A Moveable Fort

Presidio la Bahia, Goliad, Texas ~ 1910

The woman couldn’t have been more pleasant, or more accommodating. On the other hand, it was our fourth conversation, and it felt as though we were becoming friends. It wouldn’t have surprised me if we’d begun swapping recipes.

The first time we talked, it was because of a travel tip I’d discovered online after a post-Christmas trip from San Antonio to Port O’Connor. Alamo Plaza and the River Walk had been more frantic than festive, and I was in the mood to dawdle: taking time to stop in Panna Maria, the oldest Silesian settlement in the United States, and, farther south, at Goliad’s Presidio La Bahía and Mission Espíritu Santo, where I first saw an Agave americana decorated as a Christmas tree.

By the time I reached Goliad, the day had turned cloudy and damp, with occasional fits of rain. Driving up the hill for a desultory look around the fort, I decided against going inside. Previous visits had taught me something of its history and its importance for Texas generally, so I pulled away: thinking, as I did, that a springtime trip would be nice, especially after the flowers began to bloom.

On that day after Christmas, what I didn’t know — what I couldn’t have known — was that my next visit would take place sooner, be far different, and provide significantly more enjoyment than I ever could have imagined.

Early in January, while roaming the wilds of the internet, I stumbled across a post describing a family’s encounter with ghosts during an overnight stay at Presidio La Bahía. “Surely,” I thought, “you can’t just book a room there. It’s a fort, not the Hilton.”  As it turned out, I was only half right; the Quarters at the Presidio had multiple ratings on TripAdvisor. After pondering for a day, I called La Bahía.

Seemingly eager to chat, the volunteer who answered my call provided some details. The portion of the fort available for guests originally had served as the Presidio’s officers’ quarters. During a major restoration in the 1960s, builders incorporated a two-bedroom apartment to serve as a rectory for the chapel’s priests. Now, with the space no longer used by the diocese, anyone could rent the suite.

When I asked about cost, the figure quoted for a night was a bit pricey, but no more so than for hotels on San Antonio’s River Walk, or any number of high-end Texas resorts. “Why not?” I thought. “It’s a fort, not the Hilton.” Overcome by the thought of hobnobbing with the spirits of Colonel Fannin and his massacred men, I booked two nights in March, at the very beginning of wildflower season. Then, things became complicated.

Not long after I made my reservation, cataract surgery was added to my to-do list. Since the surgery dates conflicted with my time at the Presidio, I called to explain the situation, and reschedule my visit. I happened to reach the same volunteer, and we arranged for dates that seemed well beyond any recovery period.

When pre-surgery complications required another rescheduling, she said, “No problem. The Presidio’s not going anywhere.”

After circumstances forced yet another (and final) rescheduling, I apologized for causing so much trouble. I swear if we’d been talking in person, she would have patted my hand and said, “Now, don’t you worry.” As it was, she laughed, and said, “You’d better get those eyes fixed before you come. We’d hate for you to miss anything.”

Then, she paused. “Besides,” she said, “you’ll be here in a few weeks. It took the Presidio a whole lot longer than that to get here.”

Indeed, it did. Several decades lay between the establishment of the Spanish fort and mission on Garcitas Creek and its re-establishment in Goliad: decades of events, complicated by multiple locations and confusing names.

Today, the fort is known as Presidio La Bahía, or simply La Bahía (“The Bay”), but those names have nothing to do with its current location on the San Antonio River. Constructed by the Spanish in 1720 or 1721 on the site of René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s failed Fort St. Louis, the original Presidio took its name from La Bahía del Espíritu Santo: “The Bay of the Holy Spirit.” Today, we call those waters Lavaca and Matagorda bays, and know them as the home of Indianola: the hurricane-destroyed port of entry for so many mid-1800s immigrants, and just a few camels.

Across Garcitas Creek from Presidio Nuestra Señora de Loreto de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo, the mission known as Nuestra Señora de la Espíritu Santo de Zúñiga was established: honoring both the Virgin Mary and Báltasar de Zúñiga, Viceroy of New Spain. People referred to the fort as Presidio La Bahía, and to the mission as La Bahía.

