Who Is That Man in the Mirror? When Did He Become a Gnome?

Can that really be my own reflection that I see each morning in the mirror? Surely that’s not the way I look now. When did I turn into a gnome? The person I see before me doesn’t match the mental image I have of myself.When we see something daily like a landscape or a town, we are less likely to be conscious of the little changes that result with the passage of time. If a few weeks or even months have passed, we might only notice fairly obvious differences. A year passes and lots of things have been transformed—the trees and plants around a house have grown dramatically, new buildings and roads have appeared in the town. But when thirty or forty or fifty years intervene, landscapes and towns can become strange and unfamiliar places. It’s the same with people. Daily contact means only big changes are apparent: a different hair style or a new outfit. Meeting an old friend after a year, we might be aware of more wrinkles and less hair. However, the passage of fifty or sixty years can make a once well-known face virtually unrecognizable, even when the person happens to be oneself.

I’m not sure what age I actually perceive myself to be. It seems to depend in part on my particular activity at the moment. I know that I am now seventy three years old, so I’m in my seventy-fourth year of life. Yet when my muscles and joints are cooperating and I’m fully engaged in an enjoyable pursuit, I may feel like I’m thirty or forty years younger. On the other hand, at the end of a particularly difficult day of hard physical labor, I probably feel more like I’m several years older than my actual age. But my picture of myself, the image of how I think I look to myself and to others, does not seem to be altered as much by my activity level. I believe that image is stuck somewhere between my thirties and my fifties.

A photo of myself from years past compared to a more current picture or my daily looks into the mirror give undeniable evidence of my present appearance. Obviously I have changed physically over time, as well as in so many other ways. It’s a real challenge for me to recognize the younger me in the present me I see in the mirror. Did I ever really look like the much younger person in those early photos? How is it possible for one’s physical features to be altered that much over the course of a lifetime? But it does seem to happen to most of us. A recent reunion of my high school class was attended by some fifty people, many of whom I had been with daily during our years of elementary and high school. A few of my former classmates were easily identifiable even though I had not seen them for fifty five years. But outside of the context of the class reunion (and without the great assistance of name tags) I would not have recognized most of those present and they would not have known me. Over the course of the evening there were various signs that stirred memories of our years together: the look of someone’s eyes, the sound of their voice, the way they acted. Some of the physical characteristics from long ago were still familiar even after all those years.

Yes, I am the man facing me in the mirror. I’m well aware of all the physical transformations that have taken place in my body. It is easy to see and feel the changes that the years have brought. But the person within has also changed throughout my life. Those inner changes are impossible to see, but I know they are there and I know they have been even more dramatic than the physical ones I view in the mirror. I’ve been shaped by the forces and environment surrounding me throughout my life. But more importantly, I’ve made choices and taken actions which have determined who I am today. Every experience has influenced my development: the events I have lived through, the things I have seen, the people I have known, the lessons I have learned, the values I have found. There have been so many differences and departures from what I expected to be the course of my life so long ago as a teenager. Many of the things I once thought were most important in my life have been replaced by different values. The goals I wanted to pursue were altered long ago. The decisions I made have led in directions I never imagined at the time. But the paths I chose to follow led me to become the person I am today. I would not change them even if I could. I am who I want to be and I’m in the place where I want to be.

Attending the high school reunion mentioned above was the impetus that started me thinking about my changing appearance over the years. I thought the title “My Transformation into a Gnome” would be appropriate, with a collection of photos showing my looks from then to now. I am including some of those pictures below so you can see the changes for yourself; most people reading this could probably assemble a similar gallery of their own transformation. But why describe myself as a gnome? I first used the term when I looked at some photos of myself taken at the time of Carole’s retirement. “I look like a gnome,” was the description I voiced at the time. Even then, now eight years ago, when we first used the term, I saw many photos of myself looking rather gnomish, an impression I think has only become stronger over time. The story is summarized in a blog post by my wife Carole entitled “The Origins of the Gnome and Crone” in which she writes about herself as the Crone (a wise and experienced older woman—an excellent description of her) and me as the Gnome.

The Gnome and Crone when we first named ourselves

Most people are likely familiar with the images of gnomes that appear frequently in garden shops, greeting cards, and many other places. Some gnomes have more appealing appearances than others. I don’t really claim to look much like the cute little garden gnome in the picture below, but when we were given this small garden sculpture a few years ago, we loved it. We’ve adopted it as representing Carole and me as the Gnome and Crone.

I made a brief search to learn more about this being whose name is now associated with me. Various dictionaries identify a gnome as “a diminutive spirit”, an “ageless dwarf” who usually guards treasure, or a “small creature with an affinity for the earth.” One source says “they are known to be cheery, if not slightly mischievous.” Many of those words seem to fit me pretty well. I’m small, love the earth and all the natural world around me, am generally cheerful, and am frequently mischievous. Each of us can decide whether the one definition of a gnome as “a small ugly person” applies to me as well.

While I have some of the characteristics of a gnome, at least one image of a troll also bore some resemblance to me. When we first came to our place here on the mountain, we chanced upon the picture postcard below which shows a painting by Rolf Lidgren. It depicted a troll family on a mountainside with the adults preparing a meal while the two children were busily picking and eating wild berries. We thought that image showed our idyllic life here pretty accurately, except we don’t have pointed ears and long tails. Maybe I’ve developed into part person, part troll, and part gnome.

