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Planting by Signs


March 17, 2011 by wcobserver

On Mt. Gaylor our long-time neighbor planted by the signs.

Glen tried to teach me all about the moon’s waxing and waning, but I never got the hang of it. Up here, it seemed, potatoes had their own extra set of rules that went beyond the zodiac. He shared his secrets for superior home grown spuds.

“Taters should go in the ground on St. Patrick’s Day,” he said.

He showed me how his daddy had taught him to plant, hill up, and harvest. Here in far south Washington county, Arkansas, his family, the Pense family, had planted potatoes every St. Patrick’s Day for a century. He never doubted that if he followed God’s laws of sowing and reaping, there would be a harvest.

He had lived up here since Highway 71 was a narrow twist- ing dirt road little improved since the days of the Butterfield Stage. “Back then,” he’d recall, “Model T’s couldn’t drive straight up the mountain because the hill was too steep. They backed up because reverse had a lower gear ration.”

He was well into his 80’s before he departed this world. His wife cooked his meals, including his home grown potatoes, on their wood cookstove. I asked him once why he didn’t get a more modern propane stove. With geometric logic he explained, “The old woman would blow herself up.” Another time he volunteered, “Food tastes better cooked on a wood stove.”

If you drive to Mt. Gaylor from Fayetteville on highway 71, just at the top of the hill, about 2 miles past the old rock school, the road sweeps to the right at what locals call Parish Curve. Until the four lane opened up, a couple of trucks a month dumped their loads there. As you come out of the curve, if you look to the right, you can make out among the trees a fallen log cabin with a log privy a few steps out back. Our neighbor and his young bride set up their first wood cookstove and began homemaking in that little 12 by 12 structure some seventy years ago.

I often admired his old cook- stove. Not for any desire to ever have to cook on it, but it’s green enamel, flat black, and chrome exterior brought to mind long ago times when things were simpler. I once joked that if he ever wanted to sell it, I’d make him an offer. One day he came over to the house and said, “Mr. Allen, I’m ready to let you have my old stove.” I was at least forty years his junior, but his polite Southern upbringing let “Mr. Allen” easily slide from his lips.

“I bought a new stove,” he explained, “and if you’ll help me go get it, I’ll give you my old one.”

Bargain accepted, we headed out in my 56 Chevy pickup. Near Brentwood he directed me onto a dirt road. Some miles later we turned onto a smaller dirt road. Miles further he pointed out what could charitably be called a “trail.” We drove into a deep canyon finally coming to a clearing. We stopped in front of a small house that had not seen paint nor repair since the day it was built some time before the Great Depression.

A small white haired woman came out onto the porch and smiled through store bought teeth, “Come in. I have it all ready.”

My neighbor counted cash into her open hand. I turned away out of some unspoken sense of intrusion, so I don’t know the agreed upon price. We went inside, and there it was, his new stove. It was a well used, ancient wood cookstove. He volunteered, “My old stove is all burned out inside. This one is much better.” It was certainly much heavier.

We spent the better part of two hours taking it apart, trying not to breathe the fog of ancient soot, and hauling the heavy pieces into my truck. At his small house we reassembled the parts and connected it to the chimney. He couldn’t wait to try it out. He was as proud as a boy with a new bicycle.

He split kindlin’ and lit a fire. As it crackled into flame he adjusted the damper and slid the lid onto the burner hole. When no smoke escaped, he said quietly, “Thank the Lord.” He put a black skillet onto the stove and peeled and sliced potatoes into the melting grease.

His old stove, now cleaned and polished, occupies a little used corner of our home. It sits between the TV and one of our computers. We never use the old stove, but I do look at it occasionally and envy his satisfaction with simple things.

And I envy his simple faith. It never would have occurred to him to doubt God’s promises including His promise of “seed time and harvest.” I saw him genuinely happy that day with a plate of wood stove fried, home raised, potatoes. Potatoes he had planted the previous St. Patrick’s Day.

It takes too much to make us happy these days. So much, in fact, that we are seldom really happy. After all, how much is enough? A few days after Glen’s funeral, it occurred to me, he, like the great saints of history, lived simply. They lived simply not because it was holier. It was just smarter. — By Jon H. Allen




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