All posts by sigmon-carow

Views from Other Ridges

If you are a repeat visitor to this site, you may have noticed that the “header” at the top of the page (the wide photo) changes each time you navigate here or reload. The software randomly serves you one of the images we have designated for this space. And, if you have read our “ABOUT …” page, you know that the “view” of our title is a metaphorical one. We do live in a place of wonders, but we cannot see the ocean from East Tennessee, nor do we have horses in our neighborhood. Those headers are mementos of travels off our ridge.

So it is not cheating that the latest addition to our header images is a famous panoramic view some 400 miles northeast of us. In that view, we are standing in West Virginia. In the valley below, the Potomac River flows toward us and (out of sight below the photo) curves to the right below our overlook. Maryland is on the right side of the river. The distant mountains just visible on the right are in Pennsylvania. The view is famous; the photo is Nancy’s—one of those marvels of digital photography in which you slowly pan from left to right while the camera shoots rapid-fire stills and then stitches them together to form the panoramic image.

Potomac River from Cacapon Mountain, WV
Potomac River from Cacapon Mountain, WV

From that overlook off WV 9, west of Berkeley Springs, on the west slope of Cacapon Mountain, the diligent observer might catch glimpses of history. We are told that colonial partakers of the waters at Berkeley Springs, including George Washington, rode out to this same vista. And in the valley below, the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad competed to link the Ohio Valley with the Atlantic ports. (Both began construction on Independence Day of 1828.) While we were standing at the overlook, a train of the B&O’s modern day successor (CSX) ran below us on the near side, on original right-of-way. Remnants of the C&O Canal (in commercial operation until 1924) still exist on the Maryland side of the river.

I knew nothing of this history when we set out that day. Arrested by the visual view, we stopped, read the roadside plaques, and stumbled onto another view—of history and geography and technology—of which I had been barely aware. That happens to me often. I have written earlier about the joy of filling in my terra incognita. But my incognita are not limited to terra. On a good day, and there are many, I am blessed with some new view, some new knowledge, some new insight. Travel is good for opening vistas. As are books.

It has been a good reading year. Favorite authors Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, Isabel Allende, and Charles Frazier, through books new to me and others read for the third time, have taken me to Haiti, Chile, Mexico, the Amazon, Napoleonic Spain, Colonial California, Congo, New Orleans, the Cherokee Nation, and the southern Appalachians, to the world of opera and the showmanship of magicians, to transcontinental migrations of species and the tortured home fronts of the American Civil War. Ken Follett took me to medieval Europe and on a breathtaking tour of the Twentieth Century’s follies; Robert Hicks back to the Civil War and New Orleans.

As I think about the vistas that I’ve encountered, I realize that newness is only part of the thrill—in fact, the lesser part. What most excites me and draws me farther in is the interconnectedness, the sense of unity.  What I see anew or afresh is part of a whole I’d perceived, and still perceive, only dimly. Other books, news stories, magazine articles, roadside plaques, random conversations, and other sources connect and re-connect to places and times and themes that are somewhat familiar and yet made more complete by the connection. The blank places on my map get filled in. And yet, in every case, new blanks appear. It turns out that not only is what I don’t know limitless, but what I don’t know about what I don’t know is also limitless. That is strangely exciting. There is still so much more to see!

The Tricybicle Trip

Nancy was to give a workshop this weekend, and attend the opening reception for a show which includes some of her paintings. But a water leak in the Ice House nixed those plans, and the activities will be rescheduled. The rest of the trip, however, was great.

GW-Bathtub
George Washington’s Bathtub, Berkeley Springs, WV.

We delivered the paintings early in the week and then played tourist. Berkeley Springs, WV, (originally Town of Bath, VA) has a long history as a tourist destination, due to its warm mineral springs, mountain setting, and proximity to Washington and Baltimore. George Washington spent time there, and one person-sized spring-fed hole in the valley floor is called his bathtub. We did some driving, some hiking, some good eating.

