Dancing Trees

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The Gnome has enjoyed playing a woodlands game with our grandchildren during their respective toddlerhoods. He’ll pick them up, hold them in his arms, and place their ears next to one of the large trees in our small forest. “Shh,” he’ll say, in his own hushed voice. “Listen.” After a few pregnant seconds, he asks if they can hear the tree.

Inevitably, they do. Is the unfettered imagination of childhood innocence at work, or are the sounds real? Whatever, watching a small child’s eyes light up, a grin spreading across a lollipop-cheeked face—such moments are pure magic.

On these spring days and nights when the wind skims across the peaks of our mountains in its furious attempt to get who-knows-where, it leaves a few things in its wake.

The crack of still-bare limbs clanging against each other as if they’re engaged in some ancient battle, wooden branches as swords, breaks the silence. Sometimes, one cuts the other to the quick, sending it crashing through other branches on the way to its final destination below.

The wind has an entirely different effect on other trees. Norway spruce and Fraser firs we once imagined growing into a profitable Christmas tree business overwhelmed us—and everything else around. Today, they are jolly evergreen giants, having grown to eighty feet or more, long branches drooping under their own verdant weight.

Wind bends, but never breaks, these resilient trees. Instead, they nod their heads to each other in rhythmic time, their outstretched branches bowing and swaying as if in some sort of complicated old folk dance. It seems they’re almost smiling, wordlessly saying, “It’s okay. I’ve got you covered.”

And they have, in a way. In such close proximity, each supports and shelters its neighbors from the wind’s potential danger. Even more, they create a haven for the wildlife that give us so much pleasure: deer, bears, the squirrels who race through branches in the height of their springtime romantic frenzies, hoppy rabbits, stripey skunks, and of course, the myriad songbirds who seek solace and grow little bird families in the protection of their branches.

 

The long, graceful, ballerina arms of our tallest neighbors wave at me through the glass door that defends me from wind’s ravages. They invite me to join their happy dance. And I do, if only with a smile as I wave back.

Summertime

(Well, this is embarrassing. For reasons too complicated to explain here, I’m not sure whether the following piece is mine or if it’s a compilation of some of my fellow writers. Logic dictates it’s mine, yet it doesn’t feel as familiar as it should. But since summer, in all its fullness, is officially just around the bend, I want to share. So, here goes—with sincere apologies if I’ve inadvertently plagiarized.)

Summertime

Summer is the most voluptuous season.

Summer is like

. . . a rainbow, bright and colorful after a dark storm;

. . . . wide open spaces with no boundaries;

. . . imagination with endless possibility.

Summer is like like the blinding light of a camera flash, the scent of singed skin, the music of Beethoven; it’s like life at full maturity—gone is the perky innocence of youth as hints of age peek through its brilliance.

Summer is like lemonade—sunshiny bright, sweet and tangy, liquid in a sweating glass.

Interpretations of a Snapshot

I tried an experiment a few weeks back when I posted a photo on social media and asked my friends to study its details and tell me what they saw. I said nothing about the photo itself, though a few immediately knew it was a picture of my mom in her teenage years.

I conducted this inquiry for a couple of reasons. It was Mother’s Day and I wanted to do something besides tell how my mother is the best in the world. I hope there are millions of people who believe that about their own moms; we don’t have to compete. But maybe I could get people to spend a few minutes studying her—a different kind of tribute.

I had another reason for seeking input. I’m writing a book about my mom’s life and times, and photographs will be a big part of the story. I love pictures; I’ve probably spent more hours poring over Mom’s photo albums than everyone else in my family together, including my mother. Predictably, my attention is usually drawn to the intended subject of the photos, and I realized I may be missing some important details. Like the fact that the shrubbery and lawn in this picture seem unkempt. There’s a story there, and I’d never even noticed it before I took a long, hard look a few weeks ago. I wondered what others might see that I was still missing and how their attention might hone my own visual sensibilities.

