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.

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.

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.

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.

Cold Mountain Spring Water

When we found the property that was to become our home here on this mountainside, we were delighted to discover that there was a year-round spring in the woods near our proposed homesite. Hopefully we would not have to drill a well with all the uncertainty and expense that might involve. The spring did not produce a huge amount of water, but after making a crude dam across the spring’s outflow and measuring the average volume of water produced per minute we figured it would be satisfactory for our needs. So we had a potential source to supply our water needs, but that didn’t mean we would have free water. Both physical effort and financial input would be needed before we could make use of our spring.

The area around the spring was very boggy, so we had to do a lot of digging before we could isolate the main spot where the flow of water emerged from the hillside. We built a concrete catch basin to contain the water with an overflow pipe to carry the precious liquid to a 500-gallon reservoir about thirty feet away. The water could now be collected, but unfortunately the spring was several hundred feet from the planned house location. It also was situated at an elevation about fifty feet lower than the house would be, so there could be no gravity-fed water supply; we would need to pump our water uphill to the house.

Whenever we could install a pump in the reservoir we would be able to send our always-cold mountain spring water through a pipe (buried three feet deep to prevent freezing in the winter) to our house. But it would be another year and a half before we completed installing our house wiring and plumbing and received the inspector’s final approval. Once that happened we finally had our spring water on tap in the house, to enjoy at the turn of a faucet.

Enjoy it we do! Cold mountain spring water on demand, naturally chilled to about 40 degrees (the average year-round temperature of the earth through which the water flows to the spring). People pay a dollar or more per liter for spring water in the grocery store. We’re able to use it for watering the garden, washing clothes, showering, cooking, and best of all for drinking.

The work involved in accessing our spring water is not completely behind us. The spring has never failed us during almost 39 years living here, even during drought years. Pumps on the other hand have failed all too frequently. Sometimes the pumps have suffered from lightning strikes, but usually it’s just been wear and tear. Unfortunately, the equipment failures seem to occur during the night, rainstorms, winter, or all three. Correcting the problem usually requires multiple treks down the hill to the spring and back, carrying tools and replacement pump, working by flashlight, communicating by walkie-talkie to turn electricity off and on at the house, and checking to see if everything is working yet.

It may not be what most people would consider the perfect setup, but we believe it’s been worth the effort. At the end of a hot day working in the garden or whatever project we’ve been involved with, we can sit and enjoy a nice cool glass of our mountain spring water. Plus we have the satisfaction of knowing we made it happen.

The History of Places

I love coming home to our place here on the mountain. Whether I’ve simply been to town for a few hours or have been away for several weeks on an extended trip, I feel joy as I get closer. The familiar shapes of the mountains silhouetted against the sky tell me I’m almost there. The house appears as I crest the final curve in our drive and I’m home.

We had similar feelings of delight when we first stepped onto this land almost forty years ago. We had come to North Carolina searching for property for what we hoped would become our forever home. None of the places we saw during the week we had available for our search were quite what we wanted. Before we packed and headed back to Kentucky, the realtor thought of one more place to show us. We came and looked and knew: this would be our home. As in the John Denver song we had listened to and thought about for several years, the country road did indeed “take me home to the place I belong”.

We have now lived the biggest part of our lives on this homeplace. We’ve worked and played, built and rebuilt, struggled and rejoiced, reared our children and sent them off into the world, and done so many other things. So many of our most memorable experiences have occurred here. All are attached to this place on our mountainside.

The events which have happened here and the memories associated with them have become bound up with the place itself. They give a history to this place. They make this spot come alive for me. I feel sure other people have experiences similar to mine. When we are in places where significant events have occurred, see images of those places, or even think of them, memories are stirred. Sometimes our recollections may rise into our consciousness; sometimes there may simply be a subconscious feeling that this place is important—something special happened here. I wonder whether in some unknown way the history and our memories and feelings become attached to the physical places themselves. Is there a memory within the place? Is it possible that a sensitive person coming to such a place might be able to sense those feelings and memories and tap into the history attached to the place.

