These past few months have given me the wonderful gift of time. I also have the good fortune to live in a place of great natural beauty. Since the middle of March my husband Paul and I have taken many beautiful walks and hikes in the Berkshires and Northwest Connecticut. One of my biggest challenges during the pandemic has been not being able to perform with my colleagues and with my group Hevreh Ensemble. I did play two socially distant outside concerts this summer and it felt wonderful to play music with others! The situation we find ourselves in gives one the choice to create virtual projects or to play solos. A creative outlet slowly took shape as I started to bring along my recorder and Native American Flutes on our walks. This past summer I have been playing short improvisations on mountain tops, woodland trails, marshes and ponds. Here is a short improvisation from the Skiff Mountain Preserve in Kent, Connecticut.
One of the most beautiful walks we have taken this past summer has been at the William Cullen Bryant Homestead in Cummington, Massachusetts about forty minutes from Northampton. We discovered the site by accident. A copy of the New Yorker Magazine was almost about to join an anonymous pile of books and other old magazines. Luckily Paul picked up the May 25th issue and read about a writer named Alan Weisman who has taken refuge at his rural Massachusetts home during the pandemic. He is the author of the 2007 best seller, “The World Without Us”; in the book, all life on Earth has vanished, a bit too apropos for our time!
William Cullen Bryant was born in 1794 and grew up in Cummington, Massachusetts, where his first poem was published at the age of 13. His most famous poem “Thanatopsis” was published in 1817 when he was practicing law in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He went on to become the editor of The New York Evening Post. He was a passionate abolitionist and was instrumental in helping Abraham Lincoln win the presidential election. He was also a dedicated conservationist and horticulturist and used his editorials from the New York Evening Post to support Frederick Law Olmsted’s plans for Central Park.
When we approached the Bryant Homestead for the first time, we were struck by the serenity and peacefulness of the area. It felt as if we had stepped back in time- it was a hot summer day and in the late afternoon sun, as we listened carefully, we heard only birds and the gentle whirring of insects, but no sounds from cars or other engines. The air had a delightful stillness to it. From Byrant’s boyhood home, which is now a museum (closed during the pandemic), we walked down the gentle slope of a meadow and came to the Rivulet Trail. As we entered the cool dark woods from the bright hot sun of the meadow, the sweet, musky, spicy and calming scent of the pine trees enveloped us. The tall pines, some over 150 feet, stood reaching toward the sky like stalwart soldiers. They swayed gracefully, as the sunlight wove intricate patterns through the tops of the trees. Bryant loved this trail and it is the inspiration for many of his poems.
I played this improvisation on the Pine Tree Loop part of the Rivulet Trail.
Interspersed throughout the walk are several placards with Bryant’s poetry.
Since our initial visit we have returned many times to walk through these serene woods. It has been a dry summer and the Rivulet that runs along the path had no water, but this past weekend we arrived just as a rain storm had passed. As we stepped into the woods, the air was misty and cool. The pine floor of the woods was soft and each step felt like there was a cushion underfoot. As we walked down the gentle slope, the peaceful gurgling sounds of the Rivulet accompanied us.
The trees and moss were dark with moisture and different varieties of mushrooms and fungi poked their tiny heads out of covering of leaves, pine needles and tree trunks. The woods were quieter than usual and a lone owl hooted into the distance.
During his lifetime, William Cullen Bryant returned many times to the Rivulet Trail. We will look forward to visiting in the fall as the leaves turn and then again in the spring where we hope to see the delicate spring Yellow Violet that Bryant describes lovingly in this poem:
On our way home after our most recent excursion to the trail, we stopped at Taft Farms in Great Barrington to stock up on their excellent summer bounty. That day we purchased tomatoes, berries, zucchini, peaches and CORN!
It was a stormy day and when we arrived at the store, there was a tremendous downpour along with the ominous news of a possible tornado in the area. The other intrepid patrons were all wearing their masks and keeping a reasonable social distance from each other, but I was touched by an elderly man standing alone in front of me in line. He had come out in the storm to buy a single pumpernickel bagel from the store’s bakery- he held it up to me apologetically and said,”I only wanted a bagel”. I believe that he also came for a bit of social interaction, as brief as it was!
