Celebration

 

Today marks a big anniversary in the Gnome and Crone’s household. Exactly forty years ago, our family began our biggest-ever family adventure when we came to this little corner of paradise to stay. Two thirty-something adults, two children only weeks away from their sixth and ninth birthdays, and two formerly housebound cats. We came with a suitcase each of clothes, a tent, and not much else except a whole lot of enthusiasm. Almost everything else—including jobs and any sense of financial security—we left behind.

We’d seen our property twice before—once in early April when we signed the contract, and again in late May. There was no sign of spring on either of those visits.

We had expected our Memorial Day weekend trip to be filled with clearing debris. Wearing nothing more than shorts, tees, and flip flops, we were unprepared when we opened the tent flap the next morning to snow! Clearly, we had a lot to learn about living in the mountains.

But this time was different. On July 2, 1979, summer was in full swing. No longer bare, the five acres of woods were lush with full-leafed maple, oak, beech, poplar, cherry, locust, and wild magnolia trees. The almost equally large section of open meadow was a massive sea of daisies, with the occasional black-eyed Susan thrown in for variety. It took my breath away.

The first few days were for exploring. We discovered the delicate deliciousness of tiny wild strawberries growing everywhere; we visited our wooded mountain creek; we discovered an old locust fence in the edge of the woods along our east boundary line; we found twists of downed trees and ferns and mushrooms and wildflowers.

We found home.

Forty years later, things look a bit different around here. Most of the meadow is gone, thanks to trees sprouting up when mowers were out of order or when we were too busy with life to get around to mowing. We jumped on the Christmas-tree-growing bandwagon and planted a few hundred Fraser Fir and Norway Spruce seedlings. Those, too, got out of hand. Today, they are crowded evergreen giants making a home for birds and other wildlife. Most of the daisies have gotten crowded out.

Just the lower portion of a few overgrown Christmas trees

We got the house built—and decades later, rebuilt. All with our own hands. As dyed-in-the-wool do-it-yourselfers, we can’t bear to farm out any of the work on our place even if that means it gets left undone for far too long.

But we have done a lot. We cleared the land of some trees and over time planted more; we built our forever home with our four hands—as well as the help of four much smaller hands (setting out the building lines, foundation, plumbing, electrical, roofing—the whole bit); we built a spring house and pumped water up from the creek; we built a couple of outbuildings.

We started and abandoned one garden only to begin again a few decades later. This time we enclosed a 5400 square foot space, a space where many of those gorgeous daisies once lived, for vegetables and fruits—we’ve been working on that project for four or five years now, and we do a pretty good job of feeding ourselves from it throughout the year.

 

 

(It may not look like it, but that 5,400 sq ft of enclosed garden space (ready for planting) could hold six clones of our house with a decent amount of space left for landscaping. A couple days’ worth of harvest in pictures 2 and 3.)

Most of all, we raised a family. A family where our children learned the value of making do, of making their own fun, of how to do things with their hands, of learning by doing, and that it’s okay to take (certain) risks—to try new things with an entire world of unknowns in front of you.

(Hover over each photo for caption.)

And now, we have grandchildren to share it all with, too.

It’s been a good forty years. We are looking forward to many more.

     

Same view (more or less) 1979 and 2019. Our road is under the snow.

 

    

Version 1.0 in need of serious rehab after 30 years vs. Version 2.0

If you want to learn more about our early homebuilding experience, you can start here.

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.

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.

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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.)

 

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.

 

 

 

Spring! Is it Here to Stay?

A couple of weeks ago, we packed up the car for an errand of love. On that day, spring had been teasing us off and on for a couple of weeks. The daffodils were on the wane, but not much else had bloomed up here at our elevation–and another spring snow was in the forecast. What a surprise when we returned home almost a week later to find that our meadow had sprouted a field full of green grass and sunshiny dandelions!

Not just sprouted, but in need of a haircut. Most of our deciduous trees are still bare, but other signs of spring are everywhere. The asparagus bed was bare when we left—on our return we had stalks a foot tall! Our young crabapple is on the verge of bursting into a froth of pink blooms.

But for me, the real promise of spring is the serviceberry, and those snowy white blossoms were the first thing I noticed as we reached our driveway. We may still have a cold snap or two, but the serviceberry is my assurance that spring has kept its promise.