Then we moved on, through Harpers Ferry and the horse country of northern Virginia, to visit the grandkids. We had the opportunity to spend a whole day with them while their parents were at work. The three-year-old has always favored his grandfathers over the grandmothers, so it was a delight for Nancy to be the favorite of the almost-one-year-old, who constantly flashed her smile and her two teeth. Grandson and I spent some time with his “tricybicle” (TRI-si-BI-kul), but he is mostly a sticks-and-stones kind of guy with a great imagination. Sticks become smokestacks, vacuum cleaner extension wands become leaf blowers, and play is accompanied by complex story monologues.

We returned to Berkeley Springs, where we learned of the cancelations and decided to go home early. Travel is fun—seeing new sights and learning new things and eating new foods. But there is no place like home.

Dumpster Diving

“Is that trash?” asks Nancy, pointing to a large barrel on wheels.

“Help yourself,” replies the Home Depot guy.

So Nancy begins pulling lumber pieces out and loading them into our cart. Not fancy lumber, but the rough stuff used to protect the good stuff from the steel bands that hold the bundles together for transport.

“You have a place for that in your studio?” I ask. (Translation: That’s not going in my shop.)

“Yes.” She makes two or three more trips from the trash barrel to our cart.

“I repeat: You have room for that in your studio?” She gives me a look—part smile and part not—and I walk away.

Later, in the car as we chuckle about it, I tell her I read that smile to say, I”m going to keep this up until you get that disapproving look off your face. She does not deny it.

I married a dumpster-diver. Actually, I married into a family of dumpster-divers and hoarders. When I first met him, Nancy’s father still had a coffee can of bent and rusty nails he’d salvaged from his father’s hoard. (That story may be apocryphal; memory is a funny thing.)

I suppose there has never been a shop or studio whose occupant thought it was big enough. But even against that standard, Nancy and I have far too little space in our respective realms relative to the equipment, materials, and projects they contain. (That was true even before our son brought home a 280Z for restoration and began scattering parts and tools everywhere. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

So the struggle over what to keep and what to throw away is intense in our house. Since Nancy grew up in a household of creative reuse and since many of her projects tend toward collage, her predilection is to save. Mine is to toss and reclaim some space. I confess, many’s the time I threw away a lumber scrap only to need it a week later. Many’s the time I have asked Nancy, “Do you have ____?” and she does. And yet, other scraps I have saved for years without finding a use for them, until they’d mildewed beyond salvage.

In the ensuing week after the Home Depot episode, Nancy spent a great deal of time rearranging her studio and moving some little used stuff out as she gears up for some larger projects. Yet the salvaged sticks still reside in a place of honor inside the door. Except for the ones I borrowed today—temporarily—for a project of my own.

The premier dumpster-diving story in our family involves a rescued dolphin, Greek pastry, and a stroller. We were in Florida on vacation, and on our way to see Sunset Sam at the Clearwater Aquarium. Sunset Sam had injuries that prevented his release back into the wild, and had been taught to paint with a brush in his teeth. He was a regular on our vacation agendas until his death a few years later. On this visit, Jay was about two. He fell asleep in the car before we arrived, so we decided to abort the Aquarium stop and let him nap, while we went to Tarpon Springs for Greek pastries. Nancy was driving, and I had just mumbled something about how uncomfortable it would be to carry a sleeping two-year-old around in the heat when she suddenly did a u-turn on a residential street and stopped next to a pile of trash awaiting pickup. A stroller. Rather, a rusty stroller frame, the canvas seat rotted out. Jay’s car seat fit perfectly in the frame. We used that stroller frame for the rest of our trip. When I threw it into a dumpster as we packed up for our return to Tennessee, Jay cried. His mother’s son.

Introducing Nancy’s Art

Nancy says, “I’ve spent much of my working career applying visual arts to practical problems—as graphic designer for paying clients and as pro bono designer for children’s advocacy and church organizations. These paintings are the art I do for myself.

