A Lazy Drift on the August New

The New River, whose headwaters lie in my part of the Appalachian Mountains, is often considered the oldest river on the continent and even the second oldest river in the world—though not all experts agree. So how did it get its ironic name? No one knows for sure. In any case, I wrote this piece at an August writing workshop at New River State Park a couple of years ago as I reminisced about the many canoe excursions the Gnome and I have shared along this wild and scenic river.


A Lazy Drift Down the August New 

Ducklings huddle in bank cuts 
resisting parents’ push into the current;
two deer take a soothing afternoon sip 
cooling stick-thin legs in mountain-icy water.

Holsteins wade across shallows 
to greener pastures, perhaps,
and a Great-Blue stands majestically, 
its sharp eyes ever watchful for a tasty fish dinner.

I bump across rocks and glide over riffles,
the sun dappling my legs and arms,
my bottom as chilled as drinks in the cooler;
I wave to splashing children and paddling picnickers.

Trees bear witness to beavers’ work 
as swallowtails float above;
sticks of an osprey nest 
rest on a boulder ledge.

Thirsty gray-green leaves 
and occasional yellows and reds 
flutter down and drift along 
beside me.

River’s edge is plastered with signs of autumn—
seed-popping touch-me-nots vie for space
with sunny goldenrod and mauvy Joe-Pye weed;
citrine coneflowers fill every cranny.

Clouds playing across the mountains
produce ever-changing panoramas of light and dark
as they cast reflections of blinding white
on the emerald river surface.

Floating downstream in the late summer quiet
I am lost in the flow of this river 
of calming mindfulness. 
I am fulfilled.
Our sturdy Coleman canoe saw us through many rocky river rides.

Native coneflower

Orange spotted touch-me-not. Juice from the stems can be used to treat poison ivy,
which usually grows in the same vicinity.
Goldenrod–not the culprit some allergy sufferers think.
Cloud shadows.
A portion of the New River. Photo by Eric T Gunther, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

The Best of Times

Second day, seventh month, nineteen and seventy-nine
our family of four arrived for the first time 
on our newly-bought mountain land, ours now for keeps.

Massive meadows of nodding daisies greeted us,
the first of many magical moments
in July of ’79.

Like the morning when clouds made a foamy sea of white,
blue mountain peaks peeking through like islands.
Our hearts stood still at the impossible beauty of it.

Like our discovery of wild strawberries and highbush blueberries, 
scrumptious snacks and desserts made all the better 
because they were ours. All ours.

We slept on the ground, cooked over a campfire,
drank water from a not-so-nearby spring,
made an outdoor privy surrounded by blooming rhododendron.

In that 1979 July
we bathed in the frigid waters of a babbling brook,
our skulls numbed senseless by the cold.

Our music came courtesy of birds and insects,
our entertainment from read-aloud stories by lantern light,
homemade crossword puzzles, and imagination.

Formerly housebound cats found freedom to roam;
proud hunters dropped field mice at our feet
and occasionally a grasshopper.

We chopped trees and cleared ground,
created designs, drew up plans,
and sought official permissions.

We built our forever home with our own hands—
ours and our children’s—
the only ones at work.

Now the children are long grown and gone
and the cats have found their final resting place
on our daisy-covered hillside.

Now the sounds of grandchildren 
laughing in summertime, finding their own magic on our mountain,
bring smiles and happy memories of early days.

Conveniences these days are modern—
and convenient—
living on the diagonal.

But July of nineteen and seventy-nine?
It was the best of times
and the best of times. 
When the daisies–along with a scattering of black-eyed Susans–come back each summer, we smile at the memories of our first July on the diagonal.
Sheer magic.
The children entertained themselves with campfire embers and private jokes.
Could anything taste better than fresh-picked wild mountain strawberries?

Our grasshopper-catching cat joins the Gnome for a well-deserved nap.
We all pitch in to build our home, early on by cutting and placing stakes to lay out foundation. ,

After digging and building the foundation walls, all by hand, it’s time to fill concrete in the top course of blocks to make a bond beam..
It’s hard to beat flowering rhododendron for outhouse walls.
With brute strength the Gnome pushes one of the posts in place.

