A House Open to the World

The kitchen window makes a perfect frame for this winter scene.

When we go into town or travel to cities around the country, we are struck by how different our daily environment is. The close proximity of other people and houses and streets necessitates different living conditions for city dwellers and even those living in closer rural communities. Obviously different people like different things. Many people would not care to live at the end of the road here on our mountainside, but this is just what we were looking for. I can understand the many reasons why people choose to live in cities, but I’m always glad when we get back here to our homeplace. One of the main reasons is that I love the openness of our house compared to the much more closed nature of many houses and other buildings, shut off from natural world, isolated from the occupants’ surroundings.

Our house has lots of windows. With the exception of cold wintry days or blowing rainstorms the windows are usually open. We have shades on most of our windows, but they are hardly ever pulled down. Living where we do at the end of our driveway at the end of our road, we have no reason to block the outside world. We can only see one other house from our location and we can barely see that when the trees are leafed out. We have no traffic passing by; the rare vehicle that appears is either for a delivery or someone who has taken a wrong turn.

The openness of the windows allows us better to see and experience the natural world in which we live. We are open to the sounds and scents that surround us. We hear the winds blowing over the ridges and through the trees. Dogs and coyotes bark and howl in the distance, cows moo in the pastures, and owls call in the night. The birds, squirrels, raccoons, and other animals come onto our deck or pass through the yard. The deer and turkeys move through the edge of the woods or walk down our drive. The clouds move across the sky and their shadows play across the mountains. We are aware of these things because our windows are uncovered. We delight in these experiences. They bring joy to our daily lives. We are so glad to be here.

Here are a few views from within our home.

Rhododendron in full bloom viewed through our living room window

Some visitors watching another visitor and vice versa.

It’s best to stay indoors to look out at this picnic table on our deck.

Rabbit and chipmunk enjoying lunch on the deck.

Eastern phoebe babies viewed through our porch door. Adult phoebes have used this nest for several years.

We look out at the snow because we can’t open the door.

Even our dear cat enjoys observing the outside world through the door.

One of our skunk friends. Some visitors are best viewed from inside the house.

We look out the window while this deer looks in.

So Much To See

Our quiet place here at the end of the road first greeted us with a meadow covered in a profusion of daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, and wild strawberries. But it had not always been that way. Not many years before we came here the land had been cleared and farmed. The son of a nearby neighbor whose family had once owned this land told us of helping his family clear the land and then grow cabbage, a common crop throughout the area even for some years after we arrived. The decaying remnants of split rail fences they had built bordered part of the property and locust posts remained where barbed wire fences had been placed. The woods still covering two-thirds of our homeplace even now contain stumps and moss-covered logs of the chestnut trees killed by blight in the early part of last century. Since chestnut trees made up an estimated one-fourth of all hardwood trees in the Appalachians before the blight, no doubt this mountainside was once covered with chestnuts.

The land continues to change. Obviously our presence here has had a large impact on the land closest around the house and garden, but that is a small part of our homeplace. The woods have retaken naturally part of the meadow that we were not using otherwise. An abandoned project of ours to raise Christmas trees in part of the meadow now gives us a sizable patch of 50-75 foot tall trees, mainly Norway Spruce, loved by deer and birds and who knows which of our other animal friends. Were we to stop maintaining the yard and garden areas, this would all quickly revert to woodland through the natural progression of an Appalachian hardwood forest.

We came here wanting to be in a place in the mountains, surrounded by nature, and we certainly are. To name a few of the things we have found here:

Trees: oaks, maples, cherries, black birches, hickories, elms, beeches, black locusts, tulip poplars, mountain magnolias (cucumber tree), ashes, hemlocks, cedars, white pines, sourwoods, serviceberries, hawthorns

Flowering plants: rhododendrons, flame azaleas, mountain laurels, dog hobbles, daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s Lace, wild strawberries, blueberries

Birds: chickadees, house finches, purple finches, tufted titmice, nuthatches, pileated woodpeckers, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern phoebes, evening grosbeaks, rose-breasted grosbeaks, bluejays, crows, barred owls, screech owls, barn owls, starlings, barn swallows, Carolina wrens, red-tailed hawks, sharp-shinned hawks

