The Garden—Planted and Unplanted

I’ve described the evolution of our gardening activities in an earlier blog entitled The Garden. In its current incarnation our vegetable and fruit garden encompasses a ninety- by sixty-foot area enclosed by a seven-foot-high deer fence installed to prevent our deer, raccoon, possum, rabbit, and other animal neighbors from helping themselves to our produce. We still have provided some food to the animals, but have placed it outside the fence. Most of the planted space is now within wooden raised garden beds of various sizes. We’ve raised a wide variety of vegetables and berries over the years—over twelve hundred pounds worth in the one year we actually measured the crops produced.

The contents of the garden have changed from year to year. We decided within the past couple of years to be more selective in our plantings, limiting them to the crops we especially want to grow for ourselves and eliminating the plants that require more space or energy than we choose to devote for the returns received. We will rely on the local farmers’ markets and the generosity of neighbors for the items we do not produce ourselves. We also have begun planting more berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, honey berries, and high bush cranberries) and fruits (grapes, plums, pears, apples, apricots, Asian persimmons, figs, and hardy kiwis so far) which hopefully will produce their fruits without the same effort required by annual crops. And we do have thriving beds of asparagus and rhubarb that keep us well supplied with minimal continuing effort on our part.

The garden space last year, ready for planting

This year, however, we decided that our garden would be different, very different. We wanted to spend major amounts of our time on some other important activities we’ve had on hold for too long: more writing, planning and preparing for an addition to our house, various landscaping and building projects, some additional travels we’ve talked about, art and photography projects, and spur-of-the-moment fun time spent together. So we decided not to plant a garden this year. After clearing out the garden remnants from the growing season last year, we intended to put the garden to bed and let it rest for a year.

However, nature had other ideas. Nature never rests. Over the course of the winter when nothing appears to be happening in the garden, much is in preparation for the coming spring. Spring comes to us late here on the mountain. Our last average frost date is about May 25 and we’ve seen three inches of snow here on Memorial Day weekend. But, even though spring may be delayed, it comes finally with great enthusiasm. Seeds and roots that have been waiting patiently for warmer weather burst forth when those warm sunny days arrive. Patches of ground that had seemed empty a few days ago now are covered with the green of new growth.

The edge of the garden is no more than thirty feet from our deck, so we can see it easily from the house. We’ve been harvesting asparagus for weeks now, so we have been into the garden at least every other day. But when I made a more thorough survey of the entire garden a few days ago, I was overwhelmed. Most of the beds, which we had really intended to cover with black plastic last fall, were now covered instead with masses of chickweed, wild sorrel, dandelions, burdock, curly dock, various grasses, wild asters, daisies, and dozens of other kinds of plants. It has always been difficult to control the vegetation in the pathways and border areas because of the sloping, confined area, not to mention the problems I have keeping mowers and weed eaters functioning. The pathways now were were knee-deep in plants of every sort and much of the border area had grass that was shoulder-high. It was a depressing sight and one that called out for some immediate attention.

Several days of torrential rain in our area had finally come to an end, so Carole and I started on the task of reclaiming the garden from the profusion of growth that spring had brought. She really needed to be busy with the finishing touches of the book she has been working on for the past two years, but recognizing my distress at seeing this unexpected garden project, she put her project aside for a time. I settled down to work at clearing the weeds from the asparagus beds, since the still emerging asparagus spears were about to be overrun. Carole tackled several of the beds that supposedly held nothing but weeds, though we did discover some cilantro, dill, potato, and tomato plants that had managed to find themselves a spot here and there—volunteers or self-seeders as they are called. We probably worked for five or six hours before a late-afternoon shower ended our efforts for the day. At least we were able to get a few of the beds cleared out.

The following day I resumed the garden activity while Carole returned to the more pressing matters of the book and some other tasks, including pressure washing part of our deck and siding in preparation for painting later in the summer. The planting beds on which I was working are either three or four feet wide and about twenty-four feet long. I would work the length of each bed on hands and knees or sometimes sitting down, reaching halfway across the bed, then returning along the other side of the bed to get the other half. For most of the beds the weeds had to be pulled individually, being sure to get the roots to avoid re-sprouting. Each of the larger weeds that was pulled revealed several dozen minute pairs of leaves marking another weed seed that had sprouted, waiting for its place in the sun to start growing. The soil then had to be stirred to dislodge and bury each of these tiny plants, hopefully not to re-emerge. Occasionally there were burdock or curly dock plants to be removed; their long tap roots extended a foot or more into the ground and had to be dug out—pulling was not an option.

