All posts by sigmon-carow

Treebeard, R.I.P.

“Bang!” Nancy says it sounded like a large chunk of rock dropped into the bowl of our big electric cart, The Goat. Then, more bangs, sounding like gunshots, or was it firecrackers? She looked out the window to see a wave of movement in the canopy, then bark exploding from Treebeard and a big yellow flash as its trunk split, exposing the heartwood. I was 300 yards away walking the dog and heard the creaks, groans, snapping, and final crash as that big black oak fell into our West Woods.

Treebeard was named after the tree-giant character in The Lord of the Rings. A long-ago trauma had taken his top, leaving a stub of trunk and two arms. The effect was somewhat like one of those air dancers you see at gas stations, frozen in a joyful wild contortion. 

Treebeard Before and After

That old injury in turn led to his spectacular demise, as the open wound allowed rainwater and various organisms to pond and fester inside his trunk. Many years later, on a totally windless and rainless day, the fibers surrounding a cavity of rot halfway down the trunk were overwhelmed by the task of supporting all that stood above.

It is incorrect to say that Treebeard is no more. His bulk is in your face over much of our West Woods. In bringing tons of carbon and other minerals back down to earth and opening the canopy for more sunlight to reach ground level, he will have an impact on several thousand square feet of forest for many years to come.

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Broken Open

Despite that opening, this blog post is not going to be about the circle of life or life out of death. I’ll stick with the topic I have been chewing on for the last couple of weeks, which broadly has to do with my interactions with the natural world, especially the two acres of which we are the current stewards. As I have written before, our goal is to reclaim this small patch from the invasives and return it to something closer to its natural state—to make of it a haven for wildlife.

Some observations and thoughts over the past month or so:

Observation: We seem to have less Japanese stiltgrass this year. Is that my imagination, or does it just emerge later than I am anticipating?

Observation: There seem to be lots more violets this year. A solid carpet in some areas. I have mixed feelings about violets when they appear in the more formal flower gardens at church. But in our meadow, they fit perfectly and are most welcome.

I just read a post by The Humane Gardener, who reports violets taking over in areas where she has been pulling stiltgrass. That fits with our observations above. We have been pulling or cutting stiltgrass for a couple of years now, reducing its seed load in our soil and opening bare spots for violets to get established. Wow! Our efforts are paying off!

Observation: The butterfly weed has monarch larvae eating it. Great! That’s largely what it’s for. Our goal is a wildlife-friendly habitat, not a picture-perfect flower garden.

Observation (a few days later): Where are the butterfly weed? After missing them for two days, I get Nancy to accompany me. She finds the stalks, nibbled almost to the ground by deer. I wonder what happened to the monarch larvae: Did birds get them, useful food for growing hatchlings? Or were they wasted in the guts of the marauding deer?

The Indian Pink that Survived!

Observation: Our ironweed have also had their tops nibbled off. And the Indian pinks—just one bloom left.

I used up the remainder of my fencing roll to make a couple more cages to separate deer from our young plants. I could use a few more cages, but am not inclined to buy another roll of wire. Meanwhile, I’m pondering the conflict between the deer and the plants we are nurturing. Should I get more aggressive with the deer repellent? Or does the repellent also repel or otherwise harm the pollinators and insect larvae the I want to use those plants? A wildlife-friendly habitat, The Humane Gardener would say, has enough food for all, the deer included, with some left over for my enjoyment. So, instead of trying to repel the deer, should I nurture more food for them? I researched preferred deer foods and found that poison ivy is on that list.

Now, faithful readers of this blog may recall that poison ivy is on my ten least wanted list: the plants we are working to eliminate from our woods and meadow. And you may have noticed that it is the only plant on our list that is not an imported invasive. Poison ivy is a native to our part of the world. I’ve had a slight nagging of conscience about my war on that plant, but I really want to be able to walk through my woods without days of itching. That was impossible before I began wielding the spray bottle. (Generally, we try to avoid the chemical poisons, and much of our fight with invasives is fought by pulling, digging, and cutting. But, my record in digging out poison ivy is : Attempts, many; successes, zero. Spot spraying is the only way I know to fight this one.)

Could we leave some designated patches of poison ivy, while still maintaining pathways and other access to our woods? Maybe. I am still thinking on that one.

Observation: One technique we are using on ground ivy is to smother it under cardboard topped with wood chips from our tree guy. Preliminary results are that violets are seeding in the mulch on top of the cardboard. Will they find adequate nutrition before the cardboard rots, and will the ground ivy be sufficiently suppressed by that time? It is too early to tell, but the early results are encouraging.

Observation: The cardboard strategy takes a tremendous amount of cardboard and chips. Our more industrial scale experiment uses a 25’ x 100’ silage tarp (heavy black plastic) to smother the existing vegetation in our meadow. The tarp is left in place for a year, then removed, and the bare soil sowed with a native meadow mix. We seeded our first strip last fall and have been rewarded with a startling mix of poppy, batchelor button, and other flowers. The mix is not yet as thick or diverse as we had hoped, but some of the new plants will take more time to mature. Meanwhile, the tarp has been moved and is cooking another strip for planting this fall.

