Most evenings I teach English as a second language in order to stretch the family budget a bit. The lessons are based on the same principle as my blogs and newsletter. A cup of tea and some food for the soul are crucial.
One class has been going on for seven years at a local community center. It's a small group of women who meet every week for tea and conversation with my interjections on grammar for spice. And this is by no means a group of only young ambitious women. Our elder is seventy-three and she's the only one who consistently does her homework.
A couple of weeks ago a hard frost came through in mid-April and killed just about everyone's tomato and cucumber starts. Only the eldest was spared.
She hunkered over her notebook filled with carefully noted English sentences and fairly cackled with delight, "Too early for seedlings last week. Now I'll put them out and then when the last frost comes with the three frozen men, I put a candle in the greenhouse. That will keep them snug. Just a little candle."
I had fared better than most because I hadn't had time to put out all of my seedlings yet. But by the first week in May I had to plant them. And I thought they would be fine. The weather had obviously turned to late spring with grass shooting up and everything starting to bloom.
But then out of the north it came--a huge storm of rain and sleet. We were on a bike ride with friends at the time and expected only a little spring shower. We stashed our bikes beneath an awning and took shelter in a restaurant for soup and hot chocolate. But then we watched with trepidation as a deluge flooded the road. Sleet fell white amid the pouring rain.
And the air behind the cloud bank was ice cold. For three days it stayed and I learned this is what the old-timers here call "the three frozen men." There are always three days in May when a wall of Arctic air comes down to destroy crops and cripple orchards in Central Europe. It often falls on the days named after the Czech saints Pankrác, Servác and Bonifác--three grim old men with severe faces.
I hurried to cover my tender squash seedlings that evening. But my greatest fear was for the tomatoes and peppers in a small greenhouse. It isn't just frost they won't tolerate but anything close to it.
Feeling a bit like I was reenacting a folk superstition, I took a candle and a prayer to the greenhouse late in the evening under the light of the full moon--now shining in a clear, frosty sky. My breath froze in silver clouds as I stepped inside. The frost was already creeping in.
The next morning I woke up to a world gone unseasonably white. The blossoming plum trees were coated in ice. The grass was crunchy under foot. Even the soil had frozen half an inch deep. According to local measurements, the frost had lasted at least 6 hours throughout the night. It was much harder than I'd expected.
Some of the covered plants suffered frostbite. Anything vulnerable that wasn't covered was entirely gone. But the peppers and tomatoes were fine with the candle still burning in the dawn--a tiny flame but just enough to keep the frost at bay.
I look forward to going back to the tea-and-chat circle next week to compare notes and tell how it really is the case that we need the wisdom of old-timers.
In hunter-gatherer societies and even in the days when most people lived through farming, elders and their experience had a crucial place for precisely this reason. But today with chemicals and technology so much has changed that it's hard to remember to listen.
Yet these are the days when a frost of another kind is coming down--the chill of authoritarianism and xenophobia. There are signs from all sides that times will be hard.
For me this is a timely reminder to pay attention to those with long experience. And to simply listen to long-burning candles in the frost.