In short, La Bahía could refer to the bay; to the mission; to the fort; or (after its final move) to the settlement that grew up around the fort. By 1829, the confusion may have been too much, even for residents of the area. The name of the settlement was changed from La Bahía to Goliad: an anagram of the name of Father Hidalgo, the priest who initiated the Mexican fight for independence from Spain. Even so, if you travel to Goliad today, you still may hear someone refer to the town as “La Bahía.”

Goliad County Map, showing La Bahia ~ 1920

In the beginning — which is to say, in 1720 — Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, governor and captain general of the provinces of Coahuila and Texas, received a commission from Báltasar de Zúñiga to reoccupy East Texas missions and presidios abandoned during the French invasion of 1719.

Journals kept during Aguayo’s expedition chronicled construction of the first Presidio La Bahía, directly over the ruins of Fort St. Louis:

Shortly before March 16, 1722, Aguayo sent fifty of the best soldiers, selected from the battalion, under Gabriel Costales to Espíritu Santo. Because of the scarcity of horses, he himself could not go until the 16th, when with forty men, accompanied by Doctor Codallos y Eabal, Captains Thomas Zuburia,, Miguel Zilon y Portugal, Manuel de Herrera, and Pedro Oribe, he began his march for that place.
In the latter part of the journey, they came to two good-sized streams, evidently the Garcitas and Arenosa. Crossing these, the expedition turned southeast three leagues, and arrived at the ”presidio of Nuestra Señora de Loreto,” March 24, 1722.
Apparently it was considered already founded by the garrison. [On April 4, 1721, forty soldiers under the command of Captain José Domingo Ramón, had arrived at Fort St. Louis to begin preparing for the building of fortifications.]

Juan Antonio de la Peña also kept a record of the expedition. According to his account:

On the sixth of April [1722] his lordship began to draw the lines for the presidio on the site where the French, under command of M. de la Salle, had occupied it from 1684 to 1690. 
The hole in which the artillery had been buried and in which the powder had been burnt is within the lines of the new fort, and can still be seen. On opening the ditch, in order to lay the foundation of the fortification, nails, pieces of gun locks, and fragments of other things used by the French were found. The foundation for the fort is to be in the shape of an octagon.

The Spanish plan map depicted three concentric rows of buildings surrounded by a complex, sixteen point star-shaped palisade wall, a moat, four bastions, and a tower.

Nuestra Señora del Loreto Presdio de La Bahía, drawn by the Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo, 1722.
Courtesy Bryan (James Perry) Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin

For years, historians and archaeologists debated the authenticity of the map and journal entries.

The elaborate design seemed grandiose, given the presidio’s remote location. They wondered whether the elaborate fortification actually had ever been constructed, or if the map had been simply a propaganda ruse to deceive hostile governments about Spanish strength in the area.

Finally, in 1999, after multiple field investigations and ongoing archival work, an investigation was launched at the site of the original Presidio la Bahía by the Texas Historical Commission. The details of the two-and-a-half year search are fascinating, and the results were remarkable:

Archeological work confirmed that the presidio had been built according to the elaborate plan drawn by the Marqués de Aguayo, and had been garrisoned with soldiers to guard against the return of the French.
Traces of the Karankawa were found throughout the site as well… Distribution of native artifacts strongly suggested that the Indians had not only traded with the French but lived just outside—if not within—the walls of the presidio during the time of the Spanish.
Project archeologist Jeff Durst notes that the unusual length of time spent excavating allowed for continual reassessment of findings in the field.
“We had different interpretations of what we were seeing as we went along, changing about every three weeks as we made new discoveries. We looked for the Spanish palisade wall trench for about a year before we found it. We had begun to think that the Spanish map of the presidio with the 16-sided wall was just propaganda put out at the time. Had it not been for that extra length of time we spent in the field, we might never have found it.”
Months of excavation [brought] no success, until a series of rains ironically broke both an area drought and the archeologists’ ‘dry holes.’ Moisture from the rains made subtle contrasts in the soil horizons more visible, enabling crew members to detect a dark, linear soil discoloration in one of the excavation units. 
On closer inspection, the darker area proved to be a series of post molds.  More digging revealed additional sections of the original Spanish setting trench and the discovery that the palisade had, indeed, followed the exact 16-point star shown on the map.
Aerial view of the excavation site near the end of investigations, with Garcitas Creek at the bottom.
The 16-point-star-shaped Spanish presidio has been outlined with plastic tape. (Photo courtesy THC)

Due to conflicts with local Karankawa Indians, conflicts exacerbated by the unfortunate actions of Captain Ramón, the Garcitas Greek site was abandoned in 1726. The mission and presidio were moved to a location (or locations — opinions differ) on the Guadalupe River, near present-day Victoria and Mission Valley. Finally, in 1747, the mission was moved to its current location on the north bank of the San Antonio River, and Presidio La Bahía was established on the south bank.