Wildflowers in the New Meadow

The theme of this post, and of my recent meditations on our work in woods and meadow, is that we are still actively shaping our immediate surroundings. No less than someone else’s opting for turf grass and oriental exotics, our decision to favor native plants and wildlife involves active intervention in the ecological processes on our two acres. The very fact that we are maintaining a meadow, despite its natural tendency to revert to woodland (witness the dozens and dozens of sassafras and tulip tree seedlings that sprout each year), reveals our active role. This is more than an aesthetic choice, as that meadow overlays our septic tank’s drain field and must be kept open. But I am increasingly aware that our choices have consequences and that much of what we do is experimental. While we try to be guided by the advice of others with similar goals, our knowledge and observations are limited and some of what we do will probably prove to have been counterproductive. So much to learn!

Observation: While pulling some unwanted vines, Nancy came close to a yellow jacket nest. Somehow, she avoided being stung. In our growing sense of the interconnectedness of the various life forms on our property, we wondered if we could let the wasps be, and decided “yes.” That weeding job can be put off until cold weather and we can avoid that location.

Observation: The king snakes are prowling, doing their job to keep rodents and other vermin in check. I have spotted three in the space of a week. In one case, I had the dog with me (leashed). We stopped at a distance to watch, and the snake began a defensive coiling. I have never seen that behavior before, and assume it was because of Mona. In another case, I was trimming limbs off an arborvitae, in preparation for cutting it down. I had searched the tree for bird nests before I started, and was preceding with care. Suddenly, at head height and just an arm’s length away, I saw a small king snake on a branch of the tree. I backed off, leaving that job for another day and giving the snake a chance to get to safety. I never found a bird’s nest nor figured out what that snake was after.

Observation: All three bluebird houses are occupied, the phoebes are using the roost I made on the garage (instead of nesting on top of the floodlight), and two nests (unknown species) inside the garage seem to have evaded the king snakes.

One final observation: There are tadpoles in the frog pond! Nancy insisted that frogs and other wildlife would come when the pond was ready. First she saw mosquito larvae, and shortly after, tadpoles to keep them in check! Two different adults sighted so far. The pond is live and Nancy is delighted!

Frog and Tadpoles

Water and Stone

We have a pond!

The Frog Pond

For the three plus years we have lived here, Nancy has missed the frog pond at our old house and wanted to devise a replacement. But it was a long time coming. For one thing, there were other priorities—not for nothing have I dubbed our new place, “NEVERDONE.”

Besides, we could never settle on where to construct the new one. In our time here, we have had at least a half dozen “preferred” locations, each with notable drawbacks. None could top the convenience of our old pond, just two feet beyond the dining room picture window, so that Nancy could sit inside, camera mounted on a tripod, ready to observe and record at a moment’s notice.

I had pretty much succumbed to the notion that we’d build a pond sometime this spring or summer; though the location was still fluid, Nancy’s patience was wearing thin. Still, the suddenness with which pond building became the order of the day surprised me. I woke one day with a small, seemingly unrelated item at the top of my To Do List, and one thing led to another, as it always does.

I had suggested to Nancy that we should rake off the fall leaf cover in two small areas where she has established wildflower gardens around concrete pagodas and replace the leaves with some of the wood chips our tree guy has graciously brought us. This idea startled Nancy—I have a history of complaining about removing “natural mulch” and expending effort and cost to replace it with something else just because it is more attractive. So for me to be the instigator was a real change. (See my earlier post on “Conversion.”)

In the event, the “two small areas” kept expanding, so that before it was done, I had removed about as many leaves as we did all last fall. No small feat, as we clear our entire cul de sac in the fall! Removing the leaves uncovered more Italian arum, which had to be dug out. And then we re-mulched with about half a truck load of wood chips. All those leaves, by the way, will end up as useful mulch/ground cover somewhere else on our property.

Removing the leaves uncovered the stockpile of rock we’d brought along from the old house when we moved here. Lots and lots of rock! Beautiful rock, if used properly, but an eyesore just laid out along the driveway. 

More than a year ago, we had some earth reshaping done to solve a drainage problem. That area (“the canyon”) was functional, but we’d never gotten around to giving it the final aesthetic treatment. Another eyesore, another task on our vague “sometime this year” list. 

I am sure you can see where this is going. A small task, remove some leaves and replace with wood chips, becomes a larger one, remove a lot of leaves and replace with lots of wood chips. We are already beyond a morning’s work, into morning-afternoon-next morning. Now, let’s use these rocks to finish the canyon.

Working on The Canyon

Well, the canyon was a whole order of magnitude beyond trading one kind of mulch for another. For one thing, an aesthetic treatment requires that the rocks to be placed, not dumped—a task Nancy enjoys and at which she excels, but which takes time. For another, despite the lots and lots of rock we’d moved from the old place, and despite the even greater quantity of rock we had collected and stockpiled from the new place, we needed still more. A half dozen or so loads on my small pickup. And, while we are visiting rock yards, why not pick up some rock for the frog pond?