Some years after we moved here we got involved in genealogical research. We started learning more about our ancestors: who they were, where they lived, what their lives were like. My parents’ families had lived in Georgia for generations. My parents moved to South Carolina after they married and that is where I grew up. Contrary to what the family might have believed, I discovered that my dad’s ancestors had not always lived in Georgia. In fact some of them had lived in North Carolina before heading further south. Over two hundred years ago a fifth great aunt of mine (the sister of my fourth great grandmother) lived less than three miles from our current homeplace on the very road we travel when we go into town. The mountain we see less than a mile to our east bears her family name. Perhaps even my fourth great grandparents visited them here as they were traveling to settle in Georgia.

Harmon Knob: named for my ancestors’ family over 200 years ago

Did the history attached to this place help to draw me here. I certainly wasn’t aware of that attraction at the time and don’t suppose I can ever know for sure. But I’d like to believe it did. I’ve sensed before a sort of communication over time and space. It’s similar to the communication which occurs when experiencing the works of writers, artists, philosophers, mystics, and others who lived in earlier times. Something touches us in those moments of contact and says, “This is something special. Pay attention”.

The soil, rocks, plants, and animals are all part of our land. We become part of the land as well if we allow ourselves to truly connect with it. I have become a part of this place as surely as it has become a part of me. Someday I expect to physically become part of the mountainside as my ashes are allowed to mix into the soil. I will have become part of the history of this place. Home. It’s always a good place to be.


A couple more photos of Harmon Knob at various times and seasons

 

The Mountain Ash Tree

The wind roared through the trees on our mountain homeplace today. It wasn’t as strong as a few days ago when gusts were above forty miles per hour. Such winds can be rough for weaker trees when the frozen soil is thawing and wet from melting snow. One of our mountain ash trees has been declining in the past few years. Some of its several trunks had begun showing signs of age (we planted the trees more than thirty years ago) and a number of its branches had already died. The wind was too much for this tree. When we saw it the next day, it was leaning at a forty-five degree angle, partially touching against the side of our little barn and threatening to fall across part of our garden fence.

Reluctantly, we acknowledged it was time to take action; the tree had to come down. We hated the prospect of losing this tree. It and all of our mountain ashes have been favorites, both for us and for the many birds who visit. It sits about thirty feet from our deck, a good distance for the birds to grab a few seeds from a feeder and fly to a nearby ash branch to eat in peace. The tip of the highest branch has also been a choice perch for one of the hummingbirds. It sits there and watches for another hummingbird intruding into its territory and then swoops down to assert its claim. This ash tree is also clearly visible from our windows and deck, its bright red clusters of berries particularly striking in the fall and early winter. The berries are also a favored food for migrating robins, cedar waxwings, and evening grosbeaks. We’ve had flocks drop in suddenly and consume the entire crop in a day, a real treat to see.

But today we had to remove this tree. Perhaps it can be replaced by one of the seedlings that had sprouted from berries dropped beneath its branches in past years. I pulled up twenty or so last fall and transplanted them to a small bed with the plan to plant them when the older trees died. We’ll see how that works out when spring hopefully brings the new growth.

Cutting and removing the tree was not the easiest of tasks today. It wasn’t nearly as cold as it has been during the past couple of weeks, but the temperature was still not much above freezing and the wind was brisk. The snow still on the ground made the sloping hillside slippery and the slush created by the brief period of sunshine quickly made boots and gloves wet and chilly. It also wasn’t the best of conditions for climbing even a short distance up the ladder, the base of which was resting on the previously mentioned slippery snow. But there were no mishaps.

Since the tree was leaning against the barn and partially overhanging the fence, I didn’t want it to continue falling in the direction it was headed. I secured a heavy rope around the two trunks and another rope around one of the foundation posts of our deck. Between the two ropes, I fastened a come-along, a hand-operated winch that enabled me to put some backward pressure on the tree trunks. I didn’t want the tree to fall farther toward the fence. Climbing the ladder with chainsaw in hand (never something I feel comfortable doing), I cut off the topmost branches that were the greatest threat to the fence. One branch landed partly across the fence but the heavy taut wire along the top of the fence supported the weight until we could move the branch. After the top branches were gone I cut sections farther down the trunks, a much simpler job since some of it could even be done from the ground.

