Longleaf Preserve is what Buck and I call the hundred-acre wood where we have lived for the last eighteen years. It’s not a gated community with a name that evokes some long-past history. It’s an actual preserve for Longleaf pine trees and mixed-hardwoods. Buck bought the land back in the last century, in 1974. We married in 1984 and built our home here in 2000.
Many folks think of Florida as monolithic: hot in summer, heaven in winter, Mickie Mouse, golf, alligators and sharks. But the Florida Panhandle has seasons, gorgeous emerald water sugar sand beaches, and lush forests, along with some nifty small towns, including Pensacola, where we live. And a little known fact that messes with national elections reporting: we’re in the central time zone, whereas most of Florida is in eastern. We still have folks voting while the media have already started reporting who won or lost in Florida.
I’ve been walking the third of a mile from house to gate nearly every morning for a long time now, so I recognize and enjoy all the signs of changing seasons. I’m a lot older than when I first started making those morning walks, not as eager for the next season to arrive, preferring instead to linger and savor the one I’m in.
Even August, usually the peak time for heat, humidity, and clouds of love bugs. And hurricanes. But this August, with only a few more days to go, has been a kinder and gentler month. Plenty of actual rain rather than constant steam. Cooler temps. And fall-blooming wildflowers gracing us with their presence way earlier than usual.
Maybe somebody out there understands we noise-weary humans need a break. Do yourself a favor. Turn off your news-feed and take a walk.
The sharp-eyed bluebird watched in his lapis lazuli suit with its apricot vest from a fence post perch as more than thirty cardinals at the feeders played a manic game of leapfrog.
The steady rain didn’t slow them down at all. Hours later, the rain continues to fall straight down and steady into the warming ground and I know that within days I’ll be cranking up the old John Deere. Mowing season will have begun. But this afternoon the circles of light inside our dry abode are all the sanctuary a creature could dream for, and a nap beacons.
First, though, a March walk in the pine woods. If you’re still awake on this sleepy day, come along. Plenty of sweet, fresh air for everyone.
My heart is indurated, my head obdurate. The broken ground, here, friable. I kneel and smell its fragrance, nurturing as good bread warm from a mindful oven.
The green grass, which I mow all summer on a small John Deere lawn tractor, encroaches a little more each year and the strip sown in a wheat, oats and rye mixture for the deer has narrowed. The deer nibble the grass, too, so I’m not sure they mind. Besides, they make their circuits to two other fields grown just for them. Once there were six, but as Harold has grown more frail and Buck’s bred in his bones fire for hunting has self-extinguished, the only reason for planting even two food plots now is nostalgia and the imperative of the season.
Harold has been in and out of the hospital twice in recent weeks. His son (far left) helped plant this year’s fields. Buck is in it now for the friendship, the symbolism, the memories., and the beauty of the moment.
Our twenty-year-old granddaughter, Andie, spent Tuesday night with us, then she and I took mugs of French Roast coffee hot as fire and drove the old black pick-up truck to Sunshine Hill for the seed while Buck, Harold and Huey prepared and fertilized the ground. Andie and I saw fields nearly white for harvest up near Molino, where cotton has returned. When she and I returned, we drove to the fields and slung fifty pound sacks to the ground or slid them to the tailgate for pickup. I got distracted listening to Harold’s stories and stood in a bed of ants. Andie saw them marching double-time up my calves and alerted me. They bit in unison when I jumped, ran, and tore off my jogging shoes and socks. No damage done, just a few red bites on my feet, legs and fingers. They were a mild tribe. Andie focused and refocused the camera in her mind, I could see her do this, and I know this is a day she shall never forget. She saw her granddad and me in a surprising venue, away from our desks, the hearth, the kitchen and the dining table.
A farmer’s rain came yesterday as if we had ordered it from a menu to tamp down the soil and swell the seeds.
The fields were prepared. The seeds were planted. And the rains came.
