Thinking of the Future

Well folks, the conclusion of another year is upon us and these shorter days have given me pause for thoughts about endings and beginnings and all the mixology that goes on in between . . .

For some time now, I have been battling the sinister encroachment of invasive plants onto our four plus acres.  This little isle of land is surrounded by nasty stands of Privet, English Ivy clawing its way up neighboring trees, and sneaking masses of Liriope (a.k.a. “Monkey Grass”).  All form fruit that is valued as food by many species of birds.  In turn, our avian friends vote with their digestive systems in indiscriminate ways, spreading far and wide the progeny of what they’ve consumed.  Not respecting property lines of course, those dastardly offspring methodically make their way onto ‘my’ land.Japanese Privet

“So”, you might say, “what is wrong with plants that provide food for our beleagured feathered friends?”  Well, on that basis alone, mostly nothing, but the dominating characteristics of all the aforementioned plants have a tendency to overwhelm existing natives, including many of our wildflowers.  On ‘my’ plot, Yellow-root, Caseby Trilliums, Hepatica, Uvularia, Anemone are indigenous species who watch this encroachment with trepidation.  (How do I know that plants have emotions and feelings?  It’s easy, just ask one!). Thus, I conduct irregular missions of removal in a battle that I may win for some unknown amount of years.  However, the eventual outcome of domination will be won by these illicit aliens once my presence here ceases to be a factor.  Of course, these sorts of wars are going on all around the planet as (mostly) human activity has spread many life forms beyond their original geographic boundaries.  Aside from Privet, many of you will be familiar with Ebola, for example.invasive species images

Yet, I take some solace in the apparent fact that at least 97% of all organisms that have ever existed on our planet are now extinct.  Given the rapaciousness of human progress (read that as a geometric population growth), I am dubious that we will fall into the skinny three percent or so of long term survivors.  But that, dear reader, is fodder for another post.  So while it does seem that the extended presence of those invasive plants appears to be finite, that thought caused me to wonder what the prospects are for Earth itself.

Googling the question revealed the fairly well known fact that our planet is, among several other possibilities, likely doomed to being burned to a crisp by the death throes of our solar system’s expanding red sun.  It’s all just a matter of time.  One of the sites that popped up proposed that, if humanity acts reasonably quickly (two decades or twenty million years, I don’t know), we can save ourselves by transplanting people to another compatible environment in an infinitely vast universe.  Sounds plausible to me, but I do wonder if English Law will find a foothold on Planet Xanax.

But the  point to which I am building is that I really like living here. Travolta as Michael In the movie ‘Michael’, John Travolta humorously plays a chain smoking, beer drinking, pot bellied version of the archangel, Michael.  Sent back to earth to perform one more good deed before he must return to Heaven permanently, the movie ultimately reaches a sweet, romantic conclusion.  However, I feel the penultimate scene is towards the middle where Travolta’s character is thoughtfully perched in a very pastoral setting somewhere in the American midwest.  Lamenting his temporary status on Terra firma, ‘Michael’ looks longingly over the beauty before him and says, “God, I’m going to miss this place!”  That monologue has stuck in my memory since as it resonates with my feelings for the beauty of the world we do live in.  Boys and  girls, I’m not referring to buildings, or planes, or the newest mega-superstore, all of which soar over “improved” real estate.  Rather, that resonance lies in myriads of ways in the natural world including the migration of Sandhill Cranes, the asymmetrical beauty of the Spurred VioletSpurred Violets (the veins serve as 'landing lights' for pollinating insects!), the ghost-like calls of the Barred Owl, or the thousand year old majesty of a Redwood Tree.Barred OwlBaobab Trees in Madagascar

Aside from the damage we’ve done to our only home for now, it truly makes me sad to think of all this being burned to a crisp even if that event is a few million or billion years in the distance.   Of course, just like what happens here on Earth, there is a beginning and end to everything (and then, other beginnings).  All of us are composed of recycled dinosaur dung, carbon, and for now minute amounts of mercury.  Then we are tossed into that DNA blender of life and rudely thrown out of the womb to begin to make our own way.  (Of course, a diaper change or two along the onset is of significant assistance.)  So, I suspect the elements of this current home will go into the construction of other places for life in ways and situations that seem unfathomable.  I believe it arrogant to think otherwise.  Regardless, it is essentially impossible for our minds to consider our surroundings being substantially different from how they exist now.

And for me, this beautiful Earth (despite all of her scars and wounds) is where I am from and where I want to remain.  Given an opportunity for passage to another world, I’m certain I’ll elect to keep the seat that I have on this boat; anyway, it seems to be the only ship available.  Do make every effort to enjoy the journey and treat our vessel well.boy and leaf in the rain  Away from the smell of fine leather seats, perch on a moss covered stone and open your senses.  Listen to the complexities of living things that exist in our Natural world.  Watch for the subtle progress of flowers, the construction of bird’s nests, the slow, silent blanket of a developing snowfall.  Smell the odors and fragrances that accompany the changing seasons.  Accept weather as not an inconvenience, but rather a nudge from Nature to slow down and enjoy.  There is truly more to life to appreciate than the quickest route to the mall.

They’re Moving Through

Beginning about mid-November in our area, flocks of Sandhill Cranes can be seen migrating south. Travelling on silvery wings in the familiar ‘V’ formation, they are frequently confused as Canadian Geese. However, Geese are content to stay in place in this region and don’t trouble themselves with migration. A primary identification for Geese is that they fly at relatively low altitudes and have that distinct, nasally-honking sound. Cranes are usually seen much higher and have a sort of guttural, rolling call that, to me, sounds pre-historic.   As the lead bird in the ‘V’ tends to work the hardest, flocks can be seen milling about aimlessly while another bird is chosen to take the point.

sandhill flight 2At least half the time when I hear Sandhills I don’t see them as trees tend to obscure their flight, particularly if their path is low on the horizon.   Regardless, their calls and their movement through the sky stirs something deep within me. It’s a spiritual resonance with one of Nature’s creatures that gives me hope that their kind of life will continue to endure as they have already for millions of years.

