Autumn’s Poet is a sample chapter in Daniel’s upcoming book, Permaculture Plants, co-authored by other Virginia-based Regenerative Farmers.
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The last cigar I smoked was in a room that I will never see again. It was a Romeo y Julieta and it was insufferable. Although the day was just beginning to cast its shadows, I had already suffered through two exams and twice that number of college lectures. It was past lunchtime and my stomach was mutinous. My pitiable attempts aside, the cigar’s light kept failing, for they require attention and breath and I had neither, for mine were fixed on the room. There are days in a man’s life that, looking back, he wishes he would have showered for; days that, had he known the coming power of that day before its sun rose, he would have donned his best and walked lightly through it. Today, unshowered and ill-shod, I stumbled through one of those days.
It was the fall semester of my sophomore year and I had just proposed to my now wife the week prior. The room was Dr. Peter Schramm’s personal library and the cigar was his humidor’s last. Just a number of months before his death, Dr. Schramm had invited me over to his house to discuss my engagement and future plans. We talked of neither.
Succession is diversity in motion and the produced stability is sometimes scary. Positioned across from him, our colliding ironies became clear: I was entering life and I believe that he knew he was leaving it. After we sat down and he offered me a glass of whiskey, Dr. Schramm asked if I had ever read any Mary Oliver. I had not, I returned bashfully. To this day I do not know whether this question was measured or impetuous. He loved poetry and everyone at the college knew it. But did he invite me here to read me a poem or talk about the future? It would happen that we did both. With many tens of thousands of books towering over us, he picked up the one that could not have been but fifty pages in length, its insignificant spine impossible for my eyes to locate within his library’s volumes. With untold familiarity, his fingers found the page and opened its text without attention, for his eyes had been permanently fixed on a tree just beyond the windowpane that sat just above his reading chair. A minute went by and then another.
To this day I cannot remember the tree’s species; I also cannot remember the color of its autumn leaves. I have tried many times; tried to put myself back in that moment with those eyes. Every time I succeed, however, my soul finds the room and not the tree and I see not the autumn colors but the old man looking out at them. I guess the truth is that, if there is sympathy to be found in this world, look to autumn and be nourished. Perhaps the tree and the man were the same thing, but more on that in a minute.
Possibly disturbed by the loud groans of my stomach, the old man finally left his amber colored tree and returned to the room. He was crying. Without an intro or preliminary remark, he read out loud Mary Oliver’s poem, Such Singing in the Wild Branches. This “pure and white moment,” to quote Oliver, changed my life forever. He read,
And the sands in the glass stopped
For a pure white moment
While gravity sprinkled upward
Like rain, rising.
Dr. Schramm wrote years before this moment that “every poem…contains words we’ve already encountered, but they’re made new because of the way they’re put together.” After finishing Oliver’s poem, he looked at me and said, “Isn’t that new; ‘like rain, rising.’” I think this was the reason he asked me to join him in his library that day. Autumn is poetry and he wanted to share the newness of its bounties. Autumn is a time where the old prepares for the new in seemingly marvel ways; where life may “put together” its tomorrow by losing its today. In many ways, autumn is, “like rain, rising.” And that is perfectly okay.
In his seminal work, One Straw Revolution, the “do-nothing” and Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka laments the state of modern agriculture and its dependence on separation and reductionism.
It is as if a fool were to stomp on and break the tiles on his roof. Then when it starts to rain and the ceiling begins to rot away, he hastily climbs up to mend the damage, rejoicing in the end that he has accomplished a miraculous solution.
Science—this stomping fool—, Fukuoka claimed, “has served only to show how small human knowledge [really] is.” Although one can find serious depth in Fukuoka’s work, perhaps his most piercing argument is his simplest. After a dialogue about returning humanity, its society, and, therefore, its agriculture toward the Great Way—which he defines as “the path of spiritual awareness which involves attentiveness to and care for ordinary activities of daily life”—Fukuoka does what the reader does not expect. He argues for poetry.
He contends that modern agriculture’s chemical dependence, tendency toward extreme-erosion and carbon-emittance, and universal health decline is a result of there not being enough “time …for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song.” How can poetry affect agriculture? Perhaps, the better question is what is needed to write a poem? Poetry is the crop of leisure, not haste, and only those not patching their roof in a rainstorm have the ability to write a haiku. Only those who work within the abundant patterns of the natural world have time to reap the harvests of the rain.
But poetry is also the commonplace cloaked in the semblance of the new; it is as a tree that casts away its yesterday for the light of tomorrow. Poetry is cigars and windowpanes and tears and death and life. It is the lesson of the library and the old man. It is regeneration, for in its depths we find a version itself. And the poetry of autumn is that the great American Persimmon loses its leaves to produce the leisure filled canvas of the new harvest.
