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Friday, April 29, 2011

No. 33 "They grew so fast ... they were keeping me awake at night."

It’s growing season on the Island! On the map it may look like just another sandbar of the lower Outer Banks, a large shoal at the junction of Core and Back Sound. But the Island has a surprisingly rich soil. Just look at the lush vegetation that covers both the virgin and developed plots. I don’t know that there was ever anything large enough to have been considered a farm, but there were lots of gardens – a whole lot of them – and they were all over the Island, from Red Hill and Oak Hammock to Academy Field and Shell Point.

Summer gardens had a little corn, and maybe a few beans, but they were mostly for tomatoes and cucumbers. A few sweet potatoes were planted in the early fall, and some “Arse” (Irish) potatoes in the early spring. Winter gardens were an almost exclusive domain for collards, and after the first frost you could smell them being cooked with fatback everywhere you went.

Will Odie (Willie O.) Guthrie had one of the biggest gardens. It was beside his house nested at the foot of Red Hill, and it seemed as if something was growing there year round, as he could be seen in his garden almost every day. Aaron Moore, just up the path from our house, also had a large garden and nurtured as if it were a baby. He spent many hours either bent over pulling weeds or chopping with a hoe to cultivate the soil. His efforts were well-rewarded, for him and the whole neighborhood, when his potatoes and corn were ready for digging or picking.

The same shad and pinfish that were used to bait crab pots, or thrown to the gulls, were often used for fertilizer. I recall seeing Aaron with a shovel, opening a small crease in the soil next to his plants, and then dropping a small shad into the hole just close enough to the root as not to “burn it” with nitrogen when it decayed. He must have known what he was doing, because his garden was always green and grew so tall that we children could hide inside the rows.

While it was true that many families had a garden, almost every home had a chicken coop (pen). The sound of hens cackling and roosters crowing in the morning was at least as familiar as the squawking of gulls and shore birds (see post no. 32). As a child I was often sent to the coop early in the morning to gather eggs. Several times each year Mama would allow the hens to “set” and soon there would be a bevy of “biddies” following close behind their own mama as she scratched around our yard. It was while observing this phenomenon that I came to appreciate a saying that I would hear or use all of my life. Once you have ever been around one, you will know exactly what is meant when someone is said to be “as mad as a wet setting hen.” Even having experienced that first hand, I came to enjoy being around chickens so much that I eventually had both a Bantam and a Warhorse Game rooster of my very own.

But chickens were kept for more than their eggs. I can’t say that I ever got used to the ordeal of watching my father trap and capture a hen, and then “wring it’s neck” so that Mama could clean and cook it for supper. In fact, I tried really hard not to watch, and vividly recall running to the landing, or hiding behind my Daddy’s “little house” (shed) so that I would not have to see it. But my reservations must have been limited, because I was usually there to watch as my mother plucked or else “singed” away the feathers, and then cut the torso, legs, and wings into enough parts that all of us had at least one piece of fried chicken that night for supper.
My Uncle Loue (Big Buddy), my father's oldest brother

My Uncle Louie, Big Buddy to us (see posts nos. 6 & 14), had both a large garden, and small chicken coop. Especially after he married his second wife, Verna, who had been raised on a farm at Core Creek, he and she seemed to have something to eat out of that garden for every meal. The chicken coop was filled with a dozen or more “Rhode Island Reds” that would lay at least a dozen eggs every day, and they cackled so loud you could hear them even when the windows were shut. His plot was just to the west’ard of his house, and the chicken coop was to the south’ard of the garden. In early summer, the garden and chickens, along with several large fig trees, a grape vine, a silver maple, a persimmon tree, and an old hand pump on the edge of his porch, turned the southwest part of his yard into a bucolic dream-

Uncle Louie's house as it sat between ours and the landing.
Eventually, after both he and Verna grew too old to “mess” with the chickens any longer, he got rid of the coop and extended his garden to where the chickens had been for more than two decades. In that small plot, maybe six by ten feet, but no larger, he planted some peppers and tomatoes. Anyone who has ever struggled to grow either of them can imagine what those tomato plants looked like as they took root in soil that had been organically fertilized for such a long time. They grew so fast that my Daddy would go by there every evening to see just how they had grown that day.

Ultimately, on one of his visits he found the tomato plants laying on their side and piled together for the garbage. My uncle had cut them down. When asked why, he explained that,  “They grew so fast, and were making so much noise, they were keeping me awake at night!”

1 comment:

  1. I'd love to dig some taters in Uncle Willie's garden -- one more time! I can remember how the rows were lined up .. corn, pole beans, onions, the best cucumbers in the whole wide world, squash, lots of arsh potatoes and then the strawberries on the back side of the garden in front of the chicken pen and duck pen behind that. Every spring he'd get some "biddies" in the mail and they'd grow up in a carnation milk box in the corner of the kitchen. Every night daddy would take me across the road to check on them. I loved Aunt "Ooby" ( I couldn't say RUBY when i was very little) and Uncle Willie .. I could write a blog about them alone ... Mailboat bride, the day he broke both legs putting up light poles on the Island, the polk berries we played in, that swing in their front porch, her light rolls and iced tea brewed in the little burgundy tea pot .. No daycare on the planet could compare ..