Sunday, December 25, 2011

I Wonder as I Wander

     When we left the barn service last night the sky was spangled with strands of stars, draped against the black night, linking Orion to the Big Dipper to the North Star. My breath smoked against the sky and I started singing under my breath, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, how Jesus our Saviour did come for to die, for poor ornery people like you and like I. I wonder as I wander out under the sky.” It’s a haunting melody that I just learned this year and I think I love it so much because it is an Appalachian tune. According to the autobiography of John Jacob Niles, the fellow who first heard it in the deeply poor mountain town of Murphy, North Carolina, “A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to [an] automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievable dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins.... But, … she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing.
     That little girl was with me in the barn that night. She was standing right there in front of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus listening to the soft breathing of the cows, turning to watch the shepherds stride up to the manger, tipping her head to hear the choir in the loft above her. She was there with the other blessed, the meek at heart, the poor, the mourning, the ones who came to see a miracle wrapped in swaddling clothes. She’s the reason Jesus was born in a dirty barn, laid in a manger full of hay and wrapped in second hand rags. She was me and I was her, and together we watched our king reach his tiny hand out from the lamp-lit manger and welcome us in.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

There's a Song in the Air

And the star rains its fire while the beautiful sing

For the manger of Bethlehem cradles a king….

    Who are the beautiful that sing around the manger in Bethlehem? I have heard some of them this Advent season. This morning, we attended services at the church on the farthest edge of our charge. In fact it is across the state line about three miles. The children of that little white church in the wildwood recited poetry, rang bells and re-enacted the Christmas story from Luke. They were cute and silly and charming and brought tears of laughter and joy to more than one person in the congregation. My favorite child was three year old Sydney. She wore white tights, black patent leather shoes and a green velvet dress and she was in charge of a little orange bell, but she never rang it on cue. She became so engrossed in the music of her fellow bell-ringers that she leaned over, placed her elbows on the table and rested her chin in her upturned bell. “Hark the Herald Angels” rollicked merrily along until it was time for the littlest bell. There was a four count silence while Sydney looked out at the congregation and grinned. Finally, her brother elbowed her, she straightened up, removed her chin from the bell and waved it vigorously over her head. The congregation’s response was so encouraging, that she repeated this performance throughout the remainder of the song.
     After the children’s service, the charge choir presented a cantata. The music was challenging and I never thought we would master it, but on Sunday morning we filed into the narrow pews up front and began our assault on the difficult piece. Somehow that assault turned into grace. Our choir director who had suffered and worried through our disastrous practices grinned through the whole piece. We could see in her joyous smile that somehow we had managed to pull it off.
     As we sat down, I was suddenly aware of all the humans across the nation worshipping the same way. On the edge of the Pacific, childish shepherds and kings were walking solemnly up the aisles as the story from Luke was read. In the midwest, bell-ringers were throwing joyous notes up to the heavens. On the east coast choirs were sending alleluias out to the nation. This Advent we were the beautiful singing while the star rained its fire. We were the choir of a king.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Indisposable Christmas

     I have begun the process of decorating my house for Christmas. I don’t do it because I love decorating, but because I love the memories associated with each thing I put out. Therein, lies the problem. I cannot throw away anything given to me in love. Instead, it is wrapped in tissue and placed in a box so I can dither about whether or not to put it out again. In fact, I would prefer to have a rather Spartan house for Christmas. With a wood stove, every ornament and decoration requires weekly dusting. But those full boxes glare at me from the top of my closet and the dark edges of the attic. “We are up here!” the ornaments and angels howl. “It is Christmas and we need to come out and celebrate.” So far, I have resisted their clattering cries.
     I have put up one small tree, which I admit I bought new this year at the Dollar General for twelve dollars. I have not hung a single decoration on it, except for the string of lights it came with, but they are menopausal. Hot one moment, cold the next: the whole string blinks on and off randomly. In spite of its shortcomings, I am positive that this tree will also find a home in my attic to join the clattering crowds next year. I’ve also draped one garland around an interior door. It is covered with Santas given to me by various family members or found on memorable trips.

    The only other decorations currently in sight are my advent wreath (presented to me by my godmother when I was five) and a nativity scene I made years ago. Although it stays out year-round, I’ve moved it to a shelf right above my kitchen sink, so I can contemplate the true meaning of Christmas as I wash dishes.

     There are five more boxes of decorations that could be brought out to the light. The Christmas village given to me piece by piece by my youngest son. No matter where I place it the cats seem to find it and break another house or barn or church. Catzilla meets Christmas. Three hundred angels given to me by students and friends. In a small town, if you tell one person something, soon the whole village knows. I’m sure parents who were trying to find the perfect teacher gift were ecstatic to discover I had a collection of angels at home. Every year, I unwrap at least five more. When I put the whole collection on display, it reminds me of humanity. After almost fifty years of collecting, there are inevitably some cracked angels, dirty angels, angels with missing body parts and angels that can no longer stand up straight. Still they remain a part of my collection. Isn’t it sacrilegious to throw an angel away? I try to rotate them so they all get a vacation in a warmer climate. Here we are only two weeks from Christmas and they are all still shivering in the Antarctic Attic. What to do? What to do? If I put any out, they will grow a little grayer with stove dust and Catzilla will mangle a few more.

     This Christmas quandary reminds me of the true gift given at Christmas. Christ came down to a world full of mess and made joy. He left no one in the Antarctic Attic. He continually straightens those among us who wobble. He chases away Catzilla and glues the world back together. Sigh….I guess it’s time for me to unpack the angels.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Christmas Lights

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5
     December is the month when darkness descends on the mountains. At 4:30, the shadows they cast are already halfway across the valley. By 5:30, the first star rises up from the southeast. Not actually a star, Venus looks like the headlight of an approaching truck as it crests the shoulder of a distant ridge. But, the bright planet is not the only light sparkling across the shadows. Christmas lights, like lovely swags of fallen stars are draped on fences and eaves. I am a December baby and my favorite birthday present is a trip through the lonely countryside in search of the delicate strings of Christmas lights that brighten the total darkness of a mountain winter.
     This afternoon, I visited a local landmark: the old Elementary School, now a community center. Light from Christmas trees and garlands spilled out the wide double doors into the twilight as I climbed the steps. It is Wintertide in Highland and local artists and crafters were set up inside the wood floored gym peddling their hand-made gifts. The thing about living in a small town is that you can’t go anywhere without stopping for a chat. As I shopped, every person I met was a friend. Three of them shared their stories with me. A grandmother, raising two grandchildren, worried about their school progress. A mother, struggling with the rigors and fears of cancer treatments spoke about an upcoming bone marrow transplant. A past student who is running a very successful catering business talked about the challenges of raising a daughter and tending to business. The stories I was told will be told again. Over cups of coffee, in local stores, from telephone to telephone the message will travel like those lights strung from post to porch. And the telling will not be gossip, but will instead bring light to dark places. Folks will offer help and encouragement.
     As the nights grow longer, the Christmas lights beckoning from the edges of meadows and mountains make me thankful that my country neighbors know all about how to shine in the darkness.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Turkey and Blessings

     This week the whole family gathered at my house to celebrate the first truly American holiday: Thanksgiving. My house overflowed with siblings, nieces, nephews, and my mom and dad. We measured the three oldest male cousins against their annual ladder of growth marks on the wall. Once again, they have grown taller and more mature. I’m sure it was just yesterday that these three were hitting each other over the head with croquet mallets and chasing each other with fire-sticks from the yearly campfires. Now they tower over all but their dads, entertain themselves with less violent pursuits and even ask what they can do to help.
      I fretted for a week before everyone came. How would I get everything done? There was shopping to finish, beds to strip, floors to polish, furniture to dust, kitchen cabinets to clean, a stove to scrub. The list felt endless, but then I remembered: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Each day I concentrated only on what needed to be done before dark. That, plus help from the young man who occasionally comes to clean for me, calmed my anxieties. Although I’ve always been sure that the hostess gene skipped me, I was able to figure out menus for each day, satisfactory sleeping arrangements for fourteen people, entertainment for the younger ones, and how to get the turkey cooked perfectly.
     The week was full of laughter and some happy tears. There was singing and games and stories retold. There were walks and rocks for splashing and a hammock for swinging wildly under the tree. We gathered evergreens on Friday and the children made wreaths then, on Saturday, my sister and I decorated my front gate for Christmas. There were Christmas presents passed from car to car and some left behind to be opened in a month. There was even a birthday cake.
     Joe says the whole family came, ate everything in sight and left. But, he was laughing as he said it. The yearly pilgrimage to the farm is a treasured tradition for us. I went in early one morning and curled up in bed with my mom. She asked me if getting ready had been too overwhelming. If she had asked me two weeks before everyone arrived, I might have said, “yes.” But, as soon as my nephew started strumming his guitar for me, as soon as my two nieces begged for homemade grape-juice, “the kind with the grapes still floating in it,” as soon as all of us joined hands around the table, it was more than worth it. The family bonds that we rebuild each year are precious. Oh, and how did I cook that perfect turkey? I didn't.  My brother-in-law cooked it for me. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

