole is," he'd tell me. "They're going to take a good look at the bait. And that doesn't have to be fancy either. Same with people. Fancy clothes, flashy car...what difference does it make when the soul behind the wheel with the fancy duds is as shallow as the creek in a dry summer?"
And he taught me about myself too. "Don't be a corn-fed, trout, honey." He'd say barely above a whisper. "Don't swallow whatever's dangled under your nose. Stay out in the deep water a good long while and eye life's challenges real good, then grab onto a good one and don't let go."
When I was a young girl, Bowman's Creek was known mostly to local sportsmen, but over the years it's gained national attention as a prime fishing area. I don't care. The degree of attention the creek gets may change, but the creek doesn't. The fish don't, nor the violets or rocks. And the lessons I learned from my grampa about life and fishing will never change. And that's good, because some things shouldn't change.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Reservoir

Our farmhouse got it's water from a reservoir, a big hole excavated on the side of the mountain, not too far up behind our house. A spring fed into it from further up the mountain, filling it to within a few feet of the top, and the water fed through pipes down the hill to the house.
The hole was covered with a large sheet of tin and marked so that hunters wouldn't step onto the thin metal and go through, into the numbing, cold spring water.
Each Fall, Grampa would go up the side of the mountain, to check the reservoir. I dearly loved to go with him, as the reservoir was enchanting to me. The walk was fun, through the crunching brown leaves, holding my grampa's hand. We picked wintergreen berries from their little stems near the ground and popped them into our mouths. Grampa brought a basket, and occassionally we'd find a clump of new brown mushrooms. He'd cut them off leaving the roots in the ground then lower them gently into the basket. Later, Gramma would fix them for supper. But knowing what might be at the reservoir was what inspired my little legs to grapple with the climb through the woods.
Fall's abundance of leaves usually covered the metal over the reservoir. We'd sweep the leaves off with an old broom and Grampa would slide the cover off. I kept my eyes on the opening as the metal scraped across rocks and was thrown off to one side. Occasionally, some critter would be near the edge of the pool, lying just under the cover, unaware that his cool, dark hiding place would soon be revealed. Many times I would be priveleged to see animals, snakes and lizards that I ordinarily never saw. They would quickly scoot into the water or tunnel under a drift of leaves and rocks---gone for the time being.
I sat on the edge of the deep, dark reservoir as my grampa used a big net to pull a thin layer of leaves off the top of the water. Somehow, they'd managed to filter down and under the sheet cover.
The water in the reservoir was deep and still. The deeper it went down, the darker it became, but it was crystal clear to the bottom. I remember looking into the depths and being amazed that I saw no fish in such a perfect place for fish.
But there were other things I loved in this place. Moss---the greenest moss I ever saw---grew just inside the upper edge of the hole. Against that moss, bright as jewels on emerald velvet, lay one of my favorite creatures: a red spotted newt. Small and sleepy-eyed, it crouched in a swirled ball within the moss. As the metal moved off and the sun hit it's little orange body, it slowly uncurled and began moving off into the leaves. I'd seen dozens of these newts in my young life, but it was always a fresh delight to pick up the delicate little thing, examine it very, very close to my face, and then put it back into it's place.
Once all the living things had fled from the water, I lost interest and began exploring the stone row that ran down and away from the reservoir. Old stone rows threaded their way here and there all over the mountain. Natural field stone had been piled into rows and used for fences by long-ago farmers on this mountain. Broken down now by weathering and time, their wandering lines were still visible in many places. I loved to sit on the rocks, quietly and slowly lifting each one to see what crept beneath. Many times, another orange newt. Sometimes a large brown lizard. Most of the time simply roly-polys. But the anticipation of what could be under the next rock, always kept me busy until Grampa whistled and it was time to pick up the mushroom basket and head on down the mountain. By the time we'd reached the house, ruddy cheeked and out of breath from laughing and kicking through leaves, we had a basketful of goodies for Gramma. Brown mushrooms, a perfectly formed abandoned bird nest the wind had whipped out of a tree, a great handful of wintergreen leaves, some buckberries, and a few twigs of Sasafrass. We were always happy to trade it for big bowls of hot soup she always seemed to have ready when we appeared from the woods.