(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?
[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.
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.”
“But this one is.”
Well, you can’t say I didn’t know what I was getting into.
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.
In case you didn’t know, in addition to what I write over here on Living on the Diagonal, I also blog for Mother Earth News Magazine. This week, I’ve decided to lead you to some of my most popular Mother Earth News posts.
You can find my tips for repurposing common household items here.
To get ideas for planning a memorable picnic, click here.
If you want to discover some of the easiest vegetables to grow in your home garden, this is the place to go.
But if, like me, your ideas for your garden outpace the space you have available, you can see how I choose which crops NOT to grow.
I write on all sorts of topics for Mother. You can find more of my Mother Earth News posts here.
(Slightly modified from original essay published May 1, 2017)
Maybe you’re already seeing ruby-red stalks of rhubarb in the produce section of your favorite grocery store. If so, you need to grab them up and rush home to make your favorite rhubarb dish—in my experience, stores stock the stalks for only a few short weeks in springtime.
For this reason, I used to think rhubarb’s season was short-lived, but if you grow it, you know the plant continues to grow all summer long. If you’re like me, you have more rhubarb than you know what to do with. Rhubarb pie is phenomenal, but really, how much of it can you eat? (Don’t answer that!) I hate to see any food source go to waste—especially one that’s so chock full of important vitamins and other nutrients. So I looked for more delicious ways to use rhubarb.
Making rhubarb syrup for soda (and other uses) is one quick, easy, and delicious way to use up a fair supply of your abundant crop. Yes, it’s sugary, but much better for you than that bottled high-fructose-corn-laden stuff that comes off the grocery shelf. It’s simple to make, too—just three ingredients.
I first discovered this recipe in John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist’s excellent Farmstead Chef. More than a cookbook, it’s about real food, sustainability, community. But it’s a darned good cookbook, too, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan recipes (and a few that aren’t) that take their cue from what’s in season, so if you grow your own or frequent your local farmers’ market, Farmstead Chef is going to be right up your alley.
Their recipes aren’t just tasty; they’re simple and sensible, too—you won’t have to go searching in specialty stores for ingredients you’d likely never use again for any of these recipes. Besides, Lisa and John are the coolest! You never know what they’re going to be up to next. I highly recommend this book (as well as their books on sustainability).
I’ve tweaked the instructions a tad to suit my tastes and food prep style.
Rhubarb Syrup and Soda
Put twelve cups of fresh, chopped rhubarb and 2 cups of water in a large nonreactive pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to low. Cook until the rhubarb is soft and pulpy (approximately 20-30 minutes). Alternatively, you can cook on low in a slow cooker for a couple of hours.
Place a fine mesh sieve over a large bowl and drain the juice into it. Use the back of a large spoon to press out as much liquid as you can without forcing the pulp through the sieve. (You’re done with the pulp now, so you can add it to your compost,okay?)
Return the liquid to the pot and place over very low heat. Add 3 cups of sugar, stirring constantly until it’s dissolved.
At this point you have rhubarb syrup, which you could use in any number of applications, but since this is a recipe for soda, we’ll stick to that plan for now.
Let syrup cool to room temperature. Now you have three choices. Refrigerate it or freeze* it for later use or enjoy it right this minute. Here’s how.
Lightly mix 1 part syrup to 2 parts unflavored seltzer water.** So, for a 12-oz. glass, 1/4 cup syrup and 1/2 cup seltzer. At this point, you’ll need to do a little taste-testing and, if needed, either add more syrup or seltzer to suit your taste buds. Be sure to make a note of your final proportions for future reference. Pour mixture into an an ice-filled glass (a 12 oz. glass is the perfect size) for some lovely, blush-pink bubbly. If you’re serving a crowd, you can mix up a bigger batch and serve immediately from a pitcher—you don’t want to lose the fizz factor.
* You can freeze your syrup in wide-mouth Mason jars. They’re freezer proof as long as you leave an inch or two of head space. I prefer using these white plastic lids rather than the two-piece contraptions that come with the jars. These days you can find the lids in most stores that carry canning supplies.
Because of the sugar content, the mixture doesn’t freeze solid, so when you find yourself in a winter funk and need a pick-me-up, it’s easy to dish a few spoonfuls of this magical elixir into a glass and top it off with seltzer. Spring in a glass.
