I’ve been walking from house to gate nearly every day for twenty years. That third of a mile each way is the same and different. The halfway point on the gravel road is a natural spring that flows 365 days a year. The spring originates just slightly east of the low point in the driveway, flows under the road via a culvert, and then flows west until it merges with a marvelous swamp.
I tell the seasons by what vegetation is waxing or waning along the road. In late June, the fox grapes (scuppernongs) are ripening and the American Beautyberries have put on tiny, grapelike clusters that presage Fall.
All sorts of mushrooms push their way through the loamy forest floor and I marvel at their many incarnations.
A variant of what must be a white slime mold catches my eye. It is draped over an embankment and very nearly looks like a mask covering a human face. Do you not see the eyes, the mouth?
At seven this morning, the air was laden with moisture; the temperature was already in the mid-eighties. Strangely, the heat and humidity were almost a sensual pleasure, and the strong French Roast coffee beans that I had ground and left to brew while Lou Lou Belle and I walked were just that, no question.
When I ventured to the grocery store recently, there was one little fresh cabbage left in the bin. It was missing most of its outer leaves. I picked it up. Put it back down. It reminded me of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. I retrieved it and took it home.
I braised the little cabbage in a bath of chicken broth. It fed us well last night, along with a baked sweet potato and garlic-roasted pork tenderloin.
We are grateful to be in a place of comfort and relative safety here in the Longleaf woods, but our hearts are breaking for New York and the other hardest hit areas.
Here at what we fondly call The Longleaf Bar and Grill, it’s eating for two most of the time. After many (many) years of playing in the kitchen, I’m much more interested in playing at my desk or elsewhere with a notebook and pens rather than a whisk. Still, food is the fuel, so Buck and I have a collaborative style that gets the job done in an enjoyable way. Here’s an example from the last three suppers.
It’s late April in the Longleaf woods of panhandle Florida. One day has the kind of crisp blue sky mornings that make you want to fling open all the doors and windows. Another, this morning for example, has you checking the calendar to see if maybe April morphed into August. Step outside and your hair begins to fatten and curl in the steam.
Buck and I are not the only critters in the woods contemplating new shelter. Wrens hop around under the cars and in the grass, snatching up shreds of nest-building material and chittering like garage-sale treasure hunters.
A resourceful gopher tortoise has repurposed an old slab of tin-covered wood into a roof for its den. It’s just out back a little ways from the fence. We can watch the tortoise emerge to graze on sunny afternoons. Two Sundays ago, a dry, bright day, he hung out on the “front porch” of his den for hours, not so different from the rest of us contented householders.
I don’t know how a gopher tortoise processes information about the world. I wouldn’t imagine he chose this spot for a new den based on the idea that its tin roof would make a pleasant sound when it rains. Then again. I could swear I saw him smiling that Sunday afternoon.
AN AROMA LIKE PRISTINE OYSTERS, like fresh mushrooms, like longing, rises from the forest floor when the segmented shovel of Harvey’s track hoe bites into the soil. Fifty feet away, Mrs. Harvey sits, her bland, powdery pale face nearly invisible from the passenger side of Harvey’s white truck, hands out of sight but no doubt resting on the bible in her lap, King James version all the way.
Mrs. Harvey has a name of her own, something like Enid, but to Buck and me she has always been Mrs. Harvey, an ivory-haired presence from another century. Pleasant, slightly mysterious, calls everyone “dear.” I have heard she pastors a backwoods holy ghost fire church.
Mrs. Harvey never gets out of the truck. Sometimes I approach to pass the time of day, and feel her stir, the slow movement of her head toward me peculiarly intense. I feel half-naked when she looks at me. Is it because she wears long dresses with high necks, sleeves to the wrist, and hemlines to the ankle while I run around in track shorts and black t-shirts with an occasional nod to cold temps wearing one of Buck’s old Cabela’s olive-green zip-up sweat shirts? Or do I sense she wants to biopsy my soul with a snake-handler’s boldness that belies her cornflower blue print cotton dress and soft, plump hands?
Persistent little bird looking for an insect breakfast on the back and face of a whitetail doe in our backyard. I think it’s an Eastern Phoebe. The deer is a frequent visitor. She’s browsing for acorns on this thirty degree Florida panhandle morning.
Fiction doesn’t have to wait for anything to happen before it can be written. Well, maybe the seat-on-chair glue has to set up first. But no events. It springs from the forehead of the author and leaps onto the page. Did I say springs and leaps? That’s a lot of hyperbole for one sentence.
Non-fiction is a different animule altogether. Something, an event or series of events in real life, has to happen first. Then someone – maybe you – decides to write about it.