I’m nailing exterior sheathing over the post and beam wall structure.
Years pass and our first grandchild gets to share the joys of living on the diagonal at the first of many grandparents’ camps.

Bustin’ Out All Over

Every leaf is fresh and lush 
and green in June
apricot-colored azaleas
set Appalachian hills on fire 
and electric-red firepinks
dot rocky mountain roadsides

The last bell of the year has rung
as raucous youngsters race 
from school yards into back yards
to prance through sprinklers 
and blow iridescent bubbles
in barefoot abandon 

Summer is young in June and full of promise
newly planted gardens grow
plump succulent strawberries 
ooze red juices from eager lips
country fields are hectic
with hay mowing and baling

Wrens sing happy songs in sunshine
Synchronous fireflies dance in the dark 
to the music of June’s night insects
the air is sweet with the scent
of the milkweed and honeysuckle
that suckle trembling butterflies

Who would want 
to live 
in a world 
without lavish June?
Wren fledglings prepare for their first flight.
Eastern tiger swallowtail alights on foliage.
Flame azaleas are native to the Appalachian region of the US.
Firepink found at Mammoth Cave National Park. Public domain photo courtesy of National Park Service.

Random Word Challenge

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may recall that I regularly attend a challenging writing workshop, one feature of which is called the Random Word Challenge. When I saw the words listed below it reminded me of the writing style of my grandfather’s cousin, Albert Coates: early to mid-twentieth century lawyer, University of North Carolina professor, and founder of well-known and respected Institute of Government. This challenge is always demanding, but usually leads to entertaining results.

felicitous            risible                contentious       dolorous            elaborate              delineate           

celebrate            mourn              reverence           eternity              antidote               solitude               

rebirth                stillness   (Parts of speech were allowed to be modified.)

Dearest Sister Gwendolyn,

Please allow me the honor of sharing this moment with you via this written communication.  I wanted to let you know about the hours leading up to and following our precious youngest sister’s death. Of course, you are aware of the many contentious doctor and hospital visits where no one seemed to take Ida’s complaints seriously, so I do not need to elaborate on that episode other than to say that once Bryant was able to come on the scene he finally got through to them that her illness was indeed serious. Alas, it was far too late to be of much help other than to give her some degree of comfort in her last days. Had the situation not been so dire, it would have been risible.

Please be assured everyone understands why you could not make the long journey to Natchez. Caring for Warren must be your highest concern in these difficult days. Sometimes it is challenging to delineate between one’s duties and desires, but not in this case. You mourn Ida’s passing with the same sorrow and anguish as do we all, and that does not change based on physical proximity. The spirit is always nearby.

The days leading up to the service were filled with flowers and visits with friends who shared a lifetime of happy memories, which served as a much needed antidote to the otherwise dolorous atmosphere of the home that now belongs only to Stephen and the children. The reminiscences of friends and colleagues presented versions of Ida they would not otherwise have known and allowed them to begin the all-important work of celebrating a life well-lived. The week confirmed the deep love and affection Ida inspired in all those who had the good fortune of her acquaintance.

I offered and was graciously granted the privilege of sitting with the home so the rest could attend the service with no worries. It is indeed the better place for me as I need the solitude of the moment to properly revere our sister’s life.

It is fitting that Ida’s time on earth ends with the blossoming of spring, a time when we are so gloriously reminded of the rebirth of all life. The stillness of these hours gives me the opportunity to reflect and be filled with gratitude for the gift of being born as sweet Ida’s brother.

Life in this sphere must always end. It was never meant to be an eternity. We are only unsure of the timing.

Grace requests that I  send her felicitations.

With deepest affection,

Your brother Aaron

An elegant and loquacious speaker and writer, Albert Coates was the inspiration for this exercise.
The Coates Building, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Originally the Institute of Government, the Coates Building currently houses the school’s geography and Asian studies departments.

(Photos copied from unc.edu.)

