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Gatherings

by Julia Sneden

              Come, ye thankful people, come,
               Raise the song of Harvest Home;
               All is safely gathered in
               Ere the winter storms begin

       In this time of plenty, with its scientifically advanced agriculture and the myriad methods of preserving foods, (canning, drying, refrigeration with all its permutations like freezers, freeze-drying, etc.), the words of the old hymn may well be a mystery to our childrens children. They have only to accompany their parents to a grocery store to see that there will be plenty of food to last through the storms of winter. When I was a classroom teacher, I found that I needed to explain the term harvest itself, never mind trying to convey what it might have felt like to know that your root cellar didnt have enough potatoes to see you through to the next growing season. We are so far removed from our past as an agrarian society that weve forgotten that respect for the cycle of seasons was once a matter of survival. These days, we think about the seasons in terms of clothing, heating/cooling bills, and festivities associated with the time of the year.
     Even as far back as my own childhood in the late 30s and early 40s, my experience of sowing and harvesting was pretty much limited to the old songs I learned in Sunday School: 
                    We plow the fields and scaaat-ter
                      The good seed on the land
 we piped, we who had never sown seed anywhere. My Mother, in a fit of wartime patriotism, did plant a Victory Garden, but the hill where we lived backed up to a game preserve, and as soon as her vegetables appeared above the ground, the deer leapt the preserves eight-foot, barbed-wire-topped fence, and mowed her vegetables down.
      Still, every Sunday we sang: 
                      See the farmer sow his seed
                        Up the field and down.
                        God will make the golden wheat
                        Grow where all is brown.
     To the small children that we were, the whole business was nothing more than a song. I doubt we even figured out that flour came from the wheat. Flour was something that Mother kept in a big bin that pulled out from under the kitchen counter. 
     Still, there must be some kind of harvest memory in my genes, because every fall I find myself in the gathering mode. When I go out to walk, I pick up bits and pieces of autumn: acorns of different sizes; a rock with interesting lichen; a twig with a large gall on the side; leaves of every shape and color; seed balls from the sweet gum tree, and spiky chestnuts, some green and unopened and some brown and cracked open to show the two smooth seeds tucked into the nest of their furry lining.
     I press the leaves between sheets of newspaper and set them under my big, heavy Columbia Encyclopedia. In a couple of weeks Ill use a small circle of clear tape to stick them on the panes of my dining room windows. Not only are they lovely seasonal décor: the tape residue left when I pull them down after Thanksgiving ensures that I must wash my windows before Christmas. Ive lived with myself long enough to know that strong motivation is necessary.
     The other oddments get tossed into a flat, bronze, leaf-shaped bowl on my coffee table. Their placement was a happy accident: one time I came in with my hands rather full, and simply dropped my findings in the bowl and then forgot them. The next thing I knew, my family was complimenting me on my artistic arrangement. Nowadays they tease me about my treasures, but I observe that they enjoy rooting through them, and have even been known to add a few.
     At the grocery store, I find myself gathering again: lots of cans of soup; some lacquered gourds for a table decoration; so many boxes of pasta that Ill never use them all by spring. I fill my cart with the ingredients for chowders and crumbles and other warming foods, and even toss in a box of long matches for lighting the fire. I stock up on paperbacks, just in case winter comes early and were snowed in, a premature thought in October, but one never knows.
      Outdoors in the garden, I pull up the frost bitten annuals, and gather the seeds of the lab-lab beans and moon vine. I shake the dried heads of the tithonia and sift the falling seeds from chaff, and store them in a jar in the door of the refrigerator. I take cuttings from a favorite double impatiens, and set them under a grow-light in the basement. We plant some tulips, hoping that this year the voles wont get them even though we know they will. We clean and put away the garden tools, drain the hoses and store them for winter. We set a couple of pumpkins out on the porch, and hang some ears of Indian corn on the front door. 
     I begin to toy with menu ideas for Thanksgiving dinner (in the end, it always remains the same) and I start making lists of presents Ive already gathered for November birthdays and, heaven help us, Christmas. I count up how many beds will be needed when the family comes together for the holidays, and realize that well need to haul out the crib again for the new grandchild.
     The thought of my grandchildren brings a smile as I hum:
                      Come, ye thankful people, come,
                        Raise the song of Harvest Home
     Those children, of course, are the best harvest of all.

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