Magnetic North: Wooly Bears and Laying in the Winter Reading

Woolly Bear Caterpillar
Woolly Bear Caterpillar

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Welcome back to Magnetic North where the flannel sheets are ready for use - on both my bed and the tomato plants. For despite the record-breaking heat of late - 97 degrees at the State Fair on Aug. 25 - we are not fooled. It is folly not to plan for frost in the waning days of August…even if it is 90 degrees in the shade at the farm.
 
Truth be told, a fierce winter is in our future. The predictions for it are piling up like zucchini in the fridge. And I’m not just talking Farmer’s Almanac here. Heck no. Yesterday I found a nearly solid black wooly bear caterpillar on the chicken coop stoop. Only a few tufts of brown fuzz on the creature. And, as we know, the wider the brown band on the wooly bear, the milder the winter. A skinny band means a nasty winter. And no band at all.....well, you get the picture. And it’s white and windy.
 
But I’m ready. My woodpile is neatly stacked for and I’m in the process of laying in a generous store of books. Stacking them like logs on the hearth, on top of the chest freezer and virtually on any other available space, including the bathroom and back seat of my car. They say that burning wood warms you twice: Once while splitting and stacking it, next while basking in its cozy heat. Well, laying in the winter reading does much the same thing. Only different.
 
In culling our lifetime collection of good reads, I’ve sweated biscuits. And not just because of the temperature.  Letting go of half of my wildflower guides and cookbooks was agony. Each seemed to call out to be kept. And the ones I’d hardly looked at fairly shrieked, “Philistine! You’ll be sorry you gave me up!”
 
But Paul always said that when you haven’t touched a thing for three whole years, it is time to give it up. Of course, that only applied to MY things, not his. Thus, the ice fishing spear and tackle boxes filled with ancient gee-gaws and gimcracks untouched for a quarter century remain in the hunt room. When I would remind him of that, he would counter with, “Some things are just nice to have,” or “I’m saving those for the grandkids.”
 
Beyond a few things, though, Paul was no hoarder. But I have felt like one by hanging onto many of our books. Only a few were bad choices to begin with – “Sewing for House Chickens” comes to mind instantly - so the ones I intend parting with are not only valuable but are not embarrassing to put up for sale. 
 
The historical books written by David McCullough, and Bill Moyers on theology for example: Brilliant and compelling reads, yet I doubt that I’ll want to dive back into them as I do with any of the T.S. Eliot books I’ve stacked to reread this winter. Then there are my cookbooks. Sadly, I have succumbed to the lazy cook’s resource, Google, when wondering what to do with my bounty of fresh veggies. Sentiment alone counts in choosing the keepers.
 
And so, while I will keep my duct-taped Betty Crocker’s ode to Jello and canned condensed soup, dear old chop-until-you-drop Dean Ornish will go. I can find potfuls of healthy recipes online, but the soup-stained pages of Betty’s book abound with memories. 
 
So too the Norwegian Christmas recipes booklet, from which I made Paul’s favorite, Risengrot, or rice porridge. A simple dish that requires only several hours of stirring off and on to produce a fragrant concoction to spoon into bowls, sprinkled generously with sugar and cinnamon, then topped with a pat of butter and a dash of heavy cream. Norwegian custom had it that whosoever got an almond in their bowl would have their wish granted. Being British and not given to chance, I made sure that both Paul and I had an almond with each and every bowl. My wish was always for the caloric content of the dish to be cut in half.
 
My current favorite cookbook is The Pie Place cookbook. And NO, not just because Paul and I are in it! I am working my way through making a recipe a week. They are all so good and easy to do. I’ll admit that we did spend so many good times at the old and new restaurant that the Pie Place family has a special place in my heart. It was always where Paul wanted to go. Unless of course he was hankering for a Blue Water strawberry malt and grilled cheese sandwich, which he persistently called “girl cheese.”  His old childhood buddy Supe (for Superman) Lundsten called it that, he always reminded me. And by saying that, Paul usually started spinning one of his famous yarns about growing up in Excelsior on the shores of Lake Minnetonka and all of the kids and situations he encountered.
 
Food, recipes, stained and torn cookbook pages... all of these conjure up times past, people loved and places in the heart. Even the way people eat their food feeds memory: For me, the first bite into corn on the cob brings a clear picture of my missionary aunt Nellie on summer visits to our cottage in Ocean City, New Jersey when I was little. Nellie could talk a blue streak even as she stripped the corn off the cob, which traversed her mouth like a typewriter roll as she carried on about her latest shell treasures found at the beach. As for watermelon, it calls to mind Nellie’s tobacco-chewing husband, Clayton, as rough as she was polished, who could send one shiny black melon seed from his lips, up and over our porch railing, clearing the lawn and sidewalk and landing in the street. Mother was always terrified he’d land one in a passing car. And I always prayed he would.
 
Foods that feed memory satisfy more than mere hunger. They fill me with gratitude. Make me laugh, even.  And best of all, they’re calorie free.
But back to the coming winter and my wooly bear sighting. So taken aback was I when examining the little blackguard, that I decided to find out just how accurate predictions based on his fuzz color were.
 
And I am sorry to say, they seem to be - if not bang-on, pretty darned good.
Back in the 1950s  one C.H. Curran, curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History, tested and confirmed - sort of - that the little larval stage of the Isabella tiger moth has an 80 percent accuracy in predicting the severity of winter. And so I am thinking that I had better put in a call for yet more maple and birch logs. Beyond that, perhaps it would be prudent to add to my stack of books as I cull: Say, cull two, buy one new? 
 
I’ll stock up on rice too. Ditto butter and cinnamon and almonds. After all, one can’t be too cautious in this part of the world. For as a very wise young man told my visiting grandson this summer, “The wilderness can be harsh, dude.”

(Photo by Tony Fischer Photography via Flikr)


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