I write by grace and grit. I write for the love of ideas. I write for the surprise of a sentence. I write with the belief of alchemists. I write knowing I will always fail. I write knowing words always fall short. I write knowing I can be killed by my own words, stabbed by syntax, crucified by understanding, and misunderstanding. I write past the embarrassment of exposure. I trust nothing especially myself and slide head first into the familiar abyss of doubt and humiliation and threaten to push the delete button on my way down, or madly erase each line, pick up the paper and rip it into shreds — and then I realise it doesn’t matter, words are always a gamble, words are splinters from cut glass. I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient. I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love.
(excerpted with thanks for every word she writes from the much-quoted “Why I Write” essay by Terry Tempest Williams, published in the anthology, Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Philip Gerard)
This has been a week of death and near-misses in my tiny speck of the planet. It began on Wednesday. Telephones ringing at 6:20 a.m. are seldom a good sign. I still had a toothbrush clamped between my teeth and was struggling to put on jogging shoes for the one-two-three punch of a treadmill session followed by a walk to the gate followed by a swim that has become my self-prescribed physical therapy for arthritis regimen.
I didn’t recognize the area code and was prepared to sharp-tongue the caller. “Hello? It’s early here,” I said.
“I’m sorry, it’s J.” This was no stranger, and I recognized the tear-clotted voice.
“Why are you crying? What’s happened?” I took the toothbrush out of my mouth and put it down on top of a stack of rough draft pages.
“It’s my brother — A. He hanged himself in his girlfriend’s apartment. She found him at 4 a.m. this morning.” And then she wailed.
I can’t and won’t write anything more about this private tragedy. J. and her late brother are the adult grandchildren of a dear old friend of ours who died in 2007, leaving to Buck the care of his affairs.
Early Thursday morning, I left the bedroom and stopped off in my study to turn on the computer, then headed straight for the kitchen to fire up the coffee maker. I had just cleared the carpeted living room and stepped with bare feet onto the large cool tiles of the kitchen, when I heard a loud thud that I knew had to be a bird hitting a glass door in the living room. I feel sick when any bird flies into those doors. I hear that particular sound three or four times a year. Sometimes the victim lives to fly again, sometimes not. I expected a dove or maybe a cardinal, but when I saw that it was a red-cockaded woodpecker on the concrete patio, I felt dizzy, ill. The black head and beautiful zebra-striped back were unmistakable. I went back into the kitchen and stood for a minute, wondering what to do. If it were dead, another minute wouldn’t matter. If it were only stunned, I might frighten it even more by opening a door.
I stepped back into the living room with a full heart, knowing the bird would be still be there. And she was. But this time, her head was up, the black cap spiky like a punk hair style, and then, by God, she flew. No hesitation, just up and out of there. I jumped and whooped and laughed out loud, with a big “Thank you!” to God, the Universe, the Dalai Lama, and Mother Nature.
One was a person; one is a bird. I had no control over either event, but life is life. And it sure was sweet to watch that stunned bird fly away to live another day.
Note: I’ve been away from the blogosphere for a few weeks. The writing is going well, though. Buck and I are trying to meet some goals before our trip to Maine in September. I hope you’re all having a good summer, and look forward to visiting and catching up with you soon. Much love, Beth.
I am lucky witness each morning to that miracle moment when darkness turns to day.
Here it is, only March 3, and yet huge flocks of fat, red-breasted robins have been feasting for weeks. I hear them each morning even before it is light enough to make out their robust shapes. I was working at my desk two days ago when I heard the loud “BAM!” sound of something hitting one of the sliding glass doors. “Bird,” I thought. Sure enough, I arrived at the back slider in time to see a chaotic swirl of soft gray feathers floating from eye level down to the concrete patio. The violent appearance of the sudden detachment of feathers from bird led me to expect a small gray body on the ground, but I underestimated the resilience and luck of this particular bird. He was long gone, probably down at the local bird tavern, downing fermented nectar and toasting his near-death experience.
