Tuesday, April 19, 2011

the Noticers

I’m reminding myself to keep noticing, to be present, on these chilly damp days, and so I go out and make the rounds of the garden, of the yard, of the lake and the river, and in that way I realize the coltsfoot is blasting out its little leafless yellow flowers and the tiny white blooms of the bloodroot wrapped in their frilly leaves, like bugs in cocoons, are carpeting my yard. The sorrel is tart and lemony, peeking green out of the chopped leaves in my garden – the very earliest edible – and Egyptian onions are freshening.
And, I am reminded, Easter is coming on, isn’t it? The first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring solstice.  All writhing goats and death and resurrection. And eggs and bunnies, of course. What a strange symbol of fecundity the silly pastel bunny is.

I notice the tiny vole who lay dead on his side in the coils of hose, how delicate his little claws, how curious his pinpoint of an eye. We notice the wood ducks and kingfishers on the lake, the raucous grumbling thunder of frogs mating in the bog. Nature makes herself known, pastel rabbits or not.

Edith Fisher Hunter, captured above by her son, Graham, at this year’s sugaring, is a powerful noticer. And she brought up four children to be noticers, and teaches the wider world to notice, too, through her books and her talks, Vermont Public Radio commentaries, and even through her preaching.

We began to exchange emails last September when I had the opportunity to tell her how much I enjoyed her VPR commentaries. There had been a recent one in which she had talked about sitting in her October garden among the overgrown asparagus fronds that had shot through them a volunteer tomato vine with tiny sweet tomatoes. Edith draws pictures with her voice, which crows and soars and teases as she brings to our  notice the natural world,  Aunts Mary and Margaret, Son Graham, Son William, Son Charlie, and Daughter Elizabeth.  They’re all pronounced without a comma, so that their proper names seem to include Son and Daughter.

I fancied it was an old fashioned kitchen chair on which she sat in the garden. A green one.

Wonder of wonders, Edith answered me by saying that she didn’t know what had possessed her to read one of my columns awhile ago – she had never, that she knew of, ever read a food column – and didn’t find it unpleasant. I was delighted.

Edith and her husband Armstrong Hunter published the Weathersfield Weekly for 15 years. They both had divinity degrees but Armstrong’s passion was for printing.  Weathersfield encompasses Ascutney and Perkinsville over in the eastern south-central edges of our state. The Weathersfield Weekly was very well thought of in Vermont and nationally, too. It made a community out of these disparate areas, and it made a center, too, right there on Center Road (which Edith pronounced “Centah” just as Hunter is “Huntah”).
Printing, and local newspapering, is all about community, isn’t it?

Once Armstrong submitted to a journalism contest an article Edith had written about the dairy industry in Weathersfield. As Edith tells it, “There were several classes to enter – publications with 100,000 circulation, those with 50,000, and those of 10,000 and under. We had 650! The winner in each class got $5 thousand  and a night at the Plaza and an awards dinner. Milton Freedman won in one class, and James Fallows in another, and I won in (the under) 10,000. Pretty good company! It built my garden house and back porch.”

Edith has written half a dozen books – one of which has been in print for 47 years. Armstrong joked that it put at least two kids through college! She’s written nature columns. She’s a historian and a genealogist. She’s 91 years old. There’s no sense in hiding one’s light under a basket when one has reached that great age.

In the meantime they reared their family. “I have three lovely sons who I see almost daily and we share such wonderful memories! And they have great senses of humor. And my daughter and I email everyday,” she wrote to me. And it seemed to me that the most amazing thing that Edith and Armstrong Hunter did was to encourage their children in all their varied interests, and act as such passionate advocates for them that each has evolved into an utterly idiosyncratic individual. It seems a rich and yeasty family, all writers, social activists, and I’m not quite sure how many ministers.

The oldest is Elizabeth, a writer, a teacher, a nature columnist, who lives in North Carolina. She’s the only one who lives out of state.  Graham is next – an architect, “the only one of the boys to be a Mr. Fix-It,” and the person who nursed Edith through an illness a year or so ago when she “almost flew the coop,” she told me.  “For almost a year he came over and made my meals and saw me off to bed and made my breakfast.”
Next is William, whom I knew of through his Peace and Justice advocacy. He is a lawyer, a writer, and a preacher. A community activist. “A saint,” his mother told me recently, but that was because on top of all his other duties he was finding me photos and mailing me things. Thank you, Will. Charlie is the youngest and has combined fine and graphic art with music managing. And  musical train tours. He’s in charge of Edith’s extensive gardens, too.

I’d been thinking about those gardens and in one email I asked Edith if I might  visit come spring. It was the end of February and Edith was looking forward to beginning sugaring with Graham. “You can come see me anytime,” she answered. “ I'll hope to be spending a lot of time in the sugarhouse starting next week - I hope, hope, hope.”

Days, no, weeks, went by, and I thought of Edith in the steaming sugarhouse with “Son Graham”. And then one morning I sat down with my coffee and opened the Herald and there, with plummeting stomach, I saw Graham’s obituary!

Edith wrote right back to my email. They were in shock. Graham, who was 63, had never been sick, it had been sudden and, to all appearances, peaceful. “He and I were in the middle of a great sugaring year. We had made 8 gallons when he died and since then I have made two more.” Altogether, they would make in excess of 19 gallons of syrup for the year. One keeps on keeping on. One keeps on noticing.

Before he died, Edith wrote, Graham had planted “what looks like 1,000,000 tomato/basil/rosemary seedlings. They are up and waving their little green leaves in the sun of my kitchen. Charlie came by yesterday and planted the cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage, and eggplant and lettuce. But the tomato seedlings are a lovely reminder of Graham, as are the little container after container of maple syrup. What an empty place he leaves against the sky.”
Graham at Thanksgiving with his grand niece. Photo by his sister, Elizabeth Hunter.

And then she added, “Come by sometime next week and you can see Graham’s wonderful pan in action.”
She had told me that two years ago, “when our old pan, which was very primitive, was giving out,” Graham designed a new one and had it custom made, and then “surprised me one day by taking me out to see it already installed in our sugar house.”

I did find my way to Weathersfield that week. I have to say the visit is pretty much a blur in my mind.  It was three days after Graham’s memorial service. I walked into the long east-facing enclosed porch and was greeted by a woman with the brightest blue eyes, and a sharp tongue, too. “You must be Sharon,” she said. And then, accusingly, “You don’t look anything like you’re supposed to!”

She was exactly what she was supposed to be! She wore a blue watchcap and an LLBean fleece and she was surrounded by the flats of tomato starts and, outside the windows, the birds at the feeders. Elizabeth was home and showed me the house, which appears not to’ve changed over the last century. Grandson Matthew was there. Will would wander by. Edith and I chatted and bantered. It is indeed a working, yeasty family.
Edith and I went to the sugarhouse, where I attempted to build a fire. I did not do as good a job as Graham would have done, but  I felt completely at home, very happy to be so insulted and so gifted.
I will go back in the summer, I hope, to notice more, to be taught by a master-noticer.

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