And There Was Pie

    Last week, on Veteran’s Day, the entire school system turned out to celebrate service men and women in our rural community. Every student in the county, plus all the teachers, principals and aides paraded down Main Street to honor those who have protected our freedoms. The senior class spent several days after school constructing a replica of Iwo Jima on a haywagon. The sixth graders spent their own money on flags to hand out to the watching crowd. The band marched, the kindergarteners dressed in historical costumes, the fourth grade rode a red white and blue float waving flags and hand painted signs in honor of the soldiers. The other students paraded behind homemade banners and highly decorated three- quarter ton pick up trucks. It was a day that no one will forget.
     On Wednesday evenings, several local churches coordinate an after-school program for children in grades K to 12. This program concludes with a meal cooked by three women who volunteer in the kitchen after working all day at other jobs. Each Wednesday, they whip up supper for forty to fifty eager eaters and then stay late to clean up. They eat their own meal standing up . Suppers are always home-made. For many children, this may be the only sit down family style meal of the week so these kitchen angels take their job very seriously. Home-made pizza, fried chicken, meatloaf. The meal last week was an early celebration of Thanksgiving. It involved two roasted turkeys, twenty pounds of potatoes mashed and smothered in gravy, huge bowls of stuffing bursting with celery and onions and sausage, home-made whole wheat rolls and pie. Pie with hand made crusts. Pie that was flaky and piled high with hand cut apple slices or filled to the brim with creamy pumpkin custard. No frozen crusts or canned apples in sight. Pie that said, “I love you.”
     Tonight, one of our community leaders with a passion for mission work, spent her fourth evening in the back room of the local church collecting shoe boxes full of goodies for children for Operation Christmas Child. She and her sister-in-law are aiming to collect five hundred boxes from our community of 2500 people. That’s one box for every five people. They’ve canvassed the elementary school WRE program, the county 4H program, the high school National Honor Society and every member of every church in every valley. So far over two hundred fifty boxes have been packed into bigger boxes for a trip to Charlotte, NC. The two women will follow these shoe boxes south and spend three long days helping pack hundreds of thousands of boxes for transport overseas. They won’t get paid for this and in fact will spend their own money to travel and stay in the area so they can work.

Pie. It’s all pie. Pie piled high with hand cut apple slices. Pie with home-made crusts. Pie that says, “I love you.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Meaty Season

     I have eaten my fill of meat this week. We have put our garden to rest. My cellar shelves are loaded with jars of pickles, beans, tomatoes, grape juice, jelly, relishes, applesauce and peaches. There are baskets of potatoes and boxes of apples stacked on the floor. Normally I would also have strings of onions dangling from the ceiling, but this was not a good onion year. Although the fresh fruits and vegetables have petered out, the season of meat has begun. We had squirrel gravy a couple of weeks ago and now we are eating venison. I recently read a book by author/historian Warren Blackhurst who chronicled the lives of settlers in this area. In one chapter of his book, A Mixed Harvest, the main character, Andy, notes that the weather is finally cool enough for the family to hunt some venison and hang it in the meat house. The season of meat was dependent on weather cool enough for the keeping.
     Although we have a refrigerator and a freezer we, like those settlers of old, still focus a portion of our menus around what’s available. And what’s available right now is deer meat. We have cut up the hams for the freezer, fried the tenderloin for supper and breakfast, and processed the shoulders into jerky. Even the dogs share in the feast. Joe drags the remains over to their houses and they disappear so deep into the carcass that only their wagging tails are visible. They won’t eat dried kibble again until they have stripped the last of the scraps from the bones. I’m hoping for at least two more deer before the season ends because canned venison is my go-to for a quick supper. Then after hunting season, we will have a hog butchered and, after that, a beef.
     Joe still remembers his family doing all of their butchering on the farm. In fact when I met him, the pole and barrel for scalding hogs was still out in the barnyard. Joe doesn’t miss the killing and hard work of getting the meat wrapped and salted and ground, but he does miss dipping cracklings out of the rendering kettle and the resulting cans of pure white fat that were perfect for popcorn. No matter. Some of our neighbors still butcher on their farms so we can visit them and lend a hand for some lard if we’ve a mind to. For these families, meat season is a season of in-gathering. The kids and grandchildren are drawn back to the farm each November to hunt deer and then again in January to butcher the hogs. In this way, traditions and skills are passed to the next generation.
     I had a friend who moved to the county from the city and immediately acquired a flock of fat breasted chickens and a mob of meaty rabbits. I still remember her amazement as she described how the butchering was for her five-year old. Elizabeth was afraid that her very girly girl would be offended or frightened by the process. Instead, her blond headed cherub squatted over the offal and dug through it, asking questions and watching with interest as the chickens ran around like chickens with their heads cut off do. I know some people are offended by the idea that meat once ran around, but for this little girl, it was just a part of the circle of life. Hakuna Matata and all that. Our ancestors were not vegetarians. They couldn’t afford to be. There was a season for fresh fruits and vegetables and a season for meat. It’s the same on my farm.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Scary Halloween

     Pumpkins glare at me from every stoop and step as I drive home. They are twinkly reminders that a small amount of light can illuminate a whole lot of darkness, even if it is coming from a scowling face. In church on Sunday, my minister talked about Halloween. While he’s against it in principal, he said there are times when it can bring communities together. His words took me back to Tylerton on Smith Island. When I was still hale and hearty enough to take my sixth grade students on a three day trip to this island, out in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, twice we managed to land there close to Halloween. Because the life of a waterman is harsh and dangerous, many of the families had moved off-island for easier work. Tylerton was a community with only four children left and it was a mighty quiet place. So, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation educators had my students create wacky costumes from found objects and then go trick-or-treating in the 25 house community. The islanders welcomed the sound of unruly children roaming the streets and celebrated Halloween for a week with each successive group of students.
     Our village also used to echo with the laughter of cowboys and princesses and nerds and outlaws, but this Halloween the streets were subdued. There are less than three hundred children left in our county. Like the Smith Islanders, many of our Appalachian farm families have had to move to the lowlands for work. So, houses compete for the trick-or-treaters because the giggly Martians and sober hobos bring us hope that our community isn’t done, yet. I managed to bribe two miniature cowboys down my long driveway with a promise of home-made cookies. Even teen-agers well into high school are welcomed with Snickers bars and popcorn balls. Children make noise and remind us that we are still alive. A Halloween without children is one of the scariest nights I can imagine.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Squirrel Gravy