Six or seven hours of work found all the beds on one side of the garden cleared of weeds, probably a fourth of the overall area that needed to be dealt with, and not necessarily the most difficult part of this project. Yet it was very satisfying to see the results of our two days of labor. It wasn’t just the end result that was rewarding. The process of working in the garden, like many repetitive tasks that might be considered tedious and meaningless, is filled with opportunities. The work requires that I get up close and personal with the plants; it can’t be done at a distance. The physical acts require focus, removing tiny plants that are unwanted (at least in the spot where they are growing), re-locating garden spiders and worms to continue their activity away from my digging, replacing and smoothing the soil disturbed by my weeding. The process allows for quiet meditation as I am quite literally absorbed in being just one part of this natural world.

What a marvel is the abundance of nature, filling every available space with a profusion of plants, small animals, insects, and life forms beyond our ability to see. All around me the life of our meadow goes on. A thrush flies through the garden and stops to sit on the fence, perhaps wondering what I am doing in this place. Two fritillary butterflies sip nectar from the blossoms of red clover plants a few feet away. A catbird carefully examines the areas I have just cleared, comes close to see if I’ve uncovered anything of interest, then hurries off with a new morsel of food for the young ones in the nest nearby. The breeze sings quietly through the grasses and trees as clouds drift across the sky. Probably new clouds will bring rain again tomorrow, but not today. Mindful of all that has surrounded me, I have had another good day.

When we first came to this place, it was a beautiful misty meadow. We were amazed then at the daisies, black-eyed Susans, wild strawberries, flame azaleas, wild geraniums, mountain laurel, wild asters, tall coneflowers, and numerous other plants that filled the meadow and the woods. All those plants are still here, an unplanted garden that we enjoy throughout the year. We have simply placed our fenced fruit and vegetable garden in the midst of this natural garden that was here long before we came. Seeing how quickly the native plants have spread throughout our garden area during the brief time we have left it unplanted this year, we realize it would not take long for our garden to revert to its natural state. A few markers would remain to show our impact upon the land: a patch of rhubarb, some clusters of asparagus stalks, thornless blackberries, Concord grapes, and non-native fruit trees. But for the most part the unplanted garden would return after a bit more time and our meadow would again be a field full of daisies. A garden, planted or unplanted, will likely be here for a long time to come.

Fritillary butterfly

Tall coneflowers

An abundance of daisies

The Phoebes and the Wrens

We had an exciting day here on our mountainside a few days ago. After being with us for more than two weeks, the children have finally decided it’s time they ventured out on their own. No, I’m not writing about our own children; they made that big move many years ago. Now it’s the eastern phoebe young who have rapidly outgrown their nest, covered their fragile little bodies with feathers, exercised and strengthened their wings, and made that first (surely somewhat scary) leap into the air, thankfully coming down to a safe landing on the porch rail about ten feet away. What excitement that must have been for those little ones.

Adult phoebes first built a nest on the crossbeam close under the roof of our small entry porch five years ago. Their chosen spot is only about five feet from a good viewing place just inside our glass storm door. We happily spent many minutes each day watching their progress as they built their nest. For anyone who doesn’t already know, nest building is a time-consuming, complicated, and messy process made more difficult by the fact that the only tools involved are beaks and tiny feet. The nest was anchored to the beam with bits of mud, hard to come by during stretches of several days without rain. The bulk of the nest was an incredible mixture of small twigs, bits of dried grass, soft mosses and lichens, and other materials that caught the eye of the female nest builder. It’s not a straightforward process either. Decisions have to be made about where each piece goes. We’ve watched as the phoebe brought tiny strands of grass, studied the partially-built nest, apparently decided those particular materials were not suitable for the next spot in the project, tossed them aside, and flew off to find something better. The rejected debris scattered over the corner of the porch were clear evidence of the search for just the perfect materials. Some days we could tell the nest walls were a bit higher; the next day part of the wall had been removed as a new plan was developed.

Eventually the nest was completed to everyone’s satisfaction and the female settled in for her extended sitting spell. We’ve read that the incubation period for phoebe eggs is about sixteen days, but it seemed additional time might be needed for getting comfortable with the nest and actually producing the eggs. We all had a long wait ahead of us. Although we tried not to disturb the birds any more than absolutely necessary, we found it hard to resist taking a peek whenever we passed near our viewing spot during the day. Mama phoebe would greet our approach with any icy stare.

Mama phoebe’s icy stare

Whenever we had to exit the house by way of the entry porch door, the phoebe would fly ten or fifteen feet to one of several nearby azaleas or a witch hazel tree, where she watched closely until we had moved the appropriate safe distance away from the nest area. During the entire incubation period the male phoebe could usually be seen sitting on one of several perches from which he guarded the area, leaving only occasionally to get food for his mate or himself. When the female left the nest to take a break, he continued duty at his watch post. Watch and wait, watch and wait.

