In the place of the sweet trees

with thanks to Denise Krebs for encouraging “multiple languaged” poems for today’s Ethical ELA Open Write and NCpedia for shedding a little more light on name origins…

In the Place of the Sweet Trees

Long ago, the first People knew the river.

They named it for the trees growing there
where spice-bark and great white flowers
perfume the air. 

In this place of the sweet trees
along the riverbank
a vine began to grow. 

It bore fruit in the shape
of spheres
of the Earth itself
as yet unknown.

Thick-hulled green-gold
pearls of the vine
that the People named
for the blackwater river
in the place of the askupo,
those heavy, fragrant trees
rooted in swampy soil.

The People, standing in the cool shadows
of the sweet trees by the river,
tasted the askuponong,
the scuppernong,
and understood
the Divine.

Scuppernongs getting ripe. -Mandie-CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Dinnertime guest

He comes to dine each evening
between four and five o’clock
resplendent in his crimson cravat
in an emerald flash, he’s gone
breathless, I await his return

A female ruby-throated hummingbird giving the feeder over to a male: If you look closely, you can see his tongue lapping up the sugar water. A hummingbird’s tongue is forked, like a snake’s, with edges that trap nectar. During my impromptu summer study I’ve learned that males are the minority. They are fewer and never linger as long as females. So many days have gone by without sighting a male that I wondered if they’d all migrated; they are the first to go. Then this fellow began arriving every evening for dinner. He’s quite punctual. I’ve been reading that hummingbirds may not leave my central North Carolina neck of the woods until winter. We shall see… in the meantime, I watch and marvel over nature, its rhythms, its endless curiosities.

Time will tell

Went on vacation last week and upon returning, a discovery
that only the female hummers come to my feeders now.
Quite possibly, the fiery-throated males have migrated
to central Mexico or Panama. —How I miss them.
These females are suddenly voracious drinkers…preparation?

Previously, the sugar water in the feeders lasted several days until I had to change it to keep it from fermenting in the high heat, i.e, avoiding drunk hummingbirds. Now the feeders are drained in a day and half. Males migrate first…maybe these females really are stocking up. I have also read that hummingbirds occasionally remain in residence all year in some parts of North Carolina. Time will tell…in the meantime, the feeders stay out until I see the little birds no more.

Hog-ku

Ordinary day
except for the feral hog
strolling through the yard

We’ve seen a lot of critters throughout our years of living in the countryside, but this is the first wild pig, enjoying a Sunday afternoon ramble through my son’s yard. My son took photos and sent them to me with an article on how feral hogs are an increasing concern in North Carolina. Apparently they do millions of dollars’ worth of damage to crops and pose a disease threat to livestock and pets. The state actually has a Feral Swine Task Force.

A zoomed and cropped shot, nevertheless too close for comfort…fortunately the hog wandered off.


Of racehorses and old roads

As I write, the National Anthem’s being sung at Churchill Downs for the start of the Kentucky Derby.

I’ll be pulling for a horse not favored to win.

His owner grew up in eastern North Carolina on a little stretch of road in the country. It’s paved now, but people have living memory of it being dirt… and I have an affinity for old dirt roads in these far reaches.

Once upon a time, I was a child who stayed in a little house on a dirt road in the summertime. I swung from a tire swing that Granddaddy hung from the pecan tree all studded with woodpecker holes. I swung to the deafening rise-and-fall rhythms of cicada-rattles, alongside the old dirt road across from the clearing where timeworn gravestones stood over people my grandmother knew when she was a child. I swung back and forth, round and round through the dappled afternoon, singing a favorite folk song from my father’s Peter, Paul, and Mary album…

Stewball was a racehorse
and I wish he were mine
he never drank water
he always drank wine…

The song goes on to say how the speaker bet on the gray mare and the bay, when:

ahead of them all,
came a-prancin’ and a-dancin’,
my noble Stewball.
The hoot owl, she hollered…

This past week, early one morning, I recorded a hoot owl (barred owl) hollering from the pines behind my home.

Memory runs so deep, so strong.

And so I pull for the horse named Barber Road, whose odds keep going down in these remaining moments before he gets to the gate.