You’d forgotten the frog pond, I bet. But Nancy hadn’t! She’d been hearing those Upland Chorus Frogs in the distance. 

Me, “How big is this pond to be?” Her, “Oh, just like this” (arms not fully extended) … “right here.” (The spot is finally fixed.)

So, in the middle of the canyon job, we started digging a frog pond. And adding pond-bound rocks to our purchases. And pond liner. And bog plants.

Working on the Pond

Nancy and I do lots of projects, and we laugh about the multiplier. The multiplier is the mathematical result you get when you take the final tally of time/cost/effort and divide it by the initial estimate. We typically find that our projects have a multiplier of two or three. For ponds, it’s more like five.

Our location is on the edge of the driveway, tucked up close to the carport. After roughing out the hole, it was clear we needed to build up the downhill side, working perilously close to a steep drop off. One of my enduring images of this particular project is from the morning I had a Zoom meeting on some church business, while Nancy was outside working on the dangerous, close-to-the-edge side of the pond. I set up a table in the foyer so I could monitor her while in my meeting—Nancy in her yellow Pikachu hat, tethered to my truck by her climbing rope and harness. (Failed to take a photo!)

The Canyon – Finished!

A couple of weeks later, it is all done—the re-mulching, the canyon, the pond. At least as done as any other project; like blog posts, they can always use some tweaking. Now we wait for nature to condition the pond and invite into it the frogs and dragon flies and other wildlife.

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More news from outdoors: Trillium and mayapple are unfurling and bloodroot blooming on the forest floor. Nancy’s on watch for morel mushrooms. Redbud and buckeye are blooming; dogwood, azalea, blueberry and several kinds of viburnum are getting close. The tulip poplars are leafing out. The young beech are shedding those lovely tan leaves that have graced the winter woods. Violet blooms carpet parts of the meadow. Squirrels are everywhere and birdsong fills the ear. The Indian pinks are ten inches high. I have seen our neighborhood barred owls four times in the last few weeks, and all three bluebird houses are occupied. And almost every morning for the last month or more, I hear mourning doves. (How did I go seven decades only hearing mourning doves across hot summertime fields, missing their late winter presence? There is always more to observe or learn!)

Please note! If you are a subscriber and getting this post by email, sometimes the more complicated media, such as videos, do not display properly. You can always go to the website and get the full effect. Thank you for subscribing! Happy Springtime!

Conversion

In a pre-Christmas issue of OnBeing’s newsletter, The Pause, Padraig O’Tuama tells a story from his late teens, a period of his life that he describes as “too interested in religion” and “too much zeal.” Working for a church in Dublin, he encountered an elderly woman in chapel nearly every day for five years. And every time, she would say, “I’m praying for you; for your conversion.”

He goes on to say how his initial dismay (“I was already converted”) evolved over time to a deeper understanding of conversion: “It is an embrace of the possibility of change and future. … It calls us again and again throughout a life.”

He might have said, It calls us to life—to a deeper, richer, more genuine life. 

In some contexts, conversion is seen in binary terms: yes or no, before or after, saved or not saved, sheep or goat. St. Paul is the prototypical example, to the extent that “Damascus Road experience” is a familiar idiom, even in the secular world.

In others, the pattern is more like that of St. Peter, conversion on conversion on conversion. Even after his uncomfortable post-Resurrection “little chat” over breakfast (“do you love me … feed my sheep”), even after Pentecost, we have the story of his dream on the rooftop in Joppa.

I have been blessed with many conversions over the course of my life. But I say “blessed” only after the fact. Conversion, in my experience, is not a pleasant thing to go through. Most of the time, when we say we are praying for someone, we pray for favorable external circumstances: May you get well, may you get the job, may you win the lottery, may your pain go away. To pray for another’s conversion is to wish pain onto them. Granted, a necessary pain that will lead to that deeper, richer, more genuine life, but pain, nevertheless. 

What a startling, presumptuous prayer! And one fraught with pitfalls for the pray-er. If I pray for your conversion, am I ignoring my own need to change? (E.G., May all you folks who voted the “wrong” way in the recent election come to see the light.) If I pray for your conversion, am I assuming that I know what you are in need of? I have repeatedly made the mistake of thinking I knew the particular way my spouse or child needed to change. And yet, more than one of my own conversions came at a wise and loving challenge from Nancy.

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On another front, signs of spring are all around. Shoots of the spring ephemerals are popping up through the leaf litter. The woods are full of birdsong. Nancy spotted a pair of red-shouldered hawks in the big pine tree below us.

As usual, the list of tasks we were going to accomplish over the winter is barely diminished. We did spend two afternoons crawling around under some rhododendron, pulling out the English ivy—a task I am only willing to do when it is too cold for the snakes and other critters to be active. In our observation, the ivy does not climb and cling onto the rhododendron and azaleas. And under the rhodies, the ivy was far less thick than just outside their reach. Too shady? Or does that genus somehow suppress ivy?

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A final aside: Here is a clip entitled “Mona Plays Basketball.”