Adult eastern phoebe, always on alert

Each year the basic process has been the same for the birds and for us. This year was slightly different because a lot more nest building was needed. The original nest deteriorated a bit during the seasons it was unoccupied so each year has required repairs or remodeling. After some storms this past year the old nest was pretty much gone, so the new builders had to start from scratch after removing the debris remaining from the old nest. This beam on our porch must be a good site for a nest since this is now the fifth year it has been used. It’s well sheltered from the weather and fairly inaccessible to any intruders who might attempt to disturb the nest. We have no way to know if the same pair has returned each year to their original nesting spot or if the current phoebes are the great-great grandchildren of the original pair coming back to the old homeplace. It’s exciting to see the phoebes when they arrive after being absent for most of the year and it’s fascinating to observe the adults repeat the now-familiar patterns.

We had to be away this year for a few days at the time when we expected the hatching might occur. We were concerned when we came home and did not immediately see the female phoebe sitting on the nest. Surely the young ones had not already hatched and moved away. But we soon saw the adults busy at their new activities, constantly going back and forth finding food and bringing it back to the hungry babies. Such a demanding time for both of the adults. At first we knew the young ones were in the nest because we could see the adults carrying food, looking down into the nest, and then poking something downward before flying off again on the next mission. Eventually we saw little beaks lifting above the edge of the nest and, a few days later, two small heads rising into view. Phoebes commonly have up to four young at a time, but we were only aware of seeing two this time.

An earlier year. See the little beak on the left.

It’s amazing how quickly the babies grow. We read that the young typically remain in the nest about sixteen days after hatching, but within a few days the two were looking almost as large as the adults and their bodies were beginning to extend past the boundaries of the nest.

Two almost grown babies in an earlier year.

Then came the magical moment. I happened to be walking toward the door when I luckily saw a little one flutter—not fly, but flutter—from the nest to the porch rail. I had never seen a young bird make its first flight. It was almost as great as seeing one’s child or grandchild take those first baby steps. The young phoebe seemed as surprised as a child does when stepping out unassisted for the first time. It sat motionless on the rail for perhaps twenty minutes, glancing around as if wondering, “What do I do next?”

I’m out of the nest. Now what do I do?

When we passed by after those twenty minutes, the young phoebe was no longer on the rail, the nest was empty, and the new family was off somewhere with the adults apparently helping their young ones adapt to their new life out of the nest. We haven’t seen the babies since they left, but we did spot at least one of the adults. Hopefully they are taking a bit of a rest break before doing it all over again with a new brood, as is their custom each season. Wow! What a tough way to spend the summer.

As the phoebes have been finishing this round of their family life, there has been some activity on the deck on the other side of our house. For several years Carolina wrens have found a couple of cozy little spots for their own nesting activity. Their chosen locations are also under the protective roof in little pockets only about an inch and a half wide between two of the structural boards. A similar niche is located at each end of the deck roof and each has been used at one time or another over the years. Our first indication that something was happening this year was the discovery of twigs, grasses, and mosses scattered over the deck under the potential nest site. Someone had been clearing out the old nesting materials in preparation for something new. We soon spotted the male wren hanging around the deck, flying up to the nest area, and going down into it with bits of material. When not busy dealing with the nest, this tiny little fellow sits of the branches of the mountain ash tree adjacent to the deck. There he sings his lovely song for all he’s worth, apparently letting his mate or potential mate know that he’s working on a new home. And we do hear songs coming back from nearby as they “talk” about the possibilities. We read that the male wren starts the nest and then the female does the finishing work on the new home; seems like a good way to share in the process. One of the male’s chief activities now appears to be keeping unwanted visitors at a distance; we’ve already seen him very effectively chasing squirrels away from the deck in spite of their great difference in size. The wrens are still early in their building process, but we’re pleased to have another opportunity to share in their adventure as we watch through our living room door.

The wren was even singing for us just now as I was writing these words. What a joy to share this place here on the mountainside with such wonderful neighbors.

Maybe We Can’t Do It All; Maybe We Just Need a Change of Plans

About eighteen months ago I posted some thoughts about my lifelong love of learning to do things for myself in a post entitled We Can Do It—And We Did.

Beginning at an early age, I have spent countless happy hours randomly browsing library bookshelves, magazine articles happened upon in waiting rooms, old encyclopedias in family homes, and in more recent times the treasure trove of information (and also much misinformation) found on the internet. Sometimes I had one of my many particular interests in mind to guide my searches. At other times my quest relied on serendipitously stumbling upon books, articles, ideas, and bits of information that I had not been expecting to find, but that I knew were important to me, if not immediately, then at some unforeseen time in the future. As I wrote in that post:

That early experience of mine set the stage for a lifetime of learning and doing. I knew that information about everything was readily available. I could find details on any subject, study it, absorb it, think about it, and make it a part of me. I came to see that I could learn about anything and to believe that I could learn to do anything I really wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily think I could do everything as well as an expert or professional could do, but I did believe I could do the things I wanted adequately and satisfactorily for my purposes and needs. I also knew that doing things for myself would bring great satisfaction, the joy of seeing the finished project and knowing I had accomplished that.