     One of the advantages of being a teacher is all of the nifty presents I get from my students. At Christmas there are the usual coffee mugs and stationary and Russian Tea and homemade jams and boxes of cookies, but my favorite gifts come at other times of the year.
     One of the first gifts I was given as a new teacher was a handful of teaberries. I didn’t know what they were and I was a bit suspicious of the grubby hand holding the squished berries. “Go ahead, teacher, they’re good,” Robert said, and so after watching him eat one, I tentatively placed a berry in my mouth. They were good, tasting faintly minty and remarkably like teaberry gum. He grinned and a month later gave me my next teacher gift, a dime-store diamond ring which he had won at our annual Halloween Carnival. Robert waited until the class was quiet and then strolled up to the blackboard where I was writing up the day’s assignments. Dropping to one knee, the gangly 6th grader took my hand and asked me to marry him. I was tongue-tied. Fielding marriage proposals from love-struck boys hadn’t come up in my college classes and I think my blushing “No” probably hurt his feelings. As soon as possible, I sought the sage counsel of my principal who had a little talk with my sixth grade suitor and explained to him why the state wouldn’t allow him to marry one of his teachers.
     My first year of teaching, I also received a batch of morel mushrooms and a bag full of ramps. Both gifts were harvested by my students and carried to me in brown paper sacks. I learned a lot about mountain hospitality that year, and even after twenty-eight years of teaching, I can still be surprised by my students’ generosity. Last Saturday, I was in the kitchen finishing up a batch of applesauce, when I heard a knock on the door. When I opened it, I was greeted by one of my eighth grade boys. His father was out in the truck behind him and waved to me as his son handed me a Ziploc bag full of skinned and dressed squirrels. I had mentioned in a class the week before that I had never successfully made squirrel gravy, so his mom brought me some gravy and biscuits the next day and shared her recipe. I never expected to then receive a bag full of fresh-killed ingredients for my own efforts.
     I made the gravy and we had fried squirrel with biscuits and gravy for supper. Our visiting minister mentioned at a cover-dish lunch that next afternoon, that, although he had travelled all around the world and eaten some strange and wonderful dishes, he wished he could taste some true mountain food. Imagine my surprise when he said that what he’d really always wanted to taste was squirrel gravy. I believe it was ordained by God that I still had some left in the fridge. I carried him a container full that evening. My friend, Robin, says it is bad luck to thank someone for a gift. Instead you should pass the blessing on. Forevermore, squirrel gravy will remind me of the blessings of gifts given and received in my remote mountain home.
 P.S.  For the recipe, check out my other blog Singing in the Kitchen

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

A Cloud Free Day

As the sun sank down into the clear sky tonight, I rested against the farm truck and whistled a reply to the screech owl calling from somewhere on the mountain to my right. I think he was announcing the stars. It’s been a dark fall. Day after day and night after night of cloudy weather has made all the critters, including me, a bit depressed. Our hens, who were averaging 12-14 eggs a day, have lost their motivation, producing nary a yolk for almost a month. My beagle quit eating. The vet could find nothing wrong with her and she withered down to a walking skeleton, with hip bones like anvils, and ribs like a washboard. But, this week, the sun came out and the clouds rolled back and the hens laid three eggs and the beagle ate a bowl of cat food and the owls are hooting for joy.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Monarchs and Mantids

     The monarch butterflies are headed south. I sat on the edge of my garden last week and, in only thirty minutes, I counted 300 fluttering above the zinnias. The generation that is wafting south is not the generation that flew north. In fact there are three generations in between. Somehow the fourth generation knows at the end of August to turn around and start the trip south to the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico. This generation is the only one to make the entire trip and will fly up to 3,000 miles home. My classroom full of sixth graders sat outside yesterday to watch and count. The students were unusually subdued, pointing quietly as bits of orange and black fluttered by. I saw wonder in their faces. Our official count was 61 monarchs in ten minutes which we posted on .
     Other insects on the move have found a temporary home in our classroom. We adopted a few fat praying mantis females and brought them in so we could observe the production of their oothecas
(oh uh theekas). The students provided a balanced diet of crickets and grasshoppers which mantids hold and eat just like an ear of corn. Every morning a crowd of kids converged on my classroom for the morning feeding and their favorite part of the show was watching the alien-faced bugs preen like cats at the end of their meals. Finally, a female rewarded us with an egg case and we rewarded her by releasing her outside. The next day she was at our window, tapping with her folded claws until we let her in and fed her. The following day, she came again, but that was the last we saw of her. She will die soon, but we will tie her ootheca to the dogwood tree outside our window and hopefully, one day in the spring, we will be greeted by 1,000 baby mantids tapping at the window in search of lunch.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Prodigal Chicken

     Imagine my surprise when I pulled up to the little country store in McDowell and discovered one of our red hens preparing to make a purchase. She was perched on the edge of the concrete step, perhaps considering what type of butter to buy for her bread, but when she saw me hop out of the car, she skedaddled. Zigging and zagging, that sassy clucker dodged under a truck and when I went left, she went right. We continued this game of tag for ten minutes while the two old farmers loafing on the edge of the porch watched and laughed. Finally, they sauntered over and all of us flapped our arms and feinted left and right until we had her headed in the general direction of the farm.
     The farmers turned the chicken herding job back over to me and I followed the little red hen back down the road to the driveway that leads to our barnyard. But instead of turning left and joining her flock mates, that little feathered fiend continued straight across the pedestrian bridge and into the construction zone on the main road. I chased her until she ducked under a trailer and then gave up.
     A hard-hatted worker strolled up and asked why I was chasing their pet chicken around. It turns out they’ve been feeding her breakfast, lunch and supper. Biscuits, sandwich crusts and small treats three times daily are far better fare than she gets in the henhouse. My chicken on the lam is living high on the hog. The worst part is that, apparently, she brought a friend to dinner yesterday. At this rate, In three more weeks, my barnyard will be bereft of cluckers and the men on the construction crew will be tripping over chickens. It would serve them right for harboring fugitives.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Selling Chickens

     Yesterday morning, Joe and I went to the chicken house early and separated out twenty hens to take to market. It’s a task neither of us relished but culling a herd or flock is part of living on a farm. These twenty girls had simply aged out of our egg production program. Young hens lay an average of an egg every 26 hours, but at two or three years of age, their ovaries slow down. Our customers expect eggs every week, so we bought some younger chickens. Feeding the non-productive hens was too expensive, so with heavy hearts we gathered up the old girls and placed them in crates. We lined the van with a tarp and then placed the crates in the back.
     Joe had heard about a once-a-month chicken sale held in a parking lot on the edge of the city five mountains away. On this gravelly acre, chicken farmers gather with crates of birds to sell to any takers. In our area, those takers are usually Mexican or Russian families who buy the birds to butcher, or back yard farmers who buy the birds to take home. When we pulled up, the lot was full of vans and trucks. Their hatches were open and cages of birds were stacked up behind them. We parked beside a Ford Explorer. The owners, like us, had elected to transport their birds in their family vehicle, but unlike us, they had no tarp under their cages. The back was covered in chicken crap.
     We pulled out our old-fashioned wooden crates and waited for customers. We soon discovered that most of the buyers had come and gone. Apparently, immigrant families rise at the crack of dawn to shop. The day was chilly and we blew on our fingers and stomped and then wandered around to inspect the other birds. On our left, a man was selling roosters. One was a big old New Hampshire doodler who surely could have taken on an eagle and won. The other was a banty, no bigger than a dove. They commenced to crowing when they saw our hens, and what the banty lacked in volume he made up for in shrillness and enthusiasm. I almost bought him just for his cocky attitude and good looks, but then remembered my chicken chasing cat. A bird that small wouldn’t have a chance.
     Finally, a doting father bought one of our hens for his daughter. Then, another man, a backyard farmer, bought nine to take home and release in the woods behind his house. Just when we were ready to pack up the remaining ten girls and take them home, a young boy with his mother and aunt showed up. None of them spoke fluent English and the women wore head scarves. They might have been Indian, but we weren’t sure. We bargained for a while and they agreed to buy the remaining hens. One of the women asked in broken English if she could butcher them on the spot. I nodded squeamishly and watched as the boy opened the trunk of their small passenger car and pulled out a sharp knife and a large plastic pan. Then, unsure that on-the-spot butchering was allowed, they changed their minds. Instead, we found some string and tied the legs of the hens together before tucking them into the trunk of the car. I suspect that the family, who said they lived over thirty minutes away, stopped at the nearest picnic table and completed the job.
     When the last customers drove off, we packed the crates back into our van. Because we had sold all of our birds, we decided to drive on to an orchard where we picked up a bushel of apples. My van now has a distinct bouquet characterized by the earthy odor of chickens overlaid by the acidic notes of ripe apples. Perhaps we can bottle and sell it to those who long to return to a simpler way of life.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Bug Busters

