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Hop flower in a hop yard in the Hallertau, Germany (Wikipedia)
"Something significant seems to have stuck with me …"

My father, who was born near the Willamette Valley German immigrant town of Mt Angel, told of working hop harvest. Long days standing on the tall bed of a high-sided flatbed truck, reaching up to cut the cords holding the twenty foot tall vines into the truck bed would leave his forearms raw. Even then, the work beat picking beans, which was stoop labor and hard on the back and also left forearms chafed. I'd seen the hop yards, since I'd grown up near the preeminent hop growing region in this country, and dreamed of growing my own someday. I'd tried several times, always with disappointing results, short, rather sickly specimens yielding few of the treasured cones. I'd crafted small pillows filled with dried cones, which are said to induce sweet dreams, but had never more than dabbled in their cultivation until this year, this seemingly hopeless growing season. I'd late last summer finally found a plant at a local nursery, for which I'd paid a small king's ransom, and planted it in front of the fine, tall cathedral window out front, thinking that perhaps it might at least yield some interesting shade. That plant grew a begrudging six feet or so before an early snow halted further progress. I pruned it to the ground and forgot about it until Spring, hoping that it might prove eternal enough to sprout up a second year.

This Spring needed hope like no other I'd known.
With pandemic spreading and us sequestered, several hopes and dreams went into suspension pending secession of hostilities between the virus and us. I'd tried to attend a writer's conference but it cancelled at the last minute. I'd wrestled with what to do with my finished manuscripts, but I felt stymied. By late March, already grown bored with my prospects, I noticed a few green shoots poking through the mulch out front. Quickly confirming that my hops had awakened, I took pains to protect them from inquisitive deer, crowning the shoots with a woven conical metal lawn ornament into which they could easily wend their way up inside. I tied two wires from the top of that protective ornament into small screws I'd placed into the cathedral's middle frame, and watched daily as the days warmed and the shoots commenced to growing. The voracious deer seemed uninterested in this only green thing in the winter-barren yard, and I was soon coaxing shoots out of the woven surface of their protective cap. They grew better than any weed I'd ever seen. I fertilized them and cultivated around their roaming rhizomes, uncovering a couple of spreading volunteers. I shortly became endeared to the damned thing.

It became a daily obsession, the first station of my seasonal stations of the cross, along with my sprouting wildflower garden and my barely sprouting rhubarb. The hop vine was growing, first inches each day, and later, I swear, nearly a foot. I put up the long ladder and set a few screws higher up the window frame up to the peaked rooftop, then twisted light guy wires to make a crude if almost geometric trellis, checking daily for progress and to help train growth. The vine showed a definite intelligence. With the least little direction, it found its way ever upward, somehow knowing when to throw off a side 'bine' to take advantage of a cross wire. By May, inspite of a few snow days, it had gained the top of the first window frame and begun spreading and climbing ever higher, twisting itself around and around and always, always upward. It seemed to embody hope itself, and so I took to calling it my hop(e) vine, if only to remind myself that such aspirations still existed, even and probably especially during those discouraging plague times. It became my meditation companion viewed through the window long before the sun came up. That plant, by then a small and expanding city of a thing, even grew in the dark, always upward and out.

It ultimately reached the peak of the highest roof line then began cascading downward like a green waterfall. Not until the whole upper reaches of the supporting trellis wire had been fully populated did it ever slow down. Then, seemingly in a single day, small flowerlets began showing, little tender starburst-y things, like firework blossoms. It stopped growing up and out then, but continued flowering, cones growing just as visibly as their supporting vines once had. The window was by then well and fully shaded and summer had arrived, and the hop(e) settled in to befriend grasshoppers and sparrows. It was dandy cover and the damned deer continued giving it a wide berth. It seemed the most tranquilly satisfied being on Earth, and I, by such close association, experienced a certain calming as well. That vine became my pet. I'd inspect it with loving possessiveness and tend it like it was my offspring, checking for anything that might threaten its continuing existence.

Time came, by late August, when certain intimations appeared. An odd cone or two might fall into the mulch below, and I remembered that I would one day soon have to cut down my hop(e), much like my father had cut down that farmer's yield in that far away hop yard. I put off the surgery through several days where I'd convinced myself it was finally absolutely necessary. I kept chickening out. Wait too long and the cones might grow too delicate to properly remove for further use; they'd just fall apart like loose little leaves if I left them too long on the vine. It had been time for a week before I finally found the proper time when The Muse could climb up the long ladder (she insisted) and cut that hop(e) vine loose. I, the midwife, caught the baby as she came down in slow motion from above. I'd lovingly laid out the big tarp to contain the body, and stretched it out as flat as possible while The Muse and I knelt with scissors, cutting off cones. We shortly reverted to sitting in chairs, our knees needing no further insults, and we sat serenely snipping cones for the following hour or so, chatting and channeling our forebears, who most certainly found themselves in an identical situation two, three, and four hundred years before. She was fortunate to set her chair nearest the motherload portion of the carcass, where the mondo cones hid beneath their leaf covering. I'd happened to sit nearest the further tendrils of it, populated with much smaller cones. Eventually, as the afternoon light faded behind the adjacent mountain, we discovered, as all harvesters eventually do, that we were through. We'd somehow crawled clear through the operation. I knelt in a pool of snipped cones. She swept the escapees into a paper bag. I took down the long ladder. She helped me fold up the tarp. I hauled away the remnants of that vine and she left the three quarters filled cone bag for me to store on a high garage shelf.

The window looked like a fresh conscript after that first buzz cut, naked and a decade younger than it had that morning. I found a beer and sat on the front stoop to stare at the naked window and watch a gibbous moon rise. A fierce gust of wind came up, blowing two huge golf umbrellas tumbling end over end down the road. A walker caught one and a passing motorist stopped the other. I directed them both to the place I suspected they'd originated from as thunder rumbled agreeably around me. A sharp spatter of rain washed the cathedral window clean and both cats escaped back inside to hide from the storm. I sat, moving my metal lawn chair a little further beneath the overhang, and sipped my beer, hoping against hope to find a little replacement hopefulness in there. It was a reverent moment, though I couldn't quite discern if the fierce little storm meant the gods were pleased or pissed at our accomplishment.

The Muse had remarked, as we sat snipping cones, that harvest time is not for hopefulness, for it's no longer Spring by then, and Summer wanes. Harvest time is the time for acceptance, for acknowledging just how things turned out, and for appreciating, however lean or fat the yield that year. It's not a time of loss but a time of gain, the time where once-dreams settle in to become actual things, worthy of appreciating. The fleeing hop(e)-filled season produced more than a bumper crop of cones, but that certain anchoring of home. I'd grown into my skin while watching that hop(e) vine demonstrate vigorous growth, and had somehow filled myself with a fresh hope, one less delicate than any dream; perhaps by osmosis. It seems as though I learned much from my hop(e) vine, learnings likely to stick with me long after those cones are dried and flavoring ale, even long after I've swallowed the resulting ale and recycled the bottles. Something significant seems to have stuck with me from my close association with hop(e) this season. Something lending me good reason to continue in even greater earnest. If that's not hope, I guess I wouldn't recognize what is.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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