A Very Merry Month

(This is part of my series of monthly poems. I am painfully aware that all is not merry in May, particularly this year, and that May ends with a commemoration of Americans who died in war, including members of my own family. This poem is not meant to disregard or disrespect any of that. In fact, this May has been quite difficult for me personally: I was faced with the senseless and untimely death of a long-time acquaintance and the physical pain and limitations caused by shoulder and neck issues—a trial of aging. But this poem has another intent: to celebrate the glories Nature gives us in May and the excitement that naturally fills the air this time of year.)

The Very Merry Month of May

May Day, May poles, Mother’s Day
mark the month of May
proms and graduations abound
flowers burst forth in
explosions of color—
pink and purple rhododendrons
sensuous irises in every hue
cheery cherry blossoms and more.

Lilacs perfume the world
with scentful blossoms
and native magnolias 
sprinkle the woods 
with creamy white
each spring rain 
makes Nature’s palette 
more vibrant.

Mountains are transformed
as winter’s browns and grays
are replaced by
countless shades of green
undulating and billowing 
up the hillsides
like fluffy viridescent clouds 

Once again 
finally again
the earth is verdant
fragrant breezes
embrace us
our eyes behold
a world of color

May is the quintessence
of spring
a time that feels 
like summer
—only better

Spring fever 
wafts through the air 
as youthful energy 
and enthusiasm
bounce off the walls
like echoes

May is when
love effloresces
as exuberantly
as the season’s blossoms
May is a rush—
A time when
we can’t keep up
with our own emotions

May is for bird trills 
nestbuilding and
frolicking wildlife
who also know
May is a time 
of rebirth 
and rejoicing.

If ever 
there was a time 
to seize the day
it is a magic
day in May

Nothing can compare
to the days of May
a month for 
living
laughing
loving

Poppies add exotic color and patterns to May.
Bearded iris
Rhododendron in its full May glory

April Is Nature’s Poem

(While spring comes to some places in March, the season is still in its infancy in these parts through all of April. This is my mountainside take on the month everyone surely loves.)

April is a yellow month.
Daffodils, forsythia, and dandelions
(whose future fluffy puffs
delight children everywhere)
dot the landscape.

April is blue, purple, and pink
with wild violets, phlox, and periwinkle
blooming side by side with
hyacinths, tulips, lilacs,
flowering crabapples.

April is green
as spring’s bright tastes
emerge from the earth:
asparagus and rhubarb
along with creasies,
garlic mustard, and folkloric ramps.

April is white—
fabled dogwood shares mountainsides
with legendary serviceberry,
its delicate blooms drifting down 
like flakes of an unexpected spring snow.

April is the month of awakening,
its arrival heralded by
blackbirds red of wing,
bluebirds of the bluest blue,
and the iridescent greens and dazzling
ruby throats of hummingbirds.

April is for spring cleaning.
Time to rid closets and minds
of winter’s cobwebs;
bodies, too, with tonics
of ancient lore:
sassafras, poke, purslane, and more.

Gardeners beware:
April (weather) makes fools of us all
with its first tentative beckoning of spring 
and irrepressible last days when
forest fairies frolic with dancing buds
of bloodroot, trillium, and mayapple—
all interrupted by surprise frosts and snows.

Blossoms and fragrant breezes
awaken us from winter slumber
with April’s ebullient energy
and its whispered promise
of a best yet to come.

Where would we be
without the gentle poetry of Nature
that is April?
A friend says dandelions look like bright yellow buttons in the landscape. Dandelion wine, anyone?

There’s nothing quite like a field of smiling daffodils.

Spring magnolia flowers bring a touch of pink to April.
Sweet violets symbolize faithfulness, honesty, and remembrance. They also make a lovely translucent jelly, or dress up a salad with the pretty petals.

Traditionally, serviceberry blooms mean the snow has melted so circuit-riding preachers can make the rounds for services, including weddings and buryings.

Buttercups represent joy, youth, and friendship. But don’t eat them–unlike dandelions, magnolias, and violets, these bright flowers are poisonous.
Along with rhubarb, asparagus is one of the garden’s earliest vegetables. They are the true taste of spring.
Five-petaled phlox makes a fragrant spring bouquet.