Thanksgiving

I have been privileged on these cold and cloudless mid-November mornings to watch the daily purpling of the Cumberlands. My days begin when my dog pops her head over the side of my bed at daybreak, signaling “You are wasting daylight, and I have to pee.” To the north, the Cumberland escarpment is a uniform wall of deep blue, beneath a pale blue sky. By the end of our walk, however, the rising sun shines a red-tinted spotlight on the mountains’ face, and soon their ridged and folded topography is revealed, as the high places turn purple while the hollows remain deep blue.

For much of the year, only the mountain tops are visible to us, with the lower slopes hidden by the row of still growing tulip poplars that will someday cover the entire view. For now, their bare trunks and branches are almost black random mullions in our temporary window onto the full mass of these mountains—easy to look through and forget their presence.

If the wind direction is into the sunrise, the windmill tri-stars on Buffalo Mountain shine a brilliant white. On other days when they are turned oblique to the sun, they are hardly noticeable. Meanwhile, the ever higher sun lights up the nearer trees in the valley a yellow brown.

Now comes coffee. After trying several methods, we have settled on a slow pour-over. The ritual has become another nod toward mindfulness (and adding the used grounds to the compost bin is easier with this method than the messy disassembling of K-cups).

Settling into my easy chair with my coffee, I must choose: Will I start my day on a contemplative note, with my journal and/or a dose of Richard Rohr or Mary Oliver? Or will I succumb first to the blood-pressure raising siren call of the morning paper and news feed?

In any case, my time in the easy chair is limited. Mona needs to play, which she typically announces by dropping a tennis ball into my lap. Once, and only once, I snapped, “Go play with yourself!” and, as if I’d thrown a switch, she spun into her tail-chasing dervish mode. Mostly, though, she will charm me or wear me down until I get up and pay attention to her. 

Over the course of a day, we will have two or three sessions of chase-the-ball-down-the-hall; a couple of trips outdoors to harass chipmunks or race around with a nearly flat basketball that she scavenged from the woods gripped in her teeth; not to mention the four walks on a leash, poop bag in hand. The latter, pursued vigorously up our very steep street, double as my aerobic interval training. Our previous dog called me to Sabbath; this one calls me to action.

Our long-term project to replace the invasives on our property with wildlife-friendly native plants is slowly showing progress.  Our rogues’ gallery of undesirables has become a Ten Least Wanted: English ivy, Japanese stiltgrass, ground ivy, Italian arum, mulberryweed, Oriental bittersweet, privet, mahonia, Rose of Sharon, and poison ivy. The work of many of our days consists of removing one or more of these pests from some small definable patch of ground. 

Arum is Nancy’s current villain #1. Impervious to herbicides, it reproduces by means of tiny underground corms. Dig a plant up and it leaves many corms behind. Her current strategy is to do “Mohs surgery” around the mother plants, digging outward and down until all the visible plant is removed. Then wait a few weeks for the corms that were left behind to emerge and do it again. And again. And again. Her hope is that by preventing the emerging young plants from producing new corms, eventually the soil’s inventory will be depleted. It is grinding work. For each young plant that is visible, she will find a dozen underground. Fortunately, this is cool weather work and their bright green leaves are readily visible against the seasonal brown.

How to do this on the greater-than-45-degree slopes below our driveway? We use a climbing rope anchored to my truck, with a prussic knot allowing the harnessed digger to hold a position on the rope and work with both hands.

Some days, it seems we only tear down. Yet the work also includes building up after the tearing down. In woodland patches cleared of English ivy, long-suppressed native forbs are coming back, and the wood asters we planted are propagating. A strip of our stilt grass meadow, weeds smothered under a silage tarp for a year, was recently planted with a native wildflower mix. An American holly, rescued from a choking, cloaking tangle of Oriental bittersweet, displays its glossy foliage once again. We added The Hazels—a pair each of hazelnut, hazel alder, and witch hazel—to define the northern border of the meadow.

Woolly Aphids on Hazel Alder

Our hazel alders have white fuzzies. Tennessee Naturescapes tells me that is good news. These are woolly aphids, food of the caterpillar phase of the Harvester butterfly—the only carnivorous butterfly larvae in the western hemisphere. You can read here how these meat-eating larvae manage to co-exist with the aphids and the ants who “guard” them.

Mary Oliver wrote*:

“I would like to write a poem about the world that has in it nothing fancy. But it seems impossible.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

(*From “This World,” in her collection, Why I Wake Early.)

Blue and Other Delights

I am sitting on our deck in the middle of a perfect September day. The sky, and the Cumberland Mountains, are an astonishing blue. I recently had cataract surgery, and my renewed acquaintance with the color blue is a constant delight. I opted for the multi-focal lens implants, so am without glasses for the first time since second grade. But the color intensity is still the most noticeable change. It as if I’ve swapped all the 3000K LED bulbs for 4000K ones.

My vision had become uncorrectable with glasses, one eye much near-sighted, the other extreme in the other direction. It had become so bad that, when driving at night, by the time I was close enough to read a roadside sign, it was no longer illuminated by my headlights. Now, I am watching a hawk sail overhead, a mile or so out over the valley, then back again.

