Deep Freeze

Winter went into overdrive around here a couple of weeks ago. We live in the high mountains of western North Carolina so, even though we live in the south, we’re used to cold winters. It’s not unusual for temperatures to drop into the single digits or into negative territory. We experienced a frigid -32° one year—and, no, that wasn’t the wind chill factor. Almost always, though, those cold spells are short and interspersed with warmer temps.

This time was a little different. The -5° to +5° days lasted far longer than usual. Long enough for mountain waterfalls to transform themselves into a paradise for ice climbers. (Tip: don’t try this at home, kids!) The damp seeping between rock-lined roadsides turned into massive icicle displays, and our fast-moving mountain streams and rivers froze solid. Nothing out of the ordinary for some parts of the globe, I know, but around here it was unusual enough for the Gnome and me to decide that, in spite of the cold, we wanted to get out there and see some solid water, camera in hand.

It was late afternoon when we left home so we didn’t get to check out as many streams as we’d hoped. Besides, we quickly got sidetracked. Still, it was a fun adventure and we did manage to get a few photos. It finally warmed up some and, with a few exceptions, most of our daylight hours have been above freezing for a while now. Colder weather will return soon enough. Who knows what photo ops we’ll find then. In the meantime, here are a few of the scenes we captured on our field trip.

 

We had to stop the car when we came upon this sight. If you look closely you’ll see a small stream of water shooting out of the icy sculpture created by the fountain (right). The high winds of a few days before had blown the water to the left to create another sculpture. Cool!

Rocky roadside cliffs have turned into giant icicle displays everywhere you turn.

We never pass up an opportunity to observe and photograph deer.

The trees obscure this scene, but we kept coming upon mountainsides covered in ice from peak to base where water had oozed from rock seams to create what looks like frozen waterfalls.

 

 

This great blue heron was clearly frustrated in its search for food on the frozen river. 

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We’re not used to seeing dogs walk on top of rivers.

No ice here, but we can never resist the sight of old, abandoned houses. When we saw this one on a distant hillside, we were forced to take a detour. 

 

A Holiday Gift for You: Winter Rain Surprise

Winter Rain Surprise

Morning rain
left droplets by the scores
hanging from branches
across today’s countryside.

The sun
peeks through cloudy skies
transforming water
into iridescent fairy lights
and tiny glass ornaments
to decorate all outdoors
for the holidays.

The List, Part II: Priorities

THE LIST, Part II: Priorities

(If you’re just tuning in, you’ll want to catch up. You can find Part I here.)

Right up near the top of my “One Hundred Things I Want to Do When I Retire” list was to make baskets. I had first learned how as a child from my maternal grandmother.

My grandmother: high school graduation photo

My grandparents, W. G. and Georgia Stillwell Dillard, on their fiftieth anniversary

Grandmother always had craft activities ready and waiting whenever we went for a visit, and she and I made baskets on more than one occasion. Basket making with Grandmother is one of my fondest memories.

An early basket weaving exercise under Grandmother’s tutelage

But I’d long since forgotten that skill. When I saw an ad for a basket-making class as part of Appalachian State University’s Craft Enrichment Program about three years before I retired, I jumped at it.

In those days I regularly worked until seven or eight o’clock at night and too often as late as ten or eleven. I took work home on the weekends. I dreamed about work. I woke up in a 3:00 a.m. work-related panic almost nightly. My job involved overnight travel, too, sometimes a couple of trips a week. I hadn’t had time for just-for-me activities for years. But I wasn’t about to let anything interfere with my basket-making sessions. In three years of classes, I missed only one because of work.

Making baskets was good for my spirit; it relaxed me; it gave my overworked mind a break from all the work-related issues that were swirling around in it. I really loved making those baskets, and I was eager to delve into my newfound hobby in a big way once I retired. In anticipation of that day, I bought my own basket-making supplies and four big boxes of reed and other materials.

Just a few of the many baskets I made in my basket-making workshops

A few things happened to change all that. No studio space for making baskets magically appeared. Nor did our small house with its open design lend itself to leaving materials all over the place between sessions. Just pulling out all those boxes and supplies, then putting them all away and sweeping up the debris after a basket-making session was time-consuming, so much so that it was only worth doing if I was going to make a day of it. But a full day of hand weaving, of pushing and pulling, of holding ornery pieces in place with one hand while forcing a reed through a too-small space with the other is hard on fingers, especially arthritic ones.

And I was running out of ways to use those baskets. Our house was overrun with them, and I’d given away more than people really wanted to receive. My skill hadn’t developed enough to sell my baskets and I wasn’t really interested in marketing them, anyway—too much like work.

Most of all, I began to realize that baskets had been my very important respite from the daily grind of my work life but now things were different. My needs had changed. Basket-making, it turned out, had served its purpose.

