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!

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

 

 

 

Thoughts on Gardens

“I hold the firm belief that the purpose of a garden is to give happiness and repose of mind.” — Gertrude Jekyll

I suspect Ms. Jekyll, a famous English gardener, had in mind those billowy, almost overblown cottage gardens when she made this comment.  While I am not aware of her travels, perhaps she had also seen those formal French parterres, defined by rigidly erect Italian cypress standing like sentinels guarding their lane.  Maybe she was also thinking of that contrived look popularized in the Victorian era with the long smooth lines of sheared hedges with topiaries as accents, intersecting each other in obtuse angles and perpendiculars; or those once highly favored knot gardens with their complex, wondrous geometry.  Possibly she preferred the raucous, disorganized appearance of the natural garden with its indeterminate splendor and cacophony of color.  Her options were just as horticulturally varied as they are today for the term ‘gardening’ encompasses many forms and preferences…formal or informal, exotic versus native, perennial, annual or combinations thereof; theme gardens of fragrance, colors, or textures, etc.

For me, I enjoy them all, particularly if I’m not the one to have to spend untold hours on shearing those amazing topiaries.  But now it’s spring and I can think of no prettier sight for my soul than a vegetable garden. In the suburban area where I live, that sort of gardening is at risk of becoming an archaic art. Most people when they mention they want to grow a few vegetables mean they are content with a four foot by four foot spot with the obligatory ‘Better Boy’ tomato plants.  While I don’t feel “old”, the fact is that I am a senior citizen and the whiteness on top of my head (aided by gravitational pull, no doubt) is gradually persuading the rest of my bodily hair to convert to its color.  Neither do I understand or get excited about the game of soccer and, admittedly, have had a somewhat awkward adjustment to the computer age. Recognizing these anachronistic characteristics is only reinforced by the fact that the only real vegetable gardens in my area seem to be cultivated by folks more ‘mature’ than myself.  The proximity and plentifulness of Kroger and Publix supermarkets in our region seems to displace the need for home grown produce.  The vegetable garden grown for sustenance and pleasure is increasingly infrequent here and only more readily seen in the countryside.

At our former home, we lived on six acres and I had a traditional “row crop” garden that was almost twelve thousand square feet in area.  I could never resist the urge to grow far more than our family of five could consume and I finally resorted to putting up a vegetable stand that had an honor system for payment.  Most summers produced a bounty of several hundred dollars in nickels, dimes, and quarters along with an occasional note of appreciation.

When we moved to our current residence, I read Mel Bartholomew’s book on Square Foot Gardening and became a convert to the raised bed method.  Clearing a growth of hardwoods by hand gave me a deeper sense of appreciation (along with calluses) for ancestors who did the same aided only by their back and any beast that was handy.  I now have ten beds each about eighty feet long and with a four foot interior width.  Raised beds have many advantages over the traditional row crop method, not the least of which is the efficient use of space and low soil compaction.

Most people who look at my garden promptly remark, “That looks like a lot of work!”  And while I understand their concern for effort, my activities there are not the type of toil that I associate with monetary compensation.   Rather, I get solace and comfort to which Gertrude Jekyll referred, particularly at this time of year. I have said and thought many times that I think there is nothing more beautiful than a vegetable garden at its peak.

In this part of the world June tends to be the optimum time for veggie gardens as most plants start to decline after they have accomplished their main purpose in life – which is to reproduce themselves (an unfortunate similarity occurs in humans).   In that climax of growth, I love to see squash with its rambunctious, tropical look; pole beans with lettuce slumbering below in leafy shade, clambering vigorously up the string trellis, searching for the sky with twisting runners.  Corn marches with military precision in straight rows three abreast, pumpkin and winter squash vines scrambling in irregular disarray at its feet.  Potato plants with their rich green foliage and bright purple flowers only hint at the buried treasure gripped by their roots.  English peas cascade down the metal fencing dripping their fruit in pale green, hard-to-see pods.  Okra, sweet potatoes, and black-eyed peas, young yet, eagerly await the hot July sun to fire their rampant growth.  Tomato plants bear hard green marbles of fruit, hopeful to become red, yellow, or pink softballs (sometimes chipmunks beat me to ‘em), and give off their wondrous distinctive odor when their foliage is brushed.   Cucumbers, peppers, cilantro, dill, garlic, and tomatilloes all claim their block of space in individual unordered groups as though they are on parade.

As always I try and pay attention to the need for crop rotation and planting companions.  Reminiscent of the way my grandmother gardened, I have interspersed sunflowers, zinnias, and nasturtium up front near the garden gate where they are most readily seen.  Around the perimeter of the raised beds are groups of red raspberries, blueberries, and, of course, strawberries, all poised to bear their progeny as the spring, and then summer, urge their fruit to ripen.  Fig trees, with their tree-like height, reside in an almost regal manner at the back of the garden as though positioned to keep watch over their domain.

And so it is the first of June, and I sit on one of the timbers that defines the edge of a raised bed.  It is early morning, and the sun is beginning to establish its presence at the west end of the garden, having barely eclipsed the roof line of our home.  I have just finished the first picking of one of the several dried bean varieties that I grow.  This particular one is called ‘Black Coco’ and I am shelling it so I can complete the drying process in my food dehydrator.  The legumes spill and roll into my container like fat and lazy, purple-black jelly beans.

My overall stillness encourages a nearby pair of Carolina wrens in search of insects, to explore the wire frames just a few feet away from me that support the tomato plants.  A dragonfly on patrol, cruises fiercely up and down the path between the raised beds.  Although the air is still and cool, an early cicada interrupts the morning quiet with his rising trill, announcing the beginning of what will be a hot day.  My garden cat, Tigger, has vacated his napping spot from under a huge crookneck squash leaf and prances about, tail furling and unfurling, waiting for my hand to be free so he can receive some attention.  Black bumblebees stumble groggily in their first erratic flights, seeking receptive blossoms while a lone Southern toad with careful solitary hops begins his search for a cool and secret site to spend the day.

I know the dark, crumbly soil is alive with toiling worms, patient grubs, and innumerable critters too small to be seen by the naked eye. I am surrounded by the quiet and unmistakable progress of living things, their growth not discernible but surely felt.  There is an almost indescribable feeling of serenity; a sense of peace that although seemingly brief, seeps into my subconscious to serve as a foundation for the rest of the day’s activities.  I’m confident Ms. Jekyll would agree this bountiful scene, in which I am privileged to participate, nourishes not only the physical body but also certainly “gives happiness and repose of mind”.