At long last, summer has arrived

summer flowers, flower gardens
Early summer flowers. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

By Bruce Stambaugh

Summertime. Isn’t that an absolutely gorgeous word? Let it roll off of our tongues and past our moist lips slowly, magnificently, joyfully.

Those of us who reside east of the Mississippi River and north of Disney World endured a long, hard, cold, snowy, record-setting winter. It’s truly a blessing to say that lovely word, summertime.

It’s not like we’ve earned summer either. We just have longed for the expected warmer, more pleasant weather, plus its immeasurable benefits.

Though the summer solstice doesn’t officially arrive until June 21, that’s become insignificant, even obsolete. Here in commercialized America, we’re accustomed to the definition of summer as the days between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

I know I am not the only one that is thankful that June is here. With apologies to Walt Whitman, I can indeed see and hear America singing. All I have to do is be attentive.

The early summer flowers, the irises, poppies, and petunias are or soon will be blooming. So are the weeds.

raking hay, Amish, making hay
Making hay. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
The days are not only longer when measured in daylight hours; they are warmer and more humid, too. That is the norm.

Of course as part of America has already experienced, we’ll likely have our share of hazardous weather. That, too, is within the season’s nomenclature.

The first cutting of hay, whether by horse and sickle or tractor and big round baler, has commenced. School years have ended, except for educational institutions that offer additional classes. They are appropriately called summer school.

Bobolink, song birds
Male Bobolink. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
We humanoids aren’t the only one’s happy about the transformation. The birds and the bees have gotten a head start on articulating their predestined survival behaviors. Shorebirds, songbirds, and yard birds will fledge their young, and begin a second brood if there is time.

Soon lightning bugs will be rising from fields and grasses, blinking under spacious, starry skies. It’s a scene of which I hope I never tire. If the grandkids visit, we’ll fill jars and watch the incredible insects glow, and then release them to do their thing, the bugs not the grandkids, that is.

Boats big and small will cut temporary wounds into placid waters, which will heal themselves with no thought whatsoever by either the offender or the offended. The squeals of a toddler’s first catch of the year or the rich laughter of children diving into tepid water at dusk will confirm summer’s presence.

boat at sunset, wake
Slicing through. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015
Produce stands have already begun to present seasonal rewards. Patient diligence will yield even juicier, tasty results. I gladly anticipate fresh buttered beets, succulent heirloom tomatoes and savory, sweet mint tea, leaves right from the garden.

Long-delayed chores can finally be completed. Weathered house siding will be revived with fresh coats of brightness to complement immaculate gardens full of rainbows of color and busy insects and critters.

I’ll sit on my back porch on a luxurious summer’s Sunday evening and listen to the clip-clopping of the horses as they carry home families early and courting teens late. I can hear the latter coming from a half-mile away, boom boxes blaring.

Vacations will bring thousands of tourists to Ohio’s Amish country, where I live, to witness some of those native interactions. Wise locals will flee to beaches or mountains or solitude.

As I write, a framed placard on the wall of the summer home of a friend succinctly summed it up. “Miracles are as close as the heavens above and the blossoms beneath.”

Amen to that and a hardy welcome to all that summer has to offer.

pastoral scene, Holmes County Ohio, sheep grazing
Pastoral scene. © Bruce Stambaugh 2015

© Bruce Stambaugh 2015

What Dog Days of summer?

waitingforharvestbybrucestambaugh
Waiting for harvest. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The summer of 2014 was so cool and quiet that the Dog Days hardly even growled, until recently. Even then, it wasn’t much more than a whimper.

Of course, there are scientific theorems and meteorological terms that offer up logical reasons for the unseasonably cool summertime weather we have experienced here in northeast Ohio. I won’t pretend to describe or pronounce them. To do that, I’d actually have to understand them first.

I did hear a meteorologist say that the weather system in place over us was akin to the polar vortex that vexed us all winter and spring. With these late summer steamy days, I think I finally thawed out from that inhospitable experience.

I never imagined that that strong system would continue to influence our weather well into the summer. But it did, and I’m glad. Hot, humid weather and I aren’t best buddies.

