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.
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.
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.
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.
I know we’re well into March already, but want to go ahead and post these photos from February in hopes of having a representative photo gallery for each month of the year. Seasons buff and polish us with our expectations and their surprises. I hope to be out in the woods with a camera later this week, but those photos will go in the March envelope.
Today was gorgeous: low seventies, blue sky, and soft breeze. Buck and I worked at the conference table from 8 this morning until 3 in the afternoon, then grabbed our cutters and hit the road between house and gate to continue our vine-slaying and streambed-clearing project.
I’m nursing dings and scratches from vines that tugged back and then slapped me in the face with their thorns, but am proud to say we rescued a glorious spreading oak and a vibrant (albeit struggling) magnolia from the strangulating vines.
We ate spicy red beans, brown rice, and corn bread back at the conference table while we continued to grind through the final reading of Buck’s manuscript. We’ve completed 340 pages in the last several days — only 60 to go! We’re going to celebrate early tonight by going to bed early, eating Dove dark chocolates, and reading.
Here, then, February in the pine woods:
The Iron Rock Forest is a video about the area at Longleaf we call the Iron Rock Forest. I made it with my little Vimeo way back in some other year — 2009, I think. It gives you some perspective for how the trees are growing.
Most of us have heard the old chestnut that the trick in life isn’t getting what you want, it’s wanting what you get. Expectations shade our perception of reality. Here on the Gulf coast of Florida, we’ve had a series of mild, rather pleasant winters. Until this year. Birds skating on the frozen bird bath for days on end is not part of my world view of “how things should be” in our winters. I can almost hear my friend, Jeanne, laughing. She lives in Moose Pass, Alaska, although even she has dusted out of there for an adventure to South Africa. (Check her fantastic photos at Gullible’s Travels.)
The ice melted completely late last week and now we’re back to more typical winter weather: chilly for a day or two, then a warming trend with rain, then cool again. Repeat until spring. Some beautiful days are coming, I’m sure. Like lots of other folks around the country, we’re eager for some bright sun blue sky days.
Here are a few January scenes. I wish now I had roused myself from the warm house and gone to the woods to get some ice and snow photos, but instead was true to my hothouse flower roots and stayed by the fire with hot chocolate, Buck, and a pile of books.
Care for a swim, anyone?
24/7 Fast-Food Fly-Through.
Buck’s old Case tractor.
Dead plant from last summer’s pocket garden under the stairs.
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.