Early Thoughts Autumnal

I don’t want to rush the summer. And I definitely hate those summertime “Back to School” ads and sales, but…

it is time to think about a fall garden.

Here in New Jersey, it’s time to think about crops like carrots, rutabagas and turnips, some lettuce and frost-proof spinach, snap beans, cucumbers, zucchini and summer squash. How about some parsnips, cilantro, lettuce and radishes? (14 weeks before your first frost is a good time – though with all this warming of the globe, it’s hard to predict first frost anymore.

Down south of here, the end of the month or early August is supposed to be good for fall planting.

Garden centers around here don’t cater to fall planters, so you probably need to start seeds. Indoors is probably better so they don’t get blasted by the summer heat. If you’re running a bit late on planting, put the seeds in the ground, but keep that soil moist until they germinate, and thin them out.

Some folks put up some boards or something to create some shade for the hot afternoons (especially on seedlings). Soaker hoses are good. Mulch is good. Even newspaper mulch works. Only bad thing with mulch is the slugs, so waste some beer on setting slug traps.

Try some new stuff: arugula, Chinese cabbage, cold-hardy mâche (corn salad), rutabaga, “Swede turnips,” Asian greens like spinach-mustard, mizuna, tatsoi (AKA tah tsai)., which is beautiful enough to use as flower bed edging.


If you procrastinate and don’t get to it for a few weeks, the Asian greens will still produce a crop along with some lettuce, turnips, spinach, mustard, and radishes.

And if you really procrastinate, at least put in some garlic “when you can smell winter in the air” along with shallots, multiplying and “nest” onions which go in after the soil has cooled (end of September and into early October for me) for harvesting next year.
I already regret, as I look at them growing now, that I didn’t plant more garlic last fall.

Summer Reading

When someone says “summer reading” I think of both enjoyable books and school assignments. It’s a crazy seasonal mindset that we have that there are books that are better suited to the warmer months, vacations and the beach.

I blame school for this.

No matter what grade you were/are in there was “school reading” that you did in fall, winter and spring that tended to be serious stuff. Most kids I knew did NOT read during the summer. I read a lot. Too much probably.

Nowadays, every local library seems to run a summer reading program for kids. Our town library has the theme of pirates this year. I did it for a few years with my sons. You read lots of books and get little prizes along the way. Those prizes were a big motivator for my youngest who loves competition. The only thing I didn’t like about these programs was it seemed really focused on consuming mass quantities of books. The more you read (or pretend to read), the more stuff you get.

I read in the summer because I wanted to read and had the time to read, but I still don’t know how to instill that spirit in someone who doesn’t get pleasure from reading.

I wrote on another blog  about a poll that NPR is running to determine the best “beach books”. They give a list of 200 titles to choose 10 from and there are lots of good books there, but the list is heavier on “literary” fiction than I think you will find if you survey the blankets for books at the Jersey shore this month.

There were some literary reads that I did in summer and really enjoyed. I was a kid who worked my way through authors. I read a ton of Steinbeck one summer, everything by Salinger another year, a summer’s worth of Hemingway.

Either I am more distracted these days or I have less time or my ability to read has eroded because I am lucky to get through three books during the summer lately.

For the first 47 years of my life, I had the summer off because I was a student or a teacher. Yeah, I had summer jobs, but I was “off” from my regular routine. It’s a luxury that I only really appreciated when I left teaching to be a 12 month employee and realized that even a CEO can’t take off the whole summer. Of courses, teachers and students don’t get paid for that summer off, so it has a big downside too.

If I really think about it, the summer reading I loved most as a kid would never make any NPR list. I loved reading comic books. I read very eclectically too. I had boxes of Archie comics, Classics Illustrated, Superman, Batman, Richie Rich, Silver Surfer, and lots of other titles. My mom broke my heart (and possibly my bank account) when she gave away most of my comics to some neighborhood kids while I was away at college because she assumed I was “past that.” I associate comics with summer.

