GUEST COLUMN: Letter from Dogwood

Some summer I am going to take a REAL vacation, where I laze about and read and travel and do nothing more strenuous than feed the dog and mow the grass. I might not even plant a garden. I haven’t had a summer like that since I was a very small child. Between the home garden and the farmwork and Daddy’s sawmill and working on neighbors’ farms, there were no summers off.

I worked every summer while in college and grad school, and as an educator, I spent almost every summer taking more classes. Ask most teachers about their “summers off,” and they’ll grimace and stare at you. I did spend one summer in England – but I was studying. I’d won a fellowship to the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford, where I spent mornings in lectures and afternoons and evenings preparing for the next day or writing papers. 

There was some good incidental learning going on. On my first train ride, from Paddington Station to Stratford, I observed no wooden railroad ties such as I had helped to mill with Dad, only reinforced concrete “sleepers.” And once, as I wandered a residential street in Stratford, I saw some workmen building a home and asked them where they got plywood. “From Sweden,” they replied. Here, we bulldoze trees into heaps and burn them; in England, the countryside has been so deforested that wood is precious.

I learned that it took an American about three days to get comfortable paying for items and making change – this was the pre-euro days of pence and shillings and pounds. I learned it took about that long to get accustomed to looking to the right when you started across a street. After three days there, I could spot American newcomers by the way they hopped back up on the sidewalk to avoid being hit.

I also learned that even though I arrived on the 3rd of July, I needed a sweater. I learned that even that was insufficient wrap on a boat ride up in the Lake District when I had a weekend off to travel to Wordsworth country. I learned that you could get garden-fresh English peas in August, but that tomatoes and corn had to be grown in greenhouses or imported. That climate difference taught me a lot about why the early colonists starved: not because they were “gentlemen,” but because they weren’t familiar with a Virginia summer and growing conditions. In England, any sustained weather above 80 degrees was considered a heat wave. I learned that between the cool temperatures and the almost daily rains, outdoor grilling as we know it was almost unheard of over there.

I think some summer it’d be nice to spend that summer in England again …with a proper sweater. Or maybe this time in Ireland or Scotland – some place I feel the foreignness of and learn a bit without suffering a really severe dislocation of culture and language. I’m not ready for that much work.

David Black lives in Louisa County.

Recommended for you