Sometimes you can only tell a story backwards. I’ve been twisted up tighter than a morning glory in the sun.
But like this flower, I have a buzzing bee at my center that agitates until I reengage.
Sometimes you can only tell a story backwards. I’ve been twisted up tighter than a morning glory in the sun.
But like this flower, I have a buzzing bee at my center that agitates until I reengage.
Just outside the picture window of east-side Pensacola’s iconic Marina Oyster Barn, where the “n” on Barn always feels like a mistake but isn’t, a huge brown pelican dives into Bayou Texar with an attention-getting, massive splash. The bird’s appearance is arresting on its own, but when it hits the water like a shot and comes up with a live fish which it proceeds to swallow, you can guarantee I don’t move from the window until that particular show is over.
Buck and I grin at each other like teenagers. We count more than a dozen of the astonishing birds between the bridge and Rooks Marina, the most either of us has ever seen there. They look glossy, well-fed, and strong.
Kim comes around with her blond ponytail and big smile. “Hi guys, it’s been awhile! Do you know what you want?”
That was easy. It’s the second reason we come: fried mullet, cole slaw and cheese grits. We pick up the menu and note a few items have changed since we were there last, then order what we always do.
The first reason we come is to sit at a picture window almost in the bayou, watch the comings and goings at the marina, and the birds, and folks tying up their boats at the dock to come in for lunch, and sometimes run into old (and I do mean old) friends from past lives.
We watched this fine heron from a window in our booth. We took the picture through slats in the blinds. He seems philosophical watching the pelicans and their flashy hubbub. But the heron has his ways. And except for his skinny long legs, he doesn’t look like he’s going hungry.
On the way out, we stop to chat with Frank, the kindly host and manager who to me is a quintessential part of the M.O.B. experience. His eyes light up when he sees us. We shake hands. I put my arms around him in a light hug, and feel the years in his thin shoulder blades. We notice later that he seems to know everyone, and has an affectionate moment with them, coming or going. You’ve probably seen long-time restaurateur’s like this, too. They’re a special breed. It’s a tough business, but I think it must get in your blood, and if you’re good at it, like Frank, it’s because you are have a near metaphysical bond with your customers. It’s a pleasure to watch an old pro at work. He’s that rare breed: a sincere politician, one who isn’t running for office and where the smile on his lips matches the smile in his eyes.
The Gulf of Mexico across two bridges is grand, but give me the small bayous and lunch at the Marina Oyster Barn every time.
I wasn’t expecting to have to run back inside for a jacket for my morning walk to the gate, but I did and was still cold. It was right at 50 degrees with a chill stiletto wind that slips down around your neck and makes you hunch up your shoulders.
The pictures here are ones I took this morning. There was a low cloud cover, with just enough light so that the camera did its point and shoot thang without the flash. So, there’s a little story in the captions. You’ll be seeing lots of these sorts of photos as the year moves on. I want to document the plants here in a slightly more orderly way than I have in the past. Probably because I’ve just started reading David George Haskell’s highly recommended book, The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. I’d like to take my fingers out of all the other pies they’re in, and hide out to read this book with no interruptions. Thanks to my friend, writer and the BBQ/coffee king, David C. Bailey, for giving me a head’s up on this one. I’m no scientist, but I am surely a loving observer.
I believe that the forest’s ecological stories are all present in a mandala-sized area. Indeed, the truth of the forest may be more clearly and vividly revealed by the contemplation of a small area than it could be by donning ten-league boots, covering a continent but uncovering little.
The search for the universal within the infinitesimally small is a quiet theme playing through most cultures. The Tibetan mandala is our guiding metaphor, but we also find context for this work in Western culture. Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence” raises the stakes by shrinking the mandala to a speck of earth or a flower: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.” Blake’s desire builds on the tradition of Western mysticism most notably demonstrated by the Christian contemplatives. For Saint John of the Cross, Saint Francis of Assisi, or Lady Julian of Norwich, a dungeon, a cave, or a tiny hazelnut could all serve as lenses through which to experience the ultimate reality.
~David George Haskell (from his Preface to The Forest Unseen)
SALLY HARPER HAS DECIDED SHE WANTS A BIGGER ROLE in Eye of the Storm. She was going to be a bit player, the grandmother of Jess Harper (Grace Ann Ringer’s main squeeze — that sounds tacky but I don’t know what to call him). Anyway, Sally and her husband, Tom, live out in the north end of the county in a pine forest not unlike Longleaf. Just about every morning at dawn, Sally takes a thermos of coffee down to a little spring-fed stream where she has created her own private shrine to her deceased daughter, Kathryn Powell Harper. It’s a small round concrete table and bench, hidden from view. Here, and on her daily walks in the woods, is where Sally reflects on life, the family, passage of time, and many other things. She is a woman with something to say. I am listening.