That experience and the things I have learned over the years have served me well, especially since we moved to our place here on the mountainside. Except for tasks that required specialized equipment like bulldozers, dump trucks, or backhoes, we’ve pretty much done everything ourselves on our homeplace. We’ve frequently told people who ask about our home and our life here, “If there’s anything you can see here, we did it”. Many things we’ve done ourselves because we couldn’t afford to have someone else do it for us or we didn’t want to deplete our limited resources by hiring the job out. Sometimes we wanted a project completed in some unconventional manner and didn’t trust that a contractor would be willing to depart from their standard way of doing things. Much of the time I simply wanted to be sure that I knew the task was done the way I wanted it to be done. And after years of doing all this work ourselves, there is a sense of pride (some would call it stubbornness) that makes me not want to give up the ability to say, “We did it all”.

I know the time is coming when my ability to do many of the tasks around our homeplace will decline with the limitations which will result from physical changes as I move beyond my current seventy three years of age. Sometimes the inability to handle certain tasks isn’t the result of aging, as I was reminded a few days ago. While there are many things I have learned to do, I’ve never had much success in trying to deal with small gasoline engines and the tools they power (mowers, weed eaters, and chain saws), tools that are much needed with several acres of field and forest to maintain.

Various projects and trips recently had taken time away from routine mowing and related activities. One of the features we love about our home here is the fact that we are surrounded by the abundance of nature. That same abundance can very quickly result in grass in our misty meadow reaching knee-high levels, blackberry briars popping up everywhere, and locust and other tree seedlings claiming their place in the sun. When I went out to try to deal with the situation, I knew that neither of our two riding mowers would be available, one having quit functioning at the end of last summer and the other never having started since we acquired it for free, used but non-working. Several push mowers had either become unstartable or had died when I had pushed them over a hidden rock or tree stump. The remaining push mower (new a year ago) sputtered for a few seconds after pulling the starter cord several dozen times, but refused to start no matter how many times I went through that process. Deciding to resort to mowing with a weed eater, I tugged the starting cord repeatedly with no hint of the least positive response from the engine. I realized there was a second weed eater I had forgotten about and was delighted when it leaped to life on my first pull. It ran great for about fifteen minutes, but never started again after I refilled its fuel tank.

I had run out of options on my gas-engine tools, so I decided it was time to try an alternative I had used in a few other situations: an electric hedge trimmer. It’s sort of like the sickle bar hay mowers used on farm tractors, except it’s much smaller and for grass cutting requires the user to bend over, holding it parallel to the ground while moving it back and forth. After a few minutes of that uncomfortable bent-over position, I decided it was much better to sit on the ground, cut the section that was reachable from that spot, and then slide over a few feet to cut another section. A few hours later I had finished a couple of sloping banks that I had been particularly eager to get cleared. The hedge trimmer was willing to continue as long as there was electricity, but I was pretty well worn out.

When one of my plans gets overly complicated or doesn’t seem to be working out as anticipated, Carole and I have agreed that a valuable service she can perform is to say, “Isn’t there an easier or simpler or better way to do this?” Unfortunately Carole was away from home at a meeting, but as soon as she got home, we started thinking to find a better way to get the work done. Possibly we could find a way to get everything done that we wanted to do, but did we really need to? Maybe we don’t need to attempt to maintain all of the grassy area of our yard and meadow; after all, when we first saw our place, the non-wooded area was a gorgeous open meadow filled with daisies, black-eyed Susans, wild strawberries, and tall grasses waving in the breeze. Maybe we can allow our meadow to be a meadow and only clear a few pathways through the grasses to facilitate strolling through its beauty. Maybe we can rent a mower once a year to help keep out the briars and trees and not have to bother with mowing everything and keeping a functioning mower thoughout the year. Maybe we can get rid of all the non-working pieces of equipment we have kept around, feeling the necessity to try to get them working again one of these days. And if we don’t need to frequently work at maintaining the whole area, maybe a smaller electric mower would be sufficient to keep up the area closest around the house. We bought the electric mower the next day; it started with the push of a button and did a great job of cutting the grass in our prime target area.

So we made a new plan which appears to have solved our immediate problem. But this situation has raised another question for us. What are the things that are really important to us, the activities that we most want to spend our time and energies on during this latter portion of our lives. We have no intention of becoming morbid and fixating on the prospect of death as it seems many people in our age group tend to do. Instead, we want to focus on life with the intention of making full use of our time whatever it may turn out to be. We both have sufficient interests to keep us occupied for another fifty years or more, but in all likelihood we won’t be able to accomplish all those things. Even if we could, we would probably come up with another fifty years of projects to follow those. So we’re going to do some re-evaluating, see if we can figure out what we need to do and what we want to do and what can be set aside for the next lifetime.

We’ve already done many of the things in our lives that we’ve wanted to accomplish. But I can’t imagine anyone being able to do everything they might want to do in a lifetime; there are just too many interesting things out there to experience. So we’ll plan to make more time each day for those special activities that are most important to us. What better way could there be to spend all the wonderful moments we have?