    No bug is safe within a hundred yard radius of my home. There are 50 red hens patrolling the grounds and not even the rooster can get their attention. I sat on the rock by the creek today and watched my bug busters ridding the world of red ants, unlucky flies and anything else that was shiny and moved. The hens walked with their eyes on the ground, stopped to stare cross-eyed for a moment then, SNAP, they clicked their beaks down and swallowed. I believe the lack of bugs in my garden this year was partly due to their appetite.
     There are other critters helping out, as well. Yesterday, I caught a praying mantis climbing up the wall of the outbuilding. I usually see at least one or two each fall. This one was a female. The girls are much bigger than the males, which makes romance truly dangerous for the guy. Generally, he is eaten by his wife as soon as the marriage is consumated. Then, still hungry, she starts stalking crickets, spiders, grasshoppers and the occasional moth or butterfly. I have kept mantids as pets in my classroom and it is fun to watch them chow down on grasshoppers. They eat the hoppers the same way that we eat an ear of corn, but they eat their husbands by pulling them over their backs and eating them from stem to stern.
     At night, just when the sky is pale pewter, the bats start to flap and flutter above my yard. If I throw a small gravel up in the air, they will dive at it. I guess for a moment their bat sonar is fooled into thinking each pebble is a big bug feast. Bats catch bugs by scooping them up with their wings and popping them into their mouths. I’ve never seen a bat do this to a rock. The bats always swerve away at the last minute to continue their pursuit of mosquitos and mayflies. I didn’t see as many bats this summer and worry that White Nose Disease has been at work. A single brown nose bat can catch and eat over 600 mosquitos an hour. I hate to think how itchy our world would be without them.
     Three years ago, I walked out into my yard and was surprised to find a network of tunnels zigzagging around from pine tree to porch. Moles or voles, I'm not sure which, had taken up residence. They lived in the yard for two years and then this summer they were gone. So were all the Japanese beetles. I know Japanese beetles pupate underground, because one amazing moonlit night, Scott and I witnessed a whole fleet of them popping out of the ground and taking to the air. I’m fairly certain that when the voles had eaten every last grub, they left for better pickings.
     Several years ago, I read that a big clear plastic Ziploc bag full of water would repel flies. The theory was that the bags of water looked like wasps’ nests to the flies and since wasps eat flies, the buzzy black pests stay away. I went one better. I have a string of round lanterns that really do look like wasps’ nests. I hung them on my front porch and it does seem that the flies have moved away. At least for the last two summers we haven’t spent each evening on the porch waving like beauty queens on parade.
     In spite of all these miraculous, organic bug control methods, my house is still the target of one bug pilgrimage. Ladybugs, the imported nuisance kind, love to winter in every corner of every room of my house and studio. I tried sticky traps on the tops of my windows, but there were so many little ladies crowding the strips that they ended up falling to the sills covered in sticky goop, making it that much harder to remove them. I was going through two traps per window, per day and still ladybugs were doing low level flybys from my reading lamp to my hair and back. I tried vacuuming them up with a hand vac, but the smell of a thousand lady bugs wafting out the back end of the machine was nauseating. In spite of their name, ladybugs, stink. So, the bug guy is coming to spray next week. Since he started dousing my house with poison, the ladybugs have resorted to dying by the bushel on the front porch. The first big wind of winter sweeps them away. I believe in taking care of the earth and I have been known to carefully juggle a wasp or spider on paper until I could toss it outside. But, sometimes that's not enough.  Sometimes the hens, the bats, the preying mantises , the decoys and relocations don't work. Sometimes, you have to defend your home against invaders.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Mending Fences


    After enjoying a leisurely lunch with a couple of old friends, I came home and visited my backyard gym, which is what I call the mountain behind the house.

view from the backyard gym
 I took the long path home, pausing at the top of my driveway to watch for Joe who had gone for a load of water. The garden threatens to blow away in the dry weather so he’s been trucking three hundred gallons a night to it. I heard the old truck before I saw it, so I scrambled down the hill to meet him. When I climbed in the truck, Joe told me the cows were in the meadow tearing apart the freshly rolled bales. When the grass is short the cows bully their way through weak spots in the fence and Joe was headed over to put them back in the pasture. I agreed to go along and help. Being Joe’s extra hands is one of my favorite things to do.
     The sun had just slipped behind the mountains when he pulled the four-wheeler out of the barn. I hopped on behind, hugging him tightly, and we rumbled across the pasture to the offending cows. They watched us ride up and open the gate and then, when Joe dropped me off and zoomed around them, galloped through the opening, kicking their heels up as they went by. It didn’t take us long to discover the cows’ entrance. A section of fence had popped loose and was sagging enough for the cows to jump it. It would have to be re-stapled. Joe said the only way to keep the cows out of the hay meadow while we worked was to feed them a bale of hay, so he fired up the John Deere while I drove the 4-wheeler back up to the house for fence staples and a hammer.
     When the bale was unfurled and all the cows were lined up for supper, we went back to the fence to stretch and staple the wire back to the posts. After 24 years on the farm, you’d think I would remember to dress for the job, but I was in shorts and clogs so naturally I snagged my leg on some barbed wire in the process. I don’t think I’ve ever gone through a summer without some farm-related scar to mar my legs or arms. I even got married in August in a long sleeve dress because I’d been in the hay field and my forearms were covered with hay pricks.
     When the fence was stretched tight and the electric wire reattached, we called it a job well done. Joe sat on the four-wheeler first and I swung my legs over and around him. The sky was dimming and the air was cool as I leaned against him for the ride. The fireflies blinking in the meadow lit our way home.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Turtle in the Hole

You can't see him, but he's in there!
     I haven’t been swimming in the hole under the bridge since a plate-sized snapping turtle took up residence in the snag. He sits on top of it surveying his kingdom with his beady black eyes. I have enjoyed swimming in the hole with goggles and snorkle, but I believe in giving snapping turtles their space. My grandfather used to make soup from them. He would catch them, I’m not sure how, and then hold them in a barrel feeding them grain until all the fishy taste was cleansed. Then he stewed them with corn and tomatoes and lima beans. I remember liking the soup as a child, even though I had to spit out the occasional clavicle or toe bone.
     I will let this turtle continue his reign over the swimming hole. He’s been joined by two golden trout. Perhaps he will scare away the blue herons who might snack on them. If he grabs their toes or beak, I’ve heard it said that he won’t let go until it thunders. As dry as this summer has been that could be a long time. And I will swim instead at the pool. There’s not near as much excitement there, but the water is clear and I can see the bottom. Nothing scary lurks there.

A very dim view of the gold trout.  He won't let me close enough for a better picture.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Stitch in Time

     When I was thirteen my mom offered me the chance to take a sewing class. I made a lopsided sun-dress, and I was so proud of it that I even wore it when we had a family portrait made. My father, not to be outdone, declared that anyone could sew a dress if they had a pattern, so mom gave him a pattern for a simple A-line dress, some material and access to her Singer. Dad did sew a beautiful tent. We still laugh about it at family dinners.
     Learning to sew has been a most valuable skill. It’s not my favorite activity, but I always love the fact that I can create something I need, and I’m comforted to think that when the next depression rolls around, I have enough skills and scraps to avoid complete nakedness. I’m still way too impatient to attempt anything very complicated like sleeves, but I have made my share of skirts, curtains, tablecloths and slipcovers. Yes, you read that right. I can’t construct sleeves but I can create slipcovers from scratch. Women in third world countries provide all the inexpensive tops I might ever need, but every time I price a new couch I end up buying some bargain fabric and stitching together another slipcover. Like my first sundress they’re a little crooked, but they cover all the necessary places.
     My first slipcover came about as a result of nesting instinct and an extremely hot July. I was eight months pregnant and craving a comfortable loveseat. I found one at a junk shop.  It was cheap but ugly, so I borrowed my mother-in-law’s sewing book and found some vague directions for constructing slipcovers. I spent the next month of sleepless, hot nights measuring, cutting, cursing, tearing out stitches, re-measuring, re-sewing and finally successfully re-covering the second-hand loveseat I’d found at a junk shop. That loveseat has been through two additional slipcovers in the nineteen years since Scott was born and recently I’ve begun pricing sofas again. Sigh…. I think I see another slipcover in my future.
     My grandmother was a whiz with a sewing machine. Many of my favorite dresses were handmade by Nana. When I attended cotillion and needed a special velvet dress for the Christmas ball, Nana and I picked out the pattern and the material and two weeks later I was a princess. She was old, but she was hip. One time, when I was drooling over a black watch plaid, knife-pleated wool skirt in an upscale department store (I believe we had gone there to buy bras), Nana whipped it off the hangar. I thought she was going to ask me to try it on and then offer to buy it for me. Instead, she flipped it upside down and held the hem up to her nose with one hand. She straightened her other arm, sliding the material through her fingers and counting. I watched the hemline moving from Nana’s nose to her outstretched hand like an inchworm. “Three yards,” she said. “Remember that.” Then we drove to the fabric store. She led me to the fine wool section. “See anything you like?” she asked. When I had picked out a plaid, Nana bought it, some buttons and thread and two weeks later the skirt I coveted was hanging from my waist. Nana even made a matching vest.