Just the way people expressed themselves caught my interest. Some comments were more emotional and personal while others attempted complete objectivity. Some were philosophical; others whimsical. Here are excerpts from some of the varied insights. Maybe you’ll find the process as interesting as I did. I learned a lot. I hope I’ll never look at a snapshot the same again.

  • I’m noticing the trees or bushes that are behind her—but I can’t name them! I see the pillar is handmade using REAL stones. I think this photo may have previously been in a photo album that had black pages.
  • The photo was taken at mid-day, because shadows are short. The house has a deep porch. It looks like creek rocks were used instead of field stones. One of the trees behind her to the left looks like a young poplar. The tall bush on her left looks like a privet, allowed to grow tall. She is wearing laced shoes and bobby socks. Her dress has a subtle print to it, but the photo is underexposed, so the print does not show well. She has a short vest. It is summer.
  • It asks me the question: Why is this person trying to blend in with the shrubbery?
  • She is standing near a porch and a porch pillar that is encompassed with overgrown bushes. I wonder about the things I can’t see. I can’t see the house, even though I see the rock pillar and the ceiling of what I perceive to be the porch. And I wonder who is taking the picture. And what is in her hand that she is holding up? Her mouth is slightly open, so she must be saying something to the photographer. I like that this photo has lots of plants and less hardscaping than the modern houses have. She is wearing a dress, and ankle socks with her shoes.
  • I see determination and strength.
  • I wonder what she is pointing at with her raised right arm. Is it the vining plant above her finger?
  • I have a thing with black/white photos. I ‘know’ the colours (at least I think I do) and your mom’s dress/bolero is light yellow with a white blouse or front piece. I believe it is all one piece with the bolero attached.
  • She’s standing beside what appears to be an Italian Cypress and pointing to something behind her. If you note the angle of her finger—she is not pointing straight up, but up and behind. The yard she is in is not kept.

And in response to that last comment came these two:

  • Maybe in the 30s and 40s yards were just not manicured to the extent to which we have grown accustomed.
  • I agree. We mowed and trimmed much less back then—no power tools! Not enough time, either; we focused on chicken flocks and large gardens.

I also appreciated that my commenters offered the following perceptions, which have nothing much to do with my photograph but remind me of other important points worth pondering.

  • I am drawn to the torn corner of the photo. It’s sad somehow. It fragments the photo, makes it not whole, much like memory itself—remnants of time, fleeting glimpses into something long past. Photos freeze a moment forever, but like the memory of that moment they will change over time; fade, become fragmented and develop holes that leave out bits of information.
  • When I’m getting ready to do something with a “vintage” photo, I try to do only as much cropping as is truly necessary. My thinking is that I need to preserve the surroundings as much as possible. Even if they don’t seem important to me, they might be significant to future generations.
  • I often try to cut out or hide parts [of a photo] that I don’t think are pretty or don’t make for a good composition. But I need to think more about how to “preserve the surroundings.”

Then there was this one. May we all heed its lesson. “My neighbor used to look at a daylily and point out every little nuance—color, pattern, edge, shape, sizes, etc. She made me look at each flower individually, and the unique beauty of that flower. My desire is to look at people in that manner.” 

 

 

Never Too Old To Learn

Well, I learned something new the other day!  When we moved to the North Carolina mountains several decades ago, the Gnome and I were taken with the many new-to-us wildflowers growing along roadsides. One, we were told, was phlox, also known as summer phlox, tall phlox, or garden phlox. Phlox paniculata.

Now, we knew about phlox—creeping phox, that is, otherwise known to us as thrift—those mounds of pinks, blues, and violets that cascade over rock walls. Quite a ground cover. Phlox subulata.

This tall phlox  was new to us. Same colors, it grows in clusters on tall, slender stems. Every year we see them brightening up already bright spring days. (Or so we thought.)

What–this isn’t phlox?!