Here’s to my own beloved road by another name in eastern North Carolina, and childhood, and belonging, and ol’ Stewball who wasn’t favored to win, either, but did, and to the hoot owl, the stories, the songs, and overcomings.

And here’s to you, Barber Road.

Run on.

Thoroughbred racehorseMIKI Yoshihito. CC BY 2.0.

Update: Barber Road finished 6th. By now the world knows that Rich Strike, the least-favored horse (80-1,) took the Derby in the second-biggest upset in its 148-year history. Secretariat, the first racehorse I remember, and who still fills me with awe to the point of tears, holds the record.

Carry on

The bird at the roadside sat
day after day after day
by the body of his lifetime mate
after she passed away

The naturalist saw him there
day after day after day
’til finally with some rotting meat
she lured the bird away

You must carry on, old boy
carry on carry on carry on
a marvel, how you honor your mate
when she’s carrion carrion carrion

Dedicated to the local buzzard who mourned his dead partner by the roadside. Until this story reached me, I didn’t know that turkey buzzards mate for life. I’ve since learned that they lack vocal organs…they cannot call or sing or cry. They can only grunt and hiss as they go about the humble work of cleaning up carcasses…but not, apparently, those of their mates.

Photo: 11 Turkey Buzzard Pittsboro NC 9425bobistraveling. CC BY 2.0.

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day in the month of March. This is my sixth year participating.

Mystery creature

Pleasant evening drive
after a taxing workday
heading to supper

ahead, in the road,
a little creature trotting
like some kind of cat

I said, What IS that?
I can’t tell, said my husband
so sphinx-like, it was

long, low, and silver
big pointy ears, feline grace
canine whiskered face

—oh! we cried, a fox!—
as it vanished, phantom-like,
in the shrouding woods.

We’d have known it right away, had it been red. We see those occasionally. Gray foxes are actually native to the area, however; the red fox didn’t appear in this part of the country until the 1800s. I cannot recall having seen a gray fox before. It was small and lovely, with a grizzled silver coat so prized by hunters. These are the only foxes that can climb trees.

I wonder where our enigmatic gray fox was going on its jaunt along the woodland road just before dusk…and how many more of its kind are about, in the secret places…

Photo: Gray FoxKeith Wescourt. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Season of shivers

September. Days growing notably shorter. Darker mornings. Sun blazing at midday, chorus of feverish buzzing from the treetops, cicadas singing loudest just before the last.

School. Children swathed in masks. Eating lunch all over the building for safe distancing. Even in a recessed section of hallway, sitting on the floor in portable blue plastic seats with built-in tabletops for food. A study in balance. Like seesaws. It takes coordination to stand up without losing what’s left of your lunch.

In the evenings, exhaustion. Everyone expresses it. Everyone. The nightly news drones on: Death and dying. Afghanistan. Hurricane destruction. Epic flooding. Rising COVID cases. Delta variant. And you might want to invest in warm clothing, Viewers. The Farmer’s Almanac predicts an unusually cold winter…it’s being called ‘the season of shivers‘…

Season of shivers. So poetic. I want to make something out of it, turn it around in my hand like a crystal, watch it sparkle in the light. I will hold onto it a while.

Isn’t it already a season of shivers. Church closed again, three weeks to date, as COVID struck a number of our members at once. Granddaughter in kindergarten for a week, now quarantined for two, following an exposure. Colleagues wanting to talk about intervention for students who were kindergarteners and first graders during the last year and a quarter, when instruction went virtual. A frantic clinging to norms when norms are gone. We can’t start with intervention. We must be about reinvention. Daunting.

Children. The most resilient of us all. I am sent to the cafeteria to supervise half of second grade while the other half is spread across the hallway and classrooms. Two to a table, facing the same direction. Cheerful. Chattery. They have to finish eating in time for me to clean all the tables before the next grade level arrives. I am the only staff member present. Normally there are two. Even office staff is pressed into service at lunch time, covering all locations. Skeleton crews, everywhere.

I manage it. The kids are in two lines, masked, lunch boxes in tow, awaiting their teachers. They watch me. They’re not sure what to make of me. They are quiet.