I also loved to read magazines and for summer Surfer and Surfing, Field and Stream and Popular Mechanics were favorites. Surfing magazines were the first subscriptions I bought with my own money. Even though my surfing life never went much further than the Jersey shore, a hand-me-down, dinged Greg Noll surfboard and many hours spent hanging around the Ron Jon surf shop on Long Beach Island in New Jersey (not far from Surf City), I did think of myself of as a 1960s surfer with blond hair, baggies

My fields and streams were in suburban NJ too, but I never tired of catching sunnies, perch, and the occasional bass, catfish or trout. My field work was of the tracking variety rather than the hunter side. I did shoot a rabbit once while hunting with an uncle and it had a devastating effect on me. Never wanted to go again, though I continued to read accounts of hunting with great enthusiasm.

Though I never built most of the things that Popular Mechanics had plans for in its pages, I always was building stuff with my friends over the summer. Clubhouse, treehouse in the woods, our first skateboards, skimboards for the beach and, of course, a go kart.

An episode of Our Gang/The Little Rascals inspired my first one built from cast-off baby carriage wheels and parts. What a death trap that was to roll down a steep street. I wanted to build and race a Soapbox Derby style car, but that just wasn’t a possibility of my childhood. We even tried building a motorized cart using an old lawn mower engine and bicycle chain drive. It was a disaster that could only go if no one was sitting in it, but a lot of fun to work on one summer.

jawsThe actual books that I really would put on my summer reading list are titles that I not only read during a summer, but that had some seasonal connection. I have already written here about Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and he would have several books on my list.

I clearly remember sitting in my backyard reading Benchley’s Jaws the summer of 1974. That is a perfect summer book in its readability and content. If you only saw the Spielberg film (a great film with terrific editing), you should pick up the book this summer.

Back in 1972 or 1973,  I spent the summer living in Watership Down and realized that there was a reason I was once told that one of my totem animals was the rabbit. Their anthropomorphised epic odyssey to find a new home had a whole culture, language (Lapine), proverbs, poetry, and mythology that I loved more than I ever was able to get into the much more heralded Middle Earth of Tolkien. To this day, my wife and I will comment upon seeing rabbits eating at the side of the road at dusk that it is time to silflay.

Perhaps in a similar way, I got caught up back in 1979 with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and all the books in the series and other by Douglas Adams. I was teaching at a junior high then and I was able to get some students who said they disliked “science-fiction” to read and enjoy the book which I still find to be laugh out loud funny.

The following summer, my big reading discovery was A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole which made me want to visit New Orleans. Unfortunately, it was the New Orleans of the 1960s that I wanted to see, so I was 20 years too late. That title is from Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” Ignatius J. Reilly, the protagonist, is an educated sloth who still lives with his mother at age 30, and his “picaresque” adventures in the French Quarter still makes me laugh out loud. I’ve read the book a few times and listened to the audio version (read wonderfully by Arte Johnson) a few times too.

For me, the best summer books are not so different than the best books because they are works that I can get lost in to the degree that I forget the world around me for a time.  Movies can do the same thing for a few hours, but books can do it for many hours.  Those best books also have a bit of an obsessive, can’t-put-it-down quality, that is almost frightening when it takes hold of you. Summer reading is all about escape.

(Inspired by this earlier post on summer books)

Dandelion Wine

dandelion wine
My old paperback copy resting outside in the sun.

Dandelions are having a great time in the backyard next to my house. They are all plotting to reseed my lawn which I have carefully tried to keep dandelion free in the most environmentally-friendly way.

It’s not that I dislike dandelions, but I admit that I have conceded that my suburban home needs to have a normal front lawn. Resale value and all that.

We call them dandelions which is (according to my French-speaking wife) a corruption of the French dent de lion meaning “lion’s tooth.” The French named it that because of those jagged-toothed leaves. Other European languages have similar versions – Italian dente di leone, Spanish diente de león, Portuguese dente-de-leão, Norwegian Løvetann, and German Löwenzahn.