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It’s a sure sign of spring when these dainty flowers come into bloom.

See how bare things are all around this serviceberry?

Most of the two dozen or so species of serviceberry are native to the U. S., and they grow in practically every state. Depending on where you live, you may know them by another name. Maybe shadbush, juneberry, shadblow, or their Native American name, saskatoon. In the east, it’s just plain serviceberry, or sarvisberry in our southern mountain dialect.

There are lots of stories about how the serviceberry came by its name. The one I’m particularly fond of says that back in the day, the tree came into flower just as the roads in the Appalachian mountains became passable enough that a circuit-riding preacher could finally travel this way again to hold service—or sarvis. Time for marryin’ and buryin’ to resume. That explanation may be a bit fanciful, but I find the notion charming.

There’s more to the serviceberry than its early blooms and the tales associated with it. A member of the rose family, it’s a good landscaping choice with its pretty spring flowers and its striking fall foliage.

And though I’ve been known to boil and eat milkweed pods like okra, make jelly out of native hawthorns, and fry up locust and elderberry blossom fritters, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I (only recently) discovered that the serviceberry actually bears fruit. (Duh! Just look at the name, Carole!)

In my defense, our trees are tall, and it would be hard for the naked human eye to spot those small berries. But, hey, I’m a homesteader and a follower of foragers like Euell Gibbons (Stalking the Wild Asparagus, etc.) and Ellen Zachos. How did I miss that?!

About a month from now, the careful observer will notice small red berries. By mid-summer, they’ll be a deep purplish-blue. Like blueberries. They taste a lot like blueberries, too. And like blueberries, they can be eaten raw or used for jelly- and pie-making or any of the other myriad ways blueberries are used.

Most of the serviceberries around here are natives, as much as sixty feet tall. With their upward-stretching limbs, it’s hard to get at those berries. Maybe it’s just as well, since the birds love them, too, and we love the birds.

The good news is you can purchase shrub varieties to make berry collecting ever so much easier. The Gnome and I have added them to the ever-growing list for our nascent fruit orchard.

If you see a serviceberry in bloom, make a note of it. Then check back in July or so for some tasty—and free—eating. You won’t be sorry.

Rhododendron’s Many Faces

The rhododendron buds for next year’s flowers appear almost as soon as petals drop from the bush like an early summer cascade of pink snowflakes.

In winter, I can tell how many layers I need to wear by looking out the window at the big rhodie in our yard. On temperate days, the oblong leaves lie almost flat. As colder weather comes our way, they begin to curl inward, as if hugging themselves to keep the chill off. On the coldest days, a toddler’s little finger wouldn’t fit inside a single one of those curls.

As the leaves hang pendulously in winter, the buds above point skyward, reaching for warmth. Individually, they look like homemade hankie days long gone. Clustered together, they remind me of a chorus of angels.

On days like today, the merest dusting of snow clings to the leaves, and I see a different kind of snow angel.

Not long after spring makes its debut, the buds are pregnant with new life almost ready to burst open with color and aroma as killing frosts threaten.

Yet, somehow, they survive.

The Other Side of Snow

In eastern South Carolina where I grew up, about an hour’s drive from Myrtle Beach, a snowfall was a unexpected and exciting gift from Mother Nature. I remember one particularly bountiful snow—enough to build a snowman! That was a true rarity. My brothers and I went all out, rolling three balls of snow, each larger than the one before. We rolled and we rolled. How proud we were to be able to make a huge snow statement.

We rolled the huge bottom section where we wanted to build our snowperson. We rolled the next one over, but when we tried to lift it into place, it didn’t budge. That’s how little we knew about snow. Finally, Dad’s strength and ingenuity solved our conundrum.

Now I live in a place that gets snow most every winter, some years more than others. I enjoy the variation of the seasons, so I welcome snow. Sometimes.

In the right conditions, a snowfall can be breathtakingly beautiful. If the temperature hovers near the freezing mark, the snow is usually heavy and wet, turning every outdoor thing into a pearlescent sculptural wonder.