So the tree is gone. Its familiar spot looks awfully empty after being occupied all these years by our beloved mountain ash. Memories remain—and pictures. I didn’t take photos of the process of cutting the tree, but I did take many of the tree itself, as a memorial to the tree and all the life forms it supported. I delight in the intricate patterns in the bark of our trees and the lichens and mosses which grow on their trunks and branches. These things are some of my favorite photography subjects. Here are a few of my photos of our beautiful mountain ash tree. They may appear to be abstract designs, but all are completely natural—nature in its amazing wonder. I hope you enjoy them as I do.

 

 

Cloud Hidden

Valley filled with clouds

Some years ago I read a book by Alan Watts entitled Cloud Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal. He began with a poem about a hermit, a zen master. When a seeker asked the location of the master, the reply was, “The master’s gone alone, Herb picking somewhere on the mount, Cloud-hidden, whereabouts unknown.”

Many days here on this mountainside, we also find ourselves cloud-hidden, surrounded by fog so dense that our whereabouts might be unknown even to ourselves were it not for familiar landmarks identifying the place.

People tend to think of fog and clouds as different entities. Fog is found at ground level while clouds are high overhead in the sky. Yet here in the mountains we have frequent opportunities to see that they are the same thing; it’s just a matter of location (or more accurately, elevation) that makes them different.

Most of the time we might indeed see the clouds high above, moving across the sky ahead of the winds. Other times they seem anchored to the tops of the mountains, sometimes not appearing to move for days. Travel higher up the mountain though and it is soon evident that the cloud and the fog are the same; the drop in visibility makes it obvious.

The mountain beyond the trees has disappeared in the fog.

On other days here at home the sky is clear and blue with not a cloud to be seen anywhere. On such days we can see for miles. But travel less than half a mile to a place from which we can see the nearby valley and we see a solid mass of clouds 2,000 feet below. The people there are locked in dense fog, the bases of the mountains are hidden, the tops of the mountains rise into the clear air above those low-lying clouds.

Observing clouds in the sky above can be endlessly fascinating with their myriad types and constantly changing shapes. Looking down into the valley and seeing the familiar mountain landscape transformed by the carpet of clouds brings forth gasps of wonder no matter how often the sight has been seen before. Being in the fog, actually inside a cloud, also gives rise to different feelings. There is a sense of mystery. Perhaps being deprived of the abundance of visual stimuli which usually surrounds us, enhances the remaining sensations. Walking through the meadow or the woods when fog limits visibility to ten feet or less focuses attention onto a smaller world. The budding branch of a favorite wild azalea comes slowly into view. A bit farther on, a familiar rock helps me place myself in my surroundings. The spring peepers calling from the bog along the creek, a clump of daisies passed a few days ago, the oddly bent limb from the ice storm last winter, the scent of honeysuckle growing on the bank at the side of our road, the change in the slope of the ground, all give clues to where I am at this moment. All stir memories of the times I noticed these small things before. They make me glad that I did notice them.

Sometimes we need help to be able to focus, to pay attention to what really matters. Perhaps that’s why the zen master went walking on the mountainside. Maybe when the cloud blocks out that which appears to us most easily, we are then able to see other things more clearly. Thanks be for the fog.

Work: Then and Now

Several years ago when we were planning to retire from our in-town occupations, many people would ask, “What will you do? Won’t you miss having your work to come to each day? Won’t you be bored?” The answer was always that we might miss the daily contact with customers, co-workers, or the general public that had been part of our daily routines for so many years, but we would definitely not miss having to leave our homeplace each day to go work at projects determined by someone else according to a schedule set by others. What to do was no concern since we had enough ideas for several lifetimes of things to do both separately and together. And please don’t mention that word “bored”; I can’t understand anyone with even half a mind ever having reason to be bored.

There is always plenty to be done around here, both work and non-work. I started to say play, but some of the non-work activities (writing, designing and planning building projects, photography) are more serious than play. Entertainment doesn’t cover it all, though we do make time for going to bluegrass jam sessions (as audience, not performers), listening to audiobooks, and traveling to attend grandchildren’s plays and concerts and sports events. Leisure sounds too much like sitting and doing nothing, which we sometimes do, but usually it’s more a matter of resting after some other strenuous activity. So there is plenty to do and we usually have pretty full days.