They are only weeds in our suburban brains. You can use the flowers to make a kind of wine, roast the roots to make a coffee-like drink, and use the leaves in salads.

But my thoughts today turned to Dandelion Wine, the novel by Ray Bradbury.  It’s a book I read in junior high and it was part of a whole summer of Bradbury books.

The book is about the summer of 1928 in Green Town, Illinois as seen by a 12 year-old boy named Douglas. Most reviews will tell you that it is semi-autobiographical based on Bradbury’s Waukegan, Illinois memories.

Dandelion wine is made with dandelion flowers and in the novel it is Doug’s grandfather who makes it. The wine is an obvious symbol for the distillation of all the best of the summer – as is the novel.

When I taught middle school, it was a book I kept in my classroom and would occassionally recommend it to students. I think it seemed too small-town America and old-fashioned for most of them. Maybe it is childhood as viewed by an adult.

Though it is based on some of Bradbury’s childhood memories, he always mixes in enough fantasy that no one is going to say it is a “true” story.

The novel (really more like a collection of related stories) is nostalgic and lyrical work and a world viewed through the yellow filter of a bottle of dandelion wine. Still, I recall some serious moments that had me thinking that summer I read it.  Along with the nostalgia, Douglas’ summer also contains his recognition that he will die some day. It’s something that comes with the end of summer, losing companions and his grandfather’s presence.

Another character in the book, Leo, gets annoyed listening to elderly people’s depressing and fatalistic conversations. Douglas and his grandfather suggest, not seriously, to him that he make a Happiness Machine, and he becomes determined to do just that. A happy man with a wife and 6 children, the Happiness Machine almost destroys his life.

I never read Farewell Summer which is the sequel to Dandelion Wine. It wasn’t published until 2006, so it didn’t exist in my own childhood or in my days teaching middle school.  I’m not sure I would pick it up if it was all about the end of summer, growing old and dying. It is set during the “Indian summer” of October and Doug goes from 12 to 14, and is awkened by a first kiss from a girl.  I probably could have used that as a selling point to get my students to read it.

I found some history on the book. The first chapter, also titled “Farewell Summer,” appeared in The Stories of Ray Bradbury in 1980.  Reading reviews of it online, like this one from Booklist: – “A touching meditation on memories, aging, and the endless cycle of birth and death, and a fitting capstone, perhaps, to a brilliant career” – made me think that this was really childhood as seen by an old man. But that isn’t correct.

It seems that  Bradbury said that he originally had intended the novel to follow what we know as Dandelion Wine in one big book he was going to call Summer Morning, Summer Night. A collection of stories was published much later under that name, though I’m not sure it followed Bradbury’s original plan.

“When I delivered it to my publishers they said, ‘My God, this is much too long. Why don’t we publish the first 90,000 words as a novel and keep the second part for some future year when it is ready to be published,'” Bradbury said.

It you wanted a Bradbury summer of reading, I would suggest your third choice be Something Wicked This Way Comes. Even though it has a different plot and characters, it is set in Green Town and has the same feel. Make it the second book in the Green Town trilogy. Apparently, some rather sinister things were happening that Doug might have missed.

It’s a much darker novel of childhood. When you take your title from Macbeth, we know something is up. The line is said by the second witch, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” The wicked thing is Macbeth – traitor and murderer.

In the novel, two 13 year-old boys, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, encounter a wicked traveling carnival that comes their way one October. The carnival is run by “Mr. Dark” who wears a tattoo for each person he has rewarded with their secret fantasy. Each of them is also now a permanent part of the carnival. Will’s father’s fantasy is to regain his youth.

There is also a film version of Something Wicked This Way Comes that I really like. It is usually listed as a children’s film (probably because it was made by Disney) and I did watch it with my boys when they were younger than Jim & Will, but it is pretty scary on lots of levels.

