did someone say category 3?

But it’s October. And the ten-day forecast calls for fall temps here in the Florida panhandle (finally). 


We live in Pensacola, and my younger brother lives in a vulnerable spot in the small waterfront town of Apalachicola.


So I’m headed to the grocery store for just-in-case supplies. We checked the generator last night to be sure it’s working and the underground tank has enough gas to run it for several days. 


Shelters, hospitals, and all emergency service organizations are scrambling.


The sky was filled with bright stars last night. I stood gazing upward, a soft breeze lifting my hair. 

This morning dawned sunny and perfect for a walk to the gate with Lula Belle. 

But here’s a link to the latest Hurricane Michael update from the Pensacola News Journal, and it can’t be ignored, no matter how pretty today is.

Landfall Wednesday. We’ll be fine. We live in a sturdy dwelling, nearly 20 miles inland. But there are many in harm’s way between Pensacola and Tallahassee, including my brother Steve and his dear friend, Carol. Time for a phone call.

I’ll keep you posted.

Friday after Isaac

The spirited clicking of cicada tymbals was so loud when I opened the door this morning, and the rush of hot air that greeted me so intense, I almost shut and locked the door and decided to stay in. But I didn’t. Instead, I walked down to the gate and was rewarded for my effort by the site of does leaping across the road, two owls hunkered on a branch in the stream bed, small branches laden with green acorns strewn across the gravel road, and a fat water moccasin in the road near the gate. I hung back until the snake decided which way he was going. The gate was bowed out even further than it had been from being hit by a runaway red car several months ago. A true hurricane would probably have knocked it loose and carried it away. The little blow and heavy rains from the past three days have just warped it into a permanent u-shape.

Yesterday on my way back from an appointment in town, I got sucked into the vortex of a massive convoy of electric service bucket trucks on I-10. They were really ballin’ the jack, on their way to Mississippi and Louisiana. It was a noisy energetic net. I felt like I wasn’t even driving my car, but was being carried along at 75 miles per hour on the float of their power and urgency. I had to consciously break out of the buzzing hive to make my exit for home.

Late Tuesday night by the time I finished reading Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, I was almost hyperventilating. We had nothing more to worry about than the inconvenience of the possibility of power going out or a tree falling across the road. But reading about the main character, Esch, a fourteen-year-old girl, and her family’s dire straights down in Bois Sauvage, Louisiana during Katrina, my mouth was dry and I sat on the edge of the bed reading late into the night until  the final chapter.

Isaac and the Promise

It’s one of the prettiest days we’ve seen in Pensacola for quite a while. At 7:15 this morning when I walked down to the gate to pick up the Pensacola News Journal, there was a whisper of a cool, crisp fall to come, a promise. But between the promise and the delivery, there will be some hot, humid air and maybe Isaac, son of Ivan, to contend with.  Latest news has Tropical Storm Isaac roughly 80 miles southeast of Key West. Models are now predicting that the zone of probability for landfall of this large storm has moved slightly to the west, which puts really the entire Gulf Coast in play, including our friends to the west in New Orleans.

The Longleaf woods where Buck and I live are roughly 20 miles inland from the Gulf. Any damage we might sustain here won’t be from storm surge, but wind. Most of the house was built in 2005, to post-Hurricane Ivan stringent wind codes.

So what kinds of precautionary measures are we taking?

Friday, I went to the grocery store and stocked up on the usual suspects: canned goods, a little extra water, peanut butter,  and yummy things to help us celebrate life pre-storm. You know, like a chicken to roast, a couple of steaks, chocolate, goat cheese, taboulli, Naked Pitas, and cookies.

I like to load up on comfort food in good times or bad. We ate part of this roast chicken Friday night and some more of it last night. Today, I’ll make chicken stock for the freezer from the bones. From childhood I was taught to salvage the bones. Actually, that’s the title of a phenomenal book I’ve begun reading by Jesmyn Ward. Salvage the Bones, a 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction, tells the story of Esch, a young girl in Bois Sauvage, Louisiana in the days preceding and during Hurricane Katrina. It is fierce, beautiful, and hard to read straight on. I just learned that the author is now an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama over in nearby Mobile, Alabama.  I would drive there to listen to Ward’s original voice; maybe I can.

I saw one smushed-looking shoe in the middle of the road on the way home from the grocery store Friday. The last time I saw a shoe in the middle of the road it was a red high heel. This one was yellowish-tan, almost like it had been a faux moccasin when it was born. There’s something unsettling about one shoe out there in the middle of the road. It makes me feel like something is coming undone.

While I was out that day, I filled up the car with gas and got some a little bit of cash. Just in case. I always say “just in case” even when I’m not fully sure what that means. You know. Just in case.

