Autumn is generous and wise, and like the favorite aunt who visits once a year, we’re happy to see her come, and sad to see her go. She arrives with gifts, tells us ghost stories and funny ones, and reminds us to watch where we step. Here in the high country we’re always among the first to receive notice of her arrival.
For me it usually comes in on a wandering breeze, colder than expected, spilling down from the mountain and winding among the torpid buzzing of late August to brush against my neck with a reminder to take note. Green still surrounds us but a stray leaf, already yellow, drops from a tulip poplar. Soon, and so it seems without any warning, we wake up one morning to discover we need a jacket to take the dogs out.
Autumn is to the spirit what that first cold snap is to our need to dress appropriately. It reminds us there are cycles older than time, of unstoppable, inevitable, unremitting movement in sidereal splendor which reveals our tenderest notions and our hardest facts to be mist on a river. All the vanity and vexation in the world won’t stop the leaves from falling or Jack Frost from biting.
August turns to September and the sun riding lower in the sky now shines through an old blue jar sitting in my window. It’s old because it was made before 1937. It’s blue because of the minerals in the sand taken from Lake Michigan for the Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company, which made canning jars in Buffalo, New York. It sits in the window to remind me of people and times past, absent from this earth but alive in memory and in the hereafter.
We have a number of the old jars. Many are still in service, and knowing that would please my grandmother immensely. Some of the younger ones (less than half a century) still do canning duty. The older ones, becoming rarer and dearer as is fitting for that which is old, still contribute by vacuum sealing beans, dried apples and coffee for the larder.
There was nothing nostalgic about canning for the mountain people of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The practice may have taken on a golden glow of reflection in stories for the grandchildren, but for many families it was the crucial difference between staying healthy through the winter or going hungry.
For other families it was a choice for food independence and for many, even today, it is a choice for a quality that far surpasses what gets stacked on the shelves in grocery stores.
For those of you who still produce your own food and preserve it, whatever the reasons, you’ve probably heard it all before: “Why go to all that trouble when it’s cheaper in the store?” (Because what’s in the store is – cheaper.) “How do you know it’s safe?” (Do you even know the country of origin of that can of tomatoes you bought?)
Oddly, after the empty shelves of 2020 there were fewer questions and more people planting gardens and canning.
I have a feeling that here, within the valleys and coves of these old mountains, there are many of you who will still be canning next year, and the year after, not because of needs, but because of values. Those values are not as widespread as they used to be. They aren’t “trending.” But the people who cling to them tend to come back around, again and again, like the seasons.
Among that group I’m confident that some of you understand exactly why I keep that old blue jar in the window to catch the September sun and preserve the memories of Septembers long ago.