Trolls by Rolf Lidgren

An article about the history of gnomes provided some additional tidbits about the origin of garden gnomes. It seems the idea may go back almost two thousand years to the Roman emperor Hadrian who had quiet hermits living and helping in his garden. And wealthy English landowners in the eighteenth century decorated their gardens with bearded “ornamental hermits” who were hired to live in rustic, unheated buildings on their land, thereby providing a certain unique character to the place. Again there are similarities with me, especially during the time since we came to this mountainside. I’m bearded, generally quiet, and something of a hermit by nature. I also love working in our garden and we certainly lived in a rustic, unheated building during our early years here at our homeplace. Whether I can be considered an “ornamental hermit” is debatable.

So who is that man in the mirror and when did he become a gnome? Well, he’s definitely me, just me with whatever qualities and characteristics and physical features have been developing over the years. Maybe I’ve always been evolving into a gnome. So if I do look like a gnome and possess some of a gnome’s other characteristics, it’s just fine with me to continue being known as The Gnome.

* * * * * * * * * *

I’m not sure about the dates of some of these photos, but my captions should be pretty close. The quality of the pictures also varies because the originals came from different sources and were gathered over many years, but they still give a good idea of the changes that have taken place.

1947?

1951?

1965?

1967

1968

1970

1971

1979

1984

1990?

2005

2008?

2010

2013

2014?

2015

2017

2019

 

An Exciting Day

We had an exciting day yesterday here in the mountains. A week or so ago I wrote about all the bird nesting activity we’ve been having around our home. While the phoebes and juncos had finished with their nests, the wrens nesting on our deck were still very active. The adults had been busy with their non-stop food delivery to the young ones we could hear cheeping in the nest. A little head or two had begun peeking over the top of the board in the roof structure which hid the nest from our view. Then during this past week one or two of the young wrens sometimes climbed up from the nest to sit briefly on the board, surveying their surroundings before diving back into the nest when their parents approached with food.

Yesterday Carole and I had to go out of town for an appointment with our departure planned for 11:00 am. We ate breakfast in our usual spot where we could enjoy watching the coming and going of the wrens. Two young wrens we had seen before seemed even more active than on most days, coming up from the nest after every visit by the parents. Sometimes one would even stay sitting on the board when the adult returned with food and fed the eager young one. Once or twice the boldest young wren hopped along the board until it was about a foot away from the nest, sat for a few seconds, and then hurried back into the nest again. On some of its ventures out this wren would grip the edge of the board with its feet and lean over to look down to the floor eight feet below, occasionally flapping its wings for a few seconds but still holding tightly to the solid wood under its feet.

We wondered whether all this activity meant the young were getting closer to the time when they had grown enough to be ready to leave the nest. Surely it must be getting crowded in their tiny home since they now appeared to be about the same size as the adults, if not slightly larger. As we continued to watch, the two little heads we had seen peeking from the nest area became three little heads for the first time. After a few more minutes all three babies decided to climb up and perch on the board. Three little wrens, all sitting side by side and looking at their larger world. What adventurers they were.

By that time we needed to be getting ready to leave, so we reluctantly took turns away from our viewing location, calling activity reports to each other. I was still upstairs when Carole excitedly yelled, “Ron, there are four of them out of the nest. Now there are five! Now there are six!!” Needless to say, I hurried downstairs in amazement and delight to see this wonder. Before I could get there the first bold little wren had flown away from their perch and a second had flown a couple of feet to a nearby beam. I did see that second wren fly down to the lower deck rail and then later fly off into a nearby tree. And I did get to see the four remaining wrens sitting together and then one by one fly away from the nest site in different directions. We could hear the adults chattering their messages to their babies and we were excitedly doing the same as we urged, “Come on. You can do it. You can fly down and get your own food now. It’s not so far. Yes! That’s the way. You did it.”

The last of the six was the smallest and the most hesitant. Its big leap was more a flutter than a flight as its tiny wings slowed its descent to the floor of the deck. But then after a brief rest it actually flew fifteen feet and disappeared into the leaves of the trumpet vine at the corner of the deck, its short little tail clearly visible as it moved away from us. Now they are all off with their parents or on their own. We haven’t seen them since yesterday, but hopefully we will see them around from time to time. Maybe they will even grace our home with a nest of their own next year.

Carole had seen all six of the baby wrens make their first flights and I had seen five of them. We both had beamed with excitement and joy, ecstatic at our good fortune. An hour later and we would have been driving down the mountain and would have missed this big moment. The rest of the day was good as well. A few minutes after leaving home we passed a few feet from a mother turkey and at least three young turkeys a foot or so tall. As we came home in late afternoon, an older fawn, still spotted but much larger than a newborn, crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the woods. And once we were home, the two mama raccoons came to our yard and our deck to get some needed nourishment; both are no longer as skinny as when they first started visiting. It was a very good day, an exciting day, made especially great by the flight of the baby wrens.

There wasn’t much time for pictures, but here are a few.

And then there were three.

And then there were two.

Come on. You can do it too.

And then there was one. But not for long.

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.

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.