Easter dresses a la Nana
     I will never have Nana’s prowess with a needle, but recently I’ve stitched some gifts for three dearly beloved graduates. Each of them gave me a stack of at least twenty tee shirts that were won, bought or earned throughout their high school careers. These were cut into forty squares with the logos intact. I stitched them together, plus a square cut from a tee shirt of the graduate’s future college. The resulting quilt top was then sewed to a backing and hand tied so it wouldn’t disintegrate in the wash. Both my son and my nephew take their quilts everywhere they go, and my most recent creation will soon be headed to Virginia Tech with my lovely “first daughter” Hayley.

     Sometimes I worry that kids raised in the Walmart age won’t have the advantages I had growing up. I’m thankful to have had a Nana who taught me that a sense of accomplishment can often be found with a needle, thread and a little inspiration.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Do Bears Sit in the Woods?

     Caroline and Lori and I are hiking our way across Highland. Our first hike was last week and started at the summit of Shenandoah Mountain in the George Washington National Forest. The morning was cool and foggy and we had two choices for hiking. There was a faint trail running north, marked by the occasional yellow diamond and there was a forest service road heading south. Since it was foggy, we decided to hike the road.
     The first half mile was a gentle incline. Within three minutes I was sweating enough to fog my glasses. I peered helplessly through the condensation wishing for windshield wipers as Lori and Caroline pointed out deer sign and salamanders. The trail followed the ridge top, climbing and descending several times, but the fog was too thick to see the views. Before our walk, we had had a serious discussion about what to do if we met up with a bear, so we were a bit jumpy. The heavy fog made it worse. It closed around us like a heavy, wet blanket and we couldn’t see very far into the woods.  About two miles up the trail, we almost stepped in a large pile of very fresh poop. We circled it suspiciously.  What does bear poop look like anyway?  The gray woods began to look even more ominous. We continued downhill, jumping at every drip and crackle. Surely a hungry bear was lurking behind that tree or that rock waiting to pounce. We made it another quarter mile before we gave into our fears and turned around.
     We were moving at a fair trot when we passed the poop and crested the ridge. No bear in sight. The sun popped out and we realized how foolish we’d been, but we decided to call it a day and head back to the car. On our way out, we planted a letterbox in a small camping area.
     This week, we hiked trail number two in the Wildlife Management Area just south of McDowell . This trail is also a gravel road maintained by the Game Commission. It is gated in several places but open to hikers year round. We planted our letterbox near a campsite about a mile in and then climbed steadily for two miles. We turned around when we reached the ridge top. In contrast to our first hike, the morning was sunny and bright. Streamers of light dappled the forest floor and birds sang from the trees. The trail followed a pristine stream which we forded twice by hopping across rocks. Deer lifted their tails and scudded across the path in several places and we must have seen thirty orange salamanders on the road. We didn’t even worry about bear. Next week we’ll take hike number three. Hopefully it will be sunny and bright. Fog makes us fearful. I think there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Evening Chores

     Every evening begins with a trip to the back forty. That’s where the dogs, chickens and lambs live and they all need attention before sundown. But, I don’t mind. It’s a peaceful routine that signifies day’s end.
     I start by grabbing up the old round-bottomed pot that we use for egg gathering. It hangs on a hook right beside the mud porch door and I think it’s the same bucket Joe’s mom used for years to gather her eggs in. Sandy, our little beagle, jumps up when I leave the house. She’s been sprawled out in my flower bed, crushing peonies and lilies but I don’t really mind. Her good nature makes up for her bad manners in the garden. She follows me down the dirt driveway that leads to the shed. .
     When we round the fence the lambs, who are living around the house so they can grow to maturity beyond the threat of coyotes, begin bawling. They are up on the hill and bound and bounce their way down to me, cluttering up my path and generally making a nuisance of themselves. There are currently thirty of these noisome, wooly adolescents pooping up my front forty and sticking their heads through my wooden fence for forbidden floral snacks. Joe has promised that at least twenty will go to market next week. The lambs are hungry and I can’t get to any of the other chores until I have downloaded four gallons of grain into the three troughs over by the pen. If I don’t feed them first, then they will follow me everywhere, overwhelming the dogs and stealing their food and clattering up the chicken house steps to poke their heads in and alarm the old rooster who will crow until they scatter.
     We keep the sheep chow in an old oil barrel just inside the shed door. Three chickens scratch at the base, pecking up spillage and I shoo them out of my way. There’s chicken poo everywhere. I’ll have to get Scott to fence them out of the shed tomorrow. I lean deep into the barrel until I am bottom-up and scoop grain out with a number ten can. Then I exit, carrying the five gallon bucket full of grain clutched to my chest like a fullback running for a touchdown. If I let it hang down, the lambs will shove their heads into it as I walk, and pull it from my hands. I am surrounded by a baa-ing, bleating crowd and a high carry is the only way to thwart them as I make my way to the troughs. The lambs push and shove my knees, knocking me sideways as I pour grain out for them, but at least they grow quiet with the eating.
     My next chore is to feed the dogs. Back to the shed I go. This time I reach into a battered trashcan and scoop the dry food into a metal pail. The bail fell off of this bucket several years ago, so it, too, must be clutched to my chest as I cross the creek to the dog houses. Cindy is tied there until the weekend. Then it will be her turn to exercise her passion for rabbits out in the front field. She pokes her head out of her house and then pops out to meet me. Her tail wags her shoulders into a twist and she starts eating before I finish pouring. A dip of creek water with the rubber bucket completes her menu.
     The final chore is egg gathering. Sandy has abandoned me to eat her supper, but Tipper Cat loves the chickens so he stalks along beside me, tail high and straight. As we approach the hen house, he crouches down. There’s a lone hen wobbling her way towards us and, unknown to her, the Feline Chicken Chaser is about to strike. Tipper twitches his tail once and then he leaps. The chicken cackles and dashes towards the hen house with Tipper in hot pursuit. When he can’t catch her, he subsides into the weeds and licks his legs furiously until he feels dignified again.
     I slide the latch on the blue door of the henhouse and step over the threshold. It is cool and dim inside and most of the chickens have found their perches. One determined hen remains on a nest and when I slide my hand under her warm breast feathers I discover three eggs. She’s been broody for a month and, although Scott let her try to hatch a clutch, they fizzled. Apparently our ancient Rooster is shooting blanks. The hen cackles disapprovingly as I steal her eggs, but she doesn’t peck my hand.
     The sun drops behind the mountain when I step back out. The barnyard is quiet once again and Tipper follows me back to the house where the warm light from the kitchen window calls us inside for the night.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Daddy Do All

