Celebrating the Autumn Equinox

September 23, 2019

One thing I love about living in Santa Rosa is seasons! Our garden still flourishes and flowers bloom, but one day in August, we could suddenly see that the height of summer was over and summertime had begun falling down. And now it’s the autumn equinox. Called Mabon by the Wiccans, the fall equinox marked the second harvest festival to the Celts. Day and night are of equal length and now dark will lengthen till the winter solstice when the light will start to gain again.

The big squash in the foreground came from last year’s Heirloom Expo

I don’t know exactly what the Celts harvested at the second harvest but here in Sonoma County September is the month of grapes and figs, and of course cannabis. Last year at the Heirloom Expo we drooled over a slew of fig tree species. I had grown figs in San Francisco but the one time a lovely Mission fig finally ripened a raccoon got to it before I could harvest, and broke the whole branch off in the process. That was it for me. That winter I dug out the entire plant. San Francisco’s foggy cool summers just don’t go with figs, although I did see some happy trees there, just not in my backyard. But figs love it here! So this spring we planted one. It’s called a Celestial, a small, rosy sweet fig, and we ate the first one in August. Also our neighbors T and JJ have a mature fig tree and I’ve been making myself sick on them. There’s nothing like a ripe fig perhaps eaten with a slice of local sheep’s milk cheese.

This is not an indictment of San Francisco weather (except when you’re freezing your ass off in the cold wind and fog waiting in line at the gay film festival in June!). I gardened in the same Bernal Heights yard for 38 years. There are some plants that thrive there. Nasturtiums! One year they took over the whole yard. I bought local gardener Pam Peirce’s books, learned about micro climates and the secret season that we didn’t have in my hometown of Yakima, Washington. I became friends with Pam and visited her abundant Excelsior back yard garden. But early on I gave up tomatoes and embraced flowers. Bernal Heights is just up the hill from the Alemany Farmers’ Market where every Saturday I could find seasonal organic produce. Why kill myself fighting shade and fog to grow some tortured veggies?

Zinnias! Love Santa Rosa, hate San Francisco

But tomatoes love the hot summers here. We are still harvesting tomatoes but it wasn’t like last year when we had to give bagsful away to neighbors. One plant suddenly died and gardener friends suggested gophers were eating the roots. Yikes! We had been happily gopher free. But I figured out the problem. I had watered the plant with a hose that had been sitting out in the hundred degree heat. I boiled the roots to death!

I didn’t make it to the climate march September 20. But I did eschew the car and take public transportation to Tradeswomen Inc.’s 40th anniversary celebration in Oakland where I got to commune with 400 tradeswomen. Then on Saturday night I took the Lamplight Tour of Santa Rosa’s historic rural cemetery. It’s a phenomenal production requiring the work of 120 volunteers who wrote, performed and organized eight vignettes about local history. We learned about the influence of the KKK in Sonoma County in the 1920s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Jack London’s story about a local miner and more. Something tells me I’ll get sucked into working with this group of citizens interested in local history.

Naked ladies bloom at the Rural Cemetery

And next week I’ll travel to Minneapolis for the Women Build Nations national tradeswomen conference where history will also be a focus of discussion. A lot of us old timers realize we need to be recording it now before dementia sets in. Along with Brigid O’Farrell I’ll be leading the writers workshop. Methinks a book is in the offing.

Wishing all an auspicious autumn season.

 

 

The Palace of Fine Ants

San Francisco, 1966

By Eric Johnson

At ten o’clock they called us all down from the scaffolds where we were finishing the tops of the columns of the Pantheon. All was ready for the next stage–arches and the first valance of the great dome. To duplicate in concrete the shapes of the original Maybeck design, a crew of plasterers & carpenters had worked for months on the huge forms.