Another recent delight is our new dog. It has been almost a year-and-a-half since the last one died. Nancy has been chipping away at my reluctance for a while, noting that our grand-dogs don’t visit often enough to satisfy her need for a dog fix. She has been haunting the websites of dog shelters, and Jay has fueled the fire with his own web searches. Our new addition looks amazingly like our former one, who, in turn, looked like Nancy’s first dog. So, Mona iii has entered our lives. A rescue, about a year and a half old, seems to be a mix of border collie and lab. And way too much energy for a couple of geezers-in-training. But she is attentive, wants to please, and is a quick learner.

The third major event of our recent lives is the publishing of the first virtual performance of the Oak Ridge Community Band. How does a band keep playing while shut down for a pandemic? Earlier this summer, several small ensembles made recordings while spread out on our deck. Most recently, nearly forty musicians made video and audio recordings of themselves playing in isolation while listening through headphones to a click-track. The piece, “The Distance Between Us,” was composed by the band’s director, Shaun Salem, and honors all who suffer through this pandemic, by isolation and other losses. Nancy has spent the last couple of weeks in a frenzy of effort to merge all the videos and overlay them onto the merged audio track. You can see this virtual performance, and the small ensembles at the ORCB Facebook page.

The Summer of Covid

It has been a long while since I wrote a piece for “The Frog Blog.” As Douglas Adams said of his Hitchhiker’s Guide Trilogy (on publishing the fifth book in the series), the Frog Blog is becoming increasingly ill-named. We are approaching three years at this place and have still not constructed a frog pond, despite Nancy’s fervent wishes.

Two problems keep getting in the way of that long-desired pond. First, our steep terrain and the layout of our house frustrate our search for the best location. So far, we have had more than a half dozen candidates and at least three front-runners. Second, and perhaps most important, life keeps happening. This summer, for instance, when we should be taking a break from our war on Japanese stilt grass and English ivy to build a pond, the stilt grass and ivy grow merrily while we are instead frantically trying undo the damage of having to replace our wastewater plumbing. 

The plumbing job is done. But there is a wall to be built in our downstairs laundry/kitchenette to hide the new piping, and flooring to be laid over the patched up four by six hole where the above-slab and below-slab pipes connect. And mud to be cleaned from the ceiling. (When the directional boring head broke through, the operator still had his lubricant water pumping.)

The outdoors part of the plumbing job left us with two large holes only partly refilled and excess dirt scattered over the 35 degree slope behind the house and the roadway below, which rain and heavy equipment left nearly impassable. So I have been moving East Tennessee clay and mulching with the wood chips our tree guy graciously delivered.

Morning

But the Frog Blog was always about more than frogs. It is broadly an irregular and unscientific chronicle of various nature observations. Despite everything, I am blessed to spend time each day (weather-permitting) on our deck—coffee, binoculars, journal, and perhaps a book at hand. The changeable sky is a constant fascination.

Sunset

In the past year, our neighbor to the north stripped a couple of acres of kudzu wasteland and built on it. More significantly for the local wildlife, about two hundred yards to our west, another landowner stripped 10 acres of fine forest. We have wondered how much this habitat loss will affect our neighborhood’s wildlife.

Morning Again

The verdict is not yet in. We are seeing fewer sightings of “our” red-shouldered hawk and “our” barred owl. Not zero, but fewer. Is that because of the habitat loss? Or is it an artifact of our changed habits? Since Mona died, we don’t make those dog walks through the neighborhood several times a day. We are still outside a lot, but our range has diminished. And now with Covid restrictions, we make fewer trips to town, particularly at night, which was the time we would usually see the owl. We have heard it, and an answering call, so we hope it found love and is still in the neighborhood.

This is very unscientific, but I think I see less activity by songbirds and squirrels and chipmunks during my sessions on the deck than I did last year. I am usually out there early in the morning and typically see little besides a hummingbird at our feeder. About a week ago, my schedule got reversed and my time on the deck came late morning. Immediately my eye was caught by five squirrels playing in Treebeard.* So I wondered if our squirrels were sleeping in on their summer mornings. But another late morning session a few days later yielded no squirrel sightings.

*Have I told you about Treebeard? Remember the walking talking trees in Lord of the Rings? Here is an early spring photo of the black oak not far from our deck.

Treebeard

We still have our blacksnakes. We saw a large one from the deck. I guessed seven or eight feet long, but Nancy says only six. Then a few days later, a three-footer was crossing our driveway. Two days ago, I saw that the large one had shed a skin. Nancy was right (what’s new?)—six feet.

Later in the day, when we are inside, we get frequent sightings of goldfinches drinking from the ant barrier in the hummingbird feeder. And deer have found the ninebark and swamp azalea we recently planted. So there is still lots of life going on, if I take the time to be observant.

As I was pondering how to wrap up this post, Nancy and I each had separate experiences that left us deeply touched and warm toward our fellow man. So I’ll expand the Frog Blog purview to include human nature as well. 

