Patchwork living

I’m always struck when I visiseashellst Floyd County to see how people make a living in what is still a hard-scrabble place. Hard scrabble in a different way now than it once was – yes, literally the soil is rocky, but since most folks don’t make a living from the land anymore, they are scrabbling in different ways.

Driving down Highway 221 I see a hand-painted yard sign for small engine repair, “from ATVs to lawn mowers.” I imagine this evolved from a neighbor doing favors for family and friends, then deciding to make it a business. Ditto the hand-lettered “deer processing” sign – all those hunters, heading back to the city after a weekend, don’t have time to dress their deer. A business is born.

There’s also the woman who cuts hair at the back of the general store, and another who make barbeque sauce and apple butter to sell at the farm stand.

It happens in other small towns, too. Every time I visit Chincoteague, Va., I consider spending an entire summer there, growing tomatoes to sell from a table set out in my front yard. If I had a front yard, there. There was one farmer who drove his pickup truck to the island every weekend and sold watermelons from the back. And I love the tables set out with seashells for sale. Fifty cents each.

When my income dips – and, in my business, it can be like a roller coaster – I often comfort myself by the thought of all the things I could do if I needed to make money just to get by. I always think first of baking pie. I could sell it to busy friends and neighbors too busy to bake at Thanksgiving! One summer between college semesters, I baked three kinds of bread and sold it at the local health food store. I don’t remember now how much money I made, but I do remember being crestfallen when my father pointed out that I was getting the electricity to bake with for free, at my parents’ house. And I thought I was such a clever young business woman.

Today, I’m thinking of the big bag of chestnuts I gathered this morning from under the trees near our favorite country hideaway. If I were living near Floyd full time, I could package them in brown paper bags and sell them at the farmer’s market. I could gather wild nettles, a sort of gourmet foraging novelty, and sell those as well (they’re actually delicious, which I know thanks to a Floyd County potluck). Or hunt mushrooms for sale, or pick dandelions and package them neatly, the way French farmers do for the Paris market.

Instead of lattice-top pies, I could make hand pies, maybe team up with a mountain woman who could share her recipes, and we could pool our profits. We could sell to the tourists who come up the mountain for the fall leaves, we could use lard to appeal to the traditionalists, and vegetable shortening for the crunchy-granola vegetarians. I could write a book about baking with Esther, or whoever I find willing to tolerate my enthusiasm for tradition that isn’t even my own, long enough to bake with me.

Or, I could go back to the city and write more local news, more local travel, more education policy, patchworking a living together the way I’ve done for the past 20 years. Patchworks come in all different textures and patterns. I guess mine will remain, in some form, the written word.

Though if you really want a Thanksgiving pie, you know who to call.


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