Look Who Came for a Visit

We don’t frequently have guests visiting at our homeplace for meals. Our children and their families live a few hours drive away, so their visits happen only a few times each year. Other relatives and friends are scattered far and wide around the country and find their way to our mountainside home rarely to share a meal. However, we do have lots of friends and neighbors who stop by daily for a visit and a snack as I’ve written before.

Yesterday we had a new visitor, though some of our guest’s family members have come to share our food on other occasions. When we looked up from our computers, where Carole was working on writing her book and I was busy drawing plans for a home addition, we saw this youngster standing at one of our bird feeders enjoying a snack. She/he may have been here the night before; one of our feeders had tumbled to the ground overnight, but we thought that the weight of a fat raccoon might have caused the worn support wire to finally break.

Looks like this could be a snack

This young bear examined the almost empty feeder for a while and then decided the seed I had spread on the ground was much more accessible. Settling down into a comfortable position in the grass, the bear proceeded to eat as much sunflower seed as it could find. Meanwhile, I had grabbed the camera and Carole and I moved out onto the deck for a clearer view of our visitor.

The feeders are thirty to forty feet from the deck.

The bear was only about thirty to forty feet away from our position but it was undisturbed by our presence. From time to time it looked around to glance at us, but quickly turned back to the snack at hand—or rather at paw. What a beautiful, gentle animal, its thick fur lustrous in the bright sunlight. We would watch it for as long as it would choose to stay with us.

It’s nice and peaceful here.

Occasionally it rose and moved to a different spot to find more seed, moving slowly on its big, padded paws. When the bear had finished eating all the seed there was, it turned toward us, moved a couple of steps closer, and studied us for a few moments. Perhaps it was wondering if the two beings eyeing it from the deck had provided it with this afternoon snack. Then our visitor headed up the hillside and off into the woods, moving quickly, but loping as if in slow motion—an incredibly graceful movement for such a large animal.

Are you the folks who put out this food?

Thanks! I’ll come again some other time.

The bear probably came back again during the night, though we were not aware of its presence. This morning we found that the metal bird feeder pole from the previous day was now bent at a forty-five-degree angle. And the larger feeder which normally hangs about three feet in front of our living room window and at least six feet above the ground was lying amidst the periwinkle vines. The feeder and the lightweight chain holding it had been pulled down, the metal mesh was crumpled and showed two holes about three-eighths of an inch in diameter—perhaps tooth marks. It surely would have been interesting to have witnessed that episode.

We don’t make an effort to feed the black bears or to attract them close around the house. We realize it it is much better for their well-being and for their safety to stay mostly in the woods and not venture too close to their human neighbors. But we do delight in observing them and all the other creatures around us whenever we can. Many years ago we twice got to see a bear enjoying the contents of our bird feeders while lying among the flowers in our front yard in the middle of the night, only about fifteen feet from the house; we watched excitedly from an upstairs window. And there was the time a bear and I surprised each other when I turned to see it on our deck about ten feet away on the other side of the sliding glass doors of our living room; we both quickly moved to different locations.

Some people have wondered whether we are afraid of the bears and whether we should be doing something (I’m not sure what) to keep them off “our property”. But the bears aren’t bothering us and we have no intention of bothering them. We each go our own way and do our own things, respecting each other’s presence, but not attempting to fraternize too closely. Regarding the question of “property”, it seems that we humans are the intruders here. The ancestors of these bears and all the other creatures of this place were here long, long before we showed up and, unless we and others really mess things up, hopefully they will continue to be here long after we are gone. In the meantime we’ll enjoy seeing each other from time to time and we’re happy to provide a snack or a meal during a visit.

Here are a few more photos from yesterday’s visit:

I know you’re watching me.

You might prefer this profile for a photo.

I think I hear something in the woods.

Maybe it’s time to leave now.

Brief Encounters on a Saturday Morning

We made a short trip to town this morning to get a favorite breakfast and take care of a few errands. We were gone for about three hours, not enough time for much to happen.

Along the road new patches of daffodils were opening, seemingly around every curve. Pairs of doves were searching for food on the roadside in many places. In recent years many doves have found their way farther up the mountain to treat us to their gentle cooing calls and the whistling of their wings as they fly.

The driver in a red pickup truck was in a great hurry today as he pulled up no more than twenty five feet behind me. He stayed there all the way down the six miles of curvy mountain road until we got closer to town.

At the local Waffle House, our favorite place for a wonderful breakfast, the familiar staff were as delightful as always, working quickly in crowded quarters, all the while smiling, laughing, and enjoying each other and the customers.

At the next table were a father and two young teenage girls, one with blue eyes sparkling even more than her excited conversation.