The two best Dads I know.
     I was fortunate enough to be raised by one of the best fathers in the world. I cannot remember a time when his gentle advice and manner did not weigh, consciously or subconsciously, in my decision making. His earliest advice to me was, “Gasoline will not burn you.” I did not believe him at the time. I was five and had decorated my arms in oil-based paint. It dried before I was discovered, so Daddy called for Mama to bring him some gas. When he explained that he would be using it to wash the paint off of my arms, I bolted. Gasoline was used to run cars, and I was fairly certain from overheard bits and pieces of adult conversation that burning was somehow involved. Therefore gasoline would catch my arms on fire. The paint would be gone but so would my arms. I ran down the street with Daddy in hot pursuit. He yelled promises of ice-cream and Chatty Cathy dolls if the gas burned me, but I didn’t believe him. Finally, a neighbor snagged me and hauled me kicking and screaming to my father who gently applied the gasoline and removed the paint. If I had been smarter I would have hollered bloody murder and scored a doll and dessert, but he was right. Gasoline did not burn. Daddy didn’t lie
     My mama was every bit as smart and wise as my daddy, but I was a sullen teen and didn’t fully realize her amazing gifts until I had my first child. Mainly I was jealous of her because she was too cool and way too young looking and all of my friends liked her too much. It was Daddy I turned to in my teen years. He took me shopping for dresses and told me truthfully what looked good and what didn’t. He climbed the stairs to my bedroom when he heard me upstairs sobbing because I was overwhelmed with all my activities and talked me through prioritizing and trimming my schedule. When I grew old enough to date, Daddy told me some of the lies boys might use to convince me to climb in the back seat of a car and then gave me a dime to call him if I needed a ride home.
     But Daddy didn’t just give good advice. He was a prankster. When I had friends over to spend the night and we traipsed down to our dark basement for séances and Oujia Boards, Dad would sneak out to the small window with a flashlight and at just the right moment shine it upwards on his face and laugh maniacally. It scared the bejeezus out of us every time. On Halloween, he would conspire with all of us on our annual family haunted house. He devised countless ways of startling the neighborhood children: hanging himself, covered in ketchup, from the ceiling in the living room or rising up from a box shaped like a coffin, dark circles painted under his eyes, and cackling in an ungodly falsetto.
     He told us Paul Pig stories, which he made up on the spot while we waited out in the parking lot for mama to grocery shop and then, to our everlasting delight, often hid the car right before she came out. We would giggle and point as she pushed her full cart through the lot in search of the old blue Chevy. To her credit, Mama was always game and laughed along with us when she finally located her silly brood.
     When I grew up and moved away, Daddy’s other gifts revealed themselves. In addition to the coveted title of “Daddy Do All” he earned the name, “Electric Man” with the catchy motto, “Daddy’s hands make lights work.” He helped wire the house Joe and I restored and re-wired the farm house down the road. His gifts applied to our outbuildings make me feel safer at night when I go out to feed the dogs. One flick of a switch dispels the darkness.
     Daddy is still dispensing good advice, wiring the world and building furniture to order for all of us. He and Mama make it a priority to let each of us children know we are special and loved. They model God’s unconditional love daily.

So, here’s a shout out to my Dad (and mom). Happy Father’s Day to the Bestest Daddy Ever I Saw.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Swimming Hole

     Being a bit plump has some advantages. I went down to the river last week, goggles and bathing suit at the ready, and took a little dip. Actually, I took a little float. I float so much better than I used to. It’s a density thing. Fat is less dense than muscle. The last big rain had washed a deep hole under the bridge and I wanted to see what was swimming around in it. Last year, my students and I released thirty two brook trout in that very spot and I was hopeful that I might glimpse at least one.
     I parked the car just east of the bridge and opened the rusty metal gate next to the barn. The hay was up to my waist after this rainy spring and I pushed it aside before each step and examined the ground for snakes as I walked over to the river bank. The willows that used to line the side of it had been pushed out onto a small island of rock in the middle.
     I draped my towel on a big rock and shucked down to my suit. I left my shoes on because mountain river swimming is not a barefoot endeavor. Then I waded in. The hole was in the shade under the bridge and I was thankful to be out of sight. One, because my neighbors would probably think it was nuts for a 50 year old woman to be floating face first in the river wearing old tennis shoes and goggles and two, because, well, I’m not quite as cute in a bathing suit as I was thirty years ago.
     I was a bit intimidated to start with. I couldn’t see the bottom and it’s a little disconcerting to wade down into a river hole. Snapping turtles have been known to lurk there. But, once I got over my fear, I pulled the goggles over my eyes and floated face down. At first, the fish avoided the blobby body bobbing around above them, but soon their curiosity got the best of them. The minnows came first, nibbling at my fingers which floated slightly below my face. Then the larger suckers and red eyes swam over to sample my legs. We floated together in the shadow of the bridge for about ten minutes. Every time I lifted my head for a breath, the fish darted away. I found myself longing for a snorkel.
     There was a large snag of branches and roots on the sunny side of the pool and the fish swam in and out of the roots. I was sure there must be some more interesting life back in the tangled mess, but I couldn’t bring myself to pull some apart. Some of that interesting life might bite me. The current kept pushing me into the snag so I put my feet down and discovered the pool was about four and a half feet deep. Although I saw many fish, I didn’t see any brook trout. A neighbor six miles downstream told me he caught and released a small brookie a couple of weeks ago. I’d like to think it was one of ours.
     After floating for a while, I waded upstream. The amount of damage done to the channel by the storm was significant. In some places, the river bank had eroded down five feet or more. A hundred yards upstream in what used to be a flat river bed, there was a four foot waterfall, and an island of rock that cut the flow of the river in half. I’m afraid in the heat of the summer my pool under the bridge will lose its source. I don’t know where the fish will go then.
     When I finally clambered back up to the road I discovered I had brought a little of my childhood with me. My grandmother, Nana, used to take us swimming in the farm pond. Papa would row us out to a spot near the far shore and Nana would jump in with us. The same delicious fear of snapping turtles and unseen things brought it all back to me. I think I’ll jump back in again soon. Maybe I’ll even touch the snag and see what swims out.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Church of the Front Porch

     I attended the Church of the Front Porch today. We have had two consecutive days of sunshine and I didn’t want to miss any of it. I hope God didn’t mind that I spent the morning with a devotional book on my lap turning pages and thinking about what it means to be a child of God all the while glancing up occasionally to find the mockingbird who was singing saucily from the walnut tree, or to look for the redwing blackbird I could hear warbling in the wetland. As an artist, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to have someone enjoy, really enjoy my work. I hope God feels the same way because that’s what my worship was about this morning.
     Yesterday was the last day of shearing. What a relief to have gathered all the lambs and ewes in to count, worm and shear and find, so far, none missing. Coyotes are having pups this time of year and fresh lamb makes an easy breakfast for mama coyote. Some coyotes kill for food, but there are others who kill just for the sport of it. My friend Cindy, the one who has a llama on patrol, found six dead lambs the other day. The trapper told her that the coyotes must have come in a pack so the llama couldn’t defend against all of them. The lambs weren’t eaten, just slaughtered and left scattered about the field. I love God’s creation, but it’s hard to love coyotes who kill for pleasure. I suppose God loves them, though. They are as much a part of His creation as those blackbirds I enjoyed.
     Two nights ago, Joe drove me through a horrible storm to the emergency room. I had been fighting some back pain for 24 hours and it finally got the best of me. Joe said he’s never seen such weather, but I didn’t notice much of it from my fetal position in the front seat. After ten hours in the emergency room and a CAT scan, the doctor still couldn’t tell me why I had felt such hot knives stabbing me in my right side. There was no evidence of kidney stones or appendicitis to give truth to my overwhelming pain. By morning it had subsided, leaving me relieved and appreciative of every good day in my life.
     This morning on the porch, I thought about God’s presence in my pain. It’s a place I hate to go to, but I have discovered sometimes I find God most clearly in the hurting places. Pain, whether physical or emotional, is like those coyotes: uncontrollable. And because I cannot control it, I must wait it out. In the waiting, I am emptied totally of myself. I see God most clearly when I am empty. There’s nothing else to stand in the way of His love.

At the Church of the Front Porch this morning, I was reminded of these words by Sir Thomas Brown:

If thou could`st empty all thyself of self,
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, `This is not dead`,
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes, He says, `This is enow
Unto itself - `twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.`

I am a little emptier and yet, much fuller this morning.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Old Bones

     I love rocks. They are the bones of this old earth, slowly wearing down to mineral and soil and they speak to some place deep in my own bones. I can name them when I see them, although only with their familiar names, not their lineage names. Metamorphic, igneous, sedimentary…that is the extent of my scientific knowledge. I love limestone because it forms the backbone of my county; visible on some ridge tops like the knobs of vertebrae in a malnourished child. Over time, the vertebra weather off in chunks and tumble down the mountain to the fertile valleys below bringing the curiosity of fossils imprinted in their rugged sides. Seashells, snails, sponges and corals live forever in reverse depressions where they died and decayed. Our mountains were once under a shallow sea.
     The creek behind my house is not the kind of creek that graces the covers of gardening magazines. It comes down from the mountain through our open pasture at a pretty steep pitch. When we first moved here twenty four years ago, the water ran in a shallow channel close to the top of the ground, but over time it has carved itself down into a deep trench, lined with the rocky rubble of spring floods which have washed away the loose soil leaving a creek bed that is over eight feet deep in places. I planted willows in the eroding banks to stabilize them, but even they washed to lower ground and rooted at the bottom of the channel with their roots tucked in the rocky rubble. Then last week, after four inches of rain in less than three hours, the creek brought boulders from the top of the mountain down into our deep channel and filled it back up again. I went out this evening to inspect the treasures carried down from the mountain top. There were sandstone boulders bigger than a border collie and deep beds of gravel and sand. If you look carefully at the edges of the creek you can find evidence of the bed shifting back and forth over time, a pattern that repeatedly reveals and re-covers the bones of the earth.
     As I picked my way across the mounds of rocky rubble I found three perfect flat rocks. I threw them to the bank and later I will carry them to the house and complete the path through my secret garden. There were some small fossils: crinoids, porifera, and scallops, but after sorting through them I didn’t find anything that I didn’t already have, so I tossed them back into their gravelly beds.