From what I understand, the largest populations are in the mid-West with the Mississippi River representing a primary flyway for spring and fall migrations. The birds we see (sometimes flocks can number in the hundreds) are moving out of their summer breeding grounds in northern Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Canada. My understanding is that there are now populations that over winter on reservoirs in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. However, my contact with this magnificent creature has been in the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia.

They are huge birds with a wing span over six feet and a height of almost four feet. When I’ve seen them while canoeing in the Swamp, their heads were on eye level with me even though they were standing in almost a foot or more of swamp water.  Most of the populations of Sandhills are doing alright, but their close cousin, the Whooping Crane, almost became extinct as its plumage was highly coveted for hats and millinery more than one hundred years ago. There are now about 200+ ‘Whoopers’ left. I saw a pair of them near Hayesville, N.C. last year where they decided to take up winter residence alongside a larger number of Sandhills.sandhill in swamp

To me, Sandhills seem to spend a good bit of their life on the wing as it won’t be too long before groups of them will be visible heading back north. In our area, this can begin in mid-January, but they are certainly in full transit a month later. If you’re not familiar with them, watch the skies on clear cerulean days, and listen for their distinctive calls. See if these magnificent creatures have the same impact on your heart and soul that they do on mine!

Maple Leaf Viburnum or Dogmackle

Saw this beauty recently at Sweetwater Creek State Park.   With over 2,500 (mostly) wooded acres of space, this lovely site contains hiking (and running) trails, ruins of a Civil War era fabric mill, a 200 plus acre lake, and a beautiful stream side environment with lots of native plant materials.  Maple Leaf Viburnum

All of which segues me into the associated photo.  At first glance, this native shrub looks like a Maple tree, but it’s actually a Viburnum.  (The blue-black fruit, barely noticeable in the photo at the tip of my fingers, is a giveaway as a Viburnum.)  The botanical name is Viburnum acerifolium.  As is usual in botanical names, the species name is descriptive of some aspect of the plant.  In this case, “Acer” is the great genus for the Maple Family and, of course, “folium” refers to foliage or leaf. So, even though the leaves certainly look like a maple, the flower and fruits of this plant identify it as a Viburnum.  Remember, boys and girls, plants are grouped into the same genus because of similarities in flower and fruit, not because of leaf appearance.

This plant is extremely shade tolerant, spreading (colonizing) as an understory plant in drier soils.  This is an excellent shrub growing to 4-6′ in height with wonderful fall colors of pink to rose to red to grape-juice purple.  I’m not aware of any commercial sources, but it is a fairly common plant in our area and further north.  It is easily propagated from woody cuttings in June to July.  Please remember it is a big no-no to collect plants, etc. from the wild in our State and National Parks.  Better to get permission from a private landowner who probably doesn’t know what the heck they have anyhoo.

Daddy’s Family

Daddy’s Family

The restaurant is a separate structure in a small cluster of buildings in Acworth that would kindly be called third world strip mall.   Perched on top of the roof is a sign with the name ‘DADDY’S’ in bold black letters against an ugly yellow background.  If Freud were alive, he would have a field day with me and the connotations of that name.

The brick sided building is rectangular and mimics the appearance of a 1950’s style house.  Large plate glass windows face the nearby road allowing easy visibility to the steaming food on one side and patrons on the other end.  I have been eating here on and off for the better part of thirty years.  If good customers were made honorary shareholders of this eatery, I’m confident I would be among the first recipients.

A poorly built retaining wall leans out precariously along one side of the parking lot, obviously exhausted from holding back the red clay that pushes from behind.  It will soon collapse and then lay in jumbled heaps of defeated concrete block, rusty steel bars, and triumphant clay.  These lifeless warriors will lie across that row of parking spaces for months while others sort out who is responsible for removal and reconstruction.

But inside there is no such disarray.  On the right, go through the double doors painted barn red, and immediately your attention is focused to the left on the neat row of foods heaped in stainless steel trays, kept hot or cold by unseen mechanisms, and semi-protected by glass sneeze shields.  Two sizes of plates and small bowls are stacked expectantly at the beginning of the table.  Expediency and gluttony are facilitated by the fact that access to the food is down both sides of the yards-long smorgasbord.  Folks who are starting to serve themselves may expect polite returnees from the dining room to break in line.  “Scuze me, I’m jes here to git me some chickin; they wuz out when I went through.”

You start with salad (last summer they actually used ‘real’ tomatoes), progress to beets, cole slaw and so forth; you make quick, but agonizing choices from the vegetables cooked “half-to-death” Southern style; you try and create room for the fried chicken or meatloaf or country fried steak swimming in brown gravy by displacing the food on your already mounded plate.  Then you realize that it’s hopeless to get dessert on this trip as you juggle two brimming plates and one bowl and will be compelled to come back.

If you are troubled by a guilty conscience upon your return, you can start at the beginning of the line and pretend that this is your first trip through.  Don’t fret; no one keeps count.  Leave this buffet hungry and it’s your own fault.  You will notice that this has, apparently, not proven to be a problem as evidenced by the ample girth of many of the patrons.

Usually, but sometimes not if they’re overwhelmed,  one of two or three perfectly plump waitresses in blue jeans will ask in tones as sweet as the tea for your drink preference.  “Whaddya all gonna have, honey?  Sweet, unsweet, or water?” as you pile up your plates. The staff is stable, predictable, and mostly related.  Puffed blond hair, face with lots of eye make-up, they look as good to me as a fine mule would to an appreciative farmer.  They know me and I know them and there is a measure of connectedness between us that is both reassuring and soothing.  If I’m with someone else, I will order the same drink as my dining partner to make it easier on these goddesses of the buffet.  There’s nothing chain restaurant saccharine about these pleasant but harried women.  They serve sincere smiles with their efficiency.  “Ya’ll enjoy” is dropped on already grazing, bent heads as the bread and drinks are placed on the table.  With more of a military about face than a pirouette, it’s off to field other requests as they return to their alcove for more of whatever is desired by the steady influx of customers.

The patrons are mostly blue collar and men and those of us who are ‘wanna be’s’.  Neckties and dresses are scarce; rather, overalls hang over ample frames, ballcaps of all genres roost on tan heads, and under the tables leather boots rest at odd angles while taking a break from supporting well-fed bodies.

