The season of first cutting

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In this time of pandemic and voluntary lockdown, I find myself searching for new ways to connect to my homeland. Rather than rattling the bars of my cage, I find pacing around my place more satisfying, if I mindfully watch how the landscape around me is changing in small but measurable ways.

This is a Zen practice formalized by the Japanese (of course, an island community would get this) that created a calendar of 72 seasons (and of course, there’s an app for that at https: seasons/id1059622777). Each season is about five days long and spotlights a natural phenomenon – the hatching of preying mantis, the blooming of a flower, or the peak harvest for a seasonal food. While climate change and astronomical precession have shifted the timing of some of these ancient seasons, they are still useful for connecting to the land in a meaningful way. I am working on my own 72-season calendar that coincides with the natural rhythms of the Colorado Plateau.

I am writing this in the proposed season of “first cutting.” Since my landscape includes alfalfa fields, this is the time when alfalfa farmers turn off the irrigation (if they have it) and run the swather around the fields at night, leaving the hay in windrows to dry for baling a day or two later. This season usually occurs early to mid-June before the monsoon and the season of regular afternoon thunderstorms. For dryland alfalfa fields this may be the only cutting for the year and is truly the harvest of winter moisture.

It is also the time of my first cutting. Early- season crops are done (peas, greens, cilantro) and the true summer vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, carrots, beans, squash) are not ready yet. Although I check daily for the first blush on a tomato. Wouldn’t it be nice if the cilantro harvest coincided with the rest of the salsa ingredients? This year there are some mid-season beets and early zucchini to keep me satisfied. But this season always brings a dilemma. Do I harvest some early carrots and potatoes even though they will be small? Or wait and risk pests getting them first? Should I replant greens or will they just bolt in the summer heat?

It is a time to be patient. This is only the first cutting; first harvest. This season demands hope and trust that there will be more, someday soon.

It is also the time of fruit thinning. The orchard harvest looks promising this year with many small green fruits on apricot, peach, pear, and apple trees. The early June frosts, dry weather, and wind have done some auto-thinning on most trees. But it is time to make some decisions and remove two small apples in the hope that the remaining one will survive to a larger size. The cherries are almost ready – can we wait for tree-ripened fruit or risk feeding the birds? Speaking of birds, this year the birds seemed especially dapper in their “high breeding” plumage. Maybe it was just me spending more time watching the backyard feeder birds, but they seemed especially bright and crisp this year. Hard not to miss the black and white tuxedo of the white-breasted nuthatch pair that met up and nested in our backyard. This week, the new family of nuthatches, the original pair and two juveniles, came chattering and fluttering by. The parents now looking a bit bedraggled and haggard as the young are constantly chasing them down for morsels. New life in a matter of weeks. Seventy-two seasons may not be enough.

Despite the dizzying spin of cycles within cycles, connecting with natural cycles is surprisingly reassuring. Especially when you can’t make future plans, and don’t know if or when or how “normal” will return. But look, the beans are blooming and in five days or so the first small, slender beans will appear (if hail, pests, or frosts don’t disrupt the process). These cycles are dependable, measurable, and occur despite pandemic or politics. I finally understand why the ancestral Puebloan and other native societies lived in cyclic time rather than the march of linear time. It is much easier to connect with the past and future through reoccurring seasons and cycles. I can still picture my grandfather carefully tending his tomatoes plants and can conjure his presence as I do the same. Even though by the linear calendar, he tended his last tomato plant more than 30 years ago.

As we all cast about for anything dependable or predictable in these uncertain times, take time to observe and document the small changes in your natural environment. Even houseplants go through changes – whether it is change in the angle of the light it grows towards or the yellowing of leaves. My indoor Ficus tree reliably drops its leaves each spring. A relic of its life in a more tropical homeland or adaptation to the reduced indoor light in our house during the summer months. Who knows? But it happens every year. Perhaps celebrating one season at a time is the secret to thriving as a community. It worked for previous communities that lived through tough times on the Colorado Plateau. Maybe it will bring solace to us, too.

Carolyn Dunmire is an award-winning writer living in Cahone, Colo.

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From Carolyn Dunmire.