Here at the house we’re picking up small things like clay flower pots that could turn into projectiles in a high wind, and patio chairs and putting them in the old red storage shed. Buck cut the grass and added chlorine to the pool. I’m cleaning the house. What for? I do not know. When trouble comes or even the merest shadow of trouble makes itself known, I clean the house. I guess I want to be ready if we have to lock it up and go.

I meant to tell you earlier about this funny looking contraption. It’s an insect trap put out near our stream bed by the Florida Division of Plant Industries. It looks to me like a black granite beach hotel with 360 degree balconies all around. Bugs light on the slippery edge and fall right down into a deadly soup that I was told is a dilute form of antifreeze.  I almost had a head-on collision with the nice young woman and her sidekick who come and check the trap every two weeks. They’re trying to find out if any of the bad bugs that infest trees are in the area. I asked if she was having any luck. She shook her head. “Not hardly any at all. All the rain we’ve been having is filling up the traps and washing out the bugs. We only got two here at this one today.”  I don’t know where that thing will land in a storm, but it’s doubtful it will still be hanging where it is now.

This grand old oak at the gate that I’ve taken so many pictures of has survived a lot of storms. It was standing in an absolute circle of bright sunlight when I saw it this morning. It was a powerful sight, somehow, almost like the tree was absorbing all the light it could from the surrounding darkness to take that light into its core as protection for what may come on Tuesday or Wednesday. I stood for several minutes myself right up next to the old tree, leaning against it, closed my eyes and felt the morning sun sink in all the way.

That’s Isaac with an “I”

We don’t care for tropical storms or hurricanes whose name begins with the letter “I” around here. Ivan was a beast. We don’t believe Isaac shares the same DNA or directional proclivities, but will go out tomorrow anyway and gas up the car and truck, get some cash and a few gallons of water, plus some canned goods, flashlight batteries and candles. And chocolate. Lots of chocolate. Since 2004’s Hurricane Ivan, we ‘ve had a whole house generator, which makes us Hurricane Party central for the family. (It runs a/c for part of the house plus the refrigerator, lights, and oven. The cooktop is gas with an electronic ignition, so as long as the generator works we’re good to go for several days.)

The lovely sunset was a sweet moment in the fading light of this August evening.

Article of Faith in a Season of Storm

The last hanging plant I bought was a sensuous, carnelian-colored Bougainvillea. Long tendrils draped and scattered tender petals all summer long. It hung on a wooden contraption lovingly made by my late step-son that, I swear, looked like a huge crucifix built from 4×4 treated wood. Darryl had drilled into the hard wood and installed strong hooks for plants and bird feeders. A tough Christmas cactus hung there, too, along with various bird feeders.

That was 2004, the year Hurricane Ivan made landfall at our near neighbor,  Gulf Shores, Alabama. From our gate, up in the mid-to-north section of Escambia County, it is 43 miles to Gulf Shores. From downtown Pensacola, the distance is only 33 miles; about the same from vulnerable Santa Rosa Island.  That skinny little necklace of land is the gorgeous piece of real estate known as Pensacola Beach.  Any time I drive over the bridge from Gulf Breeze to the beach, a bolus of fear forms in my belly at the sight. That thin barrier island so crowded with high-rise hotels, restaurants, jet-ski rentals, bikini shops, bars, condos, private homes, a school, churches and people everywhere is sandwiched between the placid sound and the unstoppable Gulf of Mexico.

When Ivan hit, Buck and I were in Scotland on the tiny Isle of Arran. My spotty blog archives from September and October of 2004 describe that time. I’ve unearthed an Internet Archive copy of the Pensacola News Journal’s special Hurricane Ivan report here. I never did find the lovely Bougainvillea. The crucifix-looking wood pieces were twisted and partly smashed. Weeks later I found the Christmas cactus container, but no plant. We did find a small, but potentially lethal coral snake in the garage. Lots of things were misplaced, displaced, or replaced.

The middle of hurricane season is upon us. The rest of the country has seen terrible wildfires, floods, and odd land storms that have taken out power for millions of people for days.  So far, our little patch of ground has remained calm. We’re grateful for the almost daily brief thunderstorms that bring just the right amount of rain and ease the high summer temperatures.

A few days ago, I bought another hanging plant. Its true name is  Zebrina Tradescantia, but that ubiquitous purple-striped plant that will grow for even the most black of thumb is commonly known as Wandering Jew. I always liked them. I respect their hardiness and inclination to grab hold with a rootling and call a place home.