The hills are alive–with tasty ramps, the theme of many a flavorful spring festival. This wild onion with a garlicky flavor has been threatened by overharvesting. But fear not–you can safely forage this tasty treat by cutting the leaves rather than digging up the entire plant. They are just as delicious without being overpowering. Be sure to cut sustainably–only 20% of a cluster. As you can see, if you’re lucky enough to come across a patch, you can easily harvest a bagful while leaving most of these slow-growing perennials to continue producing. They are scrumptious sautéed in a little butter.

Small mounds of delicate bluets with their tiny yellow eyes (unfortunately not visible here) dot many a lawn and field in these parts. Such a welcome sign of spring!

March Madness

Oh, cruel fellow!

You blow in with your sunny charms
melting hearts in your wake
they've all fallen for your wiles
secure in the warmth of your watchful eye
all they see is hope

Me? I'm cynical
I've seen your kind before
you cast your spell and they believe
until you turn tail and run
just like a swindling tent-revival preacher

But this time you stayed so long, seemed so sincere,
you lured even me into your lair
ready, yearning even, for your promises
I packed away my old grievances
like heavy raiments I'd held onto for too long

I should have known better
I know you all too well
sure enough just like always
you made those innocents fall for you
and in a flash you snapped

Late one night when they were
fast asleep you did your deed
just as I always knew you would
broke their slender little necks
every one

So unsuspecting
their bright trusting faces
full of aspirations lifted to the sky
just waiting for the rebirth spring brings
poor trusting daffodils

Oh, March, how could you?

Sunny Daffodils
Droopy daffies after a five degree March night two weeks ago.

The Long Short Month

Gray skies
Gray Skies

It’s been said February
has nothing 
to recommend it—
except its mere twenty-eight cycles
of twenty-four hours.

But the surly sluggish days hang over us
with their cold and clouds,
gray skies even grayer,
by-now-dirty snow
piled on street corners,
reminding us even
on sixty-degree days
winter is not done with us.

Harbinger of a season it seems
will never come,
this twilight month
of blues and blahs,
passion and penance
taunts us 
as the groundhog 
either lies or disappoints:
spring will always be six weeks away.

The fourteenth is Hallmark Hell
a frantic time 
kept alive by money 
and false hopes, 
a reminder of love lost or never had.

February’s loathsome mirror never lies:
dry skin, cracked lips,
and dull brittle hair
stare with sullen petulance 
into our winter-bleary eyes.
Who can even pronounce
this strange two-R month?


So call me a contrarian,
but I like the second month,
the one beginning with 
National Baked Alaska Day
and ending in honor
of chocolate soufflé.

February is the month of purification:
time to clean closets,
declutter drawers,
waft sage smudge sticks to
cleanse winter’s negativity cobwebs
from our homes and minds.
Let’s revere observances
presidential and Black
and celebrate the mysterious 
Lenten rose.

Tranquil February is time
to discover discernment
and dispel distraction.
This subtle month
asks us to pause, be patient,
to savor the journey
and gift of quiet wisdom.
The Snow Moon month whispers,
“I’m here.
BE.”

For how can we cheer
the spring’s birth of light and color
without knowing
the dark side of the moon?



A Love Story: The Beginning

[Hope you enjoy this Valentine’s Day classic. It’s one of my favorites–for obvious reasons, as you will see. And I should point out that today, February 12, is our first date anniversary.]

The place: Furman University dining hall

The time: February 1, 1965, sophomore year; registration day for second semester classes

The scene: a group of friends sharing a long table at lunch. I’m facing the wall of glass that looks out onto the lake and its iconic swans.

My friend and future roommate has just come rushing to the table, practically dragging a guy we’d never seen before along with her. Jan wants to introduce us to this fellow she’s just discovered walking across campus. They are old childhood buddies. She’s bursting with excitement to have found him here, he having just transferred from the University of South Carolina. She’s eager for him to make fast friends and happily settle in to his new life as a Furman student.