At the local big box store I proceeded to pull a shopping cart from the mass of waiting carts. A woman even older than I am had gotten out of a car at curb and walked with difficulty into the store. I passed my cart to her and was greeted with a big smile and a surprised, “Oh, thank you”. I heard her later inside telling her companion, “I had wanted to get a smaller cart, but I didn’t see any.” Hopefully I didn’t keep her from getting the cart she wanted.

The next cart I pried loose had a noisy, wobbly wheel. As I was putting it aside, I told a woman who was getting her own cart, “I got that wheel last time. I’m not gonna take it again”. She cheerily responded, “I always get the worst one”.

Seeing a college-age woman coming into the store with a worried look on her face, I wondered whether she was troubled about something or just deep in thought. That made me imagine what might be the concerns of each of the hundreds of people in the store at that moment.

Traveling to our next stop we passed an ancient oak tree, its gnarled branches twisting outward in every direction. It stood alone in the edge of a pasture, drawing our attention and a comment, “That’s a great tree.”

Driving the road from town to our homeplace we passed several old, abandoned houses along the way, several collapsing into piles of decaying lumber. One somewhat leveled spot in the edge of the woods had a small clump of bright yellow daffodils marking this as the site of the long-ago house of a long-ago family.

We noticed a new fence in the back yard of a house that had been vacant for several years after the child moved away and the parents died. The large shaggy dog lying in the yard was gazing off into the distance across the creek. At that moment the Carrie Newcomer song “Learning to Sit with Not Knowing” was playing on the car CD player. That reminded me of a drawing depicting “mindfulness” which showed a man and a dog walking toward a wooded landscape with the sun setting beyond. The thought bubble above the man showed his concerns about all the tasks he needed to be doing, problems with work, money worries, etc. The bubble above the dog showed the scene before them: the trees and the setting sun.

We passed a neighbor’s young dog who seems to spend all his time chained outside a small shed beside the road. He was probably a rescue dog, skinny and fearful-looking when he first came to this place. He’s more robust looking these days and always appears happy to see us when we pause to greet him. Today he was lying outside his shelter, basking in the warm sunshine after a few cold, wet days.

At home again we put up three bird feeders filled with the black oil sunflower seed we had just bought in town. By the time I got back inside, two young deer who visit frequently were looking quizzically at the feeders and checking some favorite spots for the corn I sometimes put out for them. I quickly got some corn and took it out; the crows found the new treat first but there should still be some left when the deer return.

While putting out the food for our visitors, I noticed that periwinkle blooms are beginning to show in the front yard, small, bright blue flowers on evergreen vines that continue to spread. We have seen periwinkle patches along roadsides or in wooded places where once there were homes. Our plants came from Carole’s parents’ home and from the long-ago homesite of her third great grandparents which we discovered some years ago in the woods alongside a creek named for their family. We’re glad that now they mark the site of our homeplace here on the mountain.

These were our few encounters on this Saturday morning—moments of meeting and moments of meaning.

Running Out to Get a Bag of Flour

We just ran out yesterday to get a bag of flour. But this was not just any flour. It is supposed to be “soft” flour. We weren’t really sure what that meant, but a little research showed soft flour is made from soft wheat which has less protein and lower gluten content. It is generally what is used for cake flour and for great biscuits. We didn’t especially care about those facts. This was a good excuse (as if we needed one) to take a break from several days of writing and house addition planning. It also was good reason to get out into the bright sunshine on a warmer-than-it-has-been day and drive seventy-five miles or so to Boonville, North Carolina to the Boonville Flour and Feed Mill and its companion store, both built way back in 1896.

The store had lots to choose from and we didn’t resist getting more than just the flour, as can be seen from one of the accompanying photos. In addition to multiple types of flour and baking mixes, there were candies, pickles, canned veggies, sorghum molasses, and almost any type of preserve, jelly, and jam one could possibly want. There was even one jar labeled “Traffic Jam”; I meant to check the ingredients on that one, but unfortunately got distracted.

While the flour mill store was great, a trip off the mountain at this time of year is always a treat. We got to see spring working its way up the mountain as we drove to the lower elevation. And when we got down to Wilkesboro and beyond, it was delightful to see how many plants were in full bloom and how much more the trees and shrubs had leafed out in the short time since we had been there on another day out. Of course taking a few pictures is always part of our travels. Here are a few.

Some of our flour selections

We saw Bradford Pears everywhere in splendid bloom.

One of numerous fields carpeted in lovely “weeds”

I can’t resist an old farmhouse.

One gorgeous landscape!

These beauties watched us while we were watching them.

Oh, those lovely dark eyes!

We even found a few ladybugs for the wall of our little barn.