Mammals: red squirrels, grey squirrels, fox squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, skunks, possums, rabbits, grey foxes, red foxes, black bears, coyotes, mice, voles, bats

Reptiles: black snakes, corn snakes, garter snakes, ring-neck snakes

Amphibians: red-spotted newts, black salamanders, spade-foot toads, wood frogs, spring peepers

Grasses, “weeds”, and other small/low-growing plants: too numerous to begin listing

There are so many fascinating things to be observed even in this small patch of the world where we live. I get the feeling that many people never even see some of the most obvious things around them, too busy with the affairs of their everyday lives or perhaps thinking the natural world not important or not interesting enough to merit their attention. Many don’t know the names of the most common birds, trees, or flowers that surround them every day and are amazed when we recognize a wildflower from a distance or identify a bird by its flight pattern or call. So much is there to be seen by merely taking the time to notice. So much delight is there to be missed when we don’t pay attention to our natural surroundings.

The Harvest Before the Cold

[Written in October, 2017]

The temperature is supposed to drop into the 20s several nights during the next week and then only rise into the 30s in daytime. That’s not unusual weather for us. We had our first killing frosts of this year a week or so ago; that’s later than usual since the average first frost comes during the last week of September. Our weather has been generally warmer lately, but now the time to shift into cold weather mode is upon us. So today was a good time for us to harvest those few goodies still lingering in our garden.

Beans were first on the list. We got a late start on planting many things this year, so scarlet runner beans and Christmas limas were still hanging on our wonderful bean arch. The heavy wire cattle fencing panels arched across two raised beds and the walkway between gives us an arched trellis about six and a half feet high, eight feet wide, and twenty four feet long.

We can walk through the shady tunnel picking beans on each side and over our heads. Our delayed planting meant the plants did not reach full production this year, but we still got a good picking and enjoyed some for supper tonight.

Carrots, beets, and chard were also ready for this pre-cold weather harvesting. We were impressed and delighted with both the carrots and beets. We had thought neither crop was going to amount to much, so we were quite surprised when they were pulled from their hiding place beneath the soil to reveal some of our best looking roots ever. More good eating to look forward to on the coming winter nights.

There was also corn to be picked. This was not sweet corn; that had already been harvested and enjoyed earlier in the garden season. No this was what many people consider ornamental corn, used purely for decoration; however we harvest it dry to be ground with our small hand mill. We first tried this several years ago and discovered it makes the most delicious cornbread ever, with a wonderful chewy texture like no other. We had almost decided not to bother saving this corn crop. The late start coupled with some severe windstorms had left most of the stalks looking quite unpromising. The stalks were tall, but most had been blown over at a forty-five-degree angle and were twisted; the ears also seemed smaller and much less developed than in previous years. But since it was there, I picked it. It wouldn’t hurt to at least see what we had.

What a delight when I started pulling back the shucks. The ears were small and they were not very fully developed. But they were beautiful! Every ear was different, gorgeous mosaics in incredible shades of blues, burgandies, reds, yellows, pinks, whites, greys, and greens. I could hardly wait for the revelations of each new ear. And even the silks were a marvelous golden honey color, shining like silken strands of hair in the brilliant autumn sunlight. We hang the dried ears by their pulled-back shucks from a line stretched between two posts in our house, perfect decorations while awaiting their use in the cornbread.

As I was working with the corn (not really work, but pure pleasure), I was thinking how good it would be if everyone had at least a small garden, growing some of their own food, and participating in the cycle of planting and tending and then harvesting their crops. In this time when apparently many young people and even adults have no idea where many of our fruits and vegetables come from and what is involved in producing the food we eat, wouldn’t it good to have that link to the earth, the source of our sustenance.

I also thought with gratitude of those ancient ancestors back when our predecessors were hunter-gatherers. Over the course of untold ages those people closely observed the world around them and learned from the processes of the natural world. Those people saw how plants produced the food they consumed and realized they could use those processes to feed themselves. They developed the basics of agriculture, expanded it, improved it. How good it is to continue along that path they began.

I was just picking corn. But it was really so much more than that to me.