“Acrylics are a delightfully diverse medium. Apply them thin as a wash or thick as modeling paste. Apply in layers—for instance, adding complementary colors successively to yield complex color patterns. Blot, wipe, scrunch, splatter.  Acrylic glazes are a versatile way to incorporate the textures, shapes, and colors of found objects into a painting.

“I am fascinated with leaves. As stamps, masks, and appliqués, leaves find their way onto many of my paintings.”

In this post (below) we introduce some of the works Nancy has created using leaves as a theme. (Note also on the menu above, the addition of a gallery page with these same paintings. We will be adding other gallery pages, so keep checking back.)

Some of these paintings will be included in the Morgan Arts Council Ice House “Freedom of Expression” Exhibit, Berkeley Springs, WV, September 25 through November 8.

Nancy will also be teaching some of these techniques in a workshop at the Ice House, September 26.

Observations on the End of Summer

We are blessed, this last week of August, with a foretaste of autumn weather—low temperatures, low humidity, and clear blue skies. Today was a pleasant day for weeding, and Nancy and I pulled three large trash bags full. Also a pleasant day for the dog and I to take a long walk. We have several main loops and many variations, ranging from one to five miles. Today Mona pulled me into the longest one, the one with a stretch of gated-off utility access road on which I can remove her leash and let her roam.

An earlier signal of the end of summer is the return of the goldfinches to the dead seed heads in our coneflowers. From the first of August, walking out of the house or pulling into the driveway triggers flashes of yellow as the finches chitter off into the safety of tall trees. This year they have been especially present, in the flowers and drinking from the cup of water atop Nancy’s hummingbird feeder (the ant-stopping moat) just outside our dining room window. One morning as I ate breakfast, I was treated to repeated yellow flashes, lower right to upper left (coneflower garden to neighbor’s trees) culminating in a twister-like display as two spiraled around each other up into the forest. Fighting over a mate or food source? Or just a dance of delight?

Over the weekend, as I tended the compost bins, I uncovered two small snakes in the leaf pile. With some research, I identified them as juvenile black rat snakes. Apparently, what I have been calling a black snake could be either a black rat snake or a black racer. My weekend sighting gives me hope that the snake who met his/her end entangled in my bird netting (see previous post) left progeny behind who will continue the good fight against field mice and chipmunks and other vermin.

It has been a good summer for gardening. Not too wet, not too dry, not too hot. Some plants have inexplicably died, but others have thrived as never before. The deer have been merciful, the blooms long-lasting. Cosmos and hosta are still spectacular. And Nancy seems to have found a solution to the string algae that plagued her pond last summer. A single water hyacinth has multiplied and totally changed the nature of the pond, from a scum bucket to a prolific frog habitat.

The End of Blacksnake

Blacksnake is dead. I had written earlier about the snake that briefly inhabited our attic and heating duct runs last summer, and his/her determination to be near, if not in, our house this year. Yesterday I found his mortal remains in our garden shed, entangled in a bundle of bird netting we’d had on a shelf.

I am a middle-of-the-roader when it comes to snakes. Not a hoe-wielding chopper of anything long and legless; but also not inclined to catch and play with them. Moderately creeped-out, that’s me. Grateful for their rodent-control efforts, I’d rather not spend time in close proximity. But on the snake scale, this blacksnake was much higher in my affections that the copperhead I found on our street a few years ago, a victim not of any hoe, but of its unfortunate fondness for warm pavement. I viewed blacksnake as my protector from rodents and copperheads, and will miss him or her.

The end must have been violent, to judge from the things knocked off the shelf and the twisted state of the bird netting. I can only hope it was relatively quick, strangulation not starvation. Predator did not succumb to another predator, but to a piece of human detritus. A sad and ignoble end.