Last night, from my nine years of printed blog archives, I made copies of the narratives of my own walks in our woods, as reminder and resource for Sally’s ruminations. I discovered a piece called “Child of Small Waters” posted back in March of 2004. Dave Bonta may remember it — it was originally posted on the Ecotone wiki when they were still up and running. (I note UNC at Willmington publishes what looks to be a fine print journal called Ecotone: Reimagining Place, but there doesn’t appear to be a connection with the original wiki.) Seems like an appropriate homily for this crystal clear Sunday morning in the pine woods. Hope you enjoy the flashback.
I am a child of small waters.
The magnificence of oceans and seas unnerves me. I love to walk the sugar white sands of Pensacola Beach. Small, translucent crabs tickle my feet as they scuttle into their holes when I bend to examine tiny pastel coquina shells. But if the goal is swimming, give me a cement pond, please, where I can see through the chlorinated water all the way to the bottom, where the edges are no farther than I can gracelessly dog-paddle in any direction
The last time I swam in the warm Gulf of Mexico was a few months before Buck and I married, more than twenty years ago. It was a Sunday afternoon. We frolicked like porpoises. Buck swam away from me in a fast line underwater, playing, showing off like a boy. Unfortunately, his trajectory took him straight into the middle of a small group of women treading water, where he surfaced, a sinner in a school of nuns! The good sisters were having a day retreat on the beach. Some were in the water and others were rowed up in a line of folding chairs on the shore, wimples on their heads, their noses an impenetrable blob of thick white sunblock. They looked like big, placid sea gulls.
I am a true child of ponds, small lakes, streams and natural springs. As a young girl, I spent many early mornings and late afternoons dreaming into the dusk while I sat on a dock on Lake Valrico. That pretty little lake was in a rural area of central Florida, near Tampa, where I spent most of my childhood and adolescence. Barefoot, a skinny kid in shorts, I loved sitting on that old dock, conversing silently with my mirrored reflection, dark fish shapes darting just under the waters’ murky surface. The tree-lined shore on the far side seemed a world away. In fact, it wasn’t very far at all. My first piano teacher, Mrs. Medard, lived there in a big white house nestled among those trees.
Mrs. Medard scared me a little. She was formal, stern, and seemed quite old to my nine year old self. She had a method designed to teach me how to hold my hands in proper alignment with the keyboard. It involved putting a quarter in the middle of the flat surface of the backs of both of my hands, and then instructing me to play an exercise. Inevitably, I would get rattled and jerk my hands to the side, and the coins would roll off, lost inside my teacher’s grand piano. Thinking about it now, the logistics don’t seem to work. I can’t figure out how quarters could roll off my little child hands and somehow fall into the bowels of Mrs. Medard’s piano. . . but it’s my memory, and I’m sticking with it. I fear I must have bothered Mrs. Medard, too. She died of a heart attack shortly after my lesson one Saturday afternoon.
Lake Valrico received my tears, both flash floods and the slow, constant drip from my eyes into the eyes of my reflection, in those dreadful weeks and months after my father died. I was twelve. Small waters have always been there to comfort me.
My thoughts are not grand, not oceanic. They meander like a brook, crossing fields, woods and swampy areas. Sometimes they submerge beneath the earth’s surface, and become subterranean, cold.
Longleaf has a series of natural springs. They bubble up into a sandy stream bed. The water flows with the tilt of the land, through a mixed pine and hardwood forest, trickling deep into a swamp where it is almost dark even in the middle of the day. Treetops form a high canopy, and only a little light filters through in spots. It is one of my favorite places to wander. The stream is close to two feet wide in most places, with musical rills created where logs have fallen and formed makeshift miniature waterfalls. Gorgeous ferns drape along the banks, together with unusual plants like Neverwet (also known as Golden Club or Orantium). The occasional wild lily shows bright yellow, even in the gloom. The damp earth is heavy, black and fragrant. Animal tracks abound. Wrenching “dry cork in a bottle” woodpecker sounds split the silence, and the beating of a large owl’s wings may be heard.