      I located several large squarish rocks which hopefully Dan, who is getting ready to rebuild the retaining wall beside our root cellar, will find useful. I found a heart shaped rock, which I tucked into a pocket to carry back to the house. I’ve been collecting them for years now and when I die, I imagine a geologist hundreds of years in the future pondering the preponderance of heart shaped rocks in the area. I found a piece of gray shale, small and warm and breathed on it just for the smell of earth that rises off of shale when it is warm and moist, and I found a chunk of slate with white lines of quartz criss-crossing its face. A wishing rock. I’ll save it for when I really need a wish.

     When Joe and I were first married, he used to show up at the house with unusual rocks. He understood and supported my obsession. These were gifts that I treasured from him even more than the diamond I wear on my left hand. They meant that as he wandered the farm and fields, I was on his mind. His gifts are the stepping stones in my garden, and the edging of my garden beds.
     As I came back in the house, my pockets full of rocks, I happened to glance at the edge of the sidewalk where years ago, I traced an outline of each of our hands as a pattern for a friend who cut them out of stained glass. We celebrated the completion of the house by pressing them carefully into the wet cement of our new sidewalk. After fifteen years in the weather, they like the bones of the mountain, are chipping up and breaking apart. It’s comforting to consider that they will never really disappear. Instead, they will become part of the bones of this old earth, and maybe one day, a new woman digging carefully in her flower beds will find a very small chunk of green glass. She will wonder about its origins and then tuck it into her pocket next to the heart shaped rock she found buried beside it.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Egg Sunday

      It is Easter Sunday and, like the Easter Bunny, we are delivering eggs. Ours are dyed various natural shades of brown, and they are so large it is often hard to close the top on the carton. The chickens who donated them range all over our property eating bugs and grass, so the yolks are bright yellow and dense with a rich flavor that can’t be found on a store shelf.      Scott started this egg business soon after his grandma died. She loved chickens and he loved her, so it was a natural way for him to remember her. He has over 50 chickens which means we collect over 20 dozen eggs a week which are delivered to customers on Sunday afternoons. When Scott is home he drives up and down the valley making the deliveries, and his 30 minute route often takes him over two hours because everyone wants to visit with him. Sometimes he even comes home with plastic bags full of cookies or slices of cake pressed on him by his baking customers. When he’s away, Joe and I keep the business going for him. Joe does the bulk of the work, but I help out when I can and lately I’ve been riding along with him on the egg run. Today is a beautiful sunny day, with the green promises of spring in every field.
     We drive north. Our first stop is a home where the husband and wife, who have finished raising their own two children, are fostering three teenage boys. What a difference they’ve made in those boys’ lives. Three boys eat a lot of eggs so we leave them with two dozen. Then we turn south and bump down the half mile driveway to a farm house tucked off the road. There are goats and pigs stretched out in the sun next to the barn and cows grazing on dandelion-speckled fields. We rumble over one cattle guard and the farmer’s youngest son, who is fifteen, runs out to open the other gate for us. He takes the eggs to his mom who is cooking dinner and returns with change. I smell fried chicken when he opens the door.
     Five miles further south, we stop at a house where there are four children under the age of twelve. The two littlest girls run out to hug me and take the eggs before leading me to the kitchen where their mom waits with a check. Then they lead me back out to the truck and demand more hugs before we pull out. At the next white farmhouse, a half a mile further on, we leave eggs on the kitchen table. No one is home, but the door is unlocked and the table has empty cartons for us to recycle, plus money for the eggs we’re leaving. We are collecting quite a stack of used cartons on the front seat of the truck. At every house we pick up last week’s empties which we’ll refill next week.
     Finally we reach the village where we stop several more times. At one house there’s a man recovering from surgery. He is happy to have company so we chat for a while. At another, The Three Beauties have bicycled down to visit their grandmother. They laugh about burning off a big Easter lunch and then wave and hop on their bikes for the uphill ride back home.
     Our egg run is done, and we load hay and bottle feed a lamb.  Then we have a genuine Easter egg hunt, climbing around the barn to gather eggs out of the hay mow where the hens have hidden them.  After washing and sorting them, we head home.  More eggs wait for us there.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Market Day

     When Justin called at 5:30 this morning, the moon had set and the brightest object in the sky was Pluto sliding across the southern horizon. The cows bedded down in the back lot were not expecting such an early breakfast, but Joe creaked to a standing position, got dressed, pulled on his Muck boots and with flashlight in hand went to help them rise and shine. I grabbed a cattle stick and stepped out the back door just in time to see the light bobbing across the dark lot as Joe made his way out to the shed. I settled down on the back steps to watch and wait until he needed some help. The sound of the shed door sliding open woke the steers and heifers who, like Pavlov’s dogs connect that sound to food. They began to low softly and I could hear them stirring and shuffling as they unfolded their legs and rose to stroll in the general direction of the shed. I still couldn’t see them because it was dark and the majority of the cows were black.
     Joe filled his bucket and then slipped across the lot. “Whooo, sook calf, sook calf.” He called softly in the morning air and the cows answered with their own morning song. Walking back and forth across the lot, Joe called again and shook his bucket so the grain rattled. I still couldn’t see them, but I could sense the movement of calves as they lined up and followed him into the pen. Joe poured the grain in the trough and the flashlight beam played across the backs of the steers. Then, he called out to me. “Turn on the back light,” so I slipped inside and flipped the switch. There were two steers on the wrong side of the pen and in another minute, the rest of the cattle streamed out to join them. So much for fooling them into the pen with grain.
     I clicked open the gate and stepped out to help. It was hard to walk on the rough ground in the dark and I stumbled a couple of times as I crossed the wet ditch. The mud sucked at my boots and the steers, who were now backlit by the porch light watched me curiously as I squelched around behind them to try and force them into the pen. I could tell that they were anxious as they pondered this predator sneaking up on them in the dark. Several tried to break away and I waved my white stick. The uneasy calves changed their minds and backed up to huddle in the corner. In a moment we heard the rattle of an aluminum trailer bouncing down our driveway. Help had arrived.
     Justin and his friend Michael parked and jumped out to help. In another two minutes the steers were all streaming into the open gate. With a few deft touches of their cattle sticks, the guys sent the heifers back out and the steers were loaded onto the trailer. Then Justin and Michael pulled out the driveway and headed to Staunton. Joe and I headed to the house for showers and breakfast. It was time to go to work.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Cow Poop Trail and Other Educational Wonders