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First site of Presidio la Bahía; approximate first location of Mission Espíritu Santo
Second site of Mission Espíritu Santo
Third site of Mission Espíritu Santo; second site of Presidio la Bahía
Final site, Mission Espíritu Santo & Presidio la Bahía

By 1749, the compound included several small wooden buildings and approximately 40 simple grass huts. As the community grew, permanent stone structures took shape, including a quadrangular defensive wall, rounded bastions for mounted cannons, officers’ quarters, storehouses, workshops, an arsenal, and an impressive chapel.

Over the years, La Bahía prospered and declined; alternated between Spanish and Mexican control; saw the death of many, and the birth of the Texas Republic. In the 1850s, a single individual, Judge Pryor Lea, owned the presidio and used the chapel as a residence.

The property was returned to the Catholic Diocese in 1853, but its deterioration continued until 1963, when restoration efforts were begun under the auspices of the Kathryn Stoner O’Connor Foundation, architect Raiford Stripling, and archaeologist Roland Beard. While portions of the original presidio remained, including its beautiful chapel, a long process of discovery and evaluation was necessary to replicate what had been destroyed. Finally, on October 8, 1967, an official dedication took place. A year later, Lady Bird Johnson came to Goliad to unveil the plaque designating the Presidio as a national historic landmark.

Lady Bird Johnson and architect Raiford Stripling at the 1968 ceremonies

In 1968, what Kathryn Stoner O’Connor, Lady Bird Johnson, and Raiford Stripling didn’t know — couldn’t have known — was that, one day, guest quarters would replace officers’ quarters, and an assortment of ghost hunters, history buffs, soldiers’ descendants, and just plain folks would arrive at Presidio La Bahía to spend time, appreciate their work, and listen for the voices of the past.

After laughing over the complexities of my own journey to the fort, the friendly volunteer — as delightful in person as she’d been over the phone — gave me the key, and led me out to the parking area. Pointing north, she said, “There’s your door. The back door opens to the Quadrangle and the Chapel. If you’ve got any questions, come by before five. After that, no one will be around.” Then, she grinned. “Except you, of course.”

“Of course,” I said, and headed toward the door.

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to be continued…
As always, comments are welcome.

A Tale of Two Centuries

Agave americana ~ Chisos Mountains, Texas
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Call it what you will — century plant, maguey, American aloe — any glimpse of an Agave americana bloom stalk rising up against West Texas mountains, or made to glow by the last rays of the setting sun, is thrilling. A common enough plant, especially in Mexico and the American Southwest, its flowers appear infrequently. When they emerge, it’s an occasion.

Known popularly as the century plant, Agave americana is the largest plant in a large family. In his Agaves of Continental North America, Howard Scott Gentry lists 139 agave species and 197 taxa. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum lists 150 North American species, while other sites simply generalize, saying there are “nearly two hundred agave species in the Americas,” or “over a hundred.”

Often found at mountainous elevations of 4,000 to 6,000 feet, century plants appear in a variety of other settings, and are hard to miss. Their mass of leaves, called a rosette, can reach six or seven feet in height, and span as much as twelve feet in width.Their smooth, rigid leaves are edged with sharp teeth, and terminate in a needle-like tip. For landscapers, finding a nice, out-of-the-way corner for the plants is important.

Clustered century plant rosettes~ Presidio La Bahia, Goliad, Texas
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Because the slow-growing plants require between ten and thirty-five years to bloom, the waiting period may feel like a century to someone hoping to witness the event, but the myth of the hundred-year bloom is just that: a myth. Writing in the Scientific American Supplement of July-December, 1903, field naturalist E.W. Nelson noted:

All agaves require years for their development before flowering, and this has given rise to the popular name, “Century Plant,” borne by Agave americana. It is doubtful if any species under natural conditions actually spends more than fifteen or twenty years in maturing.