It is a place of mysteries; of answers and questions.
I don’t think I could ever get my mind around oceans and seas. But ponds, small lakes, streams and natural springs have a human scale that suits me. I can poke along our stream bed, exploring, and watch minnows as they dart from sunlight to shadow at my approach.
Give me a pocket full of pecan halves, a tangerine and a native plant reference guide. I’ll be home in time for supper.
It has been so long since I walked the forest fire lines, our woods have forgotten me. Networks of vines, roots, fallen trees and monsoon-like rains have eliminated any trace of footprints I may have left from years of walking from the house into the woods, my two-mile circuit a labyrinthine mantra. Selective forgetting is a good thing.
I tread lightly at 7:30 this morning. No one, not bird, nor reptile, nor four-legged creature, nor sun-facing green-eye is expecting me to show up on this, one of the steamiest August days in memory.
Everything goes about its business like children do before they become awareness of parental observation, and I, too, am free to speak to no one, to poke about, to squish in my sodden, tick trefoil– covered old jogging shoes. When I was a child, we simply called those sticktights by their common name, beggar-lice.
The very woods themselves exuded the earthy scent of fungi. I crept into a copse of young pines to get a better look at a colony of reindeer moss. The mushroom smell there in that damp ground was so naturally strong that it seemed a primordial soup, seeping up from the ground or poured on my hair.
One of my favorite spots is a sandy depression that has become a small hollowed out space with a ledge overhanging it. It is always damp, and surrounded by hat pins, wild bachelor’s buttons, pink sundews and other bog-loving plants. Sometimes it is merely damp. Other times, like today, there is a miniature waterfall. I saw it teeming with tadpoles once, and hope to see that sight again. The sight made me feel incongruously privileged — I guess, because the fact that I saw those changelings was strictly an accident of timing. I came back the next morning. They were gone.
I walked with a cross-body pouch containing my cell-phone, tissues, sun glasses to trade for my clear ones, two peppermints and my Lady Smith and Wesson 350 magnum pistol. The grass was high in spots, it’s prime rattlesnake season, several coyotes together might decide I looked like breakfast, and one is never wise to blindly tip-toe through the wildflowers, discounting the possibility of a two-legged wandering opportunist (a rare, but potentially lethal creature).
The great news I got yesterday from a sports medicine doc who diagnosed a partially torn rotator cuff in one shoulder and a bruised and angry one in the other, then injected cortisone and sent me off with a prescription for physical therapy, lightened my step. Maybe that doesn’t sound like such fine news, but when the alternative diagnosis was degenerative osteoarthritis of the shoulder, I came away a relieved and happy woman, ready to do the necessary to re-hab my wings. We’ve rejoined our local health club starting October 1, which coincides with our homecoming from a return visit to the Acadia National Park on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. The club has yoga classes now, in addition to the usual machines, weights and other classes. I have this dream of being lithe at 98. A yoga practice is a seed I intend to sprout and grow.
I returned to the house, sweaty and content. Buck was gearing up for the day. Granddaughter Andie was snoozing upstairs. I shucked my wet clothes, donned an old, seldom-used bathing suit, and plunged into the rain-cold water.
Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love?
Can the child within my heart rise above?
Can I sail through the changing ocean tides?
Can I handle the seasons of my life? (from Landslide, written by songwriter Stevie Nicks)
Buck and I balanced bowls of wild rice soup and a saucer of cheese toast on our laps while we enjoyed lunch on the cabin porch here in Maggie Valley. Just as Buck got to the punch line of a new plot twist he is working on, I saw this gorgeous swallowtail butterfly land on one of the lilies in a cluster not ten feet away from my foot.
I tip-toed indoors to fetch my camera. This beauty not only waited for me, but posed patiently.
Lush, generous nature on display at one’s fingertips is one of the many reasons we are drawn to Western North Carolina. I didn’t lurk for hours in an uncomfortable position with a fancy camera waiting and hoping for these photos. It was serendipity, pure and not-so-simple; something that seems to happen here with delightful frequency.
Longleaf in January, an aging beauty queen without her make-up, mercilessly photographed in harsh light. And yet, there is grace here, unadorned without the vining flowers of summer, spare and honest. Taking a back seat to the rutting deer; providing them shelter and sustenance in this chill, sleepy season. Longleaf is the ground of our being; the place where we meet ourselves coming back. Home.
Every now and then a person sees a sight that defies belief. It happened to me Wednesday morning. The perfectly good camera in my hand went unused. I was in full denial.
