[Today’s post is a shortened version of an essay in That’s all she wrote. It just seems to fit right now, right here. If you wonder who “Mother Tough” is, she’s my alter persona, the voice in my two books.]
Autumn is a bittersweet time. Autumn is also bittersweet time. Read those two sentences again. There is a difference.
Most people regard the season as an ending. Me? I think of autumn as a beginning, a prelude, a brilliantly hued lead-in to my favorite time of year, a monochromatic, sparkly-white winter.
There’s nothing like the smell of autumn leaves unless, of course, it’s the smell of impending snow. Mother Tough’s nose always knows when snow’s on the way.
Still, autumn also brings melancholy memories of school starting, another year ticked off the calendar more definitively than the stroke of midnight New Year’s Eve, the familiar smell of white paste and Goldenrod writing tablets and the thrill of new puppy-loves that won’t last as long as Halloween’s pumpkins. …
… I love bittersweet, the twisty vine studded with bright red, orange-jacketed berries that festoons trees and fence posts. I had a lone source in the woods where we used to live.
After we moved [from way up north to southwest Virginia] —a bittersweet experience—I discovered the vine grows so profusely here that I’m spoiled for choice.
Who knew the very trail I walk almost every morning would be swathed in sweeping, trailing bittersweet? Who knew trees, poles, even rocks would be ensnared in bittersweet’s stranglehold?
Who could predict that having such an abundance of a woody vine would help tip Mother Tough’s emotional scales, balancing out the lack of really good, fresh apple cider, for example?
Cider. Another reason to love autumn. Even though Virginia is “apple country”—Winchester, in northern Virginia, hosts the famous annual Apple Blossom Festival each spring, for heavens sakes—local cider lacks substance. At least it is unpasteurized so it will ferment, but it’s rather insipid and smacks of too much cloying Golden Delicious and not enough of tart Winesap for balance.
So the very bittersweet that drapes our town like brightly beaded cobwebs makes up for the lackluster cider! …
… [For] years I thought bittersweet was a parasitic plant like mistletoe that mooched off the nutrients of the tree it climbed. Some references say bittersweet is also called deadly nightshade—certainly not something you’d want in your back yard! Imagine my surprise when I read a question in Country Living Gardener (August, 1998): “I would love to grow bittersweet in [our] woods,” the reader wrote, “as it is so expensive and difficult to find [for dried arrangements]. Is it difficult to grow?” The editor replied, “Bittersweet (Celastrus spp.) grows as a robust woody vine. The Chinese species (C. orbiculatus) is most widespread. In parts of the Northeast it has become an invasive exotic, swallowing up farm walls, fences, hedges, and shrubs with abandon. Similar, but not seen as often, our native C. scandens has been pushed out by its Oriental cousin in many areas. Best started as plants, both species are available from mail-order nurseries…”
All these years I wouldn’t have had to skulk around, secateurs in hand, clipping bittersweet and sneaking it home under my jacket! I could’ve grown my own!
Once I learned the Latin name, my further research told me bittersweet, in the Solanaceae family, is kin to belladonna a.k.a. deadly nightshade, as well as to henbane, mandrake, tobacco, capsicum pepper, tomato, and petunia. What a family! You can use it to poison, smoke, cook, or plant in your window box!
Mother Nature and Mother Tough must be cut out of the same bolt of cloth. Every year, I ooh and ah at the brilliant fall colors, as if I’d never seen them before, while Peter’s attitude is, “You’ve seen one red leaf, you’ve seen ‘em all.”
By the first autumn in our new locale, after we’d settled in a bit, we hiked some trails nearby, five miles from home if you fly with crows, 20 miles if you drive. One perfect fall day the sky was so blue it looked as if you could scrape the color off with a palette knife and see through to the heavens above. The leaves glowed. I gazed at the valleys at every overlook. “Isn’t this as pretty as anything you’d see in the Adirondacks?” Peter asked.
I had to admit, the views were actually more breathtaking, with vistas stretching northwest to West Virginia and southeast across the valley to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Though I will always miss the inky Adirondack lakes edged with scrims of balsams, our convenient access to the Appalachians and the Blue Ridge keep me in balance.
Ya’ gotta balance the bitter and the sweet!