Today, on our farm, the summer’s intensity leaves with the chlorophyll and the cooler temperatures bring the joys of calmer days. Chores begin to lessen; management transforms into planning and dreaming; the days grow tired; the rains once again visit the parched landscape; and my soul begins to sink into the hearth. Working with Nature may require everything you have, but in autumn, she requires only patience; she requires only leisure. In autumn, we transform into foragers—into poets—and we have just to wait for the first frost.
To forage is to have faith—faith that nature, in all her business and occupation, has not forgotten or neglected you. Perhaps, it is faith that Nature’s patterns and cycles are as constant and rhythmic as they are inclusive and loyal. Either way, Autumn’s welcoming chill shepherds a kingly and favorite forage on our farm: the lush and opulent wild American Persimmon–Diospyros virginiana.
J. Russel Smith argued that “the real opening, and great need for the persimmon, is for forage.” Perhaps, the best forage crops are great showmen, for their beauty and mystery capture the eye of the autumn sojourner and beckon his taste’s curiosity and wonderment. The show begins in early autumn. It first enters the grand stage by hiding its gumball sized fruits behind its dark and glossy foliage. In mid-autumn, in its attempt to bolster the visual barricade of its lusciousness, its green veil transfigures into a red-hued wall and becomes the ornamental pride of the landscape. Although hogs enjoy the first fruits that drop during this time, it is not until the frost comes and the leaves go that the fruit becomes fit for foraging.
Upon exploring Virginia’s interior, Captain John Smith wrote of the new and marvelous Persimmon tree, which “grow[s] as high as a Palmeta; the fruit is like a medlar; it is first green, then yellow and red when it is ripe; if it be not ripe it will draw a man’s mouth awire with much torment; but when it is ripe it is as delicious as an apricock.” Science claims that it is the frost’s bite that drives the tart tannins from its fruits, but I think that, like myself, the tree is simply tired and needs a moment of solace before its autumn harvest—like myself, she requires leisure.
Diospyros comes from the Greek root dios, meaning “god,” and pyros, meaning “grain or wheat.” Translated literally, the wild American Persimmon is the “grain of the gods.” Grain in the ancient world was synonymous to life itself—it was the giver of sustenance, the driver of the economy, and the lifeblood of civilization. Although select historians today argue against the direct link between the formation of agriculture and the materialization of civilization, the high nutritional value and storage abilities present in grain production definitively provided ancient man increased leisure in the true sense—“to be free,” or, licere in Latin—and allowed him to drop his guns and pick up a book.
The American Persimmon is also very easy to propagate. The best method is feeding it to hogs. The seeds require scarification and the digestion process of omnivorous livestock produce decent results. The hogs get fat and the seeds are prepared for planting. However, there is a cleaner and tastier method that includes saving the seeds after enjoying the fruit and then using the refrigerators as the cold-storage device. Propagation via softwood cuttings are also open to the forager—taken of first year growth and before the first frost—, but this method lacks the fun of hogs and taste of the fruit.
The search for freedom is what brings my family into the woods every autumn. We may spend the spring and summer cultivating the land but today we look to the forest to fertilize our soul. On the first frost of autumn, you’ll find our family’s hearth quiet, empty, and cold, for we are lost in the woods and are happily searching for our autumn grain—today, we feel like gods. Foraging for wild American Persimmons in our two hundred-acre forest brings sustenance to our tired souls and lifeblood to our aching bodies. Husbandry is hard, yes, but today, we are foraging and need only patience.
Elowyn, our two-year-old and rambunctious daughter, is the best at finding the ripest and most succulent Persimmon fruits. This does not surprise us, however, for only a child can truly see what nature illuminates. The taste of the fruit is equaled only by her joy in finding it. Sometimes, we make a game of it and see who can fill a five-gallon bucket the fastest. Morgan, my wife, is good at this contest and often wins; such is the foraging power of motherhood. On occasion, we neither eat nor collect any fruit at all and find ourselves speechless at the foot of these ornate giants.
The wildness of the American Persimmon is also its paradox: if it is the “grain of the gods,” and grain is the product of husbandry, of cultivation, and of partnership, then who is the husband? Let us not forget that even Diospyros virginiana is not self-fertile and its fruiting potential depends on a partner. Perhaps, this is the poetry; perhaps, the American Persimmon remind us of the newness of tomorrow’s life; “like rain, rising.”
But I leave this question for you, as I have never tasted a Persimmon fruit; I am highly allergic.