The Robins Have Landed

As I was driving home from town a few minutes ago, I saw several flocks of robins along the way, some within a half mile of our homeplace. These are the first flocks I’ve seen here this year, though I have noticed a couple of isolated individuals during the past week or so. Flocks of robins are a sure sign for us that spring is coming; unfortunately it means that spring is probably still at least a couple of months away. The robins always seem to come too early up here, usually after a period of mild weather and just before some more snow. In fact, as I am writing this, big flakes of snow have begun pouring down and the ground has been quickly covered. Only an inch or two is expected with this system, but many of our biggest snows have come in March or April. There surely will be more winter weather before spring actually arrives at our homeplace, probably sometime in May. Maybe the robins will fly to more hospitable locales not too far away for a few more weeks.

One of the benefits of living on this mountainside is that we get to enjoy the changes of the seasons each time we leave home. While the snow covers the ground here today, there may be no snow at all in Boone which is about a thousand feet lower than our homeplace. We won’t see flowers and leaves on our trees for at least two more months. But when we go into town now, leaf buds are showing red on maple trees, hints of green are visible on willows and shrubs, and even a few flowers are peeking out. We went off the mountain (another couple of thousand feet lower) for a few days earlier in the week and were treated to blossoms of cherry and pear trees, redbuds, flowering quince, and lots of daffodils in full bloom. Returning home we get to enjoy the changes in reverse. In spring we are able to see the greening of the mountains as it works its way from bottom to top. In autumn the changing leaf colors progress from top to bottom. When we want something different, we just go higher or lower.

Spring is truly a delightful time of year, but so are the other seasons. Each has its own unique experiences and treats for us to enjoy. Some people definitely prefer one season over the others and winter is not usually the top choice for most people, especially after long spells of too cold winds and too much snow and ice. But for now I’ll enjoy watching the falling snow. The coming of spring will be that much more spectacular in contrast.

Thanks to the Female Friends of My Youth

I am very grateful to the girls and young women with whom I shared the first twenty-plus years of my life. You meant a lot to me during that time. You contributed much to my development. You had a tremendous impact on my beliefs, my attitudes, and on the person I have become.

Many of you were my closest and most special friends during the years we were together. I bonded with you. I respected you. We worked and played together. We helped each other. We challenged each other. We could share strengths and weaknesses, admit them in ourselves and point them out in each other, and maybe help each other to use that knowledge to build upon.

You demonstrated that you were intelligent, self-confident, caring, sensitive, articulate. We could talk about ideas, cares, concerns, hopes, dreams, sorrows, plans. As you grew into young women, those important characteristics grew as well.

The community where we lived and the schools we attended were major factors in the attitudes we developed and the nature of the relationships that followed.

An important part of the lives of many of us during those earlier years was Park Circle and the variety of programs offered by the community center located there. The playground sports programs which were a popular part of the activities at Park Circle were available for both boys and girls beginning at elementary school age. While the leagues were separated by gender, the girls’ programs were given equal emphasis and were well-supported and well-attended. The girls’ athletic abilities were respected. Boys attended and cheered for the girls’ competitions and the girls did likewise for the boys. When we moved from playground to high school sports, the girls continued their participation and received the boys’ enthusiastic support.

The schools also had a profound influence on our development and our attitudes. North Charleston Elementary School and North Charleston High School valued and encouraged educational achievement. In classes both girls and boys were among the best students. The same group was usually together in most classes, girls and boys together, learning together, challenging each other, helping each other, respecting the abilities and accomplishments of each other. We enjoyed each other. Outside classes both girls and boys were involved in leadership and support roles in school organizations and clubs. The successful functioning of all the school activities depended on the contributions of girls and boys working together.

Because of these and many other early experiences, I never had any question about the equality of the sexes. I knew that females were at least as able as males. Sometimes boys came out ahead at something and sometimes it was girls who were ahead, but usually it was a mixture. It wasn’t one’s gender that made the difference in performance; it was one’s individual abilities and how they were applied that mattered.

When the women’s movement became a prominent force in the 1960s, there was no question in my mind that the changes sought were, of course, long overdue. Too frequently our society has relegated females to second-class status and has made it more difficult for girls and women to gain the recognition, respect, and rewards they merited. I knew that girls and women deserve to have their abilities, achievements, and value acknowledged by all of society. The importance of the girls and women with whom I had lived in North Charleston had always been abundantly clear. And in the years since my youth in North Charleston my spouse, my daughter, my granddaughters, my daughter-in-law, and numerous other girls and women have reinforced the lessons I learned during those early years.

While talking with some friends recently I’ve had the opportunity to tell them about the special relationships I shared with girls and women during my early years in North Charleston. I’ve not been in contact with most of the people I knew back in North Charleston, but I really wanted to tell my female friends and acquaintances from those days how much you have meant to me. I thank all of you and am forever grateful for the influence you have had on my life. I expect you have continued your development into even stronger individuals than you were during the years I was with you in North Charleston. And I hope that you have received appropriate recognition for all your achievements and true respect for your abilities and your contributions to those around you.

