Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Widder-wimmin (Cumberland Saga)

Blain could hear the wind whistling around the corners of his CONEX and the rain pattering against the sides as he was waking up. The air inside the CONEX was also distinctly colder than it had been on previous mornings.

After shrugging on his day-clothes he stepped outside and then immediately went around the corner to get out of the stiff breeze. Walking about ten paces away from the CONEX, he relieved his bladder, hosing down some kind of ancient shrubbery.

It was still dark and he had been assured that nobody would think twice about a man urinating “in public” the very first thing in the morning. Indoor plumbing was not a “thing” in Copperhead Cove and it was a hike to the water-closet that was closest to his CONEX. Furthermore, Sig had informed him that the less “loading” the outhouse got the longer it could go before another vault had to be dug.

In Blain’s mind, the Europeans might be on to something...even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every once and a while.

Everybody was grumpy at breakfast. There was not a lot of indoor space and there were many people who would have to share it.

Sarah said “The wind is out of the southwest. The way it is blowing it is gonna be an all-day soaker.”

Blain piped up “Sally said he had some chores saved up for a day just like this. He said I should mention it when we had a rainy day.”

Frowning, Sarah asked “Just what kind of chores?”

“Sally said that there are some widow-women living south of here who have leaky roofs. He said you can’t fix leaks when it is dry because you can’t find the leaks” Blain said.

Sarah snorted. “Don’t suppose he ever thought to use a hose!”

“What, and waste a sunny day?” Blain said with a smile.

Lliam looked wishfully at Blain but Blain didn’t feel like he could invite him along. Sally hadn’t said anything about bringing extras.

Later, after Blain had ridden his mountain bike up to Sally’s, Blain shared his intuition that Lliam had wanted to come along.

“No big deal” Sally said. “We can swing by and pick him up iffen Miss Sarah can spare him.”

Which is how Sally and Lliam and Blain found themselves crammed into the cab of Sally’s ancient pickup truck moseying along the county road.

“We ain’t gonna do this in a straight line” Sally said. “My wife got some messages this morning and Miss Maggie is in a world of hurt. So we are going to zip on over to her place and then work our way back.”

Apparently, “zipping” was something that happened when a pickup truck exceeded 35 miles per hour. Blain hoped that Sally hadn’t been nipping the moonshine already. Blain had already picked up on the fact that Sally slowed down when he had a few belts in him and the wind was smacking the pickup around, the roads were wet and there was not a lot of tread left on Sally’s tires.

Sure enough, Miss Maggie had problems. She had a tin roof and several panels were slapping in the wind. The gusts had got beneath the bottom edges and lifted the panels, raising them. One of the panels already had a crease in the middle where the forces had made it hinge.

Sally suggested that Blain climb up the ladder and nail the panels down, but Blain was leery of falling through the rusty sheets of (once-upon-a-time) galvanized steel roofing.

“Well, hot-shot, how-we gonna fix it?” Sally asked him.

Looking around, Blain was struck by an idea. “Do you think she would mind if we cut some of those trees?” he said, pointing at a thicket of slender saplings.

“Hell no. Them are Black Locust. They are weeds. She won’t mind at all. Whatchya thinkin’” Sally wanted to know.

“The other day I was out picking persimmons with Miss Sarah and she showed me how to tie a line to a Gatorade bottle and lob it across tree branches. I could lob a line across the peak of the roof. If I did that, I could tie one end of the line to a pole we cut and I could lay it across the flapping piece. 

Then you could pull the line tight and tie the other end to something on the other side of the house to keep the pole from sliding down, off the roof” Blain said. It had been a long exposition for him and he had been swishing his hand through the air to demonstrate his thinking.

Sally went in and talked to Miss Maggie. He came out with a bow-saw and a hatchet. “Let’s have at-her” he said.

It seemed like four poles would be enough but Sally suggested that they cut extra. It was not as if Miss Maggie would miss them.

Miss Maggie found a roll of baling twine. Blain climbed the ladder and was able to time the tossing of the pole with the gusts of the wind such that the hinged piece was laying flat. Between the four of them, Blain, Lliam, Miss Maggie and Sally, they were able to get six of the poles across the misbehaving panels of roofing in short order.

Before they left, Miss Maggie gave them two dozen eggs as a thank-you gift.

Miss Loretta’s roof had a simple leak and was flat enough and in good enough shape that Blain had no issues spidering his way across it and slapping some asphalt cement over the leak. It took a couple of tries to get all of the leaks. Damned nail heads had pulled through the steel. 

She gave them a couple quart jars filled with sorghum molasses. "Judson, my son lives down by the river and he made this last summer. I wanna share it with ya."

Missy and Rhonda were sisters and they had a leak around the air vent on the top of their single-wide. Asphalt cement took care of that too. The two ancient ladies promised to keep the three men in their prayers.

The last stop was completely different than the first three.

Turning off the main road, Sally drove down a dirt road that was in poor repair for the first quarter mile and passed some dilapidated houses that seemed to be in disrepair. Blain kept expecting Sally to stop at one of those. The road curled sharply to the left and suddenly the roadbed was well maintained.

The house was a very large, brick-faced ranch with hip-roofs, an architectural features Blain had not seen very often in Tennessee. There was a pond on the left side of the drive, complete with a rope swing tied to a tree. Rows of solar panels were visible behind the house.

Sally parked the truck in front of the house even though the drive continued down to a cluster of outbuildings. Everything was neat and tidy and in apple-pie order.