* * *

Yes, this was the first time I laid eyes on The Gnome. His eyes twinkled and even then his lips curved into that amiably mischievous smile he’s so well known for. For the next year, our paths crossed in classroom building hallways or in the student center, where we usually stopped for a lighthearted chat. Sometimes we visited in the dining hall when he spotted our little group at a table. How did he approach us? Patty was the key. Whenever he saw Patty, he made his way over to give her a pat on the head saying something like, “Pat, pat, Patty.” She always smiled, but, oh, that little joke must have worn thin.

We’d known each other just over a year when he finally asked me out. As soon as word leaked that we we had a date, Jan and Martha (another of his childhood friends), both so protective of his feelings, started in on me.

“Don’t you hurt him.”

“He’s a sensitive soul.”

“You’d better not break his heart.”

Or words to that effect.

And here I thought it was just a date, a mere basketball game. They had me freaked—I nearly called it off. But I stuck it out. Besides, what was with them? He didn’t strike me as being particularly delicate, and, as far as I knew, I’d never done any heart breaking.

Even though it was a nail-biter of a game and Furman lost to the Citadel by a mere two points, we had a fine time and everything went just great—until evening’s end. Sitting in his car in the circular drive in front of the women’s dorm, we were saying all those nice, if awkward, things two people say when a first date is nearing its end. Then he told me he had a gift for me. Warning bells went off. They turned into ear-piercing alarm bells when he pulled out a little blue velvet box.

My heart leapt into my throat. Oh my gosh! What have I gotten myself into? I should have canceled, I should have canceled, I should have canceled!

But I’d forgotten the mischief that was always dancing at the edge of those green eyes. He opened the box to show me a gaudy adjustable ring featuring a huge—and I do mean huge—chunk of glass. There was a little card inside that read, “Hope Diamond.”

I was so relieved that it didn’t occur to me to be insulted at the implication.

dscf5413

The Hope Diamond 51 years later

It was never stated, but we were a steady couple after that. My dorm sign-out sheet (now, there’s a story!) shows that I only went out with two other people following that February 12th basketball game, and both of those occasions were within the next five days. Chances are those dates had been made well in advance of my first date with the Gnome.

By early in our senior year, a future together seemed like a fait accompli. Without any formal declarations, we’d begun talking about where we’d live, children, things like that. So, when December 2nd rolled around and he took me to Ye Olde Fireplace, the swanky steak restaurant where all Furman couples went for special occasions … well, yes, this time I was thinking about a ring. Even more so when, after dinner, we headed to the top of Paris Mountain, that popular, romantic peak that overlooked the city and its night lights. Surely this was the moment.

Then came the bombshell. With a serious look on his face and an ominously somber tone in his voice, he said, “Carole, I have a confession.” Uh-oh.

“I haven’t been completely honest with you about our relationship, and I have to confess something.” This time my heart thudded into the pit of my stomach.

“Remember our first date?” he asked. “That ring I gave you—it wasn’t a real diamond.”

(Pause)

“But this one is.”

dscf5419

Yes, of course I still have the ring box!

Well, you can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into.

JANUS

JANUS*	

One tick of the clock
exactly the same 
as the one before
the one after
Tick Tock Tick Tock

Still, we imbue it with awesome power
this moment between
between the night before, the day after
or any other moment in time
Tick Tock Tick Tock

A new year, we think
a new beginning
"I resolve . . ."
we thrive on contrived ritual
Tick Tock Tick Tock

This month we live
in the dark season
yet it lightens
minute by imperceptible minute
tempting us to look toward spring

But wait!
Let’s not lose this priceless moment
this mysterious, palpable present 
for the not-yet-here unknown future
Tick Tock Tick Tock

Long January—the quiet season
a time for flannel, books, a cup of tea
a time for introspection and self-learning
a calm month 
a time to refresh the spirit

May I forget the clock
gaze out the window
at untrampled snow
breathe in, breathe out  
may I delight in my own renewal
			
			

* Janus, the Roman god, protector of gates and doorways.
Janus is depicted with two faces, one looking to the past, the other to the future.