Round Robin: Lay-By Days

WOLFTOWN, Virginia–The Lord says that on the seventh day we should rest. I’d add that in the seventh or eighth month it is good to do the same: slow down, watch the grass grow, listen to the bees hum. Lady spends her dog-day afternoons lying in the shade. I lie in the hammock under two wonderful old oak trees.

My South Carolinian father-in-law called the muggy days of late summer “lay-by days”: “‘Cause after the tobacco and cotton were up and growing and the hoein’ and weedin’ were done, we laid by our farmin’ tools and went swimmin’ and fishin’, and when we were older, that’s when we did our courtin’.”

So in the heat of late summer, I tell the herbs that they have to fend for themselves while I go swimming or take a nap in the hammock. They seem content to do their own thing without my interference.

The cider vinegar is a few weeks into absorbing its tarragon flavor on the windowsill. The third seeding of basil is showing itself, so I’ll have enough for fall pesto making. My rosemary jelly (actually syrup, as it seldom jells firmly for me) is looking amber clear and beautiful in small jars, ready to take as hostess gifts for our traveling days. Mixed with yogurt and dribbled over a fresh fruit salad, this pungent jelly/syrup gets rave reviews. Chive blossoms, mint, marjoram, and thyme harvested in June are all hanging to dry on a clothesline in the furnace room. The water heater there aids in drying the atmo­sphere during Virginia’s steamy summers.

From the hammock, I watch the birds cavorting among the elderberries and gauging the days until the berries are ripe. They gorge on the sweet black berries, and I harvest the leftovers in the cool of the morning. Bags full of them are in the freezer ready for jelly making when the weather cools enough to work in the kitchen. I mix elder­berry and sumac juice together for a great drink or for jelly. The lemony sumac ­flavor tempers the slight mustiness of the elderberry, and the resulting pink lemonade color tempts the eye as well as the taste buds.

Early in the morning before breakfast, I try to gather the last of my everbearing Tristar strawberry wonders. Keeping watch on a nearby fence, the resident mockingbird considers me the raiding party, the pirate, and he (or is it she?) dive-bombs me in a sensitive place as I lean over to pick. We have a running argument over who really owns this patch.

But aside from the early morning harvesting, I spend my lay-by days in the hammock, reading or rereading Ellis Peters’s mysteries, with Brother Cadfael puttering around in his herb room, distilling medicinal potions, stirring herbal brews, and, of course, solving murders with his forensic herbal knowledge. My afternoons in the hammock are restful and restoring.

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