Nelson goes on to describe the plant’s life cycle:

The large, fleshy leaves…are persistent, and spend all the years of their immaturity in slowly storing up quantities of sweet sap. At the expiration of this long period, which might almost be called a period of incubation, a change occurs in the plant’s organism…
With marvelous rapidity, a gigantic central flower stalk shoots up 20 to 50 feet. This stalk, which is sometimes a foot in diameter at the base, is fed generously from the store of sap in the base and leaves.

The process triggering the agave’s bloom remains somewhat mysterious, but the results of its flowering are predictable. The plant is monocarpic: that is, it blooms only once in its lifetime. After forming its seeds, the leaves and base wither and die, leaving smaller, younger plants to repeat the process. Benito Trevino, a rancher and naturalist from Rio Grande City, Texas, has seen the process multiple times:

 The plant only blooms one time and then it dies. The stalk can grow as fast as 12 to 16 inches a day. When I was at the University of Texas, the botany professor had several growing outside the botany building. When one started to bloom, he had a fiberglass pole that was marked in inches, and we were able to monitor the growth rate. I remember one growing to 22 feet.
Agave americana bloom stalk ~ Mission Espíritu Santo, Goliad, Texas
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The flowers themselves grow in clusters at the end of horizontal branches arrayed near the top of the stalk. Facing upward, they give the plant a delightful, candelabrum-like appearance. Despite attracting Mexican long-nose bats, hummingbirds, orioles, and a variety of insects with its nectar, the profusion of flowers can seem a little untidy. The buds are more elegant, if not nearly so tasty from a diner’s point of view.

Agave americana buds, complete with leaf-footed bugs
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Buds into flowers, and a feast of pollen and nectar to enjoy
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The species we know today as Agave americana was mentioned as early as 1552 by Francisco López de Gómara, in his Historia general de las Indias. Charles de L’Ecluse, first director of Holland’s Leiden Botanical Gardens,viewed one in a monastery in Valencia in 1576, sent offsets to a friend in Antwerp, and coined the name American aloe. (Note that aloes and agaves are not related. Aloe is a genus in the family Xanthorrhoeaceae. Agaves belong to the Asparagaceae: a different family which does include the vegetable called asparagus.)

In Agaves of Continental North America, Gentry notes that:

Agaves for ornamental and fiber uses were apparently first carried overseas by both Spaniards and Portuguese: Agave americana to the Azores and Canary Islands; A. angustifolia, A. cantala, and others to Asia and Africa. By the eighteenth century A. americana, A. lurida, and others were established along the Mediterranean coasts.
The spread of the genus to the Old World reached its height in the nineteenth century, when agaves became popular throughout Europe as ornamental succulents in both private and public gardens.

Baron Alexander von Humboldt, the early 19th century Prussian explorer and naturalist for whom California’s Humboldt Redwoods are named, described the agave as “the most useful of all the crops that nature has granted the people of North America.” Like hemp, its fibers were used by indigenous peoples for clothing, rope, bags, and a form of paper. Its leaves and heart (called piña, because of its resemblance to a pineapple) were roasted as food; its leaves used in roofs and fences; its spines turned into weapons. Most delightfully, the sharp tip at the end of each leaf is attached to fibers running the length of the leaf: a combination which makes for a most convenient needle and thread.

The roasted piña, called mezcal (from the Náhuatl word mexcalli) became such a staple for eastern Apaches that Spaniards began calling them Mescalero. And, as Gentry notes:

When the Spaniards began colonization of more northern regions, like Durango and Saltillo, they took Náhuatl people with them as interpreters, laborers, and farmers. The farmers took maguey with them and established the pulque culture which still persists as the northern fringe of the pulque complex.

Prior to colonizing Mexico’s Central Valley, the Aztecs consumed both aguamiel (“honeywater”) and the fermented version called pulque. Later, the Spanish refined the distillation process to produce mezcal (from Agave americana) and tequila, made only from the blue agave (Agave tequiliana).