We gathered in the covered building that is now the Exploratorium, to help get the first form out into the yard where the crane could attach & lift it. It weighed many tons, in an awkward, trapezoidal shape.  No combination of forklifts or dollies was thought possible to make a safe carry, so…they took us back to a time before tools.  Fifty of us ranged evenly around the form, waiting for commands–dusty men in ragged white overalls, hard-hatted in the old style resembling World War One helmets. Putting on gloves, testing the grip edge, preparing as if it were a track & field event. The initial swagger of the field carpenters damping down to admiration for what the ‘inside’ crew has built.

Howard, the Foreman, got our attention. On my say-so, you’ll all lift at once. If we get it up to our waists, then let’s set it back down slowly. This is just to get the feel of it.   Then he said LIFT–everyone grunted and strained…and nothing happened.  It felt as if you could never budge it.  Howard said to keep an even strain, not a jerk, and after a few seconds we felt it slowly rising.  An eerie thing. It seemed to take all one’s strength, everyone’s, to break the inertia. But once it began to rise, it felt light enough to throw.  Howard asked us how we were doing. Everyone said fine. Said let’s go! And he thought and then agreed: All right! So… you have to walk at the same pace…take small steps.

And then, another sensation of the Many Tons.  At first we could not move. I tried to step but the Form was staying put. I had to step back again, then strain against it as if shoving an elephant into her stall. But then there was that Shift as the current of our strain woke the monster…and we each managed to take a first step, in extreme slow motion. Now the Form seemed to wantto move. It accelerated a little, and one felt as if one had no choice now about the speed. Howard yelled out to keep an even strain.Men in front were pulling, and on the sides they were walking in an angled fashion…and it seemed all at once like the most exhilarating thing that ever happened to you! Like being gods, or dreamers in unison!  A nervy camaraderie pulsed around the rim in our grip. For me, a moment of reverie: this is something to always remember. What people can do in union! The Shakers, the Egyptians, harvests….

I think everyone was euphoric like that for a bit, and our momentum had increased until it was that of a serious hiker. Howard warned us that the turn coming up would mean the pivoting side should slow down. We all tried to gauge what that would mean for our own effort…but there was no way to command it, and we were having that same problem of inertia…we could not make the thing slow down orturn. It was going too far in the original track; we could see that the radius of the turn because of the great size of the form was already being exceeded.

I was straining with all my heart against the direction with no effect. Then there were some frightened yells as the men closer to the doorway began to think they might be crushed. Howard ran along the left side urging us to push harder. Someone on the far side had fallen as the speed changed, and then there was a near panic as that edge began to dip down…until some slid over to cover.

At last, the turn achieved its own momentum. The edge farthest from the pivoting zone was really picking up speed. The pivoters were almost standing still and the outer edge was moving as fast as a man could run…and run they did, one leaping clear as the form’s edge grazed the door walls, and all of us had a rush of dread as if seeing the iceberg scrape alongside our Titanic. The magical communal energy had ‘gone too far’; some of us were about to get mangled. Our fate was sealed as a team…abandoning the Form meant a lurching crash.The last ones holding on would die….I already felt the test coming over me; I was nearing the end of my stamina at this intensity of strain. It felt like my muscles would pop or rip and they were screaming at me to stop.

There was a staccato din of shouts to HOLDON! And…we did in fact hold on…the turn finally slowed itself, we passed out into daylight, and Howard ordered us to come to a full stop. Helpers came to arrange the lagging under the form, and we stood speechless, grinning across at each other in the exhilaration and relief. The barehanded, natural childbirth mass movement…had made it out the gate. We set it down and floated up to the scaffolds of the Pantheon…and back to work.

Eric Johnson, the author of this story, is a letterpress printer and founder of Iota Press and also North Bay Letterpress Arts in Sebastopol now with a dozen active printers. We met because I was researching the life of his mother, Miriam Dinkin Johnson, a daughter of one of the iconic Communist chicken farmer families of Petaluma. I was delighted to learn that Eric is a carpenter and storyteller too.