I am not much of a gardener, however, I am the happy recipient of surplus from our friends gardens. My refrigerator filled up with red beets from our talented gardener friend Jerry, so it was time to make Summer Borscht! Red beets are one of my favorite foods and I love Borscht-a sturdy winter version with meat, potatoes, carrots, dill, onions, garlic and tomato is wonderful, but I mostly crave Summer Borscht. I was wondering recently why I like beets so much. Is it in my Eastern European DNA? I read that there is a chemical in red beets that causes a feeling of well being! Summer Borscht– I ate way too many bowls of it in Poland when my group Hevreh Ensemble was on tour.
Lublin, Poland 2018
I tried to recreate it and lately I have been happy with the result. Red beets simmered until tender, peeled and diced with plenty of chopped cucumber,radish,dill, scallions or chives; seasoned with brown rice vinegar, salt, pepper, honey and plain yogurt. Left alone for a few days in the fridge to meld all of the flavors together, it is wonderful with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream and maybe a hard boiled egg sliced on top. This also freezes well and if you defrost a bowl of it with some ice crystals left in it, the taste is a bit like red beet granita! A perfect summer dish!
4 or 5 large red beets
1/2 cup diced cucumber
1/2 cup diced radish
1/2 cup minced dill
1/4 cup diced scallion or chives
salt and pepper to taste
brown rice vinegar to taste* see note
1 or 2 tablespoons honey to taste
1/2 or more plain yogurt
Scrub Beets well and if large cut in half
Cover with water in a medium sized pot
Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer
Cover and cook until tender
Save water that beets were cooked and strain into a large bowel
Let beets cool completely
Peel Beets and cut into small dice
Add diced beets along with cucumber, radish, dill and scallions or chives into reserved beet liquid
Add brown rice vinegar to taste- start with a small amount and add more as desired.
Stir in yogurt and honey
Add salt and pepper to taste
Refrigerate for at least a day to let flavors meld
Serve with a dollop of yogurt or sour cream
Add a sliced hard boiled egg on top if desired
Note: I do not specify exact amounts of brown rice vinegar, honey or yogurt. After the borscht sits for a day or two, you can add more seasonings to your taste.
I will leave you with one more summer treat. We try to cook without processed sugar. The peaches this summer have been so sweet that they do not need any other sweetener. We came up with a sugar free peach/strawberry pie. I hope you enjoy making this recipe!
Sugar Free Peach/Strawberry Pie
3 cups strawberries
3/4 very ripe peaches
2 tablespoons cornstarch
pinch of cinnamon
squeeze of fresh lemon juice
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1 cup whole grain spelt four
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter
3 tablespoons non- hydrogenated shortening ( I like the organic Spectrum brand)
3 or more tablespoons ice water
Make the pastry crust:
In the bowl of a food processor combine flours, salt, butter and shortening until just combined.
Add the ice water and process until a ball shape forms. You may need to add more water a tablespoon at a time.
Take the ball of dough and cut into 2 pieces and refrigerate at least one hour. When you want to make the pie, bring the dough back to room temperature.
Bring a pot of water to boil
Place peaches in boiling water for a minute or two and the skins will slip right off!
Slice strawberries and peaches and place in a medium sized pot
If you want a sweeter pie, add 1/2 sugar to fruit
Make a slurry with the cornstarch and a small amount of water
Simmer fruit over medium heat until the fruit releases it’s juices and the fruit softens a bit.
Mix in cornstarch and cook briefly until mixture thickens and the color of the fruit mixture turns clear.
Add pinch of cinnamon and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Lightly flour counter top
Roll out one piece of dough and fit into a pie plate
Pour fruit mixture into pie plate
Roll out second piece of dough and cut into strips
Lay strips in a crisscross pattern over filling
Sprinkle with cinnamon
Bake until crust is light brown and filling bubbles aprox. 40 minutes
Let cool – you could serve this with a scoop of Larry & Luna’s Coconut Bliss Ice Cream (sweetened with Agave)
ENJOY AND STAY SAFE!
Written by Judith Dansker