I found a recipe for dandelion wine and, if I get ambitious in this summer, maybe I’ll give it a try.  If you make some, let me know.

Pick a gallon of the most perfect, open, bright yellow blossoms. Make sure these aren’t from a lawn that gets treated with chemicals. Do it early in the morning when there is still dew on the flowers. Really. This will make one gallon of wine.

Put the flowers in a two gallon or larger open crock and pour boiling water over them. Cover the crock with cheesecloth and let it sit at room temperature for three days.

Squeeze all the juice from the flowers, throw them away and put the liquid into a big pot. Add to this:
3 lbs. sugar (brown raw sugar is good, but you could try honey for more “essence” of summer)
3 or 4 lemons, juice, skin, seeds and all, just chopped up.
3 or 4 oranges, also chopped

Boil mixture for 30 minutes with top on pot, cool to lukewarm, pour into crock and add 1 1/2 or 2 packages or tablespoons of yeast. Cover with cheesecloth and let brew sit for two or three weeks or until the bubbling stops.

Then filter the liquid through cheesecloth to get out chunks. Bottle up the summer. Drink young. Some on Labor Day seems right. Some on that first cold autumn night. Some for winter. Finish it all before the first day of spring.


Ray Bradbury Official Site

Bradbury writing about Farewell Summer

The Long Count

I wrote about December 21, 2012 which is when the Maya calculated would be the end of their “Long Count” calendar. Not the end of the world, as some people say, but the end of a 5,126-year era.

On the winter solstice in 2012, the sun will be aligned with the center of the Milky Way for the first time in about 26,000 years.

There’s a theory that whatever energy typically hits Earth from the center of the Milky Way will be disrupted.

A small section of Maya glyphs - the left column shows the Long Count date of or June 23, 156 CE

The Long Count is complicated to explain.  I enjoy math, but I’m not very good at it. (Yes, that is possible.) I admire the elegance of some math.  You can skip the next few math lines if you wish and get to what really interests me about this Maya calendar.

Their calendar math is a mixed base-20/base-18 representation of a number, representing the number of days since the start of the Mayan era.

The basic unit is the kin (day), which is the last component of the Long Count. Going from right to left the remaining components are:

1 uinal = 20 kin = 20 days

1 tun = 18 uinal = 360 days = approx. 1 year

1 katun = 20 tun = 7,200 days = approx. 20 years

1 baktun = 20 katun = 144,000 days = approx. 394 years

Though it’s not part of  the Long Count, the Maya actually had names for much longer time spans than we are used to considering. There is a calabtun which is about 158,000 of our years.

So, what interests me is thinking about a culture that would need (or desire) a calendar with the alautun, which is 23,040,000,000 days or about 63 million years.

What were they calculating and planning?

It you were counting with the Long Count, day one should be, but since baktun are numbered from 1 to 13, the first date would be written  Is that when the Maya set the day of the creation of the world?

Folks who study this aren’t in agreement about what corresponds to in our calendar. We need to know when the Mayan world began, so we can figure out when the Long Count is over.

Maybe = 8 September 3114 BC in the Julian calendar or 13 August 3114 BC in the Gregorian calendar. Maybe the end of the long count will reset to on 23 December AD 2012. Or when the alignment occurs on 21 December 2012 at 11:11 p.m. Universal Time.

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Vernal Equinox


An equinox occurs twice a year, when the tilt of the Earth’s axis is inclined neither away from nor towards the Sun. The Sun is vertically above a point on the Equator.

The 2009 vernal (spring) equinox occurred in Paradelle at 7:44 AM EST (11:44 UTC).

The word equinox is derived from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night), because the night and day are approximately equal in length.

An equinox actually occurs at two specific moments in time, though commonly people refer to the two days as an equinox. Those moments when the Sun can be observed to be vertically above the Earth’s Equator happen around March 20/21 and September 22/23 each year.