Not Afraid of Curves

Sitting area, St. Stephen's Memorial Garden
Sitting area, St. Stephen’s Memorial Garden

We were driving to visit the in-laws this weekend when an image and a phrase popped into my head. The image was of the small patio/seating area we had recently completed at the Memorial Garden. The phrase, Not Afraid of Curves.

I have constructed things all my life. I have early memories of helping my father build a carport, a cabin/“fort,” fencing for our pony pasture. Mostly, the things we built then, and the things I have built since, were rectilinear. Straight lines and right angles. Sure, there is the occasional deviation from 90 degrees, roof slopes being an obvious example. But always for a good, practical reason.

Nancy and I build things, too. In fact, on one of our earliest dates, she informed me we’d be assembling a shelf—a simple shelf, it turned out— to sit on her desk. Early as it was in our courtship, I already knew her well enough to recognize that exercise as a deliberate test of our compatibility.

But building with Nancy often throws curves (pun intended) at my native practicality. She will introduce an angle or a curve, for aesthetic reasons, where practicality and efficiency would be be content with a straight line. Our mudroom is an example.

The addition to our house that we built early in our marriage included a long room that was mostly Nancy’s studio but also, at one end, the primary family entrance. Each time that outer door was opened in winter, an arctic blast cooled her whole studio. We needed a wall to subdivide the space into studio and mudroom. But the dividing wall was problematic as the existing doors and windows precluded a normal, straight wall. So the wall we built has three segments. It leaves the room’s sidewall at a right angle, then jogs to the left at 30 degrees, then returns to the original heading before contacting the opposite wall in another right angle. The doorway is a wide opening in the angle section, with French doors. We were to finish off the mudroom with ceramic tile on the floor.  Then, Nancy threw in the kicker: “You know, of course, that the tile have to be laid on the angle.” Of course. Mutter. Mutter.

It turned out to be only a slight inconvenience. Ten minutes to make a simple jig for the wet saw we would have rented anyway, and cutting triangular edge pieces was as simple as the rectangular ones would have been.

Bench in wall, Nancy's garden
Bench in wall, Nancy’s garden

Don’t get me wrong. Our joint building projects are collaborative affairs, and Nancy is open to the arguments of practicality. The retaining wall at left is an example. Nancy wanted a curve in the wall, and I wanted to use the existing rectangular brick floor as the foundation. My suggestion for the built-in bench satisfied both criteria.

I could give many other examples of things we have built over the past 25 years into which, by intention, some curve or angle violates the grid work of my engineering mind for the sake of aesthetics. And I expect that it would be true in each instance that there was a point in the planning or execution when I rebelled at the impracticality and the extra work involved, and had to be convinced that the outcome would be worth the extra effort.

Reflecting back on where we started, with an image and a phrase appearing simultaneously and unbidden, I realize that on this latest project, I did not have to be led down the aesthetic path, but followed it willingly, even eagerly. The site dictated the curves, and the fact that our floor was to be of rectangular elements (brick pavers) was not an impediment. Of course we would rent another wet saw and cut the bricks as needed. Of course.

It seems like a growth step.

Letting It Simmer

When we married and bought the home we still live in, we acquired a “master bath” the size of a closet. Nancy was a self-employed graphic designer and avocational artist, with limited office and no studio. I was a sometime woodworker in need of a shop. In short, we immediately began planning an addition to the house. The studio and shop were relatively easy. But the master suite was a design headache. We wanted to take advantage of the second story view into our woods. But moving the sleeping area into the new space left bath, closet, and dressing areas in the old space. And we could not find a configuration that worked. Proportions were wrong; traffic patterns were unwieldy.

The house had plenty of lesser needs, so we tackled those while continuing to chew on the design problem. We mentally “let it simmer.” (Or stew. Or soak.) It took a year to work through the smaller needs—and for the solution to our design dilemma to emerge. From our second story, privacy is not an issue, so the solution was to leave the sleeping area in the interior, put the bath/closet/dressing area in the exterior (new) space, and let the view in through large windows. A master bath with a picture window.