A woman who Blain judged to be in her middle-forties came out to greet the men. She walked with a spring in her step and exuded radiant, good-health. Recognizing Lliam, she greeted him like a long lost friend. “Lliam. I declare. You must have grown three inches since I last saw you!”

Lliam blushed and replied “Not quite, Miss Shannon. Maybe an inch or so.”

“You know, I felt kinda bad asking for the favor but Dallas is out-of-town and the tractor wouldn’t start” Miss Shannon said. "I would do it myself but I can't leave Miss Rosemary for very long. She always hurts more when the weather changes.

“Think nothing of it” Sally dismissed the concern. “I brung plenty of help.”

“I can see that. Who is this?” she asked, peering at Blain.

Lliam responded “He moved into the extra CONEX at the Cove and is helping us clear some new land.”

“Hmmm!” she said. She read more into what Lliam said than Blain was comfortable with. She gave the impression of being a woman who kept tabs on what was happening in the wider world and had the intelligence to recognize what she was seeing. Blain instinctively knew that Miss Shannon was not somebody to trifle with, a bit like Sig but in different ways.

The chore involved moving bags of hog-feed from one of the out-buildings and dumping the contents into the top of the hog-feeder.

While up on the platform dumping the bags of feed, Blain had a good chance to look around. The extensive gardens south of the house were broken into plots about the same size as the ones in the Cove. Looking to the west he saw orchards and windbreaks. He suspected that the ties between the Cove and Miss Shannon were more than superficial. 

As they were leaving, Miss Shannon handed Lliam several bags of seeds. “These are for your mother. I put notes in the bags but I like to talk so you are gonna have to listen.”

“These are Good Housewife cornfield beans” she said, holding up one bag of large beans that were mottled white and deep purple. “And these are Turkey-craw cornfield beans” holding up a different bag of beans the color of cured tobacco with a darker brown near the eye...and she went through about five more varieties before starting on the squash seeds...”And these are Sweet-potato punkins…..”

Curious, Blain asked “Why are they called “cornfield beans”?”

Miss Shannon gave Blain a steady look that indicated that she took his question seriously. “The Native-Americans in this area grew corn and beans and punkins in the same field. These beans and punkins are heirloom varieties that fit into that kind of agriculture. The overall system is greater than the sum of the parts and things fall apart if you start cherry-picking and leaving parts out.”

Lliam nodded. “That's what we do at the Cove. We grow all three of them together. We plant the beans when the corn is about a foot tall and then we plant the punkins a week later.”

Blain was trying to wrap his mind around what “...things fall apart…”

“So what happens if you leave out the beans and punkins?” he asked.

“Lotta people do it” Shannon sighed. “Lot more labor in doing things the old way. You gotta pick the corn by hand, for one thing.”

“But if you don’t include the beans and squash then the corn blows down” she added.

Blain raised his eyebrows in the universal “Tell me more”

Shannon, surprised and secretly impressed by Blain’s interest added. “Punkins and cornfield beans are vines. They hop from corn-stalk-to-corn-stalk like the ropes of a sailboat go from mast-to-mast. They corn CAN'T fall over because they are all tied together.”

*I want to thank Steve Todd of Neubert Sulphur Springs, Tn. He cheerfully spent a couple of hours on the phone with me coaching me on some of the finer-points of traditional, Three Sisters agriculture.  Steve is older than I am and he still has a "market garden". He also grows and sells heirloom seeds to some of the premier seed companies like Southern Seed Exposure.

I am deeply indebted to Steve for his unstinting help. 

Next Installment


  1. And thank you for another great chapter. I've wondered if aluminum can 'shingles' could be formed and used as a roofing cover over the waterproof membrane. Never thought about wind causing so much havoc with lifting shingles.

    My maternal Grandmother also practiced Three Sister in her small garden. Squash was grown for CALABACITA as well as corn for the dish as well. I was too little to know to ask her any question about why she grew some of her vegetables that way. The whole garden was about 10 feet by 30 feet and Grandma took care of it all by herself.

    Thanks again.

    1. Around here, lots of people use old tires to hold down flat or nearly flat roofs, mostly metal but some shingle or rubber.
      Tires are cheap, widely available, heavy, and don't have sharp corners.
      I've seen cinder blocks used also, but it's much less common.

  2. You will find that the Cherokee also replaced some of their squash plantings in the 3 Sisters planting with Irish Potatoes. Companion planting works well but potatoes and squash do not play well together.

    In the south where sweet potatoes flourish, they can also be planted in 3 sister's style. Indeed, the shade of the corn is thought of a blessing in hot weather for the sweet potatoes.
    BTW Sweet Potatoe leaves are VERY Edible. Small ones in salad or cooked, large ones as cooked greens. Almost 10% of a healthy sweet potato's leaves can be harvested without reducing the harvest. Again, sweet potatoes and squash do not play well together.

  3. ERJ, one of the things I find now on Produce (A)isle is occasional exposure to different sorts of vegetables. There are at least four kinds we carry regularly, of which I have only every had one (Zucchini).

    "Pay in kind". Coming to a world near you.

  4. I did the 3 Sisters a couple times back when I had a house. Used Hickory King corn. All the critters loved it as well as the family.
    Great story. Thanks.

  5. Nice snippet and good information too! Thanks!

  6. It sounds like a great idea, but........ snakes. Thinking about wading through all that foliage and not seeing the ground, and maybe not seeing where your hands are going.......


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