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!

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?



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. 

Beeches

Robert Frost has his birches, but I have . . .


BEECHES

In autumn
stiff leathery leaves 
the color of cinnamon
carpet the earth
excepting 
new-penny copper beeches
tenaciously clinging 
to their branches
fragile and strong as spider silk

They’ll still be there come spring
by then frail and pale
the color of sand
till erin sprigs push them 
unceremoniously 
to the ground 
to join their decaying cousins

		   November 2021

Holydays

twelfth month holy month—
Hanukkah, Rohatsu, Christmas, Yule
Kwanzaa, Posadas Navidenas, Ōmisoka
Advent and midnight Mass

longest night, shortest day
sun’s rebirth at winter solstice
brings winter with
longer, lambent, lucent days ahead

crèches, menorahs, kinaras
twinkling lights and silver bells
carols and dreidels
feasts of food and gifts 
mix with meditation, celebration
reverence and joy 
and sometimes uninvited grief

garlands of holly, ivy, and mistletoe 
deck the halls
pin᷉atas, parades and parties 
eggnog, fruitcake, cranberries
lefse, latkes, kugel
soba and mochi, challah and wassail
signify ritual and tradition

stockings and elves and Charlie Brown
The Nutcracker and gingerbread houses
candy canes, sugar plums, cookie swaps
and a partridge in a pear tree
mark the holiest of months

omega and alpha
ending and beginning
the most wonderful time of the year

		—Carole Coates, December 2021


Cousins singing carols at a holiday-time reunion

The Heart of Dixie: A Holiday Story

(My annual holiday story, originally published 12/21/2017)

A little preface may be called for here. Way back in the last century—in the mid-70s—our local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) established a number of consciousness-raising groups. Those of us who were interested were randomly assigned to one group or another.

C-R meetings were safe spaces where women could share our deepest secrets, questions, fears, and issues as women. Initially, C-R groups were meant to be a mass-organizing tool for broad political action, but consciousness raising quickly became a form of political action in its own right.

At C-R gatherings, our sense of isolation imploded as we each discovered our individual experiences were anything but unique, anything but small. As we discussed problems and events from our own lives, our stories became a tool for change. We gained strength and courage to take on systemic, structural sexism wherever it existed—sometimes in our own heads. It’s an on-going process, but one where we learned that indeed the personal is political, a truth we still see in today’s various human rights struggles. And though C-R groups were sometimes pooh-poohed as nothing more than group navel gazing, those who benefited from the institution of sexism soon found the results a power to be reckoned with.

*****

We were eight or nine in number, almost all strangers when our Consciousness-Raising group had been formed. In our short time together, we’d tackled all manner of topics, from workplace discrimination to deeply personal and painful issues to women’s health care to daily gender-based slights. It didn’t take long to bond. We were tight.

Dixie volunteered to host our December meeting, more a holiday celebration than a discussion of feminist politics. We had agreed in advance that, in lieu of tangible gifts, we’d each read a favored poem or essay—any subject. I chose Rod McKuen’s “A Cat Named Sloopy.”

It was an appropriate selection on several levels. I’d always been a cat lover and was owned by two of them at the time. And at our very first group meeting, one of the members observed that I reminded her of a cat with my easy movements and my quiet, sensitive manner.

After the rest of us had read our pieces, it was Dixie’s turn. Instead of pulling out a book, she asked to be excused for a minute. When she returned, she was wearing a big grin and carrying a basket full of small, white gift boxes. Cries of “Oh, Dixie” and the like filled the room. The rest of us had followed our mutual agreement—why was she giving out presents?

But, for reasons of her own, Dixie needed to bring an offering. And it was obvious from the pleased exclamations and laughter as we opened our little boxes and pulled out identical items that what she chose was perfect.

Dixie gave us each an egg. More accurately stated, she gave us each an eggshell, an egg whose contents had been carefully blown out. With red ink, Dixie had drawn facial features on each egg and encircled each one with a fat piece of red yarn tied into a bow at its narrowed top. An ornament hook was stuck into the bow’s knot. My name was written on the back of my egg.

It had to have been a tedious, time-consuming process, likely with more than a few failed attempts. It was a gift of thoughtfulness and love. Dixie found a clever, personal expression of our shared womanhood—the very essence of our relationship.