Although this is not exactly a male bastion, it is best that there aren’t too many female patrons for the simple reason that they tend to delay progress in the food line.  That’s because many women will use the metal tongs to pick up each piece of fried chicken, carefully examine it for several seconds, turning it this way and that until every segment would be dizzy if it were alive and flying, and then gently put it back down, almost apologetically, until another piece is retrieved for scrutiny.  I’m never certain what it is they are scouting for and their search methods are so haphazard, flitting and flipping through the pile of hapless chicken, that it appears that they don’t know either.  Perhaps they are looking for plump breasts.  These are probably the same women who actually go shopping all day for God knows what, while the men (just as they are typical buyers) are on more of a search and consume mission.  For these males, if it can be plopped on the plate unceremoniously, and sits still long enough, it’ll be eaten.

If one is unfortunate enough to be behind such a careful eater, regardless of gender or age, an unspoken house rule dictates that this be endured and not objected to verbally.  However it is quite permissible to simply reverse field and go to the other side of the serving line in order to avoid any jams created by indecision.

Amongst the tables, the talk is loud and boisterous and the language is salted with the twang of “aints”, “shore nuff”, and “I reckon.”   Latino and black men mix with the white customers freely as most appear to be work companions.  The Latinos relish the food with subdued conversation amongst themselves.  As yet, they are still strangers in a foreign culture.  The blacks banter easily with all nearby, their own form of joviality refreshing.  The cultural blend here is as diverse as the vegetable mixture served towards the end of the week.  Food is the universal appeal and it is enjoyed with an amiability that only properly fried chicken can foster.  Southern cooking has proven to be one of the arenas in which the races can have a friendly accommodation even though it was not always that way.   But here, just like the truces for Christmas that were called during war, hankerin’ for home cooking displaces inequality and meals are enjoyed without seating preferences.

I make it a point to tip generously even though this is a haul-your-own-grub establishment.  I want these people and this place to survive as long as possible.  Comfort is derived here from more than just the food.  In a world of bigger is better, where the food and living is hectic, where old ways of existing are being discarded as fast as clothes by two lovers in a moment of passion, this place is an oasis.  I realize that many sophisticates and health nuts would express great disdain for this type of fare, but that makes me happy.  Otherwise, the place would be way too crowded.  And anyway, I’ll bet that their chances of dying in a car wreck on one of Atlanta’s super crowded roadways are greater than mine of coronary failure.

For me, there are copious amounts of introspection available in this eating place.  Most of it is engendered by reminiscence for the better side of my own upbringing. It doesn’t hurt that the atmosphere encourages enjoyment and an interruption to our fast paced lives, sort of like a good snow storm during a mild Southern winter.  If the weather’s reasonably decent, men gather in small irregular gaggles outside, picking their teeth, grinning, bullshitting, taunting one another,  extending as long as possible the day’s most pleasant interlude.  This is not the place for a meal to be confined to a half-hour.

Although there are younger patrons, the demographics are tilted towards us more ‘mature’ folks who sport heads of hair (or no hair) that is indicative of the ageing process.  Likely they have the same need for nostalgia and an aversion to certain aspects of the modern world as I do.  These kinds of diners are a dying breed, but where they exist, they are peopled by regulars who tend to know each other, who favor amiable conversations with strangers, and who love the verbal favors of an attentive waitress.  There’s something about being called ‘honey’ or ‘shugah’, even though those same terms will be slathered over every other male in the establishment, that causes me to feel just a bit more special, seemingly cared for, and, admittedly, just a bit mothered.  “Hi, my name is Sabrina, and I’ll be your server tonight” pales in comparison to the use of those aforementioned terms of endearment drizzled over the conversation like chocolate icing on a warm doughnut.

Aside from the food, the sign at the register is indicative of what matters most to this establishment:  “All the happiness in the world doesn’t buy money.”  Based on the smile that the owner gives to each exiting customer (who must pay in cash), I would say that she seems reasonably content.

A vase of hand picked flowers (when I wrote this it was a daffodil mixture) on the checkout counter displaces the need for a mission statement.  The water served here is genuine Cobb County treated.  Print advertising would be wasted text for this ‘dining experience.’  There are no apologies mumbled for this fare, nor are there any needed.  Word gets around; avoid going at noon if you can help it.  If not, go anyway and remember to tip in a big hearted manner!