This year, they seem to  be growing in particular abundance–on road shoulders, next to creek beds, on hillsides. But, it turns out, this spring wildflower I’ve been admiring isn’t phlox at all. How about that? What I’ve been admiring this spring is dame’s rocket, sometimes known as gilliflower. Hesperis matronalis, if you’re interested.

I think I can be forgiven for confusing these plants. To the casual—or not so casual—observer, they look identical. Same growth pattern, same height (around two to four feet), same color palette, they grow in similar environments. There are subtle differences, though, and you’d have to get a much closer look than you can when you’re driving past. Dame’s rocket has four petals, while phlox has five. (An easy mnemonic: dame = four letters; phlox = five letters. How convenient!)

This one is phlox.     http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Epibase

There’s an easier way to recognize the difference in these two flowers, and it has nothing to do with the appearance of the blossoms: dame’s rocket is a spring flower; phlox blooms later in the summer.

Both are fragrant in the evenings and relatively scentless earlier in the day. The flowers of both dame’s rocket and Phlox paniculata (but not annual or creeping phlox) are edible with a mild, spicy-sweet flavor. Dame’s rocket is a close relative of arugula and mustard and, like them, its leaves (which are best eaten before the flowers blossom) have a slightly bitter taste. Flowers and leaves would make a lovely addition to salads. Sprouted dame’s rocket seeds are also edible.

Moreover, dame’s rocket has been used for medicinal purposes, and it’s also known as an aphrodisiac. Who knew? (Not me. I didn’t even know its name!)

Sad to say, this spring bloomer is considered an invasive species in most states. Seems it has a take-charge attitude, pushing aside more polite plants. So, I won’t be buying any dame’s rocket seeds or digging up roadside plants to pretty up my place. But I’m sure going to enjoy them on country drives. And now that this ‘old dog’  has learned the difference between dame’s rocket and phlox, I think may appreciate both of them even more.

 

 

 

 

 

Nothin’ But a Hound Dog (Or a Hundred or So)

The Gnome and I took a day off last weekend. In theory, we can do that every day of the year now that we are repurposed. Reality is a bit different. We’re each working on major projects, and we push ourselves as if the world will end if we don’t finish sooner rather than later. Actually, that’s the truth—we have way more days behind us than we could ever hope to have in front of us. One day our time will run out and chances are we’ll still have more than a few unfinished projects lying about.

I think that’s the way I prefer it. Much better to be in the middle of something I care about, anticipating the results, than twiddling my thumbs feeling that there’s nothing left to do.

But back to our day off. We decided to visit a small, picturesque waterfall in the small county that borders ours. I’d never seen it, never in our almost forty years here even heard about it until a few months ago. In his work, the Gnome had driven past but, zipping by in a car, he hadn’t had a chance to stop and enjoy it, either.

Falls and a swallowtail at Newland’s Waterfalls Park (Photos by Ron Wynn)

After soaking in the beauty of the place for half an hour or so, we decided to continue on the same rural road to a popular general store, dipping and climbing on curvy mountain roads. Our route took us through the unincorporated community of Cranberry, population 500 or so. (Even before it was settled in 1850, Cranberry was known for having one of the largest veins of iron ore in the United States.)

We passed the grounds of the former high school, which is now being used for occasional community events. The place was crammed with cars and trucks, mostly trucks. A metal yard sign next to the road read, “Heritage Day.”

That sounded like fun. We whipped the car around and headed back. As we drove onto the property, our ears were assaulted with barking, howling, yelping,  baying. We found ourselves surrounded by dogs, dogs, and more dogs. More than a hundred, we were sure. Dogs with their wiggly noses sticking out of car windows, crated dogs in pickup truck beds, dogs pulling people on leashes, dogs tied to fence posts on the shaded lawn. They were not, not a one of them, sleepy yard dogs. These dogs were on the alert. They were, in the truest sense, rarin’ to go.

Hound dogs.

Have you ever heard a hundred hounds baying simultaneously? Well, let me tell you, it’s deafening, each dog with a distinctive and  urgent voice. We couldn’t help but smile.