**I’ve also tried this with lemon-lime flavored seltzer, and really liked the extra flavor complexity.
But then again—rhubarb desserts are pretty special. Click here for my easy skillet rhubarb upside-down cake.
There’s a fair bit of talk these days about coming food shortages—or at least challenges finding what you’re looking for. It has convinced lots of people to try gardening for the first time. So many, in fact, that a number of seed companies have more work than they can handle and have put a temporary halt on orders.
But there’s another way to become more food self-sufficient. Eat what’s right under your nose. Or toes. And what better time to start foraging for your own food than these early days of spring. There is so much deliciousness out there just waiting for you. The flowers of early spring, both wild and domesticated, are plentiful, easy to identify, a simple and fun introduction to food foraging, and they add a much-needed touch of elegance to mealtime in these stay-at-home days.
Bonus: If you have school-aged children at home right now, a little foraging in your yard or neighborhood is not only a great diversion, but also a perfect opportunity for interdisciplinary and experiential learning: a walk on the wild side (physical education), plant identification (science); food preparation (math; home economics). It won’t even feel like learning. They’ll appreciate the adventure.
In my neck of the woods, violets and forsythia are in full flower right now. Dandelions, too—and they will be with us all the way through fall. If you think dandelions are just weeds, think again. Every part of the dandelion—except the sappy stem—is edible (petals for jelly, syrup, tea, fritters, and more; tender young leaves for salad or steamed greens; roots for vegetable side dish, tea, or wine). And who can’t find dandelions?!
Dandelion syrup is my favorite, and it tastes almost exactly like honey. Here’s a simple recipe: https://www.allrecipes.com/recipe/264167/dandelion-syrup/ You can find a bunch of other recipes for the pervasive dandelion here: https://www.growforagecookferment.com/dandelion-recipes/
Years ago, the Gnome and I gathered lots of pretty little violet flowers from our back yard and turned them into the most exquisite, lavender-colored jelly. https://afarmgirlinthemaking.com/lilac-flower-jelly-a-delightful-floral-taste/ If your jelly doesn’t jell, no worries. You’ll have a delicate syrup to pour over vanilla ice cream or a simple cake. Yum!
Violet flowers can also dress up a salad; leaves can be added raw to a salad, as well—or steamed like spinach. By the way, the flowers of pansy and viola (Johnny Jump-Up) can add a colorful zing to your dinner salad, too—all edible, of course.
Then there are lilacs—try lilac sugar, lilac cake, a fizzy lilac mocktail: https://www.brit.co/lilac-recipes/
For other scrumptious ways to use lilacs, check out this site: https://practicalselfreliance.com/edible-lilacs/ (It’s not all about food, either.)
Did you know forsythia flowers are edible? Neither did I until just recently. It’s another way to create your own flavored syrup or homemade jelly. https://www.ediblewildfood.com/forsythia-syrup.aspx ;
Magnolias are edible, too—both the creamy white flowers you see on Southern lawns and the delicate pinkish Japanese variety so prevalent in springtime. Try them in a cake. https://www.backyardforager.com/magnolia-blossom-cream-cake-recipe/ (By the way, this site is an excellent one to follow for all sorts of seasonal, easy-to-forage foods. Her book on backyard foraging is excellent, too.)
For a different take on magnolia blossoms, try pickling them. https://medium.com/invironment/pickled-magnolia-flowers-7c2aad06edf9
And yes, it’s another choice for syrup. https://www.eatweeds.co.uk/magnolia-syrup-recipe
Hosta shoots make a good asparagus alternative. Wild mustard and lamb’s quarters can cover the spring landscape and make excellent salad ingredients or steamed side dishes.
Clover flowers, purslane, chickweed, watercress, sorrel, nettle leaf, and plantain (all those weeds that are the bane of gardeners everywhere) can be added to those violet and dandelion leaves for a perky spring salad with no trip to the grocery store needed.
Try the flowers of redbud trees, black locust (raw, fritters, stir-fry), and wisteria (flowers only—the rest of the plant is poisonous). Here’s a recipe with results too pretty to pass up https://www.wildedible.com/blog/wildflower-spring-rolls ,
In the electronic age, it’s never been so easy to find recipes for eating wild. But before you go on a hunt, be sure you know your stuff. Dandelions are easy. Some other plants are a bit more tricky; many have not-so-tasty (or healthy) lookalikes. A good field guide is essential if you’re unsure what’s what.