 

 

Snow paw and snow antlers

 

 

Snow fences

Stopping by woods on a snowy evening

The tiny, dry flakes created by brisker winter temperatures sparkle when the sun comes out as if billions of diamonds fell from the sky.

If the snow is preceded by hoar frost, feathery ice crystals that attach themselves to every outdoor surface, the whole world becomes white—every branch of every tree, every pine needle, every fence post and metal structure, everything. It almost makes my heart ache.

Clothespins on clothesline

Tree with hoar frost against blue sky

Abandoned bed springs

Garden fence

 

Pine branch

 

Even cobwebs are appealing when covered in hoar frost.

 

But snow has another side. The excitement grows old when winter comes early and refuses to leave center stage so colorful spring can make a long-awaited debut. And that’s not all.

When even a modest snow is accompanied by strong winds, as is so often the case on our mountainside, the snow piles into unplowable drifts. We’ve been known to pack snowshoes, a shovel in case we get stuck, and a plastic sled in our car and park at the bottom of our nearly half-mile gravel drive in anticipation of such an event. On more than a few occasions, we’ve slogged up that mountain road pulling a sled full of groceries, bags of pet food and birdseed, book bags, and more.

Sometimes we’ve been caught off guard. Without snowshoes or the shovel that spends most of the winter in the car, walking in can be a real trial, especially in a deep snow where each step means lifting one’s knees waist high or higher with every step. And climbing uphill, at that. Conversely, we’ve been completely snowed in for four or five days at a time. An adventure at first, but gnawing anxieties grow with each day as we begin considering the possibilities of being trapped in the event of an emergency.

And then there’s that dreaded word, ice. At just the right—or wrong—temperature, snow is preceded by rain which freezes on roads. Sometimes the reverse happens and rain or sleet falls after the snow. Walking and driving in either condition is treacherous. Add steep, curvy, and sometimes narrow mountain roads for a bigger thrill than any theme park ride.

 

 

Icicles can be fascinating, though, especially when the wind blows.

In normal times, we may only have one ‘good’ snow a year, and it doesn’t usually hang around long. A day or two later, the sun’s rays melt most of it away. We’ve had a few exceptional years, though. Real doozies.

In 1993, snow totaled more than three feet in just over two days. We were under curfew for forty-eight hours straight. Locals fondly remember it as the Blizzard of ’93 (and yes, it was an actual blizzard). At the time, it was called ‘the storm of the century.’ The National Weather Service named it a superstorm.

The 2009-10 winter brought us more than nine feet of snow—and since temps remained below freezing for the duration, none of it had a chance to melt. For more than three months, the only outdoor colors we saw were white and gray.

Once we could drive around our mountain road,  2010

Snow field

Fifty years earlier, way back in 1960 (well before we lived here), it only snowed seven feet, all of it falling in a just over a month. Every other day it snowed. Temperatures never rose. The winds were fierce. What snowplows cleared one day, howling winds turned into another drift the next. Children missed a month of school; helicopters dropped food, medicine, and cattle feed to isolated rural households.

Now, I know our snow totals are nothing compared to the country’s northernmost areas and tallest peaks. But, hey, I’m in the south. Most folks don’t typically associate such snow totals in the land they think of as all sunshine and beaches.

But don’t feel sorry for us. We mountaineers take a kind of perverse pleasure in our extreme weather. It’s like a badge of honor and we wear it (read: talk about it) all the time, as if we somehow deserve credit for weather’s natural occurrences. We proudly claim our snow.

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Among the trees

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Taking a bite out of snow

Bragging rights

Back in my high school days, when every snowflake sent us running to the windows in gobsmacked awe, we were naively oblivious to snow’s downsides. All we knew was that even a relatively deep snowfall would disappear within hours, the reason we wasted no time getting outside.

During spring break of my senior year, our high school chorus went on tour. We were headed to New York. We spent a night in New York City, the first time most of us had ever seen a skyscraper. Then we traveled upstate to perform. We were excited to see snow on the ground. But what were those humongous ugly mountains of grayish-black, sludgy-looking stuff at nearly every corner? Yeck! Why, I wondered, didn’t these northerners care enough to keep their snow clean and pristine? How could they let it sit around and get so dirty, so totally ruinous to the landscape of purest white?

Now I know.

 

 

Recent snow scene