¡Para todo mal, mezcal ~para todo bien, también!
(For everything bad, mescal ~ for everything good, the same!)

An agave must be at least six to eight years old before its sap can be harvested. After leaves are removed from the center of the plant, sap begins to pool in the hollow at its base. Several liters may be collected each day for a period of weeks or months. The harvested aguamiel is sweet, with a bit of a bite: not unlike the edges of the plant which produces it.

Pulque gatherer in Mexico ~ c.1900

In 1903, Nelson described pulque production in the valleys of central Mexico:

Pulque, the national drink of the Mexicans, is made from the juice or sap of the Pulque Maguey. The valley of Mexico is the center of cultivation of this plant, and many extensive haciendas or plantations that are devoted entirely to growing it yield large revenues to their owners.
The plants, when two or three years old, are set out in long, parallel rows. They reach maturity in from twelve to fourteen years. In order to insure a succession of harvests, new settings are planted yearly, and even with the long delay in the first crop, the business is very profitable.

Today, cultivation of the maguey continues, but pulque is struggling, undone by the increasing popularity of beer and tequila, and by the difficulties of storing and shipping a continually-fermenting beverage that tends to blow up its own bottles. In 1886, there were 817 pulquerias in Mexico City, and only 9,000 homes. At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of pulquerias served up the traditional beverage; today, there might be a hundred. The answer may be a new image, a better marketing strategy, and a cohort of hipsters ready, as one said, to “get their Azteca on.”

History, botany, and cultural traditions aside, the unique appearance of an Agave americana in bloom is guaranteed to draw attention.

During a brief stay at Goliad’s historic Presidio La Bahia last June, I was delighted to find two century plants vying for my attention.  One bloom stalk had emerged from the group of rosettes shown above. Considering that the wall is about fifteen feet high, and that, standing atop it, I still wasn’t at eye level with the lowest seed clusters, it’s easy to imagine that this one had grown to a height of 40′.

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Its stately silhouette dominated views from the fort’s chapel and parade ground.

Seen from the doorway of Our Lady of Loreto Chapel
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Looking through the Quadrangle gate
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Longer visits allow for quite different images of the same subject. Here, the Quadrangle gate offered a lovely sunset view.

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Looking skyward, it was easy to imagine the agave as a Christmas-tree-in-waiting.

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And, given events that transpired at the Presidio during the Texas Revolution, it was impossible to avoid imagining Colonel Fannin and his men watching an equally beautiful sunset.

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Meanwhile, back at the parade ground, another agave had come to an early, unhappy end. Only a day or two before my arrival, a combination of ground-saturating rains and a fierce, wind-filled storm had toppled the shallow-rooted plant.

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Unfortunate as it was, a prone plant does offer some opportunities. Thanks to the storm, I was able to see both its root system and the fascinating, fibrous interior of its stalk, which resembles nothing so much as a bundle of fiber optic cables.

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Perhaps best of all, the fallen plant allowed for images of buds and flowers which otherwise would have been difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. It isn’t every day there’s a chance to photograph century plant flowers while sitting on the ground.

Col. James Fannin’s room was in the south extension of the chapel.
A doorway, now sealed, opened into the Quadrangle; its outline is visible above, in the upper left.
(Click image to enlarge) 

As interesting as the agave itself was the location of its fall. Inside the fort’s quadrangle, near the church, it could not have been more than a few yards from the spot where Colonel James Fannin was executed during the Texas revolutionary event known as the Goliad Massacre.

On March 27, 1836, after being held captive for a week, Fannin’s men were divided into three groups and marched away from the fort under heavy guard. One group set out on the San Antonio road; another, on the road to Victoria; and a third, on the road leading to Copano, on the coast.

A short distance from the fort, each group was halted. Guards took up positions on only one side of the prisoner ranks, then opened fire at close range. The few survivors who managed to run were pursued and killed by the cavalry. Returning to the fort, soldiers removed about forty wounded men from the chapel, laid them on the ground in front of the chapel doors, and shot them. 

Fannin was the last to be killed. After being taken into the quadrangle from the chapel, he was blindfolded, and made to sit in a chair. After requesting that he not be shot in the face; that his personal possessions be sent to his family; and that he be given a Christian burial, Colonel Fannin was shot in the face; a Mexican officer claimed his personal possessions; and his body was burned.