     I followed a brown cow splat trail for about three miles up the asphalt road in front of my house yesterday. A sure sign that the neighbors have been on their annual spring cattle drive, moving cows and calves from winter pastures. Highland’s valleys are too narrow for there to be much open range for cattle moving, so most people load them onto a truck and drive them to greener pastures. But, Mike and George-Ann prefer an old fashioned cattle drive, so they saddle up and bring the herd down the road. It’s a raucous trip with mama cows and their calves bawling as they lose sight of each other and humans hollering directions back and forth as they work to keep the bovines away from open gates and front lawns.
     But, I don’t think those cows and calves were nearly as noisy as the ten girls from the city who came to visit grandparents this weekend. John and Jean entertained their granddaughters and eight of their friends as a special birthday gift for the just turned ten year old girl. Their back mountain adjoins us and as I was upstairs finishing some writing, I heard what I thought was a pack of coyotes carousing on the mountain. Turns out it was just a pack of excited ten year old girls walking down the backside to visit us. John and Jean’s grandchildren often come to see us when they’re up because we have a menagerie of dogs, chickens, horses and lambs to pet and feed and kiss and hug. The birthday crowd had hiked over to see what animals might be available for the city girls to visit. We have a bottle fed calf in the barn who was terrified by the shrieking, giggling, galloping crew, and the chickens got quite a workout running from long-legged girls in pink boots , but it was good fun to see the joy on the girls’ faces as they bottle fed the calf and gathered eggs.
     Visits to the farm are important to city kids. There are so many things they don’t know about the food they eat. One of the little girls asked me if we had to give the hens shots to get them to lay eggs. Another asked if the steers out in the field were milk cows. When I first moved out here, I was every bit as ignorant. I once admired a ram in the field noting that “she had one of the biggest udders I’d ever seen on a ewe.” Turns out the thing hanging down between his legs had nothing to do with milk. And Joe used to take advantage of my ignorance. For the longest time he had me convinced that he grew a special breed of mountain cow whose legs were shorter on one side than the other to accommodate standing upright on steep hills.
     I’ve come a long way. I can tell by the poop on the road which breed of animals has recently been herded by. I can tell the difference between orchard grass and alfalfa in a field from a moving car. I can tell the boy animals from the girl animals with one glance and just this morning I squeezed out a half a bottle full of milk from an engorged mama ewe so her lamb could nurse.
     I’m blessed to have received my country education and glad to share it with others. The happy sound of children squealing as they tried to catch chickens or bent down to kiss the calf was the highlight of my day. I hope it meant as much to them.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


     This is the messiest time of year. Even though the days are warm we are still feeding the stove, but it’s dampered down which creates more ashes and they sift out every time we open it, leaving a pale powder on every table and dresser in the house which daily dusting can’t defeat. And, the cats are shedding. When Tip jumps up to perch on the arm of my chair, a flotilla of cat hairs drifts in behind him. Yesterday, he crawled into my lap and when he left I was furrier than my cat. Then, there are the tired houseplants. They’ve grown leggy in their search for sunlight and their dying leaves lie curled in fetal positions all around the pots.
     Did I mention the mud? We’ve had steers around the house all winter and the thawing ground outside the white board fence is a quagmire. The chickens must be tended to twice a day and they live on the other side of this mess, which means we are constantly tracking dirt into the house. We also have a bottle calf in the shed so there’s a dirty bottle and mixing bowl to wash up twice a day and a bag of calf milk replacer on the mud porch ringed by a fine flour of powdered milk.
     And yet, all of this mess is part of a promise. I heard the first whisper of it last night when Scott ran inside to tell me the peepers are singing. I stepped out into the starry night and stood on the sidewalk to listen to their spring choir. They sounded faint and far off, but the promise of warmer weather was there.
     When God created the world he dug deep into the oceans and made piles of mud that He patted into mountains. And because there was no one there to say, “Don’t track that mess into the house!” He kept right on. His muddy mess was the beginning of a beautiful world. The muddy mess inside and outside my house is also a beginning. It’s a symptom of the birth of spring.


March is mud
“Winter’s gone
spring is

Saturday, March 5, 2011

It's Maple Time

     It’s the first week of March and the morning air tastes sweet. There’s white steam curling out of sugar shacks all across the county and in McDowell the rising column from Sugar Tree Country Store is pink in the early morning light. It’s been perfect sugar weather. Nights below freezing and days above. These are the temperatures that really put the trees to work sucking up the starches they’ve stored in their roots over the winter and sending them skyward as sugars to jump start spring growth.
     My son Justin has been in the syrup business since he was about sixteen. That’s the year he and a friend collected enough sugar water to set up their own ramshackle sugar shack and boil until they had produced about 13 gallons of syrup which they then sold to visitors at our annual Maple Festival. It took about 500 gallons of water and 48 hours of work drilling, hanging, collecting, boiling and bottling to produce that small amount of syrup, but the boys were proud of their operation and were even featured in an article in the Washington Post about the county’s youngest syrup producers.
     For the last two years, Justin has opted to just gather his water and sell it to other producers who will boil it, condensing it until it is light amber, sticky and sweet. This year, he hung 80 buckets in the sugarbush down on our farm in McDowell. Joe had to set up an electric fence to keep the cows away from it because they love sugar water and will walk from tree to tree nosing buckets and dumping as they drink. Justin gathers his water by hand , tipping the buckets into a 425 gallon transport tank which rests on the back of an old farm truck. It takes him about an hour each time he collects and lately the buckets have been brimful twice a day. The season is only a few weeks long, and farmers who work their sugarbush are boiling without a break so they can finish off as much syrup as possible before the trees bud out and the rising water gets sappy and off-flavored.
     The smell of sweet steam is usually one of the earliest signs of spring here in Highland. So raise a jug of maple syrup and make a toast to warmer and sunnier days to come.

It’s maple time
It’s sugar time
It’s tapping trees for syrup time
It’s dripping, dropping
Sweet drops plopping
Buckets hanging
Tin lids banging
White steam roiling
Water boiling
Pancakes sizzling
Syrup drizzling

It’s maple time
It’s sugar time
It’s tapping trees for syrup time.


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sister Trips

     When my big sis was five and I was three, she was so shy that I had to walk her to kindergarten for her first day of school. I don’t remember doing this, but it’s a story my mom has told often. As we grew, we remained best friends when we weren’t bickering over clothes or boyfriends and my shy sister blossomed into a leader and my hero. I remember days when Mom sent us to our separate rooms for fighting and we managed to rig a telegraph line between our upstairs windows by leaning out and swinging a string until we were connected and could clothesline messages back and forth. Then we grew up and moved away from each other, but the conversation never stopped.
     One of my favorite traditions with Meg is our sister trips. Originally they started with her travelling to the mountains to see me, or me travelling to Atlanta to see her, but in 2007 I was selected as Virginia’s Educator of Excellence and receiving the award required me to attend a gala in Washington, DC. In need of a dress and some advice about taxis and tipping, I flew to Atlanta to conspire with my more sophisticated sister. As we visited the dress shops, I shared my fears and Meg offered to attend the gala with me. She’s a world traveler who is unfazed by airports and bellhops so I eagerly accepted her offer. Suddenly the idea of navigating the city sounded fun. It was. Meg steered me through the unfamiliar formalities of a glamorous evening and I was able to enjoy my brief moment in the spotlight. After DC we decided that we’d had so much fun that we should continue the tradition. So far we’ve been on sister trips to Charleston, SC, Dahlonega, GA and most recently Amelia Island, FL. This last trip was a 50th birthday present from Meg to me and as usual, she took care of everything.
     We met at the Atlanta airport and because my plane was running a little late, I was in danger of missing the connecting flight to Jacksonville. No worries. As I huffed and puffed my way down the long corridor there was Meg waving a ticket at me. “Here, take mine and get in line,” she directed as she handed me her ticket and took mine. Because she’s a frequent flyer, Meg has privileges that allow her to board each flight early. The plane was crowded and getting on first allowed me to find a place to stow my bag before the bins all filled up. It was fifteen more minutes before Meg boarded and sat beside me. The whole trip was full of small courtesies like that. When we debarked in Jacksonville, there was a rental car waiting and Meg drove us out to Amelia Island where she had booked a hotel for three nights. We spent the sunny days in between roaming the beaches where we gathered starfish by the dozens as they washed ashore, rode bicycles on secluded paths, toured the island shops and galleries, and finally galloped through the surf on horseback. At night, we sampled some of Amelia’s finest restaurants and wine. Like all of my adventures with Meg we moved at full speed until falling into bed at night. I could barely walk when we landed back in Atlanta. But, it was worth every minute.
     We talked about our fears, our dreams, our families and our frustrations. When we finally separated at the Atlanta airport, me headed to Richmond, Meg headed home, I cried. While the sister trips are fun to plan and even more fun to enjoy, the best part of all is just spending time with my big sister. A sister who is your best friend is a treasure beyond counting. I have riches beyond measure.

Best Friends

When mom
banished us
to our rooms
for fighting
dangled a string between
our separate windows
and sent secret messages
across the warm brick
growing up
split us apart
leaving the line
between our rooms
to sag
in the wind

now that you live
five hundred miles south
I miss you
and long to
instant message you
with that
tender string