That was almost forty-five years ago. I still have my egg. The ink has faded, yet it’s an unrivaled possession, safely stored with other treasured holiday ornaments and always ready to play a starring role when it’s brought out for special occasions. In the intervening years, I’ve given a few of my own.

dixie egg

My prized vintage egg from Dixie

My egg reminds me of more than that heady time and those extraordinary women. It reminds me of change, of the unexpected. My egg has traveled with me across two states; through a wild adventure of leaving behind almost everything I knew to hand-build a home with my soulmate; it’s been with me through child-rearing, a career, and now my life’s vintage chapter.

My fragile, yet enduring, egg is a symbol of the strength of perseverance, courage, and tenacity. It symbolizes the power of knowledge and community of spirit. It symbolizes friendship and freedom of thought. It symbolizes time and all the experience that accompanies it. And it epitomizes the exquisite purity of giving from the heart.

Wherever you are today, dear Dixie, thank you for breaking the rules, thank you for your generous heart, and thank you for opening mine a little wider.

Thanks Giving

Fleeting fall, first snow
quiet sleepy gray
November is
autumn’s final fling

A month almost forgotten
when robins and cedar waxwings
last birds of fall
forage leftover berries
before winter’s famine

Leathery leaves drift 
on windless days 
to carpet the earth
a portent of white drifts to come

November means feasting
contentment
grace and comfort
giving thanks 
for food, family, friends

A time of remembrance
for war’s end
and hope for peace

November is a state of mind

		--Carole Coates
		   November 2021 

This Is a Wonderful Day

Maya Angelou said, “This is a wonderful day. I’ve never seen this day before. In these days of still limited social activities, days can sometimes feel that they merely bleed into each other. I read a recent magazine article in which the author wrote of this very feeling, asking, “Is it Tuesday or November?”

I understand that sentiment, but it can be dangerous, so I set my mind to considering what makes each day special and unique. Everyone’s experience is different, of course, but my thoughts led me to this essay.

I never know what I’ll wake up to on our ridge. A bank of south-facing, shade-free windows greets my sleepy eyes. Will the sky be cornflower blue or gravel gray? Or will I be enshrouded by pea-soup fog so thick an unknowing person would have no idea our home is surrounded by mountains?

Will the Fraser Firs, planted so long ago as a Christmas tree crop—forgotten until they grew into sixty-foot giants—wave in the breeze as if they are dancing a graceful waltz , or will they be as still as the rocky peaks behind them? Will their branches be spring green or will they be laden with snow or frosted with ice? Will the maple leaves be green, crimson, or gone?

Will rabbits, turkey, deer, or even a bear be wandering across our meadow? Will daisies be in bloom or wild blueberries ready to become pie? Are mushrooms, chickweed, or purslane ripe for foraging? Will daffodils smile their sunny faces at me?

Will spiders have woven gossamer webs on fences? Will garden tomatoes be ready to harvest? Will robins and cedar waxwings be feasting on mountain ash berries? Will hummingbirds flutter at us through the window asking, “Well, I’ve returned, so where’s my nectar?”

Will caterpillars become butterflies today? Will hawks circle overhead as they gather to migrate? Will neighborhood crows hold a cacophonous caucus in the woods? Will I encounter a red salamander or a spade-footed toad on my morning walk? Will Jack-in-the pulpit or trillium be in bloom today?

As I begin to contemplate the never-ending possibilities awaiting me each day, I realize how important it is for me to remember this is a wonderful day. I have never seen this day before.

A few of the scenes, many of them surprises, that have greeted my sometimes weary eyes.

I’ve never seen a rainbow so low nor right in front of our mountain.
This walking stick hopped on for a free ride.
Rime ice can make for glorious scenes.
Seeing valley fog from above is pure magic.
Seen on a snowy winter day
One of the best thing about living in the mountains is the sight of native flame azaleas in June.

A Summer Drive

I’ve been feeling a little down lately. I’m probably not alone in that with all that’s going on in the world, but a lovely drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway always helps to brighten my mood, so that’s what the Gnome and I did a few days ago.

At 469 miles long, the Parkway is the nation’s longest linear park, stretching from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in far southwestern North Carolina through the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Near Charlottesville, the Parkway turns into Skyline Drive which will take you another hundred miles or so to Front Royal, about 70 miles west of Washington, DC. Both drives are extraordinarily scenic.