What happened next is another tale, for another time. Suffice it to say that, while Hollywood and popular history always have remembered the Alamo, the true revolutionary cry in Texas was, “Remember Goliad! Remember the Alamo!”

Fannin’s death wasn’t the end of the struggle for Texas independence: nor was the toppling of the beautiful century plant the end of its story. When I returned to Presidio La Bahia in November, I found the agave had been tipped upright, trimmed, and tucked into place. Despite obvious damage to some of its leaves, new leaves were forming, and the young plants clustered around it seemed to be cheering it on.

I was doing a little cheering, myself. And those voices I heard in the middle of the night, echoing through the quadrangle? Perhaps they did belong to Fannin and his men: partying on the ramparts, and offering up a mezcal toast to the indomitable little plant.

Agave americana ‘Redivivus’ 
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As always, comments are welcome.
Thanks to Texas Flash Dude for allowing use of his century plant photo from the Chisos Mountains. The source for the pulque farmer photo is noted above.   All other photos are mine.

 

Published in: on January 18, 2016 at 6:53 pm  Comments (101)  
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Singing In the New Year

Swallow in flight ~ Susan Scheid

On October 5, 1921, the Ukrainian National Chorus performed before a sold-out audience in Carnegie Hall. A song known as Shchedryk, already popular in other parts of the world, was particularly well-received. Composed by Ukrainian Mykola Leontovych, it drew on traditional folk melodies commonly heard in that country during celebrations of the Orthodox New Year (January 14 in the Gregorian calendar).

Eventually, American choir director and arranger Peter Wilhousky heard Leontovych’s work. Its bell-like ostinato inspired him to write new lyrics, attempting to capture the sound for his choir. After copyrighting and publishing the song in 1936, several choirs under Wilhousky’s direction began performing “Carol of the Bells” during the Christmas season.

Thanks in part to his Czech heritage, Wilhousky knew the old Slavic legend that, at midnight on the evening Jesus was born, bells began ringing spontaneously in his honor. His ability to capture that echo of ringing bells helped to make “Carol of the Bells” extraordinarily popular, especially in the United States and Canada. 

Though nearly two hundred instrumental and vocal arrangments exist, and despite the occasional use of “The Ukrainian Carol” for a title, neither Leontovych’s Shchedryk nor the folk tunes it drew from make any mention of bells, or of Christmas. The song we know as a Christmas carol began life as a Ukrainian New Year’s carol: one with distinctly pagan tendencies.
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A Curious Case: The Woodmen and the Women

talimenaoverlook Ouachita National Forest,  viewed from the Talimena Scenic Byway

Less formally known as Talimena Drive, the Scenic Byway uncurls along the ridgeline of Winding Stair and Rich mountains. Passing through southeastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, its fifty-mile length includes the highest points to be found between the Appalachians and the Rockies; the wooded valleys of the Ouachita National Forest, rolling away to the south and to the north, belie the complex and ultimately hopeful history of an area obsessed with its trees.

I would have missed Talimena Drive had it not been for a friend’s suggestion that I take the more circuitous, though ultimately more interesting, route through the mountains while on my way to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. Quite apart from stunning vistas and emerging fall color, the more leisurely drive also would allow for a visit to the Muse Cemetery: an opportunity to confirm that my own muse hadn’t been interred while my back was turned.
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The Come-and-Take-It Duck

Dissolving into the late afternoon heat, a sweet stench of rotting fruit thickened the air, rendering it palpable as withered petals fading and dropping from the passiflora.  Torpid among the vines, bees buzzed erratically, seemingly ambivalent about their task. Like the bees, I’d come to work, but I suspected none of us would be disappointed when darkness brought labor to an end.

After days of rain, alleyways between the rows of melons, tomatoes, and eggplant remained soggy: rich in puddles, and riddled with crawdad chimneys. Though good for still-ripening figs, water was bringing an end to the abundant tomato crop. Soggy as the ground, their skins splitting, fruit fell to the ground or fell to pieces at the first hint of a touch. Finding still-firm tomatoes required concentration, and the development of a rhythm: search, test, pluck, bucket. (more…)

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