Besides, other interests had begun to take on more importance, like gardening and food preservation. Both of these activities had been on my list, too. At the time, my goal was simply to re-learn those skills from my childhood. I wanted to be competent at them, enough so that if, say, climate change challenged our food distribution system (as it has now begun to do), I’d be able to take care of my own food needs. In other words, I wanted to move towards more self-reliance.

But even I had no idea how these two activities would begin to take over my life. I didn’t expect to get so passionate about them. Why, last year the Gnome and I grew more than twelve hundred pounds of vegetables in our garden, far more than enough for the annual food needs of two people.

One day’s harvest from our garden

I looked back at my list recently and discovered I’d made a pretty good dent in it. What I hadn’t expected though, was to discover a few more items that had lost their importance as new interests—gardening and food preservation, for instance—emerged to take their place. Interests that sometimes have taken me by complete surprise. Like writing. Writing didn’t earn a single mention on my list. Yet, here I am with two books to my name (and hopefully more on the way), a couple of blogs, daily dedicated writing time, and participation in various writers’ groups. Who saw that coming? Not I! That’s the way it is with plans. Priorities change.

It’s one of my favorite things about retirement. I can be flexible. And I don’t need to make any more lists. Which was, as it happens, item 100 on my list.

(Won’t you come back next week for Part III of The List?)

Best Moment

“What’s the best moment of your day?”

I had to think about this question for awhile. Not all days are the same, of course, and my answer on one day might be different from another. So, on the day this question was posed to me, I tried thinking on the events of that day, then the day before, and finally of a generic, “average” day. As I mulled over the question, I still couldn’t land on a single best moment. It’s a dilemma I’m happy to live with. Yet, I still wanted to attempt to answer the question. I decided to go the route of a more or less chronology-based stream of consciousness and this hodgepodge is what I came up with.

The best moment of my day is when . . .

a ray of sun shining onto my face wakes me and birdsongs welcome the day

I eat a breakfast of eggs from the happy chickens who live just down the road

the cacophonous chatter of crows during their morning “coffee klatch” interrupts the still of my morning

I sip a cup of honeyed herbal tea while I let my mind organize my day

on a summer morning, I check on the latest thing to pop up in the vegetable garden—or later in the season, when I harvest what I’ll eat that evening or preserve for a chilly winter day

a couple of hours of dedicated writing time come my way

the all-day deck antics of squirrels and chipmunks capture my attention as they battle each other’s wits over food intended for birds

in warm months, I take a twilight walk listening to the quiet, watching the synchronicity of fireflies as they light up our woods, and catching whiffs of honeysuckle, lemon balm, ferns, and freshly mowed grass

on a clear, crisp wintry evening, I gaze at the star-studded sky and maybe catch a meteor streaking across the sky

I spy mountain valleys shrouded by a sea of clouds

the nighttime calls of owls seep into my consciousness

the early springtime sounds of wood frogs and spring peepers shatter the otherwise quiet of my bedroom—all night long

that “clown of the forest,” the nuthatch, utters its almost cackling sound, strongest on an autumn day

I’m graced with the giggles and confidences of grandchildren

the season’s first wild daisy shows itself in our meadow  

the warmth and comfort of a snuggle under the covers overtake me upon waking and again as I fall asleep

And for all that, the truly sweetest moments of any day come from those spontaneous embraces anywhere, anytime as my sweetheart and I sway ever so slightly—almost the way young lovers move to a slow dance at the prom—for no particular reason and for minutes on end.

What a lucky duck I am! With all these best moments, I’m reminded of the lyrics from one of my favorite hymns, “How can I keep from singing?” Indeed!

What about you? Are there favorite moments in your days?

School Field Trips

School Field Trips (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

When we moved up here on the diagonal, our children attended a school far out in the county. Field trip time rolled around, and I was surprised to overhear some of the students saying they were planning to “lay out” that day. A field trip to town not only held no interest for them; they were a little overwhelmed by it. For some, visits to downtown were rare and intimidating, it seemed.

Not for me. Back in my school days in Florence, South Carolina, everyone I knew shared my enthusiasm for our annual field trip. It took place in the spring and was the highlight of the school year. I think we may have seen it as a sort of rite of passage. We’d made it through (almost) another year in the classroom.

My first field trips occurred when I was a student at Briggs Elementary. Some school board shuffling meant I spent the fourth, fifth, and sixth grades at Tans Bay, so much further out in the county that I’d never heard of it. Field trips were a staple at both schools. When the big day came, the air was electric with anticipation.

Below are pictures taken of my third, fourth, and fifth grade field trips.

Notice anything?

3rd Grade field trip

Can you spot  me–or Teddy?

4th Grade field trip

5th grade field trip

That’s right! Every single field trip was exactly the same. Year in and year out.