But don’t expect to travel the full distance of the Parkway in a day. Or even two. With a 45-mph speed limit and winding roads along ridge tops, you couldn’t if you tried. But with breathtaking vistas all along the way who would want to? You don’t travel the Parkway to get somewhere fast—or necessarily to get anywhere at all. You travel it for relaxation and for the bucolic scenery. You travel it to stop at overlooks and take in spectacular views of valleys and mountains, of trees and wildflowers, of blue skies (sometimes) and clouds. You travel it to stop for a picnic alongside a mountain creek or to take a hike along one the many trails through the woods. The Parkway is a place to slow your pace and soak up Nature’s glory. Nary a billboard will mar the scenery. You’ll find no aggravating traffic lights, not even a stop sign. Just 469 miles of calm.

There’s a lot of history along the Parkway, not all of it particularly uplifting. Folks who lived in the way lost their homes for the most part, and long-standing communities vanished. Today, you will see remnants of those homes and communities in fascinating educational exhibits.

Brinegar Cabin near Whitehead, NC

At the same time, Parkway construction created hundreds of jobs during the Great Depression when no other jobs were to be had (as well as hundreds if not thousands more since.) All but the most specialized labor was local. Throughout its 86-year history, tourist dollars from Parkway travelers have filled coffers of nearby towns with untold dollars. And more than half a billion (that’s billion–with a B) have enjoyed its beauty ever since. A 2010 issue of Smithsonian Magazine noted that 16 million people visited the Blue Ridge Parkway the previous year, compared to about 3 million each for Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks.

Some the Parkway’s history involves my family. My Uncle Bill had the contract to construct several of the historic stone tunnels as well as the original tower at Mount Mitchell. A portion of the Parkway sits along the ridge of the mountain behind the home where my mother and her siblings grew up in Jackson County, North Carolina—the very mountain they climbed to pick blackberries for their blackberry and biscuit breakfasts.

Learn about those yummy blackberry-and-biscuit breakfasts in my book, which takes its name from that very treat.

Begun in 1935 (when my mom was a teenager), the Parkway was not completed until 1987 (when my own children were teenagers) when the final segment was built around Grandfather Mountain in a stunning piece of engineering genius to protect the fragile ecology of the area.

Linn Cove Viaduct surrounded by fall color
Linn Cove Viaduct, the last section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Photo by National Park Service.

I consider myself one of the most fortunate of souls to be no more than thirty minutes from a Parkway entrance. And when I get there, I realize I’m in a place that connects my present to my mother’s past, even though I’m maybe a couple of hundred miles, Parkway style, from her childhood home. It’s a special feeling.

Private land still borders the skinny ribbon of roadway, and astute travelers might notice inconspicuous roads going off to the left or right as they pass any number of pastures filled with cows. It’s hard to drive along the Parkway without sighting deer and wild turkey, too. Lucky folks will even come across a fox or a black bear.

On our recent trip, we headed north on one of my favorite sections of the scenic drive. No need to try to explain it. These photos tell the story.

Massive rock wall on one side . . .
Valley community on the other.
Picturesque split rail fences border miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Billowy clouds cast shadows on the mountains and valleys below.
Even with the thick, smoky haze from Western fires, the distance views are remarkable.

We stopped at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galax, Virginia, to listen to some good old-fashioned bluegrass music. You can catch live performances every day of the week from noon until four June through October. What a treat! (All the musicians volunteer their time, too.) We spent about an hour in the museum learning about the history of old-time and bluegrass, whose home is in these hills.

Scott Freeman and Willard Gayheart performed for us while our eyes feasted upon the magnificent natural backdrop.

As we made the return trip, we stopped by Jeffress Park and hiked the sometimes-treacherous trail through the woods and along the streambed of Falls Creek on its way to The Cascades, an amazingly powerful waterfall. I wish you could hear the roar and see the frothy lace. But I was as impressed by the shallow stream that made its way to the noisy cascade. It was such a restful place where I felt the cool air swirl around my ankles and envelop body and soul as I caught scents of damp earth and mushrooms and leaf litter. It was, as it always is, magical. And I came home uplifted.

The peaceful gurgles of Falls Creek accompanied us on our hike.