Four more caveats: (1) Be sure the plants you select are free from toxic chemicals, including car fumes (the shoulder of a road is no place to look for food). (2) Unless you have a permit, its’ a federal crime to pick plant parts from national parks, forests, and monuments. You’d hate to end up in a federal prison for picking flowers! (3) Harvest ethically—never take more than 1/3 of what you find. Leave some for the next forager. And most importantly, leave some for Nature. Bees need it. Birds need it. The plant needs it to continue to thrive. (4) Some of these links refer to home canning. If you try that, be sure to follow basic safety instructions from the US Department of Agriculture or your local or state extension service. (But you can always store your product in the refrigerator if you plan to eat it within a few days or weeks.)
Happy foraging. And happy eating.
I’m not sure how it started, or when. But I do recall that the Gnome and I were early, early disciples of Mother Earth News Magazine. We landed a first edition copy of the Whole Earth Catalog and thumbed its pages until they were ragged and yellowed. We briefly considered looking for an old farmhouse somewhere in eastern Nova Scotia and learning to grub a subsistence living from the land.
There was a time, prompted by finances as much as a back-to-the-land ethos, when we quite literally stalked wild asparagus (and wild cherries) in Louisville’s magnificent city parks. We dug day lily tubers from our back yard for food. We made jellies from the thousands of purple violets which had overtaken our lawn and from rampant patches of mint. More than once we attempted a vegetarian lifestyle. (In those days, vegetarianism was considered the true sign of a back-to-the-lander in some quarters.) We got into crafting and selling our wares—mostly weaving and macrame—at local and regional street fairs and festivals. My favorite was ‘barefoot’ sandals. Sound a little hippie? You bet!
The Gnome had always had a hankering to design and build a home with his bare hands. In our first years of marriage, he got a little—and I emphasize little—experience working on home remodeling and repair jobs with a high school shop teacher in summertime and on weekends, which made the itch that much stronger.
Time passed, life intervened, and homesteading on any level seemed an insurmountable pipe dream. But the longing for a more sustainable, self-sufficient way of living never left us. Almost twelve years in, we decided the time had come to take that giant leap. We found a few rocky, sloped acres in the mountains of western North Carolina—way out in the country; sold our Louisville house; packed up children, cats, and our most essential belongings; and headed east.
You can start here to read the nine-part series (it’s long but chock full of fun pictures) about those days living in a tent, clearing land, and self-building our forever home, so I’m going to fast forward—but not before sharing this photo of me putting up corner bracing on our entirely self-built post-and-beam home oh so many years ago.
Too soon, we found our dream of living an old-fashioned homesteading life a little too big to handle. We both had to find full-time jobs just to pay off the loan on our land, not to mention building materials; the kids were growing up and into extracurricular activities with college in their futures; and more than ever, health insurance was a priority. Jobs turned into careers.
Round and round the circle went. Finally, we were able to retire. Only then were we able to dedicate ourselves to gardening, food preservation, rehabbing our home, drying clothes on the line, cooking and eating at home instead of on the go.
Along the way, the term ‘modern homesteading’ began to surface. As I learned more about it, I realized that’s what we were doing, what we’d been doing all along to one degree or another.
What is modern homesteading? In short, it is a way of finding your own path to a simpler, more self-reliant life. Modern homesteading allows a person to weave old-fashioned skills into modern life. To find what—for you—is the best of both worlds. By this definition, even city-slicker apartment dwellers can be homesteaders. Personal values, life circumstances, and individual demands make both the path and the destination unique for everyone and allow anyone who wants to give it a try.
Our path? We built our own house with our own hands. We’re definitely on the grid, but a chunk of our electricity comes from a community solar garden, and we have lots of south-facing windows for passive solar heat gain.
We compost and recycle. To the extent our skills and tools allow, we do our own maintenance and make our own repairs. We prefer giving and receiving simple gifts, homemade if possible. When the weather cooperates, we line dry our laundry. For several years, we’ve grown and preserved enough vegetables to pretty much get us through the year. We even continue to forage a little.