Ferns and iris shoots are greening up the dead leaf, rotting wood brownness of the stream bed. I’ve even seen sunbeams shoot darts into the murky water, showering bright yellow sparks near my feet on morning runs from house to gate. I have to be my own good dog these days, and fetch the paper before coffee. Wild blueberry bushes are transforming from dry sticks to gauzy bowers covered in tiny bell-shaped, lavender-tinged blooms.
The fertile land welcomes all, even non-native invaders like the Orange-Vested HatchMotts, deceptively mild-mannered sorts who travel in pairs. They arrive in a white utility van with an engineering company logo discreetly painted on the side. They park in the shade of the big spreading oak out front, then emerge to set up tripods and other land surveying equipment. Polite workers, walled off from the big picture for their own protection, gifted by job assignment with tunnel vision. Their task is narrow, but deep. All they do is put lines on paper.
The Orange-Vested HatchMotts are easy to track. They intentionally leave a path for others to follow. They are measuring, flag-taping creatures.
They determine where a line should go, then chop their way between Point A and Point B.
The small scraps of orange or white fabric are marked with numbers. Sometimes they are pinned into the ground; others times nailed into a tree.
I emerge from the tree tunnel into a clearing just under the big oak. I see tire tracks, but no vehicle. The HatchMotts have gone for the day.
I’m sure it began with one slender vine snaking up the magnolia’s tree trunk. Maybe it had fragrant flowers or tasty berries. I’ll bet it was pretty, an encircling bracelet, a fitting adornment for the vibrant tree.
But like draws like, and slowly, so slowly no one noticed, the tree was weighted down, deformed and strangled by the insistent vines.
New shoots are the first to green up the woods. Light brown tendrils leap out at the joints to grab hold of a host. Their older bretheren thicken with age. They lie along the forest floor. They play dead, all the while sending iron ties down into the ground. They cling. They resist.
There is a visceral pleasure in cutting vines away from the magnolia. They are bouncy, boomerangs. You pull. They pull back.
I have no illusions. I know that in the dark, the vines are growing as I sleep. But each morning now, I walk to the gate and see that magnolia reaching out, breathing, growing fast in the way of those who have lost time, and I smile.
I never knew they were there. When I heard their voices for the first time last week, it reinforced my inclination toward mystery, a feeling that infinite layers, like gossamer veils, lie waiting for us to behold when a breeze lifts the corner of some new revelation. How many times have I walked the gravel road between house and gate? There are times when I thought it was boring, that near half-mile stretch of a leg, scraggly with the remains of a planted pine plantation that was planted too densely fifty years ago and left to be overrun with competing hardwoods, yaupon, magnolia and thick, Tarzan-worthy vines. And yet, even the predictable seasonal changes have a magical quality, when dead-looking sticks come alive, lush with green leaves, indigo and scarlet berries, the air exhales sweet honeysuckle, and the ever-present ants are building, always building.
I stepped onto the low dam on the northeast side of the gravel road where the spring head that makes up the wandering stream is located. Water there is contained within a rough free-form circle. Partially submerged tree limbs and branches slowly decompose in the dark water. A carpet of leaves forms a fecund liner at the bottom. We have had no winter at all this year, so I was wary of snakes as I hunkered down in my running shorts and tank top to peer over into the dark water. I wanted to take off my shoes, get in there and clean out all the dead wood, but good sense prevailed for the moment, and instead I stretched out as far as I could and removed several of the closest branches. You can see some of them stacked on the dam in the photo above. The green shoots in the foreground are Louisiana Irises that are coming up much earlier than usual this year. If the weather stays warm, soon they will be blooming purple and yellow orchid-like flowers.
Buck cut vines and thorn bushes on the southeast side of the streambed just across the narrow gravel road while I pulled limbs from the inky pool. Just as we joined back up in the middle of road, breathing hard, with twigs in our hair and scratches on our arms and legs, a loud accoustical sound filled the hollow. I thought at first it was a pack of dogs or coyotes, but my mind quickly processed the sound and decided: owls. The sound emanated from the far side of the dark pool, the spring-head. They flew, and the sound gradually grew more faint.
