The New River, whose headwaters lie in my part of the Appalachian Mountains, is often considered the oldest river on the continent and even the second oldest river in the world—though not all experts agree. So how did it get its ironic name? No one knows for sure. In any case, I wrote this piece at an August writing workshop at New River State Park a couple of years ago as I reminisced about the many canoe excursions the Gnome and I have shared along this wild and scenic river. A Lazy Drift Down the August New Ducklings huddle in bank cuts resisting parents’ push into the current; two deer take a soothing afternoon sip cooling stick-thin legs in mountain-icy water. Holsteins wade across shallows to greener pastures, perhaps, and a Great-Blue stands majestically, its sharp eyes ever watchful for a tasty fish dinner. I bump across rocks and glide over riffles, the sun dappling my legs and arms, my bottom as chilled as drinks in the cooler; I wave to splashing children and paddling picnickers. Trees bear witness to beavers’ work as swallowtails float above; sticks of an osprey nest rest on a boulder ledge. Thirsty gray-green leaves and occasional yellows and reds flutter down and drift along beside me. River’s edge is plastered with signs of autumn— seed-popping touch-me-nots vie for space with sunny goldenrod and mauvy Joe-Pye weed; citrine coneflowers fill every cranny. Clouds playing across the mountains produce ever-changing panoramas of light and dark as they cast reflections of blinding white on the emerald river surface. Floating downstream in the late summer quiet I am lost in the flow of this river of calming mindfulness.
The Best of Times
Second day, seventh month, nineteen and seventy-nine our family of four arrived for the first time on our newly-bought mountain land, ours now for keeps. Massive meadows of nodding daisies greeted us, the first of many magical moments in July of ’79. Like the morning when clouds made a foamy sea of white, blue mountain peaks peeking through like islands. Our hearts stood still at the impossible beauty of it. Like our discovery of wild strawberries and highbush blueberries, scrumptious snacks and desserts made all the better because they were ours. All ours. We slept on the ground, cooked over a campfire, drank water from a not-so-nearby spring, made an outdoor privy surrounded by blooming rhododendron. In that 1979 July we bathed in the frigid waters of a babbling brook, our skulls numbed senseless by the cold. Our music came courtesy of birds and insects, our entertainment from read-aloud stories by lantern light, homemade crossword puzzles, and imagination. Formerly housebound cats found freedom to roam; proud hunters dropped field mice at our feet and occasionally a grasshopper. We chopped trees and cleared ground, created designs, drew up plans, and sought official permissions. We built our forever home with our own hands— ours and our children’s— the only ones at work. Now the children are long grown and gone and the cats have found their final resting place on our daisy-covered hillside. Now the sounds of grandchildren laughing in summertime, finding their own magic on our mountain, bring smiles and happy memories of early days. Conveniences these days are modern— and convenient— living on the diagonal. But July of nineteen and seventy-nine? It was the best of times and the best of times.
Bustin’ Out All Over
Every leaf is fresh and lush and green in June apricot-colored azaleas set Appalachian hills on fire and electric-red firepinks dot rocky mountain roadsides The last bell of the year has rung as raucous youngsters race from school yards into back yards to prance through sprinklers and blow iridescent bubbles in barefoot abandon Summer is young in June and full of promise newly planted gardens grow plump succulent strawberries ooze red juices from eager lips country fields are hectic with hay mowing and baling Wrens sing happy songs in sunshine Synchronous fireflies dance in the dark to the music of June’s night insects the air is sweet with the scent of the milkweed and honeysuckle that suckle trembling butterflies Who would want to live in a world without lavish June?
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?
Oh, cruel fellow! You blow in with your sunny charms melting hearts in your wake they've all fallen for your wiles secure in the warmth of your watchful eye all they see is hope Me? I'm cynical I've seen your kind before you cast your spell and they believe until you turn tail and run just like a swindling tent-revival preacher But this time you stayed so long, seemed so sincere, you lured even me into your lair ready, yearning even, for your promises I packed away my old grievances like heavy raiments I'd held onto for too long I should have known better I know you all too well sure enough just like always you made those innocents fall for you and in a flash you snapped Late one night when they were fast asleep you did your deed just as I always knew you would broke their slender little necks every one So unsuspecting their bright trusting faces full of aspirations lifted to the sky just waiting for the rebirth spring brings poor trusting daffodils Oh, March, how could you?
The Long Short Month
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* 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.
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.
This is one of my favorite times of the year. No, not because a sliver of Autumn’s breath is in the still-hot August air (though I love that, too) but because all across the country it’s time for Freshman Move-In Day. I live in a college town, so no calendar is needed to tell me it’s that time of year. I know it has come the day our heretofore relatively calm streets are jammed with cars nearly bursting with boxes and bags. It always puts me in mind of my own first move-in day. Excitement and trepidation competed for space in my overstimulated brain. Everything—absolutely everything—was new. I had no idea what the future, even the future of the next day, held.