Southern Exposure

Several years ago on a Labor Day weekend, our mountain neighbor, Smitty, dropped his pants in front of me. He and I were standing out in the meadow in front of his rural cabin when this happened. A few minutes earlier, my wife and daughter had disappeared for an afternoon walk.
Previous to his exposure, I had been talking with Smitty and his wife at their cabin. She was rocking the afternoon away on their porch and I was a few feet away on the grass. Smitty stood on the steps between us and dominated our three-way conversation.cabin in the woods White haired and with teeth too clean and even to have been his originals, he stood well over six feet and looked fit. Likely, I thought, from a lifetime of pursuing his outdoor interests. A semi-retired barber, I noticed he seemed to always have a toothpick in one side of his mouth ready for action on those beautiful choppers. His hair, begging for a brush, stood in careless, unkempt angles of white straw on top of his head.
Although we’d only met Smitty and his wife a couple of times, I’d already heard some of his stories before and knew he loved hunting and fishing. Sizing him up a bit, I guessed he had about fifteen years on my fifty-five.
Bragging in a matter-of-fact tone, he told me “I’ve kilt two bear with a .22. Shot one through the throat as he reared up on me and put a bullet inta the other just behint his ear.” I remember being duly impressed. Being somewhat inexperienced with weaponry, I would have thought it took a weapon of much larger caliber than a .22 to reliably stop a bear. Of course, I didn’t bother to state that I thought it only fair that animals being hunted for sport deserved the equal, albeit fanciful, opportunity of being adequately armed so that they could shoot back at their oppressors.black bear
I made the mistake of asking about his fishing techniques on the Nantahala River which glided by clear and gurgling not fifty yards from where we stood. “You ever use worms?” I inquired innocently, knowing that was one of the more reliable methods for catching most fish.
“That’s nigger fishin'” he responded with a clear element of disdain. “Yep, it’ll work, but that’s nigger fishin'” he repeated, smirking for a moment. His choice of words rendered an internal cringe to my gut and reminded me that I was in his backyard of intractable prejudices and preferences. When you first get to know someone, the question soon comes up whether or not there is a possibility of becoming friends. I quickly checked the ‘no’ box for Smitty and myself. His wife rocked on unperturbed and compliant. The sound the rockers made were patient and softly rhythmic on the porch planks.
I changed the subject and remarked to her about the unusual beauty of an impatiens she had blooming in pots located at the bottom of the steps. Agreeing, she said, “I’m thinking about saving seed from them.” Guessing that it was likely a hybrid, I suggested that she make cuttings and over winter them in a sunny spot in her house. Wasting no time jumping into that discussion, Smitty promptly overruled us on that idea. I noticed that every time her husband interrupted, she would quiet until he had finished before proceeding with her own thoughts.
Wearying of the unbalanced, superficial conversation, I excused myself so that I could investigate the banks of the nearby river. Prefacing my departure with a half-hearted “See ya’ll later”, I waved and left. Despite our differences, I hoped that my comment would suffice as reasonably neighborly.
However, I had been poking along the stream for what seemed like only a few minutes when Smitty ambled up. Interrupting my reverie with good news, he told me “Tennessee beat UAB 20 to 14.” I had previously mentioned to him I was a lifelong Volunteer fan. His proclamation was made while exposing those pearly whites of his in a wide toothy smile that I didn’t much trust.UT symbol
“How’d ya find out?” I asked. He reminded me that he had satellite TV in this remote area and had just tuned in ESPN for the latest college football scores. I thanked him for letting me know and then changed the topic again. I had noticed some non-native Rose of Sharon growing next to the river. “You and you’re wife must’ve planted these” I remarked.
“We shore did but the beavers have like to et ‘em up” he answered. His arm was pointing to some of the stumps left by their gnawing. The decapitated shrubs were making a valiant effort at recovery with rapidly growing shoots signifying some progress.
I pointed to a patch of Blue Lobelia growing next to the creek and asked him if he knew what that was. No, he didn’t know much ‘bout flowers. I then proceeded to show him Grass of Parnassus, Joe-Pye Weed, and Goldenrod. “What’s that orange flower there?” he asked while indicating one of the more common flowering annuals present at that late point in the summer.
“Jewelweed” I replied. “Hummingbirds love ‘em.” jewelweedI didn’t bother to tell him that the sap of this native impatiens is antidotal for poison ivy as I had deduced that he was no more interested in plants than I was in hunting. Regardless, I was happy to have the satisfaction of having some knowledge of the natural world to counterbalance his experiences with hunting and fishing.
Despite my efforts to steer our conversation, he drifted back into hunting stories. As he began to speak, a Kingfisher flew low over the river, his call rattling, mocking. This bird could spot horseshit too. I broke eye contact with Smitty to focus on the bird’s flight and to get my neighbor to shut up but it was to no avail. Doggedly he continued. “I nearly got fucked up back in May when we ran down this boar.”Kingfisher
“No kiddin’” I responded with only polite interest.
“Yep, boars always git in thuhmos’ difficult of conditions when they’re cornered . . . briars, or canes, or dense growth of any sort. This ‘unhad been hemmed up by my dogs in a laurel thicket and I went in after ‘im. Tried sneakin’ up on ‘im from his backside, but he sensed me there and turned ‘round mighty damn fast and bolt me over like I wuz a bowlin’ pin. While I wuz sprawled on my back like an overturned turtle, that sumbitch got down at my ankles and started rootin’ up ‘tween my legs fer all he wuz worth, shakin’ his head from side to side, and tearin’ holes in my britches with his tusks! He wuz headed straight for my balls. ‘Shoot ‘im, shoot ‘im!’ I’s yellin’ to my huntin’ partner. And he did, emptyin’ a .22 Magnum into that fucker. The hog fell to one side and I rolled t’uther. ‘He’s fucked me up bad!’ I hollered to my buddy. Blood was a pourin’ outa my leg. Took several months to heal. Here I’ll a’showya.” With a flick of his tongue, Smitty quickly shifted that toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other as he glanced down at his legs and spread his feet apart slightly.
And I watched, stunned, as he undid his belt, unbuttoned his camouflage pants, and let them carelessly fall to just above his knees as though he were readying himself for the act of defecation. His scarred flesh confirmed where the boar’s tusk had penetrated for several inches along his inner right thigh stopping just short of his scrotum. Beginning just above his knee, a long and broadening red streak, climaxed by a quarter-sized purple dot of flesh commemorated the event. “You were lucky he didn’t tear your femoral artery” I remarked, while simultaneously thinking that I didn’t realize that anyone older than me still wore ‘tighty-whities’. Has Miss Manners addressed the proper protocol for what to say and do in such a situation?
My mind was racing to try and stay ahead of any further developments this encounter might hold. I was too taken aback by Smitty’s unabashed, prideful exhibitionism in that isolated, but open meadow to know what else to think.boar
Smitty agreed that he had experienced good fortune and kept his pants down a few seconds longer than I was comfortable with; cupping the mostly healed flesh with his hands as though it was a trophy. No way could I top that. Fortunately, he had just decided to pull his pants up just before my wife and daughter showed up from their walk. My family had come awfully darn close to coming to my rescue.
Any sense of decorum I had remaining had been scrambled and I don’t recall what I said to Smitty as I left to greet my relatives. But I do remember what I thought as I retreated to our adjoining property. He and I had some things in common: a Caucasian background with English surnames. And, we both could be correctly labeled outdoorsmen with an identical interest in underwear style. But that short list of similarities quickly evaporated. After that, our differences became a cultural divide that would be as difficult to traverse as the mountains which served as a backdrop for our respective properties. We might be neighbors, but that’s as close as we’re going to get.

tighty whities

Gullies on the Soul

In 1942, at the age of nineteen, my uncle died in Copperhill, Tennessee.