We support and encourage wildlife. We prefer spending time outdoors to seeing a movie. We support local causes that matter to us personally.
Of course, we’d done some of these things all along, even in the midst of child-rearing and busy careers. Things like recycling, loving the earth, conserving electricity, making do. But now, we have a name for it. And these days we are even more conscious in our earth-friendly decision-making.
We’ve cobbled together a life that teaches us resilience. One that keeps us closer to the land even as we type on our computers, drive our gasoline-powered car, and use electric tools and appliances. We try to live with purpose, asking how little rather than how much is necessary for living the good life. We don’t feel the need for the newest, best, or most. To be sure, it hasn’t always been a smooth journey and we’ve had bouts of backpedaling. But it’s not about perfection. It’s about striving.
Overall, our lifestyle gives us vast satisfaction as well as the confidence that, should circumstances dictate, we might be competent at true self-sufficiency, at least for a while.
We have found our own middle ground. As time and circumstances change, so will our relationship with this lifestyle. Age and illness will have their impact. But we’ll continue to do the best we can to increase our self-reliance and walk gently on this good earth.
That’s what the modern homesteading journey means to us.
The journey is different for everyone, of course. At its core modern homesteading relies on exercising any or all of what I’ve dubbed The Four Esses: sustainability, self-reliance, self-sufficiency, subsistence.
Do what you can. Do it the best way you can. Do it one baby step at a time. It all matters.
I can’t remember the last time I made a New Year’s resolution. Certainly not after young adulthood.
Before that, making a long list of things I would change about myself as each new year rolled in was an act I never questioned. But then it came to me. Resolutions rarely accomplish anything—unless it’s to make you feel bad about yourself. If you were like me, you tended to think of resolutions in terms of negatives, things you’d been doing wrong or at least were not doing right.
I made resolutions the wrong way, too: broad generalizations which couldn’t be quantified and which, even if they could, were usually impossible to live up to. New Year’s resolutions were downright disheartening. They emanated from guilt and were generally doomed to create even more.
So, no New Year’s resolutions for me.
But as we rang in 2020, I realized that 2019 had taught me something immensely important. Not about resolutions, but habits. Resolutions are so often built around breaking bad ones. Hard to do. What about building good habits instead? Practically by accident, I developed several new habits—all good—in 2019. Along the way, I discovered good habits are as easy to form as bad ones.
I feel like a genius!
A couple of my habits have taken the form of lists. I began 2019 by listing EACH BOOK I COMPLETED, mostly out of curiosity. How much was I actually reading?. Before I knew it, recording my reading became second nature. Keeping a log of one’s reading material may be kind of neutral as habits go, but I count this list-keeping as a positive, if only because I stuck to it. But there is more to it. My list gives me information to feed on. It helps me remember what I’ve read and reminds me what I want to follow up on. It helps me clarify what I like and why I like it so I can make more informed reading choices in the future. It’s a reference point for issues to develop in my writing, philosophy, and more.
About midway through the year, I began a Moment of Joy (MOJ) journal. I’ll write more about that in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that what began as a whim became a habit, almost overnight—to someone who with a lifelong ineptitude when it comes to keeping any sort of diary or journal. My MOJ journal became something bigger. Unintentionally, it became a practice in intention.
I formed another intentional habit quite unintentionally when I read Mary Pipher’s Women Rowing North. She wrote about a spiritual retreat where participants were instructed to chew each bite of food, even their breakfast porridge, thirty times. Was that even possible? I had to give it a try.
It felt a little silly at first, counting every time my teeth met. But as I learned it was possible to chew one type of food thirty times, I wanted to test another. And again, without realizing it, I had developed a new habit. I began to catch myself, just below my consciousness, counting. My mind was at work building an intention, slowly ticking off the chews: twenty-seven . . . twenty-eight . . . twenty-nine . . . thirty. And sometimes up to forty or more. I was no longer chewing for the counting. Counting became a means—a pleasant way to be more intentional about the process of eating.
Not only can thirty chews per bite be done (usually); it has tremendous emotional and physical benefits. I stopped choking on food, something that happens far too often, usually because I’m in a hurry or talking or trying to multitask as I eat. Other digestive problems began to lessen or disappear altogether. I found myself more tranquil, more aware of my surroundings. It turns out that chewing each bite thirty or so times is intensely calming and refreshing. What I took on as a one-time challenge became another intention, one with far-reaching results.