My story: I am a fan of Ann Patchett and especially her novel, Bel Canto. I knew it had been made into an opera, but somehow missed that it had also finally been made into a film, until running across it while browsing Amazon Prime Videos. So we rented it and watched. Pretty good film, but mostly left me hungering to read the book again. So I devoured it over the next two days. Devoured, yet savored. This third reading reminded me that really good literature strikes me more deeply each time I re-read it. Not only Patchett, I have had such experiences with Richard Marius, Barbara Kingsolver, Isabel Allende and others. And I realize that this love is much the same as an opera lover must feel on hearing a great opera. As one of the characters in the book says, “Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it.” I found deep joy on re-reading Bel Canto. 

Nancy’s story: I was in Kroger, not a common experience these days, as we mostly order and pick up at the curb, but feeling optimistic since Kroger had announced a mask mandate. I needed only a few items, so headed off to the produce section. I became increasingly annoyed at the number of non-compliant shoppers. Biting my tongue, I patiently waited for them to move on before passing. I complained at customer service — pointing out a Kroger employee sans mask — asking if they were making any efforts towards compliance. She told me that she was prohibited from asking customers to put on a mask. As I was leaving the store, I saw three men coming through the entrance. I saw them hesitate just inside the store then turn around and leave. OMG! These men were leaving because they didn’t have masks on! Who were these unmasked men? I was touched that they would inconvenience themselves, when so many others seem selfish and uncaring. When I got back to the car I looked on the console and saw that I had another mask! I saw the men walking toward their vehicle and sped off in their direction. I rolled down the window and told them how grateful I was that they decided to do the right thing and not enter the store without a mask. Then I extended the mask toward them offering that at least one of them could wear it to make their purchases. Their faces lit up. They were so thankful to have the mask they offered to pay me for it. My faith in humanity is restored. Thank you Angels! I have no idea why there was a spare, unworn mask in my van.

Colorful skies, creatures great and small, great art, the good side of humanity. May you find blessings in your Covid summer.

Black Lives Matter

Someone mentioned recently that it had been a long time since my last post.

I have tried. I tried to write about the paths we have been making in our woods. Paths to get us past the unwelcoming poison ivy and English ivy and into the woods more intimately (plus providing edges from which to tackle those unwelcome ivies). Alternative paths in order to give a rest to our one road down into the meadow, a rest to the roots of that magnificent chestnut oak over which the old logging road runs.

I thought to write about our New Year’s resolution, “No Contractors in 2020,” and how it had to give way to the need to replace our corroded cast iron waste plumbing with new PVC (requiring boring underneath the basement slab and cutting a large hole in the laundry room floor), plus the need to install a radon removal system. 

I thought to write about how the Covid-19 isolation has given us time for projects at home, but also allowed the weeds to take over the church gardens we used to tend. Or perhaps about how much more relaxed I find my music practice sessions, now that I do not have to face my teacher each week. Or about the books I am pulling off my shelves for a second or third or fourth reading.

But the unrelenting news of yet more police killings of non-whites, in particular the gruesomeness of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, makes the above topics seem silly and inconsequential.

Where and to what am I called in the face of overwhelming evidence that our society contains deeply engrained racism? Where and to what am I called as I begin to acknowledge at this late stage of my life how I have benefitted from this racism? As I listen to black parents’ talking about the cautions they give to their sons when they go out at night, cautions I never had to give to my own sons? As I listen to tales of being pulled over and harassed for Driving While Black, tales not just from distant anonymous strangers, but from people I know?

It has to start inside me—reflecting deeply on what “white privilege” has given me and listening deeply to the stories of those excluded. It has to start with my paying attention each time my internal dialog makes a distinction between an “us” and a “they,” whether that distinction is based on skin color, wealth, education, or politics.

Typically, when I write these posts, I start with an idea, then struggle to find the ending. But the ending usually comes; some resolution ties the original starting point into a satisfactory literary unit. This particular post has languished for weeks, and I have found no satisfactory way of wrapping it up. Perhaps that is the point after all. A beginning. Unfinished work. 

Endarkenment

The funniest story I have heard about covid-19 hoarding came from my son in Oregon. He was at a gasoline station when someone pulled up in a homemade go-cart and asked for one-half gallon of gas. Any more would have just leaked out through the rust holes higher in the tank.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself whipsawed in my reactions to the pandemic. So far for me, it has been more like a vacation than a hardship. My vacation started back in that distant time (three weeks ago) when covid-19 was mostly a problem for other places. I had minor surgery and was forced to be inactive for several days. So I read. Books. A lot of them. Some new, others pulled from my bookshelf to be enjoyed for a second or third time. My recovery coincided with the local onset of social distancing. Normally at this time of year, I would be juggling gardening and other projects between my home and church, and spending lots of time on the two bands that we belong to. With the bands shut down and normal church activities curtailed, I just stay home. Work outside or in the shop for awhile, practice the sonata I am trying to learn, then settle in my recliner for more reading. A vacation.

Sure, there have been minor quandaries. Is it okay to make a quick stop at Home Depot on my way home from physical therapy? Should I quit physical therapy? (They are shutting down, so my last two appointments will be remote.) When the contractor I have been trying to get for a month finally says he can look at the job, do I turn him away?

