Thinking of summer and this post written originally in 2007 came to mind. Enjoy!
It is an early morning in mid July during the year 1964. I am sitting on our family lawn with my back against a large white birch tree. I am just finishing the greatest book that I have ever read, and I must admit I am sad that this book has to come to an end. For the first time I have experienced a great writer. For the first time I have been truly moved by the written word.
The book was Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. It was the story of a young boy’s summer in Illinois in the late 1920s. The book spoke out loud to me in so many different ways. I could identify with the story of a rural family. I could identify with a less complicated era. And although my life seemed a whole lot more chaotic than that of the main character in the story I took great pleasure in identifying with his day to day adventures. Much of the main theme of the book is woven around the first harvest of dandelions for his grandfather’s immortal dandelion wine. The metaphors employed by Ray Bradbury in this book all rang true with my 12-yea-old heart and mind. It would be years before I would be able to appreciate the metaphorical dandelion wine.
About ten years later I find myself walking in an apple orchard in mid May. A yellow sea of dandelions and a bright blue sky washes the landscape before me. In the middle of this picture there is an older gentleman, wearing blue jeans, bright red suspenders, and a blue, short sleeved shirt. He is bent over and the woven wooden basket hanging from a broad leather strap around his neck is swinging to and fro in front of his slightly oversize belly. He has a pair of barber scissors in his left hand, and his right hand is busy picking dandelion flower heads. I can see from a distance that he neatly trims each flower head before he drops it into the basket. He literally whistles while he works, and he is smiling from ear to ear.
Since the day I finished the Bradbury book Dandelion Wine I have been unconsciously seeking this person. He is exactly the right person to complete a chapter in a book that I am constantly writing in my mind. On many nights, fast asleep in the comfort of my bed, I have dreamed about this person and now he is standing right before my eyes.
I walk across the orchard to be near this gentle man. Without lifting his head, and barely missing a beat of his picking and clipping process, he extends his hand and says “My name is Melvin, and it is a glorious day.”
“Picking dandelions for wine?” I inquire.
“Why yes,” he replies, “would you care to join me?”
For the next two hours we pick dandelions side by side. Melvin trims the stem and green material off the bottom of each flower head with his barber shears, and I, mimicking his actions, trim mine with a small pair of scissors attached to my Swiss Army knife. During the time we spend picking dandelions together Melvin carefully explains the wine making process to me. Later that day he would boil the flower heads in equal parts of water. After cooling he would add sugar, yeast, a quantity of oranges, and a little ginger. He would let that cook for a while, and then he would siphon off the clear liquid into a five-gallon glass jug and put an air lock on the bottle. A few weeks later he would siphon off the clear liquid again and transfer this to another five-gallon glass jug and reemploy the air lock. Then a couple more weeks after that he would transfer the liquid into quart bottles where it would rest for six to twelve months before it was opened. The wine that was 12 months old would be much better, he explained, but he could never resist opening up a bottle on the first really cold night in front of his fieldstone fireplace with the fire roaring and lighting the room.
I helped Melvin “cook” the dandelions that night. We shared a bottle of last year’s wine, and, I must admit, I was surprised at the wine’s delicate taste. Neither sweet nor tart, the wine was simply smooth and summer-like. That night Melvin made me an offer. “Come by on the first night that it gets below zero and we’ll share a bottle of this year’s wine.
One might say that it is ironic Americans spend so much time trying to rid the earth of dandelions. Hundreds of tons of broadleaf herbicides have been utilized, and thousands of hours of time have been spent by man in ridding his “perfect” lawn of this plant. Considered a noxious weed by many, the bitter irony is that the early European settlers brought this plant with them across the ocean to the New World because it was highly prized as an herb used in medical remedies, a green used in salads, and a flower used to decorate the family garden.
It is interesting to note that while many historical botanists think that the dandelion was brought to the New World by European settlers, and is, therefore, an alien plant, there is much evidence of the plant in native American lore, legends, and herbal remedies. It is likely that this plant is (and has been for a very long time ) circumpolar.
The dandelion is best known for its bright yellow flower head, which is, in reality, a cluster of flowers each yielding, upon maturity, a seed attached to a parachute-like seed dispersal unit. Strong winds can blow these seeds for miles and miles spreading an individual plant’s genetic resources for very long distances.
The dandelion plant has at its base a rosette of leaves. Each leaf is deeply toothed. In fact, the name dandelion comes from the French description of the plant leaf, dent de lion, (lion’s tooth). Each leaf is “V” shaped in cross section. The plant leaf collects water and drains the water through the “V” channel like a gutter on the eaves of a house. The rosette of leaves all channel water toward the center of the plant where a large tap root holds the plant in the soil. Few other plants enjoy this ready made, efficient watering system. The taproot can extend up to a foot into the soil. This provides an anchor for this perennial plant that assures the plant will be around from year to year. The large ta root helps the plant to survive drought, flood, fire, and wind. Surely this plant has evolved to outlast us all.
Dandelions can take over large areas of landscape. When in bloom the yellow ocean of flowers dominates the landscape like few other flowers. Summer snow storms of dandelion seeds can be found cluttering the air on the first windy days of late May and early June.
When used as food, the green leaf can be used in salads, cooked as “greens”, and supplies the body with beta carotene, Vitamins B1, B2, B5. B6, B12, C, E,(P), D, as well as biotin, inositol, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, and zinc. The taproot can be dried and ground and used as a reasonable substitute for coffee. Tonics made from dandelions are said to good for the liver (relieving the liver of jaundice), gallbladder (especially for removing gallstones), and indigestion. The milky sap found in the stem is used by herbal practitioners for the removal of warts, moles, calluses, and sores.
Generations and generations of cultural use of this plant by early Europeans and Native Americans seems to confirm the value of this plant in both medicinal and culinary applications. There is little question that this miraculous plant is here to stay despite all of our efforts to get rid of i
Some months later, just a few days after Christmas the mercury dips to -4 degrees. I remember my invitation and find my way to Melvin’s cabin. I knock on the door and Melvin answers wearing a blue flannel shirt, with red suspenders holding up green wool pants. He is also wearing the same smile that he wore the day we were picking dandelions last May. The smile still begins at one ear and ends on the opposite side of his face at the other ear.
“I was wonderin’ if you’d show up tonight,” Melvin said. “Bringing in the winter with a remembrance of the summer ain’t a bad thing to do on a cold night.”
Melvin and I chat a little bit in front of the blazing fire in the fieldstone fireplace. We talk about the weather, the recent apple season, and the new winter. After a short while, Melvin goes to the pantry and pulls a bottle of this years dandelion wine off of the slanted handmade rack made from stout apple tree branches. He twists the corkscrew into the cork, and while pulling the cork out of the bottle he paraphrases Ray Bradbury.
“Like openin’ a bottle of summer,” he says.
“Yes, Melvin,” I reply, “like openin’ a bottle of summer!”
Melvin pours the nearly clear wine into two glasses. We raise our glasses and toast the first cold winter night by touching our glasses together and taking a sip of the wine. Melvin looks at me, and I look at him, and together I know we are both back in an orchard during the month of May surrounded by bright yellow dandelions and a clear blue sky.
Originally written in September of 2007 for the Heath Herald.