After all you could always put more clothes on if you’re too cold. But you can only take so much off when summer throws a temperature tantrum.

summeroasisbybrucestambaugh
This has been a recurring scene in Holmes County, Ohio this summer, with saturated lowlands, and verdant hillsides. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

After the long, cold, snowy winter followed by the extended, chilly, wet spring, I feared a mostly hot, dry summer. That happened at too many other places around the country and the globe, but not here. The greater Holmes County area has been transfixed in its own little verdant oasis.

Despite the last minute warm up, this summer may turn out to be one of the coolest and wettest on record. If it is, I won’t complain. Then, again, my basement didn’t flood either.

Anecdotal evidence supports my assertions. Even horse drawn reapers couldn’t get through their hayfields to make the first cutting. The extra tall and thick legumes they attempted to mow bound up the machines.

The number of days the high temperature hit 90 could be counted on one hand. No 100 days were recorded. I was awakened at night more by cool breeze blowing through the screens than the air conditioner winding up beneath our bedroom windows.

I packed clothes for all four seasons for our weeklong family vacation on Lake Erie’s southern shore. My layered attire proved most practical.

flowergardenbybrucestambaugh
Flower garden. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

My wife’s flower gardens were gorgeous, the blossoms bright, big and beautiful. Our heirloom tomatoes seem to love this weather as well. They are the largest and most plentiful we have ever grown. The load of manure our Amish neighbor delivered probably helped, too.

Lawn care professionals, excavators, painters and construction workers struggled to keep up with their promised jobs. The grass grew so fast even the earthworms had to get out of the way.

It was so cool driving along the interstate in New York, I was certain snow was drifting on Lake Erie’s ice pack. My passengers assured me the drifts were huge whitecaps breaking. Nevertheless, I still wore my hoodie when we stopped for a much needed break.

I realize that summer isn’t officially over yet, and additional heat and humidity is still possible. But with both the bird migration and the new school year in full swing, the time has long passed for summer’s warmest days.

Besides, if you’re sharp, you’ll notice that the leaves on some luscious deciduous trees have already begun to blush their warm fall colors. Minute by minute, sunrise is later each day, and sunset sooner.

With that in mind, the Dog Days of summer, as tardy as they were, should stop barking any day now. For me, it can’t be too soon.

dogdayssunsetbybrucestambaugh
Dog Days sunset. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

The sweetest part of summer

Cooking corn by Bruce Stambaugh
By Bruce Stambaugh

Growing up in my post-World War II world, our family always had a garden. It was a logical way to keep the expenses down for our energetic family of seven.

Even as children, we knew Dad didn’t make much money. He worked hard at his white-color job. He left early and arrived home in time for the staple supper Mom always had waiting for him and the five of us ornery kids, although I think I was easily the best behaved of the bunch.

Mom worked hard, too, without a paycheck. Like most women of the era, she was a professional homemaker. She was at home all day, and during the summer months so were her five children.

She trusted us to roam the neighborhood as long as we checked in from time to time. Cell phones and texting weren’t even bad ideas then.

When Dad arrived home, the tempo changed. If my two brothers and I weren’t playing baseball, we, along with our two sisters, piled into the 1947 two-door, cream-colored Chevy, and headed to the garden two miles away. The land around our suburban home was too small to support a substantial garden.

A friend of Dad’s allowed us to use a portion of his property to garden. We planted, hoed, weeded and watched the crops grow. We cared for potatoes, green beans, radishes, carrots, peppers, and my favorite, sweet corn.

Rainbow of peppers by Bruce Stambaugh

Like a kid on Christmas morning, I couldn’t wait for the corn to ripen. Every trip to the garden I would squeeze the ears to see if they were filling out. When the tassels turned from blonde to brown, I knew the corn was close to being ready.

I loved the smell of corn, stalks and ears alike. Dad showed us how to carefully peel back the husks for a peek to confirm that the ears were ripe. For me, there was something special about the sharp sound of Dad yanking the corn free from its mother stalk. We took turns carrying the plump ears to the wheelbarrow at the end of the rows.

Husking corn by Bruce Stambaugh
Husking sweet corn is still a family affair in our household.