Map of copperhill At that time, decades of mining activities had completely denuded more than fifty square miles of land in that southwestern area of the Volunteer State.  What the smelting of ore didn’t ruin by consuming trees, the by-product of sulfuric acid completed.  Due to the ensuing ecological devastation, the Copperhill region acquired the dubious distinction of the largest man-made biological desert in the nation.  Photographs of the landscape in that era portray an alien and foreboding scene with intermittent, stunted vegetation and eroded hillsides. ducktownCompared to the lush, undulating terrain of his home ground in Anderson County, that place would have seemed both foreign and threatening to my uncle.

Majoring in chemical engineering at the University of Tennessee, Junior, as he was called, had gone to Copperhill to co-op at the mines for a semester.  It was his first separation from his family.  For those who would not otherwise know, the date on his tombstone appears to make him an early casualty of World War II.  Instead he died a lonely and ignominious death in a rented room – an untimely demise  wrought by the deadly combination of ignorance and poor health care

I never met Junior as I was born seven years later in 1949.  Yet from an early age, I began to make his acquaintance by fitting together bits and pieces of information.  It did not take words to make it clear to me that his death had created a void of varying depths in those closest to him.  I never heard my father, his brother, speak of him.  His sister, my aunt, was a more vocal source of the sadness that severed the once intact family.  His own father died in 1950 when I was ten months old before we had an opportunity to converse on that or any other matter.  But it was his mother who presented me with the most complete picture of Junior’s brief life.  Her stories gradually lent color to  his enigmatic black and white image that hung on the wall in my grandmother’s dining room.

As fond memories bear repetition, I heard various recollections of Junior several times as I grew up.  One I remember well occurred when he had just learned to walk.  Typical of toddlers, he was prone to put things into his mouth.  Chickens ranged free in the yard and the little fella was ambling around following the birds as they pecked and scratched.  Smiling with the memory, my grandmother recalled grabbing his small hand just as he was about to deliver a fresh blob of chicken manure to his mouth.  Later as an adolescent, he would ask her to wake him before dawn so that he could watch the flock come down from their roosting place in the walnut tree that shaded part of their run.  I can imagine his sense of delight as he observed those ungainly birds gradually rouse themselves at first light and perform their awkward half-fall, half-flight to earth as they began their daily routine of searching for food and taking dust baths.  Along with others, those anecdotes made him come alive for me.  I identified with his pleasure in the simple wonders of everyday nature.

Years ago I discovered his diary hidden over the framing of a closet door in my grandmother’s house.  I assume she did not have the heart to discard it and kept it tucked away in a private spot as she did with many of her own recollections of him.  Tall like all of us Davis men, his lanky frame extended six foot three inches.  An uncle watched one evening as Junior got up from the supper table yawning and slowly stretched his long arms overhead.  “Good Lord”, his relative said admiringly, “If you’d growed anymore you’d have forked again!”  Playing basketball for Clinton High he made notations of what would be very low scoring games by today’s standards.  “We beat Lake City 24 to 22” read one laconic post.  Another entry revealed an incident at school where he gleefully got a chemistry  classmate in trouble who was struggling to remember the names of gases.  Mischievously, Junior whispered answers to his seatmate who nervously repeated them out loud to the instructor: “Fluorine, chlorine, urine . . .”Junior 1

The wide front porch on my grandmother’s house was both a shady refuge from the heat of summer and a dry haven for me as a young boy.  Many times I sat there, cocooned in a handmade quilt, mesmerized by rain.  There in that spacious, safe place, she and I passed hours of quiet conversation traveling back and forth in softly creaking rockers.  Occasionally, in a moment of Freudian absent-mindedness, she would begin a sentence addressing me as ‘Junior’, but then quickly correct herself.  I could feel both her sorrow and her love in that misspeak yet I never felt uncomfortable.  Rather, I perceived that my presence in her life was a poignant reminder of her firstborn.  Our time together on that front porch is my earliest memory of the deep affection humans share when they trust each other.  Those connections provided the warmth that kept me out of the cold in later years.

As an adolescent, I had problems with my self-worth and skated back and forth along the sharp edges of illegal behaviors.  Arrested for shooting out street lights as a thirteen year old, I passed a very unpleasant evening in the Knoxville jail.   Had it not been for my grandmother’s thin, but essential tether, I would have easily slipped into more significant problems.

I felt gifted by not only her seeming confusion in calling me Junior, but countless other examples of nurturing; emotional seeds that would eventually sprout into an unbreakable vine that still binds us.  At an early age, I began clinging with a quiet desperation to the maternal life ring she extended.  Otherwise I would have drowned in the whirlpool of living that existed with my parents.  Built in 1933 for $1,500, her Craftsman Style home and the surrounding countryside became a place of refuge, an island of stability. Cultivating a sense of self-worth for her grandson like the most important of crops, she helped to offset some of the doubts that had taken root like poison ivy in my mind.  For all practical purposes, she became my mother.  Still, it would take her passing in 1976 and long periods of private mourning and introspection for me to completely grasp how invaluable and significant she had become in my life.  Not unlike the seedlings that were planted to slowly heal the soil in Copperhill, it took me years of gradual adjustment after the death of my ‘maw-maw’ to understand that hope could be built on the ashes of loss. Just as her garden flourished under her care, her affirmations amounted to fat raindrops for my drought stricken psyche.

Mirroring the usual curiosity and naivete of a youngster, I asked her more than once how Junior died.  She always said she wasn’t sure and seemed to hold no bitterness to that alien landscape that provided the wretched backdrop for her son’s final hours.  It was left to my aunt to say that the cause was likely appendicitis.  These days such a casualty seems incomprehensible as appendectomies are relatively routine.  I’ve never been certain why my grandmother chose to ignore what seemed to be the apparent cause of his death, except perhaps that his passing was so incredibly hard to fathom that the reason was of little import.  He was gone and she was left to mourn and find solace.

Junior’s landlady had called saying that he was very ill.  My grandmother and grandfather prepared to travel from Clinton south to Copperhill.  But before they could leave, he died and their trip was instead made in the accompaniment of a mortician.  I cannot imagine how heartbreaking and devastating such a journey could be to retrieve the body of a son who was so recently healthy and alive.  What strengths, what reserves, on what assistance does one rely to traverse such a hellish emotional landscape?