When we got back to the house, I went to Cornell University’s site, All About Birds, to see if I could confirm that the sound was made by owls, and which specie. As soon as I heard the audio, there was no doubt: we have Barred Owls. When I learned they like to live in hollowed-out trees or holes in old branches, I remembered a photo I had taken near the spring-head in 2004. I called it “Den and Cavity Tree,” but didn’t know what might live there.
The video below, created by youtube user srcampsite recreates the exact sounds we heard.
border:the official line that divides one area of land from another
limit: the point at which something ends or beyond which it becomes something else
I’m not crazy about the idea of sanctioning Microsoft’s “Bing” search engine as a legitimate dictionary, but that aside, when I searched for “boundary” and was served up the above entry first on the list, I knew at once that their inclusion of “limit: the point at which something ends or beyond which it becomes something else” was precisely the thought I had in mind, so I’ve picked up the stone from the road and won’t fret about its provenance.
I would love to see one of the owls, but they may be raising babies at this time of year, so I won’t be trespassing again anytime soon.
This concrete marker has been in the woods, a silent sentinel, for more than 50 years. It was put there by the now-defunct St. Regis Paper Company to mark an easement granted to the former owner of our land. That owner was a legendary legal mind, an orator in the grand style of southern lawyers, one of the last in these parts who “read” for the law rather than going to law school. He came into possession of our hundred acres and a similar-sized adjacent parcel as payment for a legal fee of roughly $300. Seems incredible now, but it was a long time ago. Incredible flows to inevitable with surprising ease.
Look closely, and in the distance you can see another be-ribboned marker. It marks a section line. Beyond it is our neighbor’s land, her horse pasture and barn. Cast your eye along that section line to imagine that just on the other side of her land is a ribbon of asphalt, the exact spot at which the current road makes a 90° curve. That is the point at which the county will straighten the road.
From the front door of our house, the old farm gate where we enter the property is roughly 1/3 of a mile, or approximately 800 of my steps. Our neighbor’s horse pasture begins at the first 90° curve of the existing road. Our gate is at the third 90° curve of the existing road.
It has been about five years since we got the first glimmer of the big changes that are in store for this area of the county in general. Surveyers have shown up from time to time. I’ve written about their visitations. Little pink flags and pick-up trucks. Public hearings have been held with bemused area residents circling large, colorfully rendered concept maps; citizens trying to get an answer to two elusive questions. How will this affect my land? When?
In the first public gatherings, a county representative sanguinely assured residents that all this tumult was on paper only, a hundred-year plan for the area. I knew better, blest or cursed as I am with the gift of finding the devil in the fine print of labryinthine online archives that are public, but sometimes placed in odd spots, and hard to find for anyone but a cold-nosed dog.
There’s an old saw about how you can’t unring a bell that’s been rung. It’s true. The knowledge that the county might abandon the current road at the first 90° degree curve and create a straightened continuation to roughly follow the section line for more than a mile and cut our property in half very close to our home was a bite from the apple that couldn’t be spit out. And it didn’t matter whether the change would come in fifty years or two, because suddenly the dreamy understanding that we are only stewards of the land became real as a concrete marker driven into the soft ground.
The concrete marker is about ten feet to the right of this picture. I don’t measure distances on the ground in terms of feet or yards. I get the sense of whether something is near or far by my own steps. Here, for instance, it is 100 steps taken by a 5’4″ woman to the front door. I take about 800 steps every day from the house straight down the asphalt drive and private gravel road to our gate. Every day, I try to imagine how life will change with an 80-foot right-of-way road right here, carrying traffic to new jobs that will come to this poor county because of the changes and helping people escape from hurricanes via this new east-west corridor.
Ah. There it is, that nugget I can’t ignore. I want it to be all one way. I want it to be just about us, what we want, about the interruption of our splendid isolation and the way the rerouting of the road reroutes our lives.
