A trace of onions on the cellar floor

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The hybrid garden seeds will not throw true in a next generation, and I am sad that cleaning up the garden in the fall no longer includes the saving of seeds. A few things are still basic, and I keep some dill, hollyhocks, sunflowers, and my own potatoes, but anything cleverly monkeyed-with by the plant breeders calls for buying new seed each season. Too bad, because it was fun to lay by your own.

Just now I traced some sweet corn, but this is for cosmetic purposes only, and the kernels will never be planted. Perhaps the trace will hang by its wire perpetually, attesting that I was the last to bother - a kind of remonstrance in a hybrid world where nothing is pure. I recollected pleasantly the State Fair days when seedcorn was tediously, and artistically, traced and it was a high honor to get a blue ribbon. I never exhibited, but I always admired the neat traces in the exhibition.

I do not find this meaning of trace in my dictionary - to braid or plait. We traced corn and we traced onions - making convenient bunches for hanging to dry. With corn, the mature ears would be partly husked, leaving two-three husks that would be twisted into a strand. Then, strand by strand, these husks would be braided, as a woman braids her hair, until a dozen or so ears would be attached, ready to hang on a wire in the attic. Every farm attic had a corn wire - foiling mice - and all winter the seed for next year's crop would hang there, unless the tracer goofed and a cluster collapsed. It was no compliment to the tracer when the family was abed along in January and everybody was shocked awake by the rattle of a trace of corn disintegrating up-attic.

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I say a dozen or so ears, but for the fairs a good tracer would go on and on, limited only by the kinetics that a trace has to support itself. One trick was to use a board, and as the trace accumulated it laid out artistically on the board and didn't meet the risks of suspension. Most of the traces at the fairs were made on boards, and never really had to hang up. Ike Folsom, a neighbor of my grandfather, once made a trace of flintcorn on a 16-foot pine board, and it not only took the blue at State Fair, but also at Topsham, Windsor, Fryeburg, and Gorham. Then, the next year, Ike made another trace on another 16-foot board , and after that he exhibited against himself, under a fake name, and he used to get both the red and the blue. Some of those board-traces got exhibited year in and year out, as did Ike's. Then his wife made a bed quilt from the prize ribbons, and at State Fair she got a blue for that.

My problem with a trace was always lack of allowance for shrinking husks. Seems I didn't wait long enough, and I braided too loosely. After a time, and sometimes not too long a time, the husks would dry some more and shrink, and everything would fall apart. Same with onions, which didn't get hung for seed, but went on a cellar beam to be cut loose as wanted. It was exasperating to find a lovely trace of onions sprawled on the cellar floor. (Then somebody told me to reeve a length of binder twine in my braids, which was downright tracer cheating , but a good thing to know.)

So with no thought for another season's garden, I traced a dozen ears of Sundance (advertised product of plant breeders) and idly dawdled with memory. That's as far as I went. There is no point whatever in choosing a lush tomato, squeezing its seeds onto a shingle, and writing the name with a carpenter's pencil - as we used to do with Valiants, Bonny Bests, John Baars, Erlianas, and Beefsteaks. The juice would dry, the seeds would dry, and come spring we'd scrape off what we needed for a flat of seedlings in the kitchen window or the coldsash. No longer - now we send our checks in February and make the plant breeders glad.

Cucumber, squash, pumpkin, and melon seeds, unlike the tomatoes, got washed. We'd save the seeds from the biggest and first to mature, holding them in a sieve under the pump, and after drying they went in paper bags, properly labeled , to wait out, as we were doing, the winter.

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