Beyond the propped cafeteria door, a balmy September afternoon. The swelling of cicada-rattles. Loud.

Do you hear that buzzing? I ask.

Nodding of masked heads. Like little bobbers on water.

Do you know which insect makes that sound?

Cockroaches! shouts a boy.

Crickets? offers a girl.

No. It’s a cicada.

They like the sound of the word. They say it aloud: Cicada.

I describe it. With my fingers: This big. Long wings. Hatches underground, climbs to top of trees. That buzzing is made by the males. It’s a love song. Doesn’t sound like a love song, does it?

Giggles. Shaking of heads.

They have questions, but their teachers have come. They must go.

Thank you for telling us about cicadas, says a girl, as her line begins snaking away.

At the door, the last boy stops, turns back: Where is that rattle, on the cicada?

In his belly, I say.

The boy nods. He runs along the sidewalk to catch up with his class.

I stand still in the shadowy silence, this momentary transition, listening to the miniature buzz-saw, helicopter-blade whirring of the cicada congregation. Loudest they’ve been all summer, just as it begins to die.

How well they must understand, cicadas, about the season of shivers.

Shiver. benjaflynn. CC BY 2.0

*******

When I began writing this post, I hadn’t planned on including cicadas. They crept in of their own accord. Because I love them, and their song, I let them stay. I often write of them. Cicadas represent, among other things, personal change and transformation.

Many thanks to the Two Writing Teachers community and the weekly Slice of Life Story Challenge. Sharing our stories is also about personal change and transformation. We grow through it.

Sidewalk angels

Asheville, North Carolina.

First vacation in two years, owing to my husband’s cardiac surgeries and the pandemic. He wants to see the mountains. They remind him of his childhood. They’re in his blood, like rivers and bays are in mine.

We’re not campers, though. We stay in town.

Late arrival, chilly summer rain, deserted city streets. Apparently everything closes early on a Sunday night. Downtown is eerily vacant, as if we’ve landed in a time warp or the Twilight Zone. Where have all the people gone? We walk in the desolation, huddled under our umbrellas.

On the sidewalks, random pink granite squares bear strange designs of some secret code: a feather, a horseshoe…

“Did you see that angel?” I ask my husband. I think I recall seeing this here before, on a previous visit.

“No. Where?”

“Back there, on the sidewalk. An angel pointing up, with a star on its head. We just passed it. I’m sure it has something to do with Thomas Wolfe. You know, ‘Look Homeward, Angel’…”

“Oh yeah, I bet it does.”

The rain slacks off. We round a corner to discover people dining under a café awning. A stocky, stubble-faced man lurches along the sidewalk from the opposite direction; his countenance lights up when he sees my husband: “Kris Kristofferson! Jerry Garcia! Can I get your autograph?” He fairly ripples with his own merriment.

Aside from the mountain panorama, this may well be the highlight of the trip for my hoary-curled, gray-bearded husband. Never mind that he’s a Baptist preacher. He’s a lifelong fan of these artists. He laughs: “My autograph won’t get you very far, brother.”

As we press on, trying to determine if any other restaurants are open, I glimpse blanketed bodies nestled in recessed shop doorways. The homeless, sheltered from the weather, settling in for the night ahead. Disparity, like cold mountain rain in midsummer, seeps all the way to my bones. I shiver.

They are still cocooned there the next morning when my husband and I hunt for coffee and bookstores, navigating around other vacationers who are now out and about, pushing their dogs in strollers. One lady on the sidewalk has risen and is sitting by her rolled blankets with a small basket by her side and a little black dog in her lap. Over the course of the next two days, as we try to decipher the odd hours of stores and restaurants (we discover that some are closed on Mondays, others on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and that some don’t open even when their signs said they will; how apropos is the ‘Stay weird, Asheville’ slogan?) —we see this petite lady several times. She remains there on the sidewalk by the same shop while other people of the street come and go, apparently checking in with one another. She is of indeterminate age. Slight wrinkles, blondish hair pinned up. Blue eyes. The little black dog stays right with her, cuddled close, never making a peep, watching the world walk by. I note that they get visitors. Some bring food. As my husband and I wait for the walk signal to cross the street, a young man from the Ben & Jerry’s shop comes out with a tiny cup of ice cream for the dog. I wonder how often he does this, how many other shopkeepers share in this caring…