Around 9 a.m., Buck, Maggie and I walked toward the listing front gate to fetch the morning paper and to paw through ripped up branches, limbs and wild vines pushed to the side of the dirt road looking for our friend Harold’s lost billfold. It was a fruitless search. We were trying to find something old, flat and faded brown in a sea of dead leaves.
We were just at the edge of the stream bed. There were nasty biting , flying bugs driving me wild. Usually if Buck is with me, he – being the sweeter one – gets bitten. Not that day. Those damn critters had a taste for the flesh of a brunette female.
Suddenly, Maggie got a whiff of something powerful. She put her nose to the dirt and took off like a freight train. She dove into the stream bed. “BARK! Bark, bark, bark, bark, bark, BARK! It was her “bigger than a squirrel, but not a deer” bark. Stomping, running sounds followed.
Buck blew two sharp blasts on the whistle around his neck, Maggie’s “Come here right now” signal. And so she did, although it took a couple of extra blasts. She emerged from the stream bed, accompanied by at least 300 pound of huge black wild boar. Oh. My. God. What the hell is that? Buck and I stood in the middle of the road, not believing our eyes. Maggie and the board stood across from us, not more than thirty steps away. The boar’s razor-sharp tusks curved over Maggie’s back. Maggie’s tail wiggled. She seemed unaccountably pleased, and it seemed like they knew one another. Buck called, “Maggie!” in a low, urgent voice. She trotted in our direction, while the boar crossed the road, back into the stream, and disappeared.
We never did find Harold’s billfold. He had to go all over town getting a new social security card and driver’s license, canceling his credit cards, and shedding tears over lost old photos of his youthful self and a sweet young Louise.
THE STOCK MARKET CLOSED ATt 3:00 CST. Time for exercise. Buck wanted a true, heart-pumping workout, so he prepared to head for the weight bench and treadmill. Lacing his jogging shoes, he looked up at me, my hand on the front doorknob, “You just want to get out there, don’t you?”
He knows me so well.
Looping Maggie’s whistle around my neck, grabbing my camera and a peppermint drop, I stepped from the cool dark cave of the house onto the screened porch. A slight breeze stirred the thick hot porridge. Maggie had heard the little bird chirp sound made when an exterior door is opened and greeted me, ears up, tail wagging and ready to go.
Just a few steps on the dirt road, away from the house shade, the full power of an August afternoon in panhandle Florida wrapped me up in a smothering blanket of heat and humidity. Magnificent in its way.
Skinks and six-lined race-runners made the woods loud, racing around in the palmetto fronds and underbrush. Every now and then one of them would cross the road. Maggie was hilarious. Her legs turned into pogo sticks, as she bounded around in four-legged springy jumps. Seems an odd way to try and catch a lizard, and indeed, it was 100% ineffective, but dogs are entitled to their bizarre forms of entertainment, same as we are.
August is the last full month of true summer. There’s a sense of “too much” in the woods today, the grasses too tall, the twining vines taking it to the limit, the lush overgrowth at the edge of hysteria, verging toward the cellular overgrowth of cancer, sticking out its tongue at the approaching moderating voice of autumn and the denouement of winter. Even the dragonflies and other insects are obnoxious, loudly buzzing and popping their way around my ears.
The boggy areas are full of the white hatpins of the pipewort family and fine-leaved white top sedge is in bloom there by the roadside. The tall spiky stems of Chapman’s Blazing Star have begun to open purple flowers from the top.
I have learned that the bitter black berry I tasted when young Walt visited was gallberry. Now I see them everywhere, but am no longer tempted to put one of the plump shiny berries into my mouth.
Yellow St. Andrew’s Cross shrubs are springing up from seemingly bare ground, perhaps from underground runners.
Cheerful, sturdy looking yellow balduina flowers have begun to make their welcomed annual appearance.
Huge armfulsl of a white flowering plant have scattered themselves across the open pinelands. They look a little like Queen Ann’s lace, but I think they might be false hoarhound. Who named the wildflowers? I remember hoarhound drop candy. Is there true hoarhound versus false?
By the time I get back to the house, it’s time to fix supper. Maggie is wet and muddy from wallowing in the stream bed, and my face is bright pink and slick with sweat.
Later, in the relative cool of the evening, we stand on the porch in the dark, listening to the deep musical bass notes of an owl’s song.
A Little Writing Workshop of Horrors.
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