This was a very particular breed of hound, a scent dog known as the Plott Hound. If you’re not a North Carolinian, maybe just a Western North Carolinian, you may not be familiar with this breed. The dogs were brought to North Carolina by Johannes Plott when he emigrated from Germany in the 1700s. In the early part of the next century, his son Henry moved with his family to the mountain range that bears the family name: the Plott Balsams in Jackson and Haywood Counties in the southwestern corner of the state. Henry continued to breed the dogs, mostly for bear and wild boar hunting. The Plott Hound was named the state dog of North Carolina in 1988.

As it turns out, my mother was born and raised in the shadow of the Plott Balsams, and I’m interested in anything related to that heritage.

plott balsams wikimedia commons

View of the Plott Balsams (courtesy of Wikipedia Commons (wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/70/Plott-balsams-pb-ll-nc1.jpg)

Somehow, we had landed in the middle of a Plott Hound barking competition. (Never heard of that before.) What a stroke of luck! We followed the dogs.

In the far corner of a temporarily fenced-in section of the school grounds stood a cage, ever so slightly camouflaged. Inside the cage was a bear. Not a real one, thank goodness. But it moved. And it growled. I’m willing to bet bear scent had been sprayed around the cage, too.

In the near corner, dog handlers were hanging on to the leashes of their dogs. From the looks of it, that was some kind of hard work. When the whistle blew, three dogs at a time were turned loose and inevitably flew straight to the cage where they positioned themselves, barked, repositioned, and barked some more, stopping only when the timer blew his whistle and the keepers releashed their dogs, leaving the arena for the next trio to advance.

We didn’t fully understand how the process worked and we left before trophies were awarded. But from what we observed and overheard, we gathered this much. The event is timed. There are three judges. The judges are looking for degree of aggression, number of barks, and focus.

We looked, but if there was anything to Heritage Day other than the dog competition, it was well hidden. Never mind. Listening to the baying of a hundred eager hounds left us buoyant.

We almost always manage to come across some bit of serendipity—chance magic—when we’re out and about. Maybe a four-leaf clover, a funky art gallery, or longhorn cows in a meadow of buttercups. What a treat to happen upon a Plott Hound barking competition.

Have you encountered a bit of serendipity this week?

(Take a listen to the Plott Hounds.)

 

A Belated Mother’s Day Story

I look to you for courage in my life
And I promise it’s not just foolish idolatry
That makes me gaze at you in wonder.

–Holly Near, “Something About the Women”

My mom’s a Smoky Mountain gal, and I’m in the process of writing a book about her life and times. I’m happy to finally be able to say I’m on the downhill side of the project, but it’s still a long ride. Thought I’d share a little of her backstory in her honor during this Mother’s Day week.

Mother as a teenager–at 4-H camp

Mother’s ancestors arrived in the Smokies with little more than they could carry. Those early pioneers spent their days working the land. The mainstay meat product was pork—hogs were more numerous than all other livestock combined, with farmers killing a hog or two annually for their families to live on until next hog-killing season. It was the era of subsistence farming. Most of the necessities of life were produced in the home or on the farm, and most exchange was by barter. There was little contact with the outside world, even in one’s own county. That’s how scarce roads were.

A record of early settlers’ homes and the sturdy, industrious people who built and occupied them was summarized by Edgar H. Stillwell, Mother’s second cousin once removed and former history professor at what is now Western Carolina University.
Stillwell wrote that no sooner were their rough, one-room cabins built than the pioneers began clearing the cheap, plentiful land for cultivation, making their crude farm implements themselves from whatever was available. He added, “All other necessaries were manufactured by hand . . . ” It was a world of do it yourself or do without.

Such were the conditions in the 1820s, when the family of Mother’s third-great-grandparents, Mary Nicholson and Barak Norton, were the first settlers of Whiteside Cove in the Cashiers community, which is now part of Jackson County. Barak lived to be 92, Mary to 95. Her 1883 obituary stated that she never had need of a doctor until her last year.