Spring Is Coming, Just Not Yet

The weather this day is not especially unusual for mid-March here at our homeplace. It’s not extremely cold (19 degrees overnight and 21 degrees at noon), but we do have about ten to twelve inches of newly fallen snow on the ground and it’s still coming down steadily. Wind gusts tonight and tomorrow are predicted to be in the 50 to 60 mph range. The birds were attempting to get the few remaining seeds from the snow-covered food bowls, so we cleared containers, replenished the food supply, and moved the bowls to a slightly more sheltered location on the deck. We just made a path to our car, cleared snow and ice from the doors and windows, and drove the three-tenths mile to our mailbox to retrieve a package, making a bit of a track through the snow with our tires. The snow is incredibly beautiful, but it seems this might be a good day to post some non-snow photos. I hope you enjoy them. Remember, spring officially begins just six days from today.

Flame azalea (wild)

Bleeding heart

 

Bee on goldenrod

Fritillary butterfly on coneflower

Daisies (wild)

Turk’s cap lily (wild)

Bees on sunflower (planted by chipmunks)

Flame azalea (wild)

They May Be Small, But They Can Be Fierce

We have four varieties of squirrels living around us: flying squirrels, fox squirrels, gray squirrels, and red squirrels. The first two types have been seen by us only rarely. The flying squirrel has visited only once on a night a couple of years ago; it moved so fast snatching food on our deck that we barely saw it then. The impressive fox squirrels (about twice the size of gray squirrels) live primarily in the piedmont and coastal regions of North Carolina, but a small, growing population lives in the three county area which includes our homeplace. Still, we’ve only seen this rare creature twice and never before two years ago. Our most common encounters are with the familiar gray squirrels and the perhaps less-well-known little red squirrels, both of which are frequent daily visitors.

All of the squirrels are amazing to watch. I admire their agility and daring in moving from tree to tree, finding a path through the maze of interconnecting branches, sometimes leaping great distances or dropping from one tree to another. They climb the posts and beams on the deck, clamber down wires and chains to reach hanging feeders, and then hang upside down by the toes of their back feet while helping themselves to the seed or suet that was mostly intended for the birds. I can’t help but marvel at the intelligence and determination they apply to their pursuit of food, as anyone who has birdfeeders knows very well.

I enjoy observing all our wildlife neighbors, but I’m especially fond of the little red squirrels. It’s difficult to imagine an animal cuter than these characters. And the poses they strike appear so friendly, tiny paws clutched in front of their chests and big, dark eyes seeming to beg, “Can I please have some more sunflower seed now?” Who could resist such a plea?

Who wouldn’t be charmed by this cutie?

The little red squirrels (notice that I usually add the adjective little; it just seems a natural part of their name) don’t appear particularly disturbed by my presence when I am near them on the deck. As long as they can continue eating, I can go about my activities; they are not bothered by me and I’m not bothered by them. They will actually come up to the food bowls while I am still adding sunflower seed or corn. Occasionally when I have been attempting to shoo one off a suet feeder so the birds can get something to eat, I’ve had to poke the little squirrel with my finger to get it to yield its place.

Other animals and birds aren’t tolerated as well by the little red squirrels, at least when it comes to food. We usually have at least two containers (bowls, trays, and pans all work) with sunflower seed or cracked corn available on the deck. Many times we see a squirrel enjoying its meal while sitting in one of the two food containers. Several feet away is the second bowl with plenty of food available for another squirrel to come and dine. Yet, if another red or gray squirrel approaches, it is likely to be charged by the fierce little red squirrel who was on the deck first. Back and forth they go, first contending over possession of one bowl and then the other. If the intruder is another red squirrel, it is likely to be persistent enough and fierce enough to eventually win a grudging truce that allows each squirrel to eat from its own container. However, if a gray squirrel is involved, it’s much more likely to give up and go elsewhere looking for food, even though it is twice the size of the little red squirrel.

The standoff

Recently we’ve observed several encounters with crows competing with the red squirrels for their share of the food. Crows also like sunflower seed and corn (and just about anything else that might be available) and are frequent visitors on our deck. Crows are surprisingly large birds. They also are very wise, very observant, and very cautious. But when they see a good serving of food waiting to be taken, they are willing to risk a confrontation. The bravest crow will land on the far end of the deck, usually backed by several of its companions. Gradually and cautiously the crow will begin edging its way toward the food, its zigzag path allowing it to check that we are not coming out onto the deck to interfere. It also keeps its eyes on the little red squirrel sitting in the food bowl, assessing the potential threat from the much smaller creature. A few steps closer, a few steps back, approaching first from one direction and then another, the crow moves toward the food. But eventually the squirrel makes its charge and the crow jumps away. The red squirrel is such a tiny little thing, but fierceness is not necessarily determined by size. No doubt the crow will eventually get some of the available seed, but only after the little red squirrel has its fill. What fun it is to watch their dance around the food bowl. 

Sorry, but the little one ate it all this time.