2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 18 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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.

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!

Dogs are Good People

Cabin July 2014 222I buried Caesar a few days ago.  He had been in the freezer until a purchase of Costco chicken displaced his temporary resting spot.   Caesar was a West Highland Terrier who had wandered onto our ‘estate’ a couple of days after this recent Christmas.

When I first saw him, he was wearing a red collar which contrasted nicely with his dirty white fur and he was nonplussed by my two rather rambunctious dogs.  Ambling around somewhat aimlessly, I had assumed he was a pet of a holiday visitor in the neighborhood.  But he kept circling back to where I was weeding and I noticed his collar had no identification.  His plodding gait conveyed lost and weary.  His dingy hair seemed indicative of abandonment.

At this point, I should point out that I am a sucker for wayward animals.  As kids, my siblings and I were never allowed pets.  Withholding water from a person does not decrease their thirst and I suspect the absence of dogs in my young orbit only added to my affection for them.  I came to agree with the opinion of an old time nurseryman I once knew who told me, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like dogs and children.”

But back to the story at hand . . .

In the ensuing days, my daughter named our stray Caesar.  His wobbly trot and aloof demeanor described him as an older gentleman.  I took him to the vet to have him checked out.  A scan proved he had no identification chip and the kindly attendant told me that he (the dog) had ‘found’ me.   She verified our thoughts that he was near the end of his life and likely wouldn’t be around too much longer.  I left with a supply of antibiotics and pain meds for the old fella and then got an appointment with a dog groomer.

Cabin July 2014 225By the time he was deposited at the stylist he had been in my possession only a brief while and we had never heard him speak.   Yet when I went to pick him up, he recognized me from a distance and, to my surprise, barked with recognition and a voice that said “Get me outta here!”  As a gesture of his appreciation, he peed on some nearby grass before I loaded him in the truck.  Although I didn’t mimic his action, as males it was clear we had bonded.

Despite efforts to locate his owner, none was found, and Caesar gradually melded into our household.  With an infrequent hobby horse run, those brief occasions would be an indication of his younger days.  But most often he slept a lot and had difficulty going up and down the two steps that define our kitchen entry.  Although house broken, he made little effort to get much past the side door to take care of business.  However, his senses did not fail him in receiving tidbits I fed him from the dinner table.  Perhaps this is why almost every dog that I have known will rest at my feet while I eat.  I am regularly chastised for my hillbilly behavior but I have yet to have any of the dogs object.

Over the years, we’ve had many associations with pets of all sorts including a number of cats and dogs.  Each claimed a part of our hearts and their respective departures from this world were painful.  For those who have lived with them, it is understood that dogs are very disparate characters but almost always unconditionally loving.  (Remember that it’s the proverbial cat that one kicks after a bad day.)  The family dog is just too endearing to receive abuse. Note to reader: Just so I don’t get a lot of “hate mail”, that is written tongue-in-cheek as this article is focused on dogs!

So, Caesar, you are resting in fine company with the other animals (all good people) that have also lived in our hearts and home.  I believe you continue to enjoy the place you chose to be.

We’ll miss you.