For the past few days I have been doing what my grandmother called “redding up,” tidying and organizing several compartments of my life.
First I gathered up my gardening journal and the muddy, crumpled pieces of paper I’d been stuffing into it all summer. I read through the summer’s gardening notes from the beginning-- “3/12: planted radishes in greenhouse” to the end --“11/5: ate last fresh tomatoes, picked 10/16 and ripened on the windowsill.”
On 5/1 we ate the first radishes from the greenhouse, though they may not have been those planted in March. On 4/27 we planted half the potatoes; the harvest is in the basement of the retreat house, at least a hundred pounds. We planted them on the surface of the ground and covered them deeply in old hay mulch.
But my intent wasn’t to reminisce, but to collect information from the journal that will help with next year’s garden. The peppers and tomatoes I started April 1st didn’t do well since my greenhouse is unheated; I’ve learned from that mistake-- just as I try to learn from my mistakes in writing. On 5/28 I planted Habanero pepper plants in my cold frame but the season simply wasn’t long enough; they set on blossoms about the time of the first freeze and the cold frame didn’t protect them enough. Planting basil in my garden hasn’t worked; too many hoppers, so I planted it in pots on the deck this year and still have one pot growing vigorously in the living room after harvesting all we can use for pesto and drying plenty for winter use. The Early Perfection peas were blooming on 6/10 while the Alaska peas were still short; I was eating reliable Cherry Belle radishes.
As I read the journal, I make notes that will help me in 2012: “Plant turnips in center of garden and then till under for fertilizer,” reads one. And “Plant early perfection peas on tomato cages.” Research is as much a part of gardening as it is of writing, so I’m reading The Seed-Starter’s Handbook by Nancy Bubel, a gift from Tam, noting her suggestions beside my own.
Once I’ve organized the notes, I draw a new garden plan, deciding where to move plants to fresh soil, deciding what to plant and what not to plant. I didn’t bother with sweet corn this year: we haven’t had a good crop in three years and it’s readily available in farmer’s markets so we support the local economy by buying it. I may give up on asparagus; it hasn’t thrived despite my best efforts-- a reminder that, just as in writing, I must sometimes decide that a project just isn’t working. I prefer to consider this an acknowledgment of limitations rather than failure.
I started eight varieties of tomatoes in my tiny unheated greenhouse and brought only about five varieties to maturity, so I wonder if my local nursery might start some of my favorite types. The Manitoba and Glacier did well and were especially tasty, perhaps even better than my favorite Early Girl.
Sorting the seeds I have left, I arrange them in my wooden seed box by the date I’ll plant them-- from a few weeks before our last average frost date of May 24-- and make notes on the seeds I need to buy, before tucking the seed box in my freezer. I’ve had good luck saving radish, pea and bean seed this way so I can buy bargain seed when I see it and count on a pretty good sprouting rate for several years.
Once that job is finished, I turn to the wire basket full of brown paper bags of seed I’ve been collecting since August, some domestic and some wild; gaillardia and goblin gaillardia; Echinacea and pot marigold; bread poppy. Wearing tough rubber gloves-- because Echinacea and gaillardia have prickly seeds and pods that can stay in your fingers a long time-- I crush the seed heads between my hands, separating the seeds. Gaillardia has a bittersweet, almost peppery scent that reminds me of the hint of frost at sunset on a September day.
I package some seeds to give the Great Plains Native Plant Society seed exchange and some for friends. Then I roll up the paper bags to hold the rest of the seeds and hang the basket in the basement, out of our way where the furnace will keep them dry. On cold winter days, as I prop my boots beside the furnace to dry, I’ll glance up and know they are waiting to be scattered.
Eyeing my spice cabinet while I wait for the pressure cooker at noon, I found a red bottle of ancient tarragon; I washed it thoroughly before refilling it with the freshly-dried herb. Juniper seeds! I brought them from Cheyenne where I didn’t have juniper trees. To add the savor of juniper to a venison or beef stew these days, I’ll just dash to the windbreak for fresh berries; the grouse and cedar waxwings won’t eat them all.
While doing these tasks, I often dash into my office to scribble a note on one of the two books I’m working on-- because “redding up” time is good thinking time, and thinking is writing. I can be quietly recalling how the tomato plants looked in July and suddenly slip into a thought that results in a paragraph. I keep the two binders holding the rough drafts of the books on my desk so I can make a note there or in the appropriate file on the computer.