For a person who has eschewed gardening for the past 9 years,  I went a little crazy at Publix the other day. I came home with an instant herb garden: Italian parsley, thyme, basil, dill and oregano. There is a space under open wood steps that connects the second floor deck to a ground-floor concrete patio. Grass sends runners into the soil there. Weeds flourish, but the lawn mower can’t quite reach in to mow. It is only a small space, maybe two feet by four feet, maybe a little bigger. It wasn’t much of a commitment to stick those little herb plants in there. But they looked optimistic, and inexplicably made me so happy, that I went to Home Depot the next day, and bought two “Sunpatiens” — a sun tolerant variety of New Guinea Impatiens. They are loaded with pretty white blooms. I also bought two tiny pots of Asian Jasmine, and a great big hanging Wandering Jew.

Yesterday, I went outside in the hottest part of the afternoon, got out the post hole diggers and made a space to move the black iron bird feeder/plant hanger from its place too far away for me to see well from inside the house to a new home inside the fence close to a back window. The ground was harder than I anticipated. Isn’t that always the way? An hour later, sweat dripping off my nose in a steady stream, my hair a frizzy dark cloud, the feeders were cleaned, filled and moved and the Wandering Jew became a housewarming gift for the birds.

When I eventually staggered back inside and got a look at myself in the foyer mirror, I had to laugh. My mother’s voice was clear as a bell in my head: “Mary Beth, you’re as dirty as a pot!” I dove into the pool, my body temp instantly reverted to its mean. I was cleansed and revivified.

The space under the stairs looks nice now. I went out this morning and said a few words to the herbs and flowers. The five-lined skink Buck recently rescued from the house is living there. He spent so much time evading us indoors, I really think he knows me and my habits better than most people. He knows that I may be half a bubble off, but am not mean or dangerous.

Storms come. One may come this season. It may break my sweet Wandering Jew into a hundred pieces and spread it all around the woods. If it does, I know that one day I will walk and find bits of purple pushing their way up from the forest floor. After Hurricane Ivan hit, and we cried over the loss of more than 300 old Longleaf pine trees here, we planted several thousand container-grown seedlings. They were randomly hand-planted to look natural, not like a commercial plantation. These days, those trees are twice my height; some three times.

That Wandering Jew hanging plant is an article of faith in a season of storm.  Despair can take root, but so can hope; so can resilience.

Night Lights

Tropical Storm Ida, our November almost-hurricane, left a few homes without power, some docks under water, and some small inconvenience. She shook us up a little, put all the emergency services through their paces, and caused me for once in my life to do a week's worth of grocery shopping on Monday morning.

I'm thinking about storytelling on this windy, gray afternoon, and how the repetition of our personal narratives becomes, over time, emblematic of our unique (however tiny) imprimatur upon the universe, iconic beacons in the dark night of humanity.

Buck and I were at the Sugar Shack Sunday afternoon and evening. Click here to drop in for a virtual glass of red.

Somebody Tell Ida We Don’t Do November Hurricanes

There is an edgy feel to the traffic today.  Vehicles almost running stop signs, short bursts of speed for no apparent reason, cars cutting their turns short. Pre-storm behavior. I've seen it before. I am only surprised when there is not a line at the gas station or the bank ATM.

The grocery store parking lot is full, but people are buying party food: chips and dip and beer are going out the door in greater volume than gallons of water and canned mystery meat. It's hard to have conviction about a November hurricane.

Besides, Ida is such a wholesome name. If this storm 's name was Jezebel or Buster, I would worry that it would be a trickster. Mid-afternoon here, and it looks like Ida is continuing to weaken. It has already been downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm. Still, schools are closed today and tomorrow. Buck and I haven't decided yet whether to label and pull down all the plastic doors enclosing the pool. It will be a pain to go out in the rain and lug those doors into the little red storage building. But it will be a worse pain to go chasing after them in the middle of an early-morning landfall if we guess wrong.

Despite Ida's honest-sounding name, we have gassed up the car, gotten a little cash, bought a new battery for the generator, and picked up enough groceries to feed the multitudes. I didn't buy party food. I bought a chicken and a pork tenderloin to roast, ground beef for chili and meatloaf, canned salmon, eggs and veggies, that kind of stuff.

It's dark as night outside. The deer came out for a quick graze during a lull in the rain. They ran around in short, fast bursts that reminded me of the storm-neurotic drivers I saw earlier in the day.

Last night we sat on the dock at the Sugar Shack. The slow gray waves looked like a little weather was on the way. We watched as lights came on at homes across the water on the Alabama side of the bay. They were in various shades of yellow, white, lavender and blue and looked like a necklace strung with semi-precious stones. 

Kathleen Scott and Denny Coates

It feels like coming home again, the home we want to see as we approach from wandering in the wilderness, candle in the window, dear faces peering out into the night, guiding our way with their yearning hearts. Coming home to folks who know us by our words over time. Honest brokers who report from the frontlines of their own lives. The kind of people you would drive cross-country to break bread with because you have come to respect and appreciate their clear-eyed intelligence, character and courage. . . even though you have never met.

