Column: Autumn’s harvest of memories

  • Fall leaves hang on a tree on Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013 in East Montpelier, Vt. Fall foliage is still abundant in Vermont. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot) ap — Toby Talbot

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 10/8/2021 10:00:11 PM
Modified: 10/8/2021 10:00:18 PM

Red maple leaves flutter down along our woodsy path on a chilly morning. Out with Jasper-the-Westie for our early walk, I have on a fleece and my husband wears a vest. With hands in pockets, we are warm.

After a mile or more, the darkness of the woods opens into a sunny meadow and we spread out along a wide, grassy swath cut by the farmer on whose land we walk. Views abound, with Vermont’s Green Mountains far in the distance to the east and the Adirondacks to the west, rising above Lake Champlain just down the hill. I take in the majesty but my gaze is quickly pulled elsewhere, to the fields where giant goldenrod mixes with blue-stemmed goldenrod, next to stands of red clover and the prickly purple thistles. They’re great for bees, birds and butterflies, but thistles are the bane of Jasper’s existence — and mine, too, when they ball up on his feet and legs.

Most stunning are the asters, fall favorites since my childhood days in Iowa. Back then, I occasionally set out for a walk along the local railroad tracks with my dear Aunt Harriet, when she was home from Florida for a visit. The information in Harriet’s historic Golden Guide to Flowers is minimal. Still, I enjoy pulling it down from my shelf to remind me, for instance, of how many kinds of asters there are — nearly 150 varieties, according to her 1950 edition. Unless I have my own “plant finder” with me, I’m never sure whether the few purple blooms I just picked are New York asters, New England asters or Michaelmas daisies, also a variety of aster. It doesn’t matter. Their brilliant color in the small blue vase on my windowsill brings joy, both for the day and for my memories of Harriet.

On another morning in that same meadow, a large stand of gray dogwoods calls out for my attention. Their white berries on brilliant red stems cluster bountifully among leaves mostly still green, a few already red. My botanical guide tells me that the gray dogwood provides protection and symbolizes charm. Of course I would be drawn to it.

But the gray dogwood branches are fussy to arrange, whenever I cut a few to bring home. Once I get them right, though, they bring intense pleasure in their spot on my kitchen counter. Always, they have their dedicated container, a dappled tan pitcher from McCarty’s Pottery in Merigold, Miss. The pitcher was a gift from an old high school friend, on a visit to Vermont with his wife from their home in South. It offers the delight of connection.

And now, on a recent fall afternoon, I have just made my first herbal brew in years, a batch of “Backyard Bitters.” A program at an organic farm near me, titled Autumn Bitter Root Remedies, promised a weed walk that would focus on “the identification and benefits of bitter herbs and roots commonly found on the Vermont farm landscape.”

We were invited to gather and process some of the bitter roots into classic fall tonics. The group, all of us women, assembled outside near a large barn, and we were handed a sheet of recipes. The fun was in walking through fields in search of the roots and herbs and returning to our original location to chop and assemble them in a container, all the while talking and asking questions. Ultimately we were reminded of the benefits, especially for digestion, of using these naturally growing roots of dandelion, burdock and yellow dock, in combination with herbs, and doused with a liberal quantity of vodka.

As I shake my concoction day by day for the weeks till it’s ready, I am reminded of an earlier incarnation of myself, nearly lost with time’s passing. Along with a lot of folks in the ’70s, my husband and I had committed to growing our own food and processing it for year-round use — our attempt to live lightly on the planet.

In my Birkenstocks and jeans, with long hair wound up and held with a barrette, I dealt first with what we grew and then sought out what was wild. Our land offered apples, black walnuts and luscious bunches of purple grapes. The apples were easy to pick and make into applesauce and apple butter, but the walnuts were a challenge. Ultimately, we learned from a neighbor that it was easiest to loosen their outside skin by driving a car over them, back and forth till the nuts eventually emerged. The grapes, by contrast, were pure pleasure. Using the instructions of my ancient grandmother, I processed delicious jars of juice to be stored for winter use, row upon row, in the tall green canning cupboard near my kitchen.

How glad I am to be reminded of us — Aunt Harriet, my Mississippi friends, a grandmother and, yes, of an aspect of myself. Cherished companions, as autumn arrives.

Mary K. Otto, formerly of Norwich, lives in Shelburne, Vt. Readers may email her at

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