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.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

Beautiful and Cold New Year’s Day

Mountain to our east in hoar frost and snow

Our first day of 2018 dawned beautiful and very cold. The fine snow that started in the afternoon yesterday continued through the night, giving us a bit more than an inch by morning. The snow is very light and powdery because of the extremely dry air and bitter cold, -1 at its lowest overnight. 

We had to get out for a bit to walk through the quiet beauty and take a few photos. We already have so many we’ve taken on snowy days over the years but can never resist taking a few more. Seems that having the camera in hand focuses my attention on the beautiful sights to be seen all around us. The snow also accentuates the shapes and forms of the mountains and trees. The fluffy snow sits in puffs atop the pine and spruce needles, occasionally coming off in a cloud of snow dust when a sudden gust shakes the branches. Rhododendron leaves are curled tight against the cold. Even though we see these places every day, each new day is unique and every view is rewarding.

Tracks in the snow reveal that our rabbit friends have been out and about, going up and down our road, sometimes individually and sometimes in pairs. A neighbor cat who frequently comes to check us out has also left the prints of its slow, methodical walk. Someone else has been running along the road, larger than a cat but smaller than most dogs – perhaps a fox. I would love to be able to see all the coming and going during the nights.

The birds are staying close around the suet feeders today; cold weather brings them out in profusion. They all appear about twice their normal sizes, feathers fluffed up to provide extra insulation against the cold. Melting snow drips from a corner of the roof  and is forming a large icicle on one of the feeders, making the diners dodge the possible cold shower. 

Returning to the welcoming warmth of our house in winter is always a delight. We can sit and watch our little friends and still enjoy the views of the snow-covered landscape. What a great way to start this new year. I hope your New Year’s Day and all your coming days will be great also. May you enjoy them all!

Puffs of snow on pine needles

Fraser Fir with snow sitting atop hoar frost

Icy suet feeder

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.