We loaded the car trunk with our golden treasure and headed home. We all helped husk the tender ears. We worked as fast as we could, knowing full well that the quicker we got the corn cleaned, the sooner we could enjoy it.

We ate some, and we froze some. By we, I mean my mother of course. Cooking the corn in the pressure cooker always unnerved me. I guess I was fearful of its scary hissing sound. Thankfully, my wife now just cooks the corn in a kettle on the stove.

Freezing corn by Bruce Stambaugh
Though my wife cuts the kernels from the cob before cooking the sweet corn, she still uses Tupperware and other similar contains to hold the corn in the freezer.
Mom ran the cooked corncobs down a wooden corn cutter. The yellowy kernels and sweet juice dripped into a marbled blue and white porcelain bowl. We helped fill the Tupperware containers, and once they cooled ushered them downstairs to the freezer.

Having sweet creamed corn in the middle of winter was a special treat. Still, it couldn’t compare to holding a freshly buttered and salted ear and crunching those tasty rows of kernels.

The ripening corn crop did have one drawback, however. When we were done harvesting and freezing the Iowa Chief, we knew it was time to start school.

Years later, here we are again near summer’s end. School is set to begin or already has. The tender sweet corn is already in the freezer, although it’s now Incredible, not Iowa Chief.

Sipping my morning coffee, I watch the school buses pass by the house. At my age, it’s the sweetest part of summer.

This column appeared in the Bargain Hunter, Millersburg, OH.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2012

Strawberries: It must be summer

By Bruce Stambaugh

If there were a fruity harbinger of summer, the strawberry would be my pick. Here in Ohio’s Amish country, we know it’s summer for sure when the strawberries ripen.

I for one couldn’t be happier. I love strawberries, especially the homegrown ones. They just seem to taste better, are sweeter and juicier than those off-season berries imported from some foreign place like California.

There are many ways to enjoy the delectable little fruit. I can eat these fresh picked strawberries individually by separating them from their pixy green cap, plop them on my cereal, bathe them in a bowl of skim milk or in a fresh strawberry pie.

As good as those all may sound, my favorite strawberry treat is my wife’s incredible shortcake. I pile the ripe berries high on top of this wonderfully textured and even better tasting delight. Save the whipped cream. I use milk on my strawberry shortcake.

Strawberries are summer’s first fruit, an edible sign that there are many more fruitful treasures to come, apples, peaches, pears, raspberries and watermelon to name a few. Perhaps that is the real reason I savor the luscious red berries so much. Strawberry time equals summertime.

Youngsters patiently sit by the roadside with a wagon or small table loaded with quart baskets bulging with fire engine red berries picked just that morning. It usually doesn’t take them long to sell out.

Strawberries, the only fruit with its seeds on the outside, are finicky to grow. In this climate, they have to be almost babied. Strawberries are susceptible to hard winter freezes, late spring frosts that damage the tender blossoms, too much rain, not enough rain, hail, mold and mildew, and hungry birds and critters.

I inherited my love of strawberries from my father. Dad loved to round up as many of his willing offspring as he could and head to a patch often miles away just to save a little money. The berries were cheaper if you picked them.

When we got home, the family fun continued. We helped Mom cap the berries, meaning we removed their contrasting green stem. Mom would sprinkle them with a little sugar, and then pummel them with a potato masher.

That method blended the berries together in a tasty, sweet slurry, half juice, half berries, that we poured over those store-bought round shortcakes. The cakes soaked up the juice like a sponge. We always had the option of adding whipped cream or ice cream to compete the marvelous, well-earned dessert.

Of course, all the berries weren’t eaten fresh. We froze some for later in the year, and made strawberry jam, too. The jam was good, the memories better.

I realize that the benefits of summer go far beyond fresh strawberries. The extended daylight hours more than balance out those long, cold nights of winter.

Just a few warm days strung together, and the three feet of snow that we had in February alone is long forgotten. It is precisely those warm days and nights, coupled with occasional rains that help create a successful strawberry harvest.

I am more than happy that summer weather has arrived. To have strawberries as the season’s first fruit is a delicious bonus.