Well, the new year is here and I’ve begun yet another project. This gal never before succeeded in developing a journaling habit just gave herself a five-year, line-a-day journal. It’s really more like four or five lines a day. Three hundred and sixty-seven pages, each with space for five years’ worth of notes for every date on the calendar. I’m hopeful that the constraints of this journal will help me stay on track, especially since I’m incorporating my MOJs into each day’s notekeeping. In 2025 I can, at a mere glance, look back on five years’ worth of entries for any given date for the last half decade. I think the comparison will be fascinating.
Now that I think about it, it’s a huge statement of optimism for a septuagenarian to purchase a blank book in anticipation of adding to it for 1800 days. That’s a pretty hopeful intention itself.
What I learned during the past year has changed me. I’m learning to think more intentionally about lots of things—to BE more intentional. That will surely lead to more good habits, easy to keep.
Who needs resolutions?
That’s right. I wanted to see if I could read as fast as my mom seems to, so as we rang in 2019, I began keeping a list. And I just counted them up. Fifty-two. I don’t mind telling you, I was a little impressed with myself (especially considering I was consumed with writing my own book throughout the entire year). Admittedly, some were children’s books—quick, easy reads. But I made up for that with some massive, heavy-duty tomes.
For the record, I don’t waste my time with bad writing. But my reading habits are a little out of the ordinary, so who knows if anyone else shares my eclectic reading preferences. I rarely read a best-seller, nor do I read hot-off-the-presses books. Those two facts alone mean I’m not your typical reader.
At bedtime, I read for fun—light stuff so I can sleep. I often read books recommended by writer friends whose tastes I trust. And I’ve read quite a few books as research for my writing—or others that the research led me to as I became obsessed with a particular area. This year I’ve also read several deeper books, volumes by wise women and men who write words that inspire and push me.
Here are my favorites of the year—the best of the best.
My favorite fiction book of the year, for all kinds of reasons, was The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.: iI’s about Kentucky, a state I think of as my second home; it’s about the magic of books; it’s a history and civics lesson about pack horse librarians, the Great Depression, and the blue-skinned people of Kentucky. Kim Michele Richardson, whose own story is compelling, dug deep in penning this book. She moves from fiction to fact and back again with such deftness you never notice the switch. And her love for her subject shines through every word. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Hint: check out the pictures and information at the end of the book before you dig in to the story. I think it makes a difference to know a little about the actual history of the pack horse librarians. Rather than ruining the story for the reader, I believe this foreknowledge can only enhance your reading. Buy it or check it out from your local library—and if they don’t have it, ask them to order it. In spite of some hard truths, the story and Richardson’s telling of it are simply beautiful.
Two other favorite fiction reads of the year were Sonja Yoerg’s True Places and Bren McClain’s One Good Mama Bone (That one was a recommendation from Richardson—an excellent recommendation.) What I liked about both of these books is that the characters are believable and the reader learns from them. Yoerg’s career as a biological psychologist definitely influences her insight into the human condition. Like Richardson, she researched the Blue Ridge flora and fauna and incorporated facts with such skill you don’t notice it. While McClain’s protagonist is human, you will become deeply attached to the cow, Mama Red. In the end, McClain has written a love story to Mama Red. It’s well worth the read.
I couldn’t make myself read Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier’s breakout debut novel. But I was drawn to Thirteen Moons when I read that it was a fictional account of William Holland Thomas’s life. Thomas plays a minor role in my family’s genealogy. For reasons unknown, my great-grandfather was named for him And I recently discovered that Thomas married a distant relative—my second cousin three times removed. Those two facts were all it took to hook me. This book is decidedly not everyone’s cup of tea, but I was captivated. The story is episodic, almost diary-like. And there’s a reason for that. Frazier wrote that his protagonist, Will Cooper, is not Thomas, but that they share the same DNA. I’ll say. Frazier clearly read his way through Thomas’s prolific papers. There is definitely fiction here, but underlying it is far more biography and history. If you contemplate reading this book, be sure you read about the real Will first—his fascinating story as an orphan, lawyer, chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and colonel in the Civil War is larger than life, both heroic and tragic. Knowing it will deepen your appreciation for Frazier’s story.
