The rolling mountains of North Carolina remind me of back home. The woods of Vermont and the northern Berkshires of Massachusetts even smell the same. Down there where I visited the past week, the plants grow twice as tall and the forests are thick with understory it’s hard to walk off trail.
After a weekend at a ear friend’s DIY wedding where we played enough “corn in the hole” to make you dizzy and shared gluttonous meals of smoked trout, pulled pork, and collard greens, I packed up and headed east for an overnight with a couple in their mid 60’s who can downright claim themselves “homesteaders” if it were up to me.On the way to the homestead, my friend and I stopped to milk the newlywed’s dairy goats so they could have their first morning as husband and wife to rest and be with friends. It felt wonderful to be milking goats again after a few years away from Rawson Brook Farm, where I was an intern for 2 years. That was, until the Nubian stuck her foot in the milk pail, of course.
After about an hour drive, we were greeted on the porch of the homestead by two little old dogs, a proud rooster, and kind smiles belonging to Donna and Jeff. They offered us rocking chairs before inviting us into the house. Hand woven baskets hung from nails along the roof of the porch in perfect placement for snagging on the way to the garden and woods for fresh vegetables and wild edibles.
Jeff resumed constructing a basket made of tulip tree while Donna filled us in on all the stories of the season, which was in full peak. She asked about our journeys to the south, wedding highlights, and how our loved ones back home are doing without us. “Would you like a tomato sandwich?” she asked.
I could not decline her offer as my curiosity peaked.
Little did I know, the bread we ate our sandwich on was from wheat Donna had ground and baked that morning. Every surface of the kitchen including the washer and dryer were stacked with ripening tomatoes. When she opened the fridge to pull out homemade mayonnaise and pesto, I couldn’t help but notice the multitude of ball jars. “Finally,” I thought, “someone who has the bug of preserving food worse than me!”
The day carried on with laughter, tears, and sweat as we had a grand tour of the gardens and forests. It was well over 90 degrees, and fortunately there was a small spring fed pond on the property to cool off in.
When I asked for a glass of water, Jeff pointed me in the direction of the spring nearby. As I placed my cup under the flowing pipe, I noticed a black snake sitting in the sun on the shore just above me. We stared at one another for a while then I smiled and thanked it for sharing its home with me.
As Donna and my friend wandered through the garden picking dry beans for Donna’s ever evolving seed collection, Jeff showed me their beehive. He is a well-known storyteller traveling all over the country. He and Donna met almost 30 years ago at an international story telling convergence in Tennessee. As you can imagine, the medicinal plant walk he took me on that humid afternoon was one to remember. “Do you know this one?” he asked me as we came across each plant.
“It’s yellowroot. It has berberine in the roots. Here, taste it, mighty bitter.”
“Oh yes, it is. We have barberry up north for the anti-microbial properties of berberine,” I said.
“Every climate seems to have its own medicines,” he stated. “Up north you have barberry and even goldenseal. Down here, we use yellowroot because it’s prolific.”
“Is that wild yam?” I exclaimed.
“Yes, you’re right!” he replied with enthusiasm. It grows all around here. The midwife told Donna to take some when she was pregnant to relax her womb.
I was impressed by Jeff’s ability to recite each Latin name for all the plants we identified that day. His knowledge inspires me to continue learning about the intricacies of the natural world.
As Donna and I prepared dinner, I asked what language her grandmother spoke because I remembered she said it was not English. “Yiddish,” replied Donna.
“Mine too,” I said. “And my great grandmother.”
“Really? Where did they live?” Donna asked.
“Oh, a small town that no longer exists in what was part of Poland.” I answered.
“What was it called?” she asked.
“Rovne.” I replied. “But you’ve probably never heard of it.”
“No!” she shouted. “Let me get my maps out. We can see how close your family lived to mine.
Sure enough, just a few towns apart were our family’s origins in Poland before the war. This new discovery about our ancestry allowed for a greater level of softening in my heart. We stared into each other’s eyes and smiled. How fortunate we are to be here crossing paths at this magical moment in time.
“I’ve got chills now!” gasped Donna.
After a delicious dinner of crowd pea chili, fresh salsa, brown rice, bitter melon, and guacamole, I lay my head to rest. The sounds of bullfrogs, screech owls, and crickets sung me to sleep.
When my earplugs could no longer block out the rooster’s crow, I crawled out of bed looking forward to the next homemade meal and storytelling in the kitchen that is lined with canned goods. “Would you like oatmeal?” asked Jeff.
“Sure!” I said, without leading on that oatmeal is not my favorite breakfast item. He lead me over the bread making area where Donna grinds the flour.
“Here, in this mill, we’re going to roll the oats,” he demonstrated.
I was in awe of this moment watching him pour in whole oats and turning them into rolled oats right in front of my eyes. I offered to try, so Jeff stepped aside. I had never seen, nor wondered for that matter, how rolled oats came to be. They stay fresh when stored in whole form. And, I confess, I thoroughly enjoyed the oatmeal more than ever before.
There was one thing missing, though. Cinnamon! I asked if there was any cinnamon powder in the kitchen. Donna got up and rummaged through the cabinets assuring me there probably wasn’t any, but she would look anyway. Jeff suggested another option, spicebush. Donna handed me a jar of dried red berries and a small mortar and pestle to grind them. I tried not to be rude, but I couldn’t help but laugh. I was tickled silly by the couple’s local spice option per my request.
American allspice, or spicebush is the local option for cinnamon. It is aromatic, pungent, and warming. With a handful of blueberries, honey from the bees, and freshly ground spicebush, those rolled oats were full of so much love.