Doing tasks that don’t require complex thought allows my mind freedom to consider the possibilities of both books, recalling relevant dreams or ideas I might not have written down thoroughly enough earlier.
Once I really start a writing project (or in this case admit that I had started thinking about a couple of different writing projects over the past three years), then in a sense I’m writing all the time. The key to collecting thoughts is to be ready for them. At home, I keep my larger journal at hand during the day and night for lengthier notes. When I’m in town, instead of juggling the bulky journal with my shopping lists, I reach for the tiny notebook I keep in a zip compartment in the back of my purse. When I come home, I enter those scribbled notes in the appropriate spot: “redding up” again.
Perhaps readers picture us writers sitting at our computers, writing long seamless sentences that flow smoothly onto the pages of printed books. Instead, writing alternates chaotic flurries of ideas with flat spaces featureless as bathroom tile, a stop-and-go business. We collect bits of memory and image and dialogue and story and imagination. We stitch this colorful jumble together, pricking our fingers often, into something that we hope resembles a quilt but which may turn out to be a rag rug.
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“Redding up,” grandmother called it when she picked up our empty teacups (she made mine weak, with milk) and put them into the dishpan. Then she brushed the gingersnap crumbs off the old round oak table (I heard that the relative who took it painted it black) into her wrinkled hand and tossed them out the door. One of the hens pecking around the rock step would raise her head, murmur “Cluuuuuuck?” and dash over to tidy away the crumbs.
Grandmother would pour hot water from the teakettle always steaming on the wood stove over the dishes from lunch, add a little soap and a little cool water from a pitcher and wash while I dried them on a soft old dishtowel that’s likely still in my cupboard. Then she’d dry her hands, hang up her apron, nod with satisfaction and we’d sit down in our chairs to do a little reading before it was time to feed the chickens and gather the eggs. We’d read quietly together, the only sound the turning of pages, the shuuuuuush as the coals settled in the stove, the tick of cooling cast iron. Having done a little “redding up,” we felt comfortable, prepared for whatever came next.
I’ve never questioned the origin of the expression but I give in to the temptation to investigate online and find varied possibilities. Many people heard the term regularly somewhere in the south, though several Pennsylvanians quote their mothers as using it. One writer says it’s used in the Shetland islands and another quotes the Scots dictionary definition: “To clear (a space, or a passage) by removal of debris, undergrowth or other encumbrances.” Anyone who has listened to bluegrass music and musicians has some idea how deeply Scots immigrants have influenced Southern culture.
My grandmother was born Cora Belle Pearcey (or Pearcy) on October 9, 1891, daughter of Lafayette Pearcey and Jeannette Smith. At the age of 17 in 1906, she moved with her parents from Swann, Missouri where she was probably born, to Wheatland, Wyoming, by horse-drawn wagon. She was definitely a Southerner; when she spoke of black people, she used the Southern pronunciation “nigra,” which designated color while showing respect.
Smiling as I thought of the way her eyes twinkled behind her glasses as she “redded up” her little cabin, I’ve bustled around for several days feeling as if she just stepped into the other room to make us some tea to go with the gingersnaps she kept in her cookie jar. (And I wish I knew where that cookie jar went after her death.)
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No doubt writers have had no trouble deciphering the metaphors. Redding up is part of writing as well as housekeeping. Going back over my gardening notes gave me an opportunity to organize the information I’d written down while I was busy gardening but had been too busy to fully absorb-- just as going back over a draft allows one to check for corrections as well as thinking about how the whole piece of writing is coming together.
We can check them off: learn from our mistakes; plan ahead; stay organized. A writer’s desk may look jumbled to someone else but if the writer isn’t organized she’ll waste valuable time when moments of pure inspiration strike. When I’m tired or feeling as if I’m doing too much, I may take a day to organize. Sorting through ideas may allow me to discard some and organize others in such a way that I can use them later if they don’t fit the project I’m working on now. And I may discover that an herb or an idea I’ve been hoarding can be replaced by something fresher and tastier.
Finally, of course, it’s easy to berate yourself for not writing when you spend the day looking at old notes or shuffling pieces of paper into files and drawers or sorting seeds or herbs and spices. But after I finished both those chores, I expanded the notes I’d made into this little essay, so I’m filled with the joy of having written. And I know that my garden, my spice cabinet and my writing files are neater and thus more ready for the serious work of growing and flavoring food-- and creating prose or poetry I can consider finished-- than they were this morning.
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