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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The small hours of the night: One am, two, three. Times when I should be sleeping. How many of the small hours have I spent awake over the course of my adult life? And to what end?
Time was, I woke early (~five am) and spent a quiet hour or so in journaling and prayer before the rest of the family began their day. That was deliberate, a discipline long-gone. But to be awake in the really small hours is usually undisciplined and unplanned. Sometimes, it is a fun and productive un-discipline. I’m so engrossed in a book that I read through the night. Or I’m rehearsing each word and whiteboard stroke of tomorrow’s lecture. Or I’m envisioning in minute detail each step of the weekend shop project—every measurement, every layout mark, every saw setup, every cut.
Other times, being awake in the small hours is annoying or worse. Still wide-eyed at three am and regretting that late afternoon caffeine. Waking in dry-mouthed, heart-pounding panic over a looming family crisis.
Mostly though, my small hours wakefulness comes after a nosebleed gets me out of bed. It’s a congenital condition, in my case not serious. But it wakes me most nights, and I cannot get back to sleep right away. So I sit up awhile, until the nose has settled down and sleepiness returns. Sometimes I read. Sometimes, like right now, I write. But frequently, I must confess, I waste the time. Computer solitaire is a particular vice. Confession, they say, is good for the soul. So there. I’ve confessed.
The story begins a year ago. While running some ethernet cable, I discovered a snakeskin above the drop ceiling of our laundry room. The laundry room is on the ground floor and the bedrooms are above, so the former occupant of that skin had been between floors in the living area of our house. Weeks later, Nancy noticed some distinctive deposits in the attic above our carport, identified by our local wildlife removal guy as snake scat. This attic is attached to the house, on the same level as our bedrooms, accessed at floor level from our master bath. A few days after that, she saw the snake in the flesh while rummaging through that attic. The wildlife guy searched and could not find the snake, found (and sealed) one and only one potential entry spot. He thought the snake was gone and that it had originally entered while trying to get to some baby wrens in a nest under our eaves. That nesting perch has since been removed. We spread some moth balls in the attic and above the drop ceiling to discourage the snake’s reentry and hoped that was the end of the story.
Apparently not. A few weeks ago, I saw a blacksnake moving toward our house from the woods behind us. I moved between it and the house, trying to scare it back into the woods, but it scooted past me within inches of my legs, disappearing under our deck. Why was it so determined to move toward the house? Nancy speculates that the dark and low space under the deck seemed safer than a retreat into the relatively open woods. Or that it was super hungry and the under-deck is a good hunting spot for chipmunks. I wonder if it has resided under the deck (or inside the house) since last year and was sprinting to the safety of “home.” Does a blacksnake even have a “home?”
What next? Do we buy more mothballs? Do we assume that if it comes into the house, it has good reason? E.G., mice? I guess I prefer a blacksnake to a mouse. And Nancy hates the smell of mothballs. So, with reservations, welcome back, Sneaky Snake. With apologies to Tom T. Hall, if you will keep us free of mice (and copperheads), you are welcome to all of our root beer.
I’m sitting outside on a pleasant spring afternoon. In the sheltered nook before our front door, I have brick underfoot and at my back, a black gum tree overhead, and the green of Nancy’s garden sloping above me. Native Mayapple and fern and Jack-in-the-pulpit, Joe Pye weed and cone flowers, wood sorrel and bellwort, foam flower, hosta, little brown jug, trillium and more form a lush foreground. And Mona, napping in my lap with with her head hanging over the armrest.
Nancy found Mona at the pound, a tiny black-with-white-accents mix of breeds with an intense desire to engage and please. She’s ten years old and 50 pounds now, but still a tiny thing in my mind.
Sometime in her first week with us, while I was eating breakfast and reading the paper, she kept asking for something. Twice I took her outside to pee, but that was not what she wanted. Finally, I paid attention and let her lead me to a pool of morning sun on the living room carpet. She curled into the warmth, inviting me to join her. Forget the unimportant stuff, she seemed to say; come enjoy the sunshine with me. Forget the doing, enjoy the being. Come to Sabbath.
She still calls me to Sabbath. As her presence on my lap attests, she craves companionship and touch. Almost daily, we sit together on the sofa for at least a short time, her head resting on my thigh. Not infrequently, she whines and nudges and prods until I take her onto my lap as now and hold her as I once did my children. She’ll nap with her head hanging over the arm of the chair until my own arms begin to fall asleep and I have to move her off my lap. We say she needs her loving cup filled.
Wouldn’t we humans be better off if we had the sense to recognize when our loving cups need filling, and the courage to ask for the communion and Sabbath rest our hearts desire?
Today, on an errand with Nancy, I made a turn one street too soon. Immediately, the Google Maps voice on her phone told me to turn around at the next left. But I was distracted. Distracted by my mistake and the police car nearby, but also by my surroundings.
I have always enjoyed exploring new roads. It’s like a cartoon from the ‘40s that perhaps I once saw or maybe just imagined. Picture it. An aerial view of an old jalopy rolling along a road. Mickey or Goofy at the wheel. In front of the car is only the outline of the road in a field of gray. Behind and to the sides of the car are green pastures and woodlands, colorful houses and scenery details. As the car rolls forward, so do the greenery and detail. That’s what a new road does for me. What was terra incognita gets filled in with colorful detail.
So I missed the turnaround. Nancy was patient; she knows (and shares) my exploring tendencies. A turn 100 yards too soon morphed into a four mile loop that took us from upscale suburbia through rural residential and then into the industrial backside of Knoxville. I filled in some more terra incognita. And it might be useful someday. For instance, if you need special sling rigging to move your nuclear reactor shielding, I can show you where to go.