Who in the world am I talking about?

Kathleen Scott has a new blog, Hill Country Mysteries. Her husband, Denny Coates, who has been sorely missed from the blogosphere since retiring his Book of Life in July of 2004, is working on an innovative concept for his (we hope we hope) return to blogging.

Denny, Kathleen and I began our virtual friendship back in 2004, when they were living on South Florida's Atlantic Coast. Denny's blog had a section for Kathleen's healthful recipes and often his words were punctuated by her photographs. Love of nature, life and each other illuminated the pages of Book of Life. Any day you read Denny's blog was a day you found a bit more strength and joy for the journey.

Kathleen and Denny share my own curiosity about the natural world. I wrote a post called "Exploration" in April of 2004. Kathleen's comment on that post tells you a lot about her uplifting personality and grace.

2004 was Florida's time in the hurricane barrel: we endured Hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne.  Denny, Kathleen and I — along with many others — chronicled the storms' devastation and our personal responses to them.  "Holding the Mirror" was one of my posts. It included post-hurricane excerpts from both Kathleen and Denny.

If you used to read Book of Life, you will be celebrating to learn that Denny's strong, wise voice may be returning to the blogosphere. Start the party early by enjoying Kathleen's blog. She and Denny are living in the wildflower capitol of the world now: the Hill Country of Texas, where Kathleen is close to completing her first mystery novel, set in, naturally, a small town in the Texas Hill Country. I can hardly wait to read it.

Click here to visit Kathleen. Be sure to leave a comment and introduce yourself.



One Hundred Feared Dead . . .

It seems like every time a significant wave from Africa breathes in warm water and the precise mix of conditions combines to raise it up to become a tropical storm, sooner or later we see or hear a headline. . . "at least one hundred feared dead in Haiti."

Haiti. Slapped around by every storm and dictator that comes along. I visited Haiti, once.

The year was 1973. My first husband saw an ad for a swanky resort called Habitation LeClerc. I was 22, so green I had no understanding of where we were going when I got on the plane.

Our marriage didn't end completely for another eight years. But that trip called into question almost everything I thought I knew about my academician husband. The corrosion in our relationship began on the drive from the Port au Prince airport to Habitation LeClerc. And maybe – just maybe – I started to grow up.

I haven't posted for a few days. The "one hundred feared dead" headline from Hurricane Ike coverage poked that old pile of memory leaves. I'm working on an off-line story about it.

Also, we're getting ready for a 10 day trip to Maine. We've become unused to travel, and it takes longer to make lists, pack, clean out the fridge, and remind ourselves to travel light. Books are the hardest, for me. I am reading three and have five new ones waiting in the wings. I want to take them all.


Last Bus Out of New Orleans

The water of the Intracoastal Canal near Interarity Point had the stillness of a reflective mirror last night, or perhaps the stillness of waiting. About thirty folks gathered at our friends' home on the water for an evening of food and drink, storytelling and song. It was a memorable 65th birthday celebration for our friend, Tom. His wife, Patsy, organized it brilliantly. Buck and I aren't party folk, but this one was worth coming out of the woods for.

Tom & Patsy's sailboat "True North"

We renewed old friendships and struck up some new ones. I sat at a table of writers and musicians, including a charming professor/novelist, a delightful Hungarian writer, and a fascinating Russian woman who is both scientist and accomplished pianist. (Later in the evening, she played a Bach adagio – lovely, melancholy – from a travelled sheetmusic album, it's cyrillic lettering an exotic feast for my eyes.)

Most everyone at last night's gathering had stories to tell of hurricanes past, especially 2004's Ivan.

The latest path of Hurricane Gustav suggests that Pensacola will only get gusty winds and some rain from the outer bands. Nonetheless, we have spent the morning securing patio furniture, hoses, sprinklers, small pieces of wood — generally anything outside with the potential of becoming a dangerous projectile in a high wind.

We have checked the generator, filled the cars with gas, gotten a little extra cash, and stocked the pantry. A good test run.

These small steps are easy for Buck and me. Pensacola is not in the direct path of this storm, we live in a sturdy dwelling well inland, we have personal transportation, great health and vigor and the ability to fix something if it does get smashed. We're insured. We are lucky.

Can you imagine how it would feel to be living in a city below sea level, like New Orleans, (a city whose levees failed the last time), to be elderly, poor, physically frail or disabled, a young parent with several small children, or suffering from dementia, or to be a small child relinquishing your pet to kindly strangers, your large beautiful eyes round with fear and confusion? To slip a bar-coded bracelet over your wrist for identification? The television images and Katrina memories enhance a sensation of dread, and once again, I'm dragging out my sheet music for Randy Newman's song, Louisiana 1927, which I can never play without unshed tears clotting and sometimes overflowing the levees of my eyes.