I wonder how long this lady has been here, what her story is, if she has any family, if she’s ever stayed at a shelter. Not all shelters are safer than being on the street, especially with COVID. I find myself trying to imagine her daily life, her subsistence, the haunting freedom of living on the street; in the lyrics of Kristofferson: “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” She doesn’t appear to ask anyone for anything although she has a red plastic container sitting out for donations. I begin to worry about someone taking it from her…

On our last day, as my husband and I approach, she greets us: “Good morning.” She smiles. I know she’s recognized us as having passed this way before. It’s a familiar, familial tone. Full of warmth, the way a mother speaks to her waking children.

We respond in unison: “Good morning!”

“Your little dog is precious,” I say. “And so good.”

“Thank you.” Her voice is raspy but pleasant. “She’s a girl.”

“Such a sweet girl! What’s her name?”

“Raspberry.”

My husband and I learn the woman’s name, too. We chat with her for a moment. My husband takes some cash from his wallet and puts it in the red tub where the woman has an inconspicuous cardboard sign with the words ‘Thank you and God bless youG. and Raspberry’ written in red marker, accompanied by a small drawing of a cross.

We say our goodbyes. The image of Raspberry’s moist dark eyes stays with me as my husband and I walk our last through this beautiful city of Look Homeward, Angel: The Story of a Buried Life. Wolfe set the novel in a fictionalized version of Asheville, his hometown, to explore the “strange and bitter magic of life.

G. and Raspberry remain on my mind as we head homeward through the majestic blue-shadowed mountains. What is homeward if you have no home? Which way do you look then?

I have infinite questions, but this I know: there’s more than one sidewalk angel in Asheville.

*******

It is estimated that over half a million people in the United States experience homelessness. This includes those in shelters, transitional housing, and hotels and motels paid for by charities or government programs as well as those who sleep in cars, parks, camps, and places not meant for human habitation. While many misconceptions persist, among the the primary causes are lack of affordable housing, poverty, disabilities, and domestic violence.

The pink granite squares with designs in Asheville’s sidewalks are part of the Urban Trail, comprised of thirty different stations with sculptures representing historical periods. The Trail tells the story of the city’s past. The angel represents The Times of Thomas Wolfe, 1900-1938.

Right now, as the sun rises in my part of North Carolina, it’s raining again; I wonder how G. and Raspberry are faring this morning.

with special thanks to Two Writing Teachers for providing a venue for sharing Slices of Life.

The call

In a poetry class with Highlights Foundation, I recently wrote an Edenic or Fall of Man/Woman poem in which I touched on the idea that animals once had free communication with humans. Maybe we once understood all the lyrics in birdsong. Maybe that’s why I have such a pang when the Carolina wren on my back deck sings, with its whole being, with what sounds like unbridled joy; it fills me with unspeakable longing for something I cannot name. Maybe this lost dialogue is why dogs’ loving eyes so pierce the human soul…begging the question of who’s the purer creature…

One morning this week I heard a sound that I haven’t heard in years. I hadn’t even realized it was missing: the distinctive call of Bobwhite quail. A quick online search told me that their numbers have diminished in my area. Surely some of this is due to habitat loss as more subdivisions are being built. As is often the case with one simple search, I now have more research to do…

And then one afternoon, pulling into my driveway, I saw four tiny brown birds running from the roadside to safety in the grass. A new covey of these quail, forging their life together. Got me thinking about how challenging it is to survive, being a ground bird, considering the neighbor’s prowling cat and any number of things in the snatches of surrounding woods… it is a line of thinking I can’t let myself follow very far. Leads me back to the poem, the idea of Eden, the true unity of all living things, before the loss of it all. Before the first bloodshed.

But today, I will simply savor the sound. And the living. And the message, as much as I can understand it.

Bob-white, bob-bob-white
onomatopoeic call
of little ground birds
skittering through the grasses
looking out for each other

Lead photo: Northern Bobwhite quail. Steve Maslowski/USFWS. CC BY

End photo: Northern Bobwhite. Don Faulkner. CC BY-SA