Barak and Mary Nicholson Norton

Meanwhile, other of Pam’s ancestors were moving into other sections of southwestern NC, most notably a bit north in the Oconaluftee area, most of it now lying within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Soon after Sarah and Jacob Mingus settled the area in the earliest years of the 1800s, the Stillwells arrived, and then the Holdens.

In the isolated coves where they settled, religious services were typically conducted in private homes, as was the case with Lufty Baptist Church founded in 1836. Lufty’s early meetings were held in the home of Dr. John Mingus, whose parents (Jacob and Sarah), Mother’s third-great-grandparents, were among the very earliest settlers in the region.

The Minguses were described by one old-timer in an oral history interview with the park historian. “They are ordinarily large, heavy built with a ruddy complexion having broad faces with a slightly Roman nose. They have soft blue or gray eyes, a grave expression yet comical. They are honest and thrifty. They as a whole delight in paying every penny they owe but it almost kills them to pay an unjust debt. They have a high explosive temper easily offended but quick to forgive . . . Most of the Minguses I ever knew was law abiding and God fearing people. I was raised on the Ocona Lufty river and her tributaries and I never saw a drunk Mingus in all my life . . . They use very little profanity. They have few habits. The women folks are mostly good housekeepers and cooks. They all work and teach their children to work.”

Mingus Mill, Great Smoky Mountains National Park–        Creative Commons photo courtesy of Brian Stansberry [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D

John Preston Arthur, in his History of Western North Carolina, said, “It was the women who were the true heroines of this section. The hardships and constant toil to which they were generally subjected were blighting and exacting in the extreme. If their lord and master could find time to hunt and fish, go to the Big Musters, spend Saturdays loafing or drinking in the settlement or about the country ‘stores,’ as the shops were and still are called, their wives could scarcely, if ever, find a moment they could call their own.”
Edgar Stillwell added, “. . . at last, tired and worn out with the long day’s duties, [they fell] on the bed for a well-earned night’s repose, which was often broken by the cries of a sick baby or the return of some male member of the family late in the night. Thus our great great grandmothers served from day to day; thus they labored without honor, often with little reward, and always unselfishly. Heroines indeed they were.”

Indeed.

With few exceptions, not much is known of these women beyond what can be gleaned from various census records. That so little information is available may be due—aside from patriarchy—to the poor state of things like roads and communication systems in western North Carolina in its early, and not so early, days.

Even in this remote area, a few morsels of Mother’s matrilineage did make it into print or oral history.

In 1775 or so, a fort was raised on the land of Mother’s third-great-grandparents, William and Rebecca Cathey in what is now McDowell County, NC, to protect their family and neighbors against Cherokee raids during the Revolutionary War period. It was the westernmost military outpost in the state. A historical marker sits along Highway 221/226.

From that battle came this tale about Catheys Fort and the mother of one of the Cathey men, whose specific identity I’ve not yet been able to confirm. The Catheys were familiar with Cherokee attacks on their property and fort. Mrs. Cathey knew there had been attacks on several nearby communities by the Cherokee/Tory Army, led by Dragging Canoe, war chief of the Chickamauga Cherokee, “and she dang well was ready to alarm McDowell residents” of the coming danger, so she mounted a horse in her stable “astride and at quarter speed” to warn the settlement to flee to the fort.

They barely made it to relative safety before the fighting began. Then one of the defending party cried out that all the powder was gone, an admission that could have spelled doom for the fort’s occupants. At that point, “old Mrs. Cathey” (I’m not sure if this was Rebecca or another family member) once again came to the rescue. She “pulled off a pair of red flannel pockets and called out that there was powder aplenty.” At just that moment one of the attackers was shot and the invaders retreated. The ploy was a ruse—her pockets were empty, but “the bravery and quick wit of Mrs. Cathey saved the party.”

Though there is some confusion, the woman in this photo may be Catherine Cathey (Mother’s second-great-grandmother), daughter of William and Rebecca.