It went like this:

  1. Put home-packed lunch (mine was always my mom’s terrific egg salad sandwich and a small bag of potato chips) in the large cooler filled with dry ice. Do not touch the ice!
  2. Tour Coble Dairy; select a half-pint carton of white or chocolate milk; return to bus.
  3. Tour Merita Bakery; pick up a cinnamon roll two-pack and a Pepsi; pose for official field trip photo on steps of bakery; return to bus.
  4. Hop off bus at Timrod Park; retrieve lunch from cooler, watching in fascination as the dry ice forms fog when it transforms from solid to gaseous state (remember not to touch!); eat lunch and play on playground; return to bus.
  5. Disembark charter bus back at school and board yellow school buses for home.
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The schoolhouse where 19th century poet Henry Timrod taught is a showpiece of Timrod Park.

For some reason I cannot fathom, we were always accompanied by a police officer—he was the same year after year, too. Our county was small and peaceful. We students were certainly not rabble rousers. Nonetheless, we had police protection. Not that we minded. We girls thought he was the cat’s pajamas. Tall, uniformed, dark wavy hair. He scared us a little, but we couldn’t help but flirt in our grade-school way. (You can see him sitting in the lower left of the middle picture with holster hanging from his hip, and standing, upper right, in third picture.)

Florence must not have been much of a happening place in the middle of the last century. But it sure seems like the school system could have come up with a little field trip variety.

 

 

Summer’s Slow Slide into Fall

Summer’s Slow Slide into Fall (written in mid-August)

First day of summer: words that conjure up notions of vacations, suntans, freedom from homework. Thoughts of fun in the sun with summer reads, picnics, hikes, swimming, tennis, softball and baseball, bike rides, day trips. All those traditional outdoor activities mean summer’s here.

In truth, when the first official day of summer rolls around, fall is already lurking in the shadows. The first sign, of course, is day length. Summer means longer days, right? But summer officially begins with the summer solstice—the year’s longest day. The very next day—officially the first full day of summer—will be a little shorter, as will the day after that, and the next, and the next. Every day for the next six months.

It’s about the time of the summer solstice that I inevitably spot a tree with that one red or yellow leaf. I’m a big fan of autumn, but I also prefer to live one day at a time, and that leaf sits there taunting me, reminding me that fall is inching its way into my life. To the astute observer, other signs of autumn’s sure return are all around. Those lime-green spring leaflets that sprouted on trees (wasn’t that just yesterday?) have been growing both larger and darker. Before they put on their showy fall display, they will continue to darken until, in the distance, they’re such a deep green they look almost black.

As spring wildflowers transform into summer ones, so summer’s blooms have now, almost imperceptibly, given way to those of fall. Daisies are replaced by Queen Anne’s lace; black-eyed Susans seem to morph into yellow coneflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, and sunflowers. Floral hues become both more muted and more rich. The buttery yellows of summer’s evening primrose make way for the more mellow tones of fall’s goldenrod. There’s the rusty shade of spotted touch-me-nots in lieu of daylilies’ brighter tints. In the wild, pinks virtually disappear as summer subsides, and lavenders transmute into the subtler mauves of milkweed and Joe-pye weed and the rich purple of ironweed. In front yards, gardeners discard summer’s petunia palette in favor of the earth tones of chrysanthemums. Berries appear. Fruits ripen.

 

 

Birds’ feathers become a little less brilliant. Grasses develop gracefully drooping seed heads. Little by little, vegetable gardens show signs of wear as growth slows, pumpkins turn from green to orange, and early veggie plants dry up or go to seed.

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The sun itself gets in on the action. Ever since summer’s solstice, its arc becomes a little more southerly, a little lower as it moves across the sky.

As I write this piece at the beginning of the third week of August, my calendar tells me we are just past summer’s midpoint. To be precise, sixty percent of our summer days have passed. Sitting outside in the afternoon, I hear a distinctive sound unique to this time of year—the thump of acorns and hickory nuts as they hit the ground in the woods. It’s not a safe time to be standing under a nut tree!

Then comes an evening’s after-supper walk when I unexpectedly sense another change. The days may still be warm and humid, but I feel the barest hint of chill in the night air. Sometimes, I even catch a slight change in nighttime scents—a little less floral, a little more spice. My ears notice the ever-increasing cacophony of crickets and katydids doing their late-summer thing. Their sounds also pierce the otherwise country quiet during the day, but at night the music is almost deafening, yet soothing in its own way and one more sign that fall is closing in.

Fall has always been my favorite season, so I welcome its coming. Still, it’s a little curious that just as we’re getting into the full swing of summer, autumn has already begun its birthing process. I guess that’s the way of things. The peak signals certain ending, but an ending accompanied by new beginnings—caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, seed to tree and back to seed again, adolescence to adulthood, retirement to a new life chapter,  the whole of life itself.