All the anticipation and anxiety from so many years ago came flooding back last week as the Gnome and I had the privilege of participating in our second granddaughter’s freshman move-in. As we drove onto campus we joined another couple of thousand cars filled, like ours, with student belongings. Before we saw the dorm, we heard the sound of the band playing high-spirited music on the lawn to match the day’s mood.
Then we spotted burgundy-and-gold-clad upperclassmen, staff, and administrators swarming on the grounds and around the cars. Like busy bees, students emptied vehicles’ contents into giant blue bins, rolled them to the dorm, and emptied them again, carrying containers right to dorm room doors. Five minutes and it was a done deal. In spite of the muggy ninety-degree weather, they were all smiles and energy. During our couple of minutes’ wait for an available bin, a dean sauntered to our car to engage us in conversation, playfully inviting us Silvers to join the student body. So welcoming.
Every aspect of move-in day was equally seamless, speedy, and gleeful.
We’d never been on campus before, but we were already charmed. The more we learned the more charmed we became. The school is filled with traditions that instantly create a feeling of belonging. As new students processed to their first convocation on a big lawn shaded by old oaks, they passed by—and touched—the pedestaled bell which survived the 1923 campus fire that came darned close to closing the school for good.
Not surprisingly the school mascot is the Phoenix, ancient symbol of rebirth. These particular students have lived through their own catastrophe with the Covid-19 worldwide pandemic defining much of their last two years of high school and still on the rampage as they begin their college careers, so they already know a little about survival. How appropriate that during their college tenure, the school will commemorate its one-hundredth anniversary of the fire that nearly destroyed it, but did not. Like the Phoenix, it rose from the ashes. Like the Phoenix, these freshmen have already been through their own fire and proved their resilience.
As students left convocation they participated in another tradition. The school’s name, Elon, translates from the Hebrew word for oak, and each student was presented with an acorn, the first bookend of their four-year experience. At graduation, they get their second bookend, an oak sapling. What fitting symbols for a period defined by so much promise and growth.
Even though I can’t help feeling a little nervous on ‘our’ student’s behalf, I also feel excited for what the next few days and weeks and years will bring her. If her experience is anything like mine, she will explore new things and discover new passions as she grows into her adult self. She may face grave disappointments as well as great joys. She will survive and she will learn that she can. She will find out what she is made of. And years from now, she will look back on these yet-to-be-experienced years with sweet nostalgia, a time of foundation-building for all that will have come after.
Convocation was for parents too. The university president took the opportunity to calm their nerves, reminding them that they have raised competent children whom the school believes in as much as do the parents. “They are prepared,” she assured them. “They are ready.”
You’ve got this, Kiddo! Embrace every moment.
Music to My Ears
When I wasn’t planning to be Debbie Reynolds when I grew up, I wanted to become a concert pianist. I didn’t picture myself playing so much as bowing to the standing ovations. Oh, the applause!
I began taking piano lessons when I was seven. Dad drove me to Mrs. Kennedy’s each week for my 7:15 class before the start of the school day. How I treasured my red-and-white-covered John Thompson piano books. We haven’t owned a piano for thirty years, but I think I still have one of those falling-apart books tucked away somewhere. Some things are just too precious to give up. I mostly remember “Toreador Song,” “Berceuse,” and “Spinning Song”—one of my favorites.
I was never going to make it to the concert stage. It didn’t take too long for me to realize that—I swooned over playing, but I didn’t relish practicing scales at all. Yet, my dreams were reignited the 1959 day a 33-1/3 LP of twenty-five year-old pianist Philippe Entremont playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition showed up in our home. Now, I could listen to Chopin all day, but I heard Entremont’s Pictures in my sleep. I sat next to our high-fidelity stereo cabinet listening for hours as my head and shoulders swayed and bounced to Mussorgsky’s rhythms. Nothing would do but to obtain the sheet music, which I practiced relentlessly. Next thing I knew I was playing at least the first movement, “Promenade,” at the recital of my new piano teacher, Katherine Saleeby. (She was very patient with me and my musical whims.) Even today, I recognize Pictures at an Exhibition after hearing only the first note.
Young Philippe Entremont at the piano, circa 1959
It’s like that with other pieces, too. Along with a hundred or so college classmates, I sweated through our mandated Music Appreciation class. We spent long hours in the library’s listening room, dropping the needle at random points just as our professor did for tests, hoping if we did it often enough we could identify the music by hearing a mere measure. I guess it worked because, as long as I’m familiar with a piece, it rarely takes more than a couple of notes for me to know what the next ones will be, even if I can’t call up title and composer.
Somewhere along the way, my parents’ Entremont recording disappeared. Knowing how much the music meant to me, the Gnome spent years (way before the internet age) searching for a Pictures album. One day he surprised me with an orchestral recording. But it was not the same. Many more years later, we were lucky to score the original Entremont solo.
Several years ago, the pianist came to town, conducting (I think) the New Orleans Symphony. Of course I was there. At some point he sat down at the piano. I don’t recall what he played—not Mussorgsky, but it didn’t matter. I wept.
Philippe Entremont, 2008 (Wikimedia Commons)
(You can listen to the first three movements of the 1959 solo recording here.)