Our house also had a side porch off the living/dining area, with a large deck behind the porch. Again, the configuration did not work for us. We tried and tried to think of a way to sit outside in comfort and convenience, but the back drops off quickly and getting to any outdoor space involved excessive movement in both horizontal and vertical directions. We could not come up with a design that worked. So again, we put action on hold and let the need simmer.

Front Yard Patio
Front Yard Patio

Years later, as Nancy’s ornamental garden was taking shape, the solution to our outdoor room dilemma came clear. Our outdoor room should be in the front, not the back. The front yard is level and on practically the same elevation as our main interior living space. Our street is a quiet cul-de-sac so traffic noise is not an issue. The large black cherry overhead and the berm we had built halfway to the street provide a sense of enclosure and just the right amount of privacy. We both grew up in a back yard era and ours is not a front porch neighborhood. But the front is definitely the direction that works for our house. Our front yard patio is convenient, frequently-used, and a visual delight from inside or out.

This “strategy” of letting a problem simmer seems to involve more than just the element of time. Time is certainly a factor: If we have the luxury of time, we can search more widely, think more deeply, explore more options. But I think “letting it simmer” is more importantly an act of faith in which we do not accept second best. Instead we wait patiently for the right solution to emerge. In large ways and small, when I have had the luxury of time, and the patience and faith to wait, I have been richly blessed.

Gardening

My parents were born into large depression-era farm families. Growing a substantial portion of their food was an economic necessity and a way of life. “The garden” was the place where you grew potatoes and tomatoes, corn and beans and squash and a dozen other vegetables. Enough to feed ten people. All winter long. A place of hard work.

When they married and raised their own family, my parents brought that way of life with them, if not the necessity. In my childhood, “the garden” was still the place where hard work was converted into foodstuffs. In early adulthood, I went through a back-to-the-land phase and my own large vegetable gardens.

That phase ended. Lack of need, lack of interest (burnout perhaps?), and a series of houses that lacked adequate space and sunlight left my gardening days behind me.

Ascending, Nancy's garden
Ascending, Nancy’s garden

Enter Nancy. Over the past decade or so, she has put her artist’s eye toward creating places of beauty outside our home. Using largely native plants, tons of native stone, some clever hardscaping, a small pond, and, yes, lots of hard work, she has transformed a blah yard into a garden of beauty. In the process, that word, “garden,” has come to signify for me the ornamental, not the vegetable kind.

Sure, my childhood home had ornamental trees and shrubs. My mother grew flowers. But in “beds.” The word, “garden,” was reserved for food. This shift in what gardening means to me has been subtle and largely unconscious, but nearly total. When I say I am a gardener, I never think of tomatoes, although many of my listeners probably do.

I’ve lately become aware of another subtle shift, this time in my relationship to the act of gardening. “Our” ornamental garden has been, and largely still is, “Nancy’s” garden. Her desire, her vision, her initiative. I was the, mostly willing, assistant—the muscle, her sherpa.

Then, a year ago, shortly after my (second) retirement, I took on the chairmanship of the committee that cares for the Memorial Garden at my church, the place where the ashes of deceased members are buried or scattered. And I took on this role at a time when the need for change had come due. It was time to expand burial space, remove some overgrown trees and shrubs, repair some damage. Unlike “Nancy’s” garden, which is in a maintenance phase with its basic form established, the Memorial Garden is in a process of moderate to major redefinition. And I find myself actively engaged in that definition, in helping to create the vision and carry it out. I have taken ownership of the process of gardening in a way that I still have not done with our garden at home.

Caterpillar on coral bells, Nancy's garden
Caterpillar on coral bells, Nancy’s garden

When I was a child, I was a garden helper. As a young adult, raising my own cantaloupe and sweet potatoes and peas, I was a gardener. And then I was neither. In middle age, when Nancy began her garden, I reverted to garden helper. Now, I am a gardener again. With that title, I claim, or reclaim, an avocation. But the title goes deeper for me now. I find that in accepting the title, I also accept stewardship of something that is not mine. The plants, the infrastructure, the aesthetic, the soil itself are to be husbanded, cared for, nurtured. And I find that sense of stewardship creeping into my labor in Nancy’s garden as well. I am pulling weeds not for me, not even for Nancy, but for the garden itself. Interesting changes I did not seek and would never have predicted.

