Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Digging Beets near Winter Solstice

These are the quiet days approaching the Winter Solstice, when the earth and activity on it seems to slow down, waiting for the darkest time of the year. Here on an island, in a far northern latitude, the darkness lasts longer, and can almost be felt. The foot of snow that fell ten days ago was washed away by a tropical storm yesterday and the day before, with winds to 60 mph and nearly 6" of rainfall, accompanied by temperatures in the 50s which unfroze the ground. Today when the sun came out I lifted the row covers and saw the Red Sails lettuce had survived the month's early freeze and then the snow, so I harvested much of what was left of it. I looked over at the chard leaves and the beet greens, still filled with rich color, and decided to harvest the remaining beets--all of the Bull's Blood variety. 

Beets aren't something grown here very often, so I'm not experienced in how late they may remain viable; but seven beets ranging in size from spinning tops to a couple the size of baseballs came out of the ground without a struggle and were washed and their tops taken off except for an inch or so, then put into the refrigerator for storage. I will boil a few tomorrow or the next day and see how they taste. Are they old and tough? Do they have white rings in the interior? Did their taste deteriorate completely in the freeze? The little research I've been able to do on whether beets survive freezing is inconclusive. Frost and light freezes, yes; but after the snow we had a hard freeze for a couple of nights with the temperature down to about ten degrees fahrenheit at the lowest. Tomorrow I'll look more closely at the chard and if it's not too old and tough, take a few leaves to add to the supper. Unlike human beings, these remaining "half hardy" garden plants--the beets, chard, cabbage, parsley, lettuce--do not die all at once. There is no stopping of a beating heart, no precise marking of time, as of a solstice; as the deepening cold enters them, night after night, they fade, they fail, they curl, they draw inward, until they will no longer revive in the warmth of the next morning's sun.

All December thus far, I have been reading drafts of doctoral dissertations submitted to me by my graduate student advisees. I expect to be reading them for another couple of weeks, at least. These book-length works are the result of each student's three years of course work in our PhD program in ethnomusicology, plus several years of original research and writing on a topic of the student's own choosing. Although they have been among the most successful scholars in their fields, writing a work of this nature and length is not easy no matter how well one is equipped; and my responding to them with comments and suggestions for revision takes a good deal of thought and time. But if there is any season that is most favorable for harvesting doctoral dissertations, it is the winter solstice, when everything seems to be coming toward a point of rest, until the earth tilts forward on her axis and the days start to lengthen once more, promising the new year.

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