Escape was considered.  She told me, “After Junior died, Clarence (her husband) and I talked about just moving away from here.”  But they didn’t, perhaps realizing that transplanting themselves wouldn’t erase the memories any more than abandoning a raped landscape can fill in the gullies.  Few details of that long ago sadness survive, but the series of events were surely connected by broiling pain and disbelief.  Certainly the mortality of the land surrounding Copperhill and my uncle’s death were synonymous calamities as both were deeply scarring.

As a parent myself, I have a glimmer of how incredibly traumatic it must be to lose a child.  I shudder at the possibility of the death of any of my own.  That incomprehensible perspective completes another aspect of understanding revealed by my grandmother decades ago:  loss is not something that one “gets over”.  Her grieving was privately apparent as long as I knew her.  She showed me that the passing of someone loved gradually becomes an event that can be lived with as the rawness and pain slowly diminish.  The sadness and longing, however, never completely dissipate.  Piercing reminders dot life’s horizon whether they are significant dates or fellow humans who constitute a heartfelt remembrance.  As her grandson, I inadvertently occupied for her one of those inevitable connections between life and death.  I am grateful for that twist of fate.

These days, I frequently travel to our mountain property on the Nantahala River in North Carolina, just east of where Junior died decades ago.  Veiled scars are evident there too as in Copperhill.  Lumbermen and their nomadic families denuded those Carolina mountains and valleys over one hundred years ago by logging.  In the early 1900’s a narrow gauge railroad chugged along the Nantahala River going and coming with the business of trees.  Along the roadbed on frosty mornings, a keen eye can still see the shadowy remnants of timbers placed for rails.  Their presence below ground is evidenced by a silhouette of lighter frost on top of the soil.  Crushed lumps of coal that once powered the locomotives occasionally surface in the roadway and the re-growth of vegetation, while beautiful, exhibits none of the multi-centenarians of a virgin stand of timber.  For different reasons, the results were practically identical for each locale in these neighboring states: ecological devastation.Copperhill logging

After my grandmother’s death, my aunt stayed in our beloved house until she, too, passed away in 1998.  Then, my father sold the home place and surrounding acreage.  Although it hurt in a different way, that transaction was almost as sad for me as my maw’maw’s death.  Selling the land placed a somber finality on the physical reality of our bond.  I no longer have a right to visit that former refuge.  Yet I was able to have our own children spend enough time there so that it holds special remembrance for them too and those memories we own without fear of violation.

Now, new homes have replaced the former left to right order of barn, outhouse, and chicken house.  With that subdivision, my grandmother’s home remains as the lone building of the former arrangement.  I’ve driven by the property a couple of times since my aunt’s death.  For me, memories exude from the walls although others now live there.  My inviolable memory insists on its former arrangement and continues to see and feel the loving relatives that bestowed both affection and a sense of place upon me.

It is to our new place in the North Carolina mountains that I carry those seeds of poignant recollection.  With her protection and love, my grandmother gave me a chance to survive.  Significantly, her own gardening skills encouraged my interest in plants and the out of doors, an influence that I parlayed into a career in horticulture.  With some of the fruit of that livelihood, my family has built a log cabin in a wild and private recess on the Nantahala River.  My grandmother’s butter churn, oil lamps and other memorabilia add a meaningful warmth to the rustic interior.

This new place of safety also has a wide porch that wraps around two sides of the structure, a comforting replica of my boyhood shelter at my grandmother’s.  Rockers are in position for accommodating memories for a new generation, both those recalled and those to be made.  There the sounds of water from a nearby creek provide the same joy that the brook did for myself and Junior in my grandmother’s front yard.  There, the North Carolina mountains connect me in undulating ridges of familiarity over the horizon to my home ground in eastern Tennessee not so many miles away.  There I drink water from a spring, pick blackberries and fox grapes, explore the hillsides for wildflowers.  It is a sanctuary too; a place Junior would appreciate with his sense of wonder in nature; a place our mutual mother would love.

In the contiguous mountains along the shared boundary of North Carolina and Tennessee, Nature has healed most of the old wounds inflicted by saws and greed  decades ago.  Yet I’ve been to Copperhill only a few times as the name is associated with familial pain of devastation and loss beyond those inflicted on the land.  I carry some of my grandmother’s sorrow, a burden I sense I helped her share.  From my adult perspective, I believe that my presence in her life blunted some of her grief while renewing an indefinable measure of the promise that Junior’s life created.  In turn, she provided me with the essential elements of love, care, and concerns that were so grievously absent in my own home.

The Copperhill Chamber of Commerce now touts the area as a wonderful spot to live and notes that it is “a great place to open and operate a business”.  Hopefully, the heirs to that previous ecological disaster encourage more responsible commerce these days.  It is true that the mines are exhausted and reforestation has hidden most of the former wounds inflicted on the earth.  I’m glad the land is healing.  But each time I drive north or south on Highway 515, I pass signs pointing to Copperhill and memories seep into my heart of that long ago sadness and the resultant bond that my grandmother and I formed.  She and I were two as one, symbiotic beings, both in need and both the better for the voids we filled in each other.

My own bittersweet recollections and longings appear filled in much as the eroded red hills of southeastern Tennessee have been.  But that’s just to the casual observer who doesn’t take the time to part the foliage and see that the terrain still bears witness to what happened.  Soil is the soul of the earth and while it allows new life and spreading roots to gain purchase in its rested bosom, it doesn’t forget.