When John Holden left to fight in the Civil War in 1862, Mother’s maternal great-grandmother, Arminda, was left to care for their five young children, ages 5 months to 7 years, give birth to another, and manage all aspects of the family home and farm on her own. After John’s return in 1865, Arminda gave birth to another eight children. That was fourteen children over twenty-six years.

John and Arminda Norton Holden

Mother’s grandmother, Martha Jane Henry Dillard was only eleven when her older brothers went off to war, their father having died that same year. That left Martha Jane, her nine-year-old brother, and their mother, Sarah Elliott Henry to fend for themselves during those dangerous times.

Martha Jane Henry Dillard with grandchildren–Mother is the baby, bottom left

And back to Mary Norton. According to John Preston Arthur, “It is a well authenticated fact that Mrs. Norton, then living in Cashier’s Valley, was awakened one night while her husband was away from home, by hearing a great commotion and the squealing of hogs at the hog-pen nearby. Her children were small and there was no ‘man pusson’ about the place. The night was cold and she had no time to clothe herself, but, rushing from the cabin in her night dress and with bare feet, she snatched an axe from the wood-pile and hastening to the hog-pen, saw a large black bear in the act of killing one of her pet ‘fattening hogs.’ She did not hesitate an instant, but went on and aiming a well directed blow at Bruin’s cranium, split it from ears to chin and so had bear meat for breakfast instead of furnishing pork for the daring marauder.”

Such is the stock from which Pam Dillard Coates comes.

Mother in her late sixties

Mother in her upper eighties

I suspect most, if not all, of us have similar stories somewhere in our family histories, even though we may not know them. So, on behalf of children everywhere, thank you to the mothers of the ages—today and every day—for your struggles, your determination and strength, your survival, and the amazing genes that you carried and passed on. We’re here because of you.

 

Weeds Are Flowers, Too!

“Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them.” ―A.A. Milne

I love this quote, and it’s so true. Another equally true saying is “Weeds are plants whose virtues we haven’t yet learned.” Many decades ago, The Gnome and I discovered that the hundreds of wild purple violets popping up in our back yard could be turned into jelly, as delicately eye-popping as it was tasty.

Dandelion is the bane of many a gardener and lawn-lover, but it is actually an herb worthy of respect—a cheery little plant with more uses than you can count on all your fingers, whether culinary, medicinal, or otherwise. You can use virtually all parts of the plant, though you’ll want to avoid the sticky stems.

Dandelions are packed with vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. With the leaves, you can make everything from salad greens to classic Irish colconnon to quiche.

Did you know dandelions aren’t native to the U. S., but were imported by European immigrants for their culinary and medicinal uses?

Last year, we made the most exquisitely subtle syrup from the flowers. I’d have been hard pressed to tell it apart from honey. Dandelion tea and wine are other favorites. Dry the root for a coffee substitute. Fresh roots can be used instead of or alongside other root crops. Make a hand lotion or moisturizer from the flowers. Pollinators love dandelions.  And who can forget the sheer joy of blowing on a dandelion puff?

Lamb’s quarters fill the fields with buttery yellow blossoms in springtime. Just before they get to that stage, the stems can be harvested and eaten as a broccoli substitute. And the young leaves make an excellent addition to a green salad.

Chickweed, invasive as it can be, is another nutritious green. Add spinach-y chickweed stems, flowers, and leaves to salads or cook them up like other greens.

Star chickweed is only one of  twenty-five varieties of Stellaria, a member of the carnation family. All are edible and all except the mouse-eared variety can be eaten raw. 

By looking at so-called weeds through a different lens, we can find beauty, peace of mind, and functionality. Not to mention a veritable grocery store in our own back yards.

* If you’re thinking of joining the foraging movement, find yourself a good field guide that will also alert you to similar-looking but unfriendly plants. You’ll also want to (1) ask permission before foraging on private property; and (2) avoid areas that have been exposed to chemical pesticides or herbicides as well as roadsides. They retain automotive emissions you wouldn’t want to ingest.