I read three books on the subject of food, though they come from distinctly different points of view. I would never had given Tommy Tomlinson’s The Elephant in the Room a thought except that I saw and heard the author on two occasions. I could tell his writing would be superb and bewitching, regardless of the subject per the subtitle: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America. With that bit of knowledge, you may have deduced the double meaning in the title. This book is brutally honest, funny, painful, and masterfully written. It’s worth the reader’s time regardless of your relationship to food, but especially worthwhile for anyone struggling with any kind of addiction or anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of that struggle. You might recognize Tomlinson’s name from ESPN, The Charlotte Observer, or WFAE Radio. No wonder he’s such a good writer.
Shawna Coronado’s Stacked With Flavor is both a cookbook and a guide to wellness, full of gleanings from her own experience and personal growth living with severe food allergies and osteoporosis. The recipes, though, are not just anti-inflammatory, dairy-free, grain-free and low-sugar, though they are all of these things. Her method—using herbs and spices to stack flavors—makes every dish endlessly versatile and delicious. That’s what caught my attention, and I haven’t been disappointed yet. Coronado did her own photography and it’s delicious, too.
Georgann Eubanks may be best known for her North Carolina Literary Trails series, but she’s branched out. The Month of Their Ripening takes the reader through a calendar year of foods that, while not necessarily unique to North Carolina, are among the state’s heritage foods. She features foods whose seasons are short and which are best eaten at the height of their season. Your mouth will water at Eubanks’s delicious writing as she travels through the state’s nooks and crannies in search of Tar Heel foodways via interviews with farmers, cooks, historians, and—best of all—taste tests.
I came to That Book Woman after reading Richardson’s tale. Both it and Ernestine’s Milky Way tell stories of rural life with stunning illustrations. I had to have them both to share with the grandkids. Both books are magical. With Ernestine, you’ll even learn how to make butter.
Rabbit Hill is an oldie, written in 1944. It’s worth reading just to see how children’s books have evolved. This one, full of sophisticated grown-up words, was clearly meant as a book to be read to children by adults who would use the story to teach vocabulary. It’s a lovely story that any animal lover has to appreciate.
Dr. Seuss’s Horse Museum was not written by the famous author, but uses a newly discovered manuscript and sketches by Seuss to create a playful art book for children and features a few classic Seuss characters to help tell the story. If you love Dr. Seuss, horses, or art, you’ll fall for this unique book. A terrific way to help children learn about great art.
I’m not even going to try. Native Kentuckian Frank X. Walker’s small volume, Affrilachia, must be read and savored, one morsel at a time. Even if you’re not big into poetry, you can appreciate this one. Walker says he coined the word Affrilachia to make visible the black experience in the Appalachian South. And he succeeded
If you value excellent writing, I believe you’ll love anything you read by Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg. I happened upon him quite by accident and have now read three of his books. I found Ava’s Man particularly compelling. He writes as only a Southern writer can and your jaw will drop at the sheer poetry of it. His books will make you laugh as hard as they will make you cry. And you’ll learn a few heart-breaking truths along the way.
Also see Leigh Ann Henion and Kate Bowler in the following category.
PERSONAL AND SPIRITUAL GROWTH/AGING
Not necessarily religious, these books are intellectually spiritual, some of them particularly relevant for those of us who now qualify as elders. Each one is intimate, honest, thought-provoking, vulnerable, and filled with deeply perceptive perspectives.
I’m way over my self-imposed word limit, so I’m just going to list them here with links. Sorry to give them short shrift, but perhaps it is enough to say I found each one enlightening. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say they were all seriously life-changing for me.
Leigh Ann Henion, Phenomenal (beguiling imagery; hauntingly beautiful)
Parker J. Palmer, On the Brink of Everything
Mary Pipher, Women Rowing North
Happy Reading in 2020! (And I’d love to hear about some of your favorite books.)
Note: For simplicity and universality, I’ve linked to online sources. But may I gently encourage you to seek out your local independent bookseller (if you should be so lucky as to have one) or your public library if you’re interested in reading any of these books.
P.S.: I’m laughing at myself right now. Just counted up and realize I’ve included a whopping 30% (almost) of my year’s reading list as the best. I’d never succeed as judge of a writing contest. Told you I read nothing but the best!