Neither are we forgotten as our memory is written by the light of the stars.  In the Nantahala nights, countless diamonds glitter their messages over the pristine waters and land.  Amongst them, my grandmother shines in the wet-black sky – a precious pearl of wonder for a young boy, an old man; a connection of love and hope for any age.hands

 

 

 

The Kiss of Rain

This morning, the view from the back porch looks like showers.  It is late August and dark clouds are brooding on the horizon.  Sending uneven breezes they carry the smell of rain while loosening the season’s first worn out leaves from their tethers.  Drifting down, slipping side to side, that spent foliage describes the paths the coming avalanche of fall color will soon follow.rain over mountains

I think of that line from the Beatles’ song, “. . . when the rain comes, they run and hide their heads, they might as well be dead, when the rain comes . . .”   It does seem that most folks find precipitation to be an inconvenience or worse.   Having worked in the landscape contracting field for over forty years, I am very familiar with both the personal discomfort and scheduling problems that the elements can impose on those who earn a living in the out-of-doors.BOULDER_FLOOD  I recall one time we were required to meet the grand opening date of a public tennis court.  Landscaping represents the icing on the cake in most construction situations and every prior contractor’s inevitable delay causes a domino effect of increasing anxiety for that final touch of planting and grassing.  In that particular situation, it had rained for days before our arrival and we were forced to literally rake mud that was the consistency of stiff chocolate pudding before installing the sod.  Needless to say, the experience and results were miserable.  The grass ended up looking like choppy green waters on a storm battered lake.

Despite those occasional difficult times, I retain an affinity for ‘weather’.  Just like eating vanilla ice cream for dessert at each meal, a weeks long period of continually sunny days is a bit boring to me.  Similar to the gurus on the Weather Channel, I like it best when the fronts continue to roll through the hills here producing clouds, wind, and, hopefully, rain.  Forecasters, like Mexican soccer announcers in a close contest, really come alive when storms are predicted. I dread the day that humans can actually control the weather.  I predict that such a future will restrict precipitation to the early morning hours when opportunity for appreciation of rain will be at a minimum.

Speaking of appreciation for rain and how it is arrives, I miss an older neighbor who had many humorous observations on life.  My favorite of his was, “If it weren’t for Alabama, we’d never have any weather!”  His country wisdom was rooted in the very obvious fact that most of our climactic systems usually describe a path of west to east.  I suppose South Carolina should be equally grateful to Georgia for whatever we send them. child in rain

And, I also should point out that my enjoyment of precipitation does not include tornadoes and hurricanes.  Aside from their excesses in terms of winds and floods, those systems tend to be both destructive and unforgiving, much like the wrath of a hungry horde of mosquitoes that have been trapped for days in a mannequin factory.   After taking my wife to work in Atlanta in 1976, I inadvertently crossed paths with a tornado as I traveled north on I-75.  The impact was sudden and the windows in my car imploded, splattering shattered glass and fear all over me.  Petrified, I remember wondering what might sail through those openings although the cyclonic winds raced on.  By the time I could brake to a stop, it was all over.  I helped a woman out of her vehicle in the southbound lane that had two pine trees on the roof.  We gave each other anonymous hugs.  With a white face and trembling hands, I drove in shock to my landscape job in Smyrna.  Since that day, I always pay close attention to storm warnings but I have never lost my affection for gentle, soothing rain.frog holding leaf in rain

As I sit on the porch at our cabin in much calmer conditions, I recall a saying of my grandmother’s that is related to this season.  “A summer’s morning thunderstorm is like an old woman’s dance.”  In other words, an old woman’s jig is as brief as the typical duration of an early morning thundershower in this hot period.  As with my old neighbor’s comment on where our weather originates, this insight is another example of a truism borne of times when people had only experience and their senses to predict the weather.  For myself, I rely, breathlessly, on radar wherever a TV is available.

Aside from reminiscing about weather comments I have heard in the past, the point of all this is that I do love the rain. Even more than that, I love to be outside.  Last night at sunset, darker clouds on the horizon grumbled thunder and presaged an approaching storm.  As lightning clarified those warnings, I wanted to immerse myself into the sensory experience of the coming deluge. I decided to sleep on our covered porch which is perched three stories off the ground, embraced by branches and foliage, and feels like a tree-house.  And, so last night while I drifted in and out of sleep, my rest was serenaded by thunderous reverberations accompanied by the melody of raindrops; raindrops that made pleasant sounds as they fell in intermittent stops among the leaves and limbs on their way to the expectant earth.

There is no doubt in my mind that God invented air conditioning and heated homes for good reasons.  However, I believe that our human experience is being shortchanged as many of us continually transition from one hermetically sealed environment to another.  man on porch in rainPersonally, I miss the vent windows that used to exist on cars allowing cool air to gush across your lap as you drove.  I rue the fact that most modern buildings utilize windows that won’t open.  I also believe that there would be a distinct drop in the dispensing of sleep aids and anxiety meds if the interiors of homes were exposed to the out-of-doors at least during the spring and fall months.  (Note to reader:  I am not a medical doctor, nor do I play one on TV.)  Rain itself is an ancient, but relevant, signal from the heavens that we should take a break and enjoy the weather.  And, of course, this appreciation is best gained from a cozy, safe spot while sitting wrapped in the comfort of a blanket on a broad porch.

P.S.  Don’t attempt to shower in the rain.  From experience, I know it doesn’t work, not to mention the fact that the effects are a bit chilly.boy and leaf in the rain

Rose-Pink or Meadow Beauty

Sabatia (2)Sabatia angularis—Rose-pink or Meadow Beauty:  This lovely wild flower is in bloom now flowering from August into September.  Although not very common, I have seen it in the past along Barrett Parkway between Stilesboro and Burnt Hickory Roads.  The recent road improvements (exactly how is land that has been cleared of all vegetation, flattened, and paved considered “improved”?) may have disrupted its presence. Sabatia (1)

It can be seen in the mountains in scattered locations alongside the roads in dry, rocky soils particularly in areas rich in limestone.  Varying in height from a few inches to a couple of feet, it usually occurs in irregular groups and its pink presence is a happy sighting.  (Completely unlike having Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes show up on your doorstep.)