I will admit to one or two moments of panic when reading about what could happen and imagining myself as one of those who needs a ventilator when none are available. In truth, however, I have barely been inconvenienced.

One can find—in the media, in the commentariat, among acquaintances—views on where we are heading that range from Pollyanna to Armageddon, from fears of social breakdown to signs of empathy and solidarity with the afflicted, from the fatalistic “I will die” to jokes about hoarding toilet paper when the symptoms are respiratory. 

Nancy and I were having a “best of times, worst of times” discussion recently. Relative to most of humanity, past and present, we were born into place, time, and circumstances of prosperity, safety, freedom, and privilege. Furthermore, my worldview held that, over time, these blessings of prosperity, safety, freedom, and privilege would spread to larger segments of humanity. Observing 1) the accelerating pace of fallout from climate change, 2) worldwide political tendencies toward the nastier forms of nationalism and tribalism, and 3) our revealed vulnerabilities to this pandemic, that worldview and our blessings seem increasingly fragile.

As a former spiritual director regularly asked me, where is God in this? I reject the simplistic and naive answers to that question: That God is absent or non-existent; that God is vindictively punishing us for some infraction; that God is testing our faith, and we need not take the precautions, such as hand washing and social distancing, prescribed  by mammon (updated versions of snake handling and the prosperity gospel). I do not believe God has willed this disease on anyone, but I do believe it has something to teach me.

Exactly what, I do not yet know. But I see some hints in the recent daily meditations of Richard Rohr. I won’t try to summarize, because I am still digesting. If you are interested, I suggest going directly to those meditations, March 21 through the present. Contemplate what the psalms of lamentation (March 21) have to tell us. Explore Barbara Brown Taylor’s word, “endarkenment” (March 26). (That one has prompted me to re-read her book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.) 

It is, amid many rainy days and a frightening pandemic, an intensely lovely spring. I am trying to pay attention to both.

Getting Lost

I had personal business in Augusta, Georgia, recently. The plan was to drive down Sunday after church in Nancy’s van, leaving her my truck with questionable tires and brakes. I got a late start by deciding to go home after church and change into more comfortable travel clothes. Then, when I stopped at Sonic for a quick lunch, the van would not re-start. Nancy was nearby in the truck, but my attempt to jump one vehicle from the other failed. It took an hour for AAA to arrive before I could finally get underway. 

I had another delay at the North Carolina state line—DOT had left a bunch of orange cones in one lane of I-40 and the merge process took three-quarters of an hour. (I later caught the tail end of a news story claiming that they are reinforcing the concrete barrier between the east-bound and west-bound lanes, but no construction equipment was present when I passed by.) 

I ran out of daylight around Hendersonville. Felt, but did not see the descent into the Green River Gorge. Caught the merest glimpse of lights dotting the South Carolina Piedmont as I-26 dropped off the Blue Ridge escarpment, and was still two-and-a-half hours from my destination.

Apparently, I am out of practice with this travel business. Planned the route before leaving home? No. Checked for traffic delays? No. Packed toothpaste? No. 

Once in South Carolina, I needed route guidance. The simple stay-on-the-Interstates route is indirect. Think of a triangle. You want to get from point A to point C, but the Interstate route takes you first through point B. The “direct” route from A to C is anything but—a zig-zag of two-lane state roads through small towns, a route not in my memory bank. I did not have a paper map, and my phone’s battery was depleting fast. 

Oops! Nancy had had trouble with trying to charge her phone from a USB port in her van, so she’d bought an external backup. My phone is the same model. I had not brought her external battery. No problem, I can charge the phone from my computer. Oops! I had not packed the dongle that links the Thunderbolt port on my computer to a USB phone charging cable. And where had I made reservations for the night? For some reason, that email confirmation was not showing up in my Mail app.

As it turns out, my phone did accept power from the van’s USB. When the time came make the route choice, I took the leap into the lesser-known two-lane zig-zag. These roads were nearly deserted. Was this wise?

In retrospect, it turned out to be an OK trip. Lots of annoyances, no big disasters. But it left me wondering, should I 1) travel more, 2) travel less, or 3) always take my wife with me? Right now, option 1 seems the least appealing.

I am reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World. And my not-well-planned and somewhat impromptu trip reminds me of her admonishment to embrace the “practice of getting lost.” When we allow ourselves to step off the familiar path, to venture out of familiar territory, to risk the unknown, we are more likely to encounter the holy. Not that those unfamiliar places are the only places where holy resides, but they are the places where our guards are down, and we see what the routines of our lives so often filter out.  They are the places where we are the stranger, the vulnerable, where our illusions of control are exposed.