Return to Mayberry

We just returned from a trip to visit my mother. That in itself is not unusual—she lives just a few hours away, and we have settled into a pattern of frequent but short visits. This trip, however, we decided to add an extra day and do some sightseeing in the North Carolina mountains, with Linville Falls as our major destination.

I have some history in this area. As a scout leader in my 20s, I rappelled from cliffs along the edge of the Linville Gorge Wilderness, and spent one memorable snowy night under one of those cliffs without food, shelter, sleeping bag, or heavy clothing. I have visited the Falls and nearby areas as a tourist off and on since childhood. As a teen with a brand new driver’s license, I would sometimes explore the unpaved and un-numbered back roads nearby.

Lower falls from plunge pool, Linville Falls, NC
Lower falls from plunge pool, Linville Falls, NC

So it was fun to be back in the area and to show some of it to Nancy. Our decision as to which trail to take to view the Falls was simple: Avoid the yap dog pulling its owner along the easy trail. We took the “strenuous” route, all the way down to the plunge pool. Quite a thrill for Nancy and her two bionic hip joints. A year ago, she was nearly wheelchair-bound.

We saw a glorious sunset from the grounds of our B&B, had a memorable breakfast next morning, then drove to Blowing Rock.

Rhododendron in Bloom, St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Parish, Blowing Rock, NC
Rhododendron in Bloom, St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Parish, Blowing Rock, NC

Our great good fortune was to arrive when the rhododendron blooms were at their most glorious. Gardens throughout the village were exquisite, especially those at the Episcopal church and the city park. We took in the vistas from The Blowing Rock itself, then drove on to my mother’s, passing two commercial structures I had helped build during my teen summers as a construction laborer.

John's River Valley from The Blowing Rock, Blowing Rock, NC
John’s River Valley from The Blowing Rock, Blowing Rock, NC

If our short mountain sojourn was a homecoming of sorts, the visit with Mother was also a homecoming of a different kind. It is common to see relatives or her friends on these visits. But I have lived elsewhere for half a century and my connection with my hometown is slight. On this trip, however, the small-town-ness of my hometown was everywhere. And I mean that in the most positive sense. Running into my former Sunday School teacher, seeing cards created for Mother by my former math teacher, shopping at the local hardware now under the helm of the founder’s great-granddaughter, taking a walk in the neighborhood over fields owned by people I have known since childhood— I felt connections everywhere.

The small town sense of everyone knowing everyone came home especially with a visit to a business with which my parents have dealt practically all my life. Despite their long-term relationship, I had never had occasion to know, meet, or talk with the proprietor until a year ago. That memorable phone call began, after I had introduced myself, with the exclamation, “Brent! I am so glad you are not dead!” It seems that someone else with my name had appeared in the local obituaries a few weeks earlier. She had recognized the name and also that the list of relatives did not match. On finally meeting her this trip, she pulled out her notes of our earlier conversation, including the fact that she and Nancy were both among the first adopters of Macintosh computers. And talked and talked. About people I knew and others I probably should have known. About business dealings with my parents going back four decades. It was a true Mayberry moment.

I wish I had more Mayberry moments. I, too, live in a small town. Oak Ridge is not a typical Southern rural small town, but a small town all the same, with a parochialism all its own. Were I more gregarious, I could have those Mayberry moments here. Those mountain communities I have breezed through all my life are each their own Mayberry. But I have never lingered. I suppose a Mayberry can develop anywhere we let it: a college dorm, a suburban cul-de-sac, a downtown loft. At any rate, I am glad for last week’s brief return to Mayberry.