 

Bee-balm or Oswego Tea

Cabin July 2014 105

Monarda didyma—Crimson Bee-balm or Oswego Tea:  This plant has the most conspicuous blossom of several Monardas which are currently in flower.  All are members of the Mint (Lamiaceae) family and the leaves can be used for tea.  Before the foliage of Camellia sinensis (Tea Plant) were readily available, this plant, along with others was used as a source for that beverage.  It is fairly common in the mountains along moist slopes and wet areas.  If you’d like to plant it, keep in mind its preference for rich, moist, acidic soils and look to buy the variety ‘Jacob Cline’.  It is resistant to the powdery mildew that plagues the species form in our lower elevations.  (I.D. Hint for Mint:  Break off a small section of the plant and you’ll notice the square feel of the stem as you roll it between your fingers.  Square stems are an identification factor for mints.  There are many species currently in flower.)  If you have problems discerning the difference between square, triangular, and round stems, make a note NOT to consume too many adult beverages before botanizing!Monarda

Could my hobby be yours?

Satisfaction Rule # 1:  Do something you love to do.  (And if you can find another person or two to enjoy it with, all the better!)

For me, one of the most satisfying hobbies I’ve had for decades is canning foods.  Before the preservation technique of freezing began to dominate in the fifties, I watched both my grandmother and mother preserve garden produce in glass jars.  In fact, my grandmother had a space dug out into the hillside behind her home in rural east Tennessee that she referred to as the “dairy”.  There she stored her home canned products.  A smokehouse had been built directly overhead which helped to ensure the cooling qualities of the space below.  Before refrigeration was available, that room beneath the smokehouse had been used for storage of milk and butter produced by the cow my grandmother kept.  I still recall the dank, mysterious feel of her dairy that was counter-balanced by the refreshingly steady, cool temperature of that relatively small space.

The final products

The final products

Thus, the seeds of food preservation were sown in me at a young age.  I learned that the stocking of canned goods represented insurance you could eat.  By my late teens, I had achieved a personal goal of making a multitude of jellies and jams and won awards for them at the county fair.  I gradually realized that adding five cups of sugar to just about anything (although I never attempted shoe leather) practically guarantees something tasty.  As verification to the spectrum of things that may be used in those sweetened products, I have seen the rather strange results of other jelly makers which involved kudzu or corncobs or hot peppers, etc.  Regardless of the plant matter involved, cooking odors (particularly those involving cider vinegar!) wafting through the house as part of the preparation are heady aromas guaranteed to arouse the dullest of senses.  Suffice to say, that the various combinations of veggies, including their colors and fragrances, are immensely satisfying elements of the canning process.

I’m not sure if I qualify as a throwback or not, but I do admittedly prefer canoeing over motor boating, football over soccer, and using a push mower over the self-propelled versions.  Although I have heard that there is resurgence in interest in putting food by, those numbers may just represent myself and two other ninety five year olds in the Southeast.  Canning takes time, patience, and effort, characteristics which seem to be in short supply in our instant gratification age.  However, my experience is that canning, like canoeing, is a paced endeavor; one which weaves enjoyment, and not speed, throughout the process.

To possibly discourage anyone who might consider undertaking this as a hobby, I should point out that canning foods is a lot like fishing.  That is, you simply don’t want to measure the results against your contribution of time and dollars.  A home gardener will never be able to economically compete with a mechanized farm operation and the efficiency of a modern canning factory.  However, the return on investment for the home canner is represented by an emotional satisfaction that is superior to putting money in the bank.  For one thing, money doesn’t taste right even with Thousand Island dressing globbed all over it.  For myself, I find the progressive efforts of starting vegetables from seed, growing them, and then preserving a portion of my harvest to be incredibly rewarding.  And, certainly not to denigrate what is found on the shelves of Kroger or Publix, I know what went into the production of those lovely, healthful vegetables.  Additionally, I find it almost painful to even consider throwing away leftovers as I clearly understand how much care and work are involved to get food from seed to mouth.

Green beans with "shellies"

Green beans with “shellies”

Assisted by friends and family, my annual harvest yields several hundred glistening jars of vegetables and fruits in our basement.  And that touches upon another very significant benefit of canning: the social aspect.  Largely out of favor now, it used to be common for local governments to provide equipped kitchens where generations could gather and assist one another with the enjoyable, yet time-consuming task of food storage.  I find it gratifyingly soulful to sit with a companion, chat, and prepare vegetables for preservation. Variously known as “breaking up”, “popping”, or “shelling”, my favorite activity is getting green beans ready for canning while sitting on the porch of our cabin.  No one watches the clock.  There wind chimes make their soft background music and whirring hummingbirds vie for position at their feeders.  When the occasional beans emerge from an over-ripe pod, they are described as “shellies” or “hull-outs”.  I agree with my grandmother’s long ago observation that those shellies are a pleasing aesthetic addition to the green majority of beans being placed into the jar.

Vegetable soup preparation underway

Vegetable soup preparation underway

Another of my favorite things to ‘put up’ is vegetable soup.  The assortment of colorful produce involved shouts healthy with a stronger voice than the Jolly Green Giant can bellow “Ho-ho-ho!” Due to the amounts of veggies involved and the relatively long processing time (ninety minutes at 10lbs. pressure), it generally takes the better part of a day to make a run of fourteen quarts or so.   Yet the hours invested yield time savings later in the winter when those jars are opened, heated up, and eaten.  And, there is no tastier and better base for simple additions (pasta, meats, and serving with, my favorite, cornbread) to the meal when those cooler days arrive.  Of course, it is just fine consumed without further embellishment.

This forum is not adequate for addressing the relatively simple techniques of canning.  However, if you are truly interested, I would suggest the Ball Blue Book, Guide to Preserving, as a starter guide.  There are many, many good books and pamphlets on food preservation, but that particular bible solidly explains the basic techniques and equipment involved in addition to offering dozens of worthwhile recipes.  Like many other endeavors, canning confidence comes with repetition.

One piece of free advice:  stick to using wide mouth jars except, perhaps, for jam and jelly making.  Keep your technique clean and as sterile as possible, while remembering another one of my grandmother’s sayings:  “You gotta eat a peck* of dirt before you die!”  Before she passed, I neglected to ask her if that was a minimum or if once you hit that amount you were a goner.  Regardless, I take great comfort in knowing that what I eat involves the good earth and also ends up circulating in my veins.

*Essentially out of use now as a description of volume, a peck is equivalent to eight dry quarts or one-fourth of a bushel.  If you don’t know what a bushel is, Google it!