Shortly before Christmas, on a trip to the art store, Nancy discovered the Dream Board, a pale blank medium on which you “paint” with clear water. The brush stroke leaves a black mark that disappears in a few minutes as the water evaporates. Lately, I have incorporated the Dream Board into my morning contemplative routine. I make a squiggle on the board, sit back, and study it. Surprisingly often, the squiggle brings to mind an image that was not in my conscious intent. Mountains on the horizon. A running horse, tail streaming behind. A curled fetus. Other times, I set out to evoke an image in a few brush strokes. A sailboat. A bird in flight. A tree. These efforts are hindered by my lack of skill and the annoying tremor in my dominant hand. But even the ugly failures are interesting to observe. Disappearing images often morph into something else entirely. 

It seems to me that my Dream Board experiences, and contemplative practice in general, are akin to Taylor’s “getting lost.” They take me out of my planned and scripted life, out of my ruts, out of my ego; they open me to the holy that I would otherwise not see. 

I was never really lost on my recent trip. And I had no dramatic “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it!” experiences. I did, in my daylight return trip through the heart of South Carolina’s peach country, see mile after mile of peach orchard, trees already red-tipped in early January. And the magnificent Blue Ridge escarpment looming ahead. Not a bad way to start the new year. 

So, maybe more travel, not less. With Nancy. We’ve been thinking about revisiting The Jerusalem Grill in Rome, Georgia—just a three-hour drive to the best shawarma we’ve experienced, with not a mile of Interstate. Or maybe Nashville, to try out full-sized vibraphones on a showroom floor—lots of waterfalls between here and there, if you stray from the beaten path.

Thoughts on the Feast of Stephen

As I wrote the date in my journal, I appended, Feast of Stephen. That set me thinking about how far removed contemporary culture (myself included) is from the time when saints’ feast days were equated with calendar dates in ordinary vernacular. History and/or Shakespeare buffs will know that the Battle of Agincourt was fought on St. Crispin’s Day. But what time of year is that? The rabble in the Globe Theater knew. 

I am reading a book about the northern border of the U.S., which begins with a history of sixteenth century French exploration of North America. That led me to read up on the preceding forty years of religious wars in France, where I found a reference to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. St. Bartholomew’s Day? When is that? Sixteenth century Frenchmen knew. 

St. Swithun’s Day? Yes, he did exist, and there is a reason for the rhyme tying his feast day with a weather forecast. No, I am not going to tell you. Have your own fun looking it up. I will only divulge that the Feast of Stephen falls on December 26, which is also The Second Day of Christmas.

Of course, we have our own (almost) contemporary saint’s day massacre (St. Valentine’s). But aside from Valentine, and of course, St. Nick, what saint’s days take your mind immediately to a calendar date? St. Stephen is my limit.

Looking out on this Feast of Stephen, I did not see snow, deep and crisp and even. I did see a lake of fog in the valley below. That’s been a feature of the last few days. Below is a series of photos taken on Christmas Eve as day broke—the Cumberland Mountains stark against a clear sky with a lake of fog in the valley below. (Photos begin at 7:25 am and end at 8:29.)

It is too cold this time of year to do my journaling out on the deck, so that series of photos represents jumping up from my writing every few minutes to walk out onto the deck and capture the sight. I claim my journaling as my current contemplative practice. But sometimes I wonder. My entries often seem little more than making “to do” lists and “Dear Diary” reporting, more narcissism than contemplation. The saving grace is that the exercise forces me to pay attention, to be present. 

We bought this place in 2017 and spent the entire fall of that year on the initial round of renovations before moving in; 2018 was a year of trying to settle in and planning how to accomplish the other improvements we thought were needed; and 2019 has been the year of the contractor. Major sweeping changes to two bathrooms, removal of some scary trees overhanging the house and garage, reshaping the drainage around the uphill side of the house, construction of safer and more convenient exterior access to our downstairs. Enough! Our resolution for 2020 is “No more contractors!”

Both the tree removal and the drainage improvements sent Bobcats up and down the old logging road that is our principal access to our meadow. Now that steep pathway is a muddy mess, likely to stay that way well into spring. I am especially anxious to put a deep organic cover over the roots of a huge chestnut oak, to help it recover from the compaction of all the unaccustomed traffic. If it fell, it would likely take with it the whole 200-foot long row of big trees bordering the west edge of the meadow. I have a truckload of leaves at the top, and a similar pile of wood chips at the bottom. But the muddy steep slope is too much for The Goat. So I reverted to more primitive technology—raking the leaves onto an old bedsheet and lugging it on my back like Santa’s toy sack. Later I hope to do the same with the wood chips, although that will be an uphill slog.

2019 ends—and 2020 will begin—with a big push to get our studio, shop, and garage sorted for future creative endeavors. Construction leftovers and an excess of “that might be useful for shelving (or storage or…” have all these spaces overcrowded to the point of gridlock. We have goals:

  • Nancy’s studio table art-ready, not cluttered with sheet music and bins of miscellania to be sorted 
  • My shop cleared of unusable wood scraps, with dreamed-of work stations functioning 
  • The music end of the studio free of intruding leftovers so that we can walk in, pick up mallets, and play.

These last few days of clear skies and warm temperatures have me wanting to play in the woods. There is easily a couple of weeks of tempting tasks calling me out there, and I will heed some of the calls. But cold and wet days will return, and we will continue to tackle the studio and shop. It looks to be a very good year.