My best friend/partner/spouse usually (actually always) gets going faster in the mornings; I’m more of a slow starter, but once I get busy I often go straight through for eight to ten hours.

There has been lots of hard physical work in the years since retirement. There was hard work before retirement as well, but now there are more hours at home to devote to the physical tasks of construction, gardening, mowing, tree cutting and clearing, winter snow shoveling, and others. I realized recently that my weight fluctuates significantly from winter when I’m less active to summer when most of the more demanding work comes along; then I’m fifteen to twenty pounds lighter (about ten percent of my usual body weight).

Some days when I’m working I’m reminded of my days playing sports in my youth. I started team sports when I was six or seven years old and continued throughout high school. I worked hard at both practices and competitions, trying to always give it my all. The coaches were always pushing us to go harder and I did my best to do what they asked. I was usually worn out at the end of the day. Memories of those times come back to me as I work for hours digging to make planting beds, climbing up and down the ladder to put siding on the house, cutting trees and physically moving heavy logs, carrying fifty-pound bags of soil down the hill to the garden and then climbing up to do it over and over again. Thoughts keep going through my head, “Push harder. Keep going. You can do it.” There wouldn’t seem to be an obvious connection between childhood sports teams and the things I’m doing now, but apparently I learned a lot from those early efforts that is still with me today.

Sometimes CeCe worries about me working too hard, not taking enough breaks, wearing myself out. I’ve learned to be sure to take better care of myself, to not push myself unreasonably. The physical changes that have come with aging also help to remind me that maybe I’ve done enough of a given task for this day. But I’ve also said and continue to say, “If I should keel over in the midst of working one of these days, I want you and the rest of the family to know that these were things I wanted to do and that I enjoyed doing even though they were often physically difficult. I have been happy as I have been working. It wouldn’t be a bad way to go.”

A Bit of Weather

We’re closing the year (2017) with a period of cold weather, as is a large portion of the northern US. The temperature when we woke this morning was 14 degrees. The ground was covered with a light dusting of very fine snow and everything was covered in hoar frost (frozen fog). High temperatures for much of the past week were in the 20s and forecasts for the next week show highs in single digits or teens for most days and lows in single digits or lower. Many people think since we live in North Carolina we don’t have cold winters; this is the South after all. But we live in the northwest corner of North Carolina where our state meets Tennessee and Virginia and we live in the mountains, the Appalachians. The closest peaks which surround us range from about 4800 feet to 5600 feet and we nestle on the slope at 4200 feet. We’ve read that each thousand feet of increase in elevation above sea level is equivalent to moving 300 miles farther north. That calculation would put us well up in the upper tier of the US states. Comparing some of our winter temps with relatives and friends in Michigan and Minnesota, our extremes are not very different.

Of course weather depends on much more than just elevation. We get a good bit of snow most years, usually beginning during October and ending as late as May. The year we moved here we actually got about 3 inches on the Memorial Day weekend. The average annual snowfall at our house is probably around 50 inches, but one recent year recorded about 110 inches. The snow usually comes in spurts; we get several inches and then the weather warms and the snow goes away. But some years the ground has been covered from December through March. Our biggest single snowfall was about 30 inches; that required lots of shoveling to get in and out again.

Temperatures can also vary widely. We can usually expect at least a few winter nights when temperatures will drop below zero. Our all time low here at our house was a very chilly 32 degrees below zero. That was cold! But in summers a hot day is in the upper 80s; I don’t recall any days when the high got into the 90s. Average year-round temperature is about 40 degrees, which is the constant temperature of our spring water. We can live with no air conditioning in the house and still be comfortable most summer days. I’ll take that kind of summer heat anytime.

Winds are also a factor in our weather and can be quite a dramatic factor as you move higher up the mountains, particularly in more exposed locations. We are somewhat protected by the mountains to our north and west, but we can still get buffeted. It’s not unusual to have forecasts calling for gusts in the 50 to 60 mph range. We can hear the winds roaring across the ridges and coming down the slopes through the surrounding woods. And we can feel the house shaking during extremes, especially when a hurricane decides to come this far inland as several have during our time here.

So the weather here is interesting, changing frequently enough for our taste. We knew the winters would be cold and we hoped the summers would not be too hot. We have four good seasons, all of which we enjoy. What more could we want?