Ten days ago brought a visit from civil engineers to let us know surveyors would be on the property, this time to formulate three options for the precise placement of the road. Not in 100 years, or 50: this September.
When I leave the house walking to the gate, the spring-fed stream bed is on either side of the gravel road at about the 400 step mark. It flows from the spring-head on the east side of the road through a metal culvert under the road and gradually meanders westerly through the woods, sometimes going underground and then popping up to the surface again. Almost every day now, I spend a little time here, first hacking away the heavy vines, nature’s constrictors, to be able to get close enough to the stream bed to work, then pulling half rotted tree branches and tangled nests of roots out of the water to clear a way for the water to flow rather than merely puddle. Even a vigorous natural spring can get clotted with dead leaves and become nearly stagnant. An interventional debridement can restore the powerful circulation. I am connecting with my own source waters, nurturing the roots of personal happiness, and going with the flow.
The squarish cut-out place in the bark where wood shows through looks man-made. That’s what drew me to this tree at first, although based on its location on our property, that seems unlikely. Then I became fascinated by the shiny brown substance that has filled in other wounds. It is hard to the touch, almost like dry paint. It probably isn’t a true mystery, only that I do not know how it came to be the way it is. It evokes calligraphy.
I shake the sand out of my Thorlo running socks. They are white, with pale gray patches on the heel and under the instep. Then I pull on my battered blue-gray jogging shoes with the still-bright yellow Nike swoosh on the sides. I have new ones, but I save those for going out to lunch or town errands. My morning uniform is complete: black Nike running shorts with bright blue trim, a peach-colored jog bra and soft black scoop-neck tee. I unlock the brass deadbolt on the front door and move the smooth brass lever-style knob to open the twelve-foot tall black and glass door. It’s a double door, but only one side is set to operate. I left two sets of loppers on a plastic chair in the breezeway, along with some thin work gloves. I check to be sure no spiders or other bugs have gotten into the glove fingers before I pull them on and make a mental note not to leave them outside again. I pick up the longer, more sturdy of the metal loppers and head out toward the stream bed and the gate.
The stream bed was mangled almost beyond recognition when the winds of 2004’s Hurricane Ivan trashed it with twisted wreckage of trees. The spring is still lively. It makes bubbly sounds when I walk by. The area is still home to all sorts of birds, squirrels and other critters. Deer use it as a regular highway, and I’ve seen coyote and fox scat on the gravel road nearby. The spring crosses under the road through a culvert and continues on to feed the big swamp, deep into the digestive system of the land.
It takes strength and heart to reclaim such a place. Sometimes I’ve had one, but not the other. Last week, Buck took his new battery-operated saw and removed several of the half-dead, twisted hulks from the stream bed. I guess it was just the encouragement I needed. Now, almost every day, I walk down there with my gloves and loppers and clear out a little more and a little more. I’ve discovered a lush fern garden half hidden under and probably fed by the decaying debris.
This picture and the two others on this page are from a walk Buck and I took a couple of days ago. We talked about what a gift it is to live on a piece of ground and to come to know it so well over the years: to watch a forest grow and to be able to tell which trees were hand-planted and which are volunteer; to know which places are always dry no matter what and which are always wet.
To watch the interplay of color between evergreen and deciduous, and to be able to spot the proliferating wild blueberry bushes when they change color in the fall to deep red and aubergine is sweet, and to know the season instantly with its profusion of yellow-gold and purple wildflowers. Both spring and fall are marked by purples and yellows, but the shades, shapes and varieties are completely different.
We walked side by side and talk about change. We know the county has now selected a firm to do pre-engineering for the road. The road is like a giant whose shadow falls onto the trail we are walking. People will come to talk to us. We will walk and talk together. There will be much pointing and shaking of heads. Maybe even some nodding. I said to Buck, “There may be spitting on the ground.”
He looked at me, a smile playing around his mouth. “Really? Spitting on the ground?”