Something has been going on in my life that stopped me from writing more than a few scattered words for the past five months. It scared me into a brain freeze. It scared me into wiping out old blogs, packing up unfinished manuscripts, staring into space with what felt like a permanent painful throb in my right eye, and becoming nearly certain I would never write (or smile) again.
No, it wasn’t writer’s block or anything associated with the creative process. Or maybe it was.
My husband, Buck, was diagnosed with a rare form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma known as mantle cell in late May. We’ve been in a real swippet ever since. He’s in complete remission as of last week. I’m dead certain that’s why my urge to pick up a pen has returned. His form of this nasty beasty was sufficiently indolent that it got stopped at the border before it crossed from a small cluster of nodes above his collar bone into major organs or bone marrow. The chemo and immunotherapy portion of the festivities is over. What remains is close to a month of image guided radiation therapy to “salt the earth” and make it inhospitable to enemy mantle cells in case they manage to regenerate somewhere down the road.
We’ve been driving over to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville a lot the last five month for all sorts of tests, procedures, and chemical infusions. I could probably go back and count the times on my calendar, but I don’t want to do that. We would both rather look forward. Each of our earlier stays was in the motel attached to the clinic. The people were nice. The suite with a kitchen was incredibly helpful. But it will be too soon if we never stay there again, you know?
We have to go back. But this time, both the economics and the aesthetics made the case to rent a pleasant condo in Ponte Vedra Beach with a shady screened porch and miles of sidewalks. The ocean is only a mile walk, and I hope to drink morning coffee with the sunrise there most every day.
Buck’s fatigue is fading. He had one more very cool twist to add to his novel manuscript — which he is working on right this minute, standing up at the kitchen island bar, papers spread everywhere — and then it will go to an editor for discussion and polishing.
The weather has turned, too. The long hot summer is over, and we are back to walking the woods together. Short strolls are growing into longer walk-abouts. After so many hours spent indoors this summer among the smells of Purelle and the taste of metal, the fresh air of our Longleaf woods is like a triple shot of pure good health, energy, and the belief that our bluebird of happiness has rejoined our midst.
I had a few minutes to spare before we left the house last week to return to Mayo for a restaging PET/CT scan which would tell us if the chemo had worked, so I sat down at the big old black beast of a piano, flipped through an anthology of Baroque music that was in a stack on the floor by the bench, and played the first thing I came to. But first I laughed out loud. It was Biblical Sonata No. 4: The Mortally Ill and Then Restored Hezekiah by Johann Kuhnau (1660-1722).
All the spiritual epiphany I need is found in watching year by year as this dead stick turns to neon grape berries and lush leaves for a season and then dies again. Eventually the miracle penetrates even my thick skull.
THE FOX SLIPS AWAY silent as silver, a fur line between clearing and forest. I only see him at all because I have bent over to pick up several fallen pine cones from the lawn. I place four of the perfect iconic representations of a season moving from summer to fall along the driveway to retrieve on my return from the gate and toss two others, squirrel-chewed, into the brush.
How many thousands of times have I walked the path from house to gate? Some days it seems like everything about it is different in myriad significant ways. Maybe I am the altered one. Other days I think I will scream if I walk this boring, never-changing path one more time. Funny, no?
It doesn’t matter. It is my path. I breathe it in, breathe it out, and we are permeable one with another.
Buck and our friend Harold have planted food plots for whitetail deer on this land each October for 28 seasons. This year they will not. They decided together that they will not. Their season of walking the fire lines before dawn, rifle slung over a shoulder, has ended. Men have a way of speaking to each other through their silences that moves me. They are more innocent than women, and mourn change in different ways. Once that was settled, they agreed they would plant the clearing around the house in wheat and rye for me so I could watch the does and yearlings browse all winter long.
IT’S ALWAYS A GOOD DAY WHEN a Florida gopher tortoise (gopherus polyphemus) shows up to graze at the same moment I happen to be looking out the window.
Look close and you can see the red clay and sand mix from his tunnel still clinging to the back of his shell. I saw a funny video of a gopher tortoise getting his back scratched with a toothbrush and thought about giving that a try, but this guy looked sufficiently pissed off about having his likeness struck that I decided to leave him alone. Scratching a gopher tortoise’s back with a toothbrush isn’t nearly as bad as dressing up a dog in people clothes, but it seemed like it might offend the ancient critter’s dignity.
Nature’s lagniappe. It’s there whether I see it or not. I love the shapes of the vine leaves and their textures, some so smooth and others lacy.
These tiny clusters look like champagne grapes now, but by mid-September they will be large and the color of Crayola’s Hot Magenta.