February 2014 at Longleaf Preserve (retrospective)

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 growth tip on this young Longleaf pine is getting ready to rocket skyward.
Brilliant berries on a Yaupon bush.
An area we call the “Iron Rock forest.” We never thought anything could grow here, much less this lush colony of mostly volunteer and a few planted Longleafs.





Slash pine growing up through the middle of a palmetto stand. I’ve been watching it since it was barely more than a twig.


Various stages of growth in the forest.


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.

February Pitcher Plants: High-Style Carnivores


Are these pitcher plants gorgeous or what? Talk about a nice surprise. A crystalline blue sky and dry, cool air drew Buck and me outdoors yesterday to wander the fire line trails. There’s a swampy area where the road is too wet to cross this time of year. We walked right up to that spot; I looked off to the right, and there, in the pine straw and muck, nearly hidden, was this stunner. No wonder hapless insects find them irresistible.


We only saw this one cluster, but it was our treasure find for the day.

Antidote for the Tendency Toward Over-Immersion in Social Media*

Meadow Beauty at Longleaf Preserve near Pensacola, Florida on September 5, 2013.

It would have been cooler if Buck and I had started our walk earlier. Even so, at 9:00 a.m. the difference between the hot sun in the clearing and the near chill of the deep shade down by the draw was striking. Rainfall for August broke all records. The last week of August  hinted at fall, but this morning summer was back in all its steamy glory. We walked our regular five laps from house to gate and back, clicking off three and a third miles in just under an hour — fast enough for a slight uptick in heart rate, slow enough to chat.

Buckeye Butterfly. I always mistake this one for a month.

We returned to the house sweaty, ready for a shower. It had gotten late on us, though, and we opted to have breakfast first. I whipped up a strawberry banana smoothy in the old blender with vanilla soy milk and a handful of flax seeds. You would have sworn it was made with ice cream. Too eager, I gave myself a brain freeze.

Gulf Coast Fritillary

By the time we finished breakfast, our bodies had cooled enough to consider going outside again even though it was nearly mid-day. Buck took to his old Case 60 horsepower tractor to bush-hog the major fire lines, and I took off walking.

Buck on his old tractor, making a safe path for me.

Tomorrow, more pictures and some thoughts on the pleasure and treasure of living in the pine woods and how it feeds the instinct toward creativity.  It may even be an antidote for the tendency toward over-immersion in social media, a preservation of precious inner space.

*Title of this post suggested by author Rebecca Solnit’s superb piece in the London Review of Books. I saw it thanks to memoirist Richard Gilbert’s link. Highly recommended reading for all us “well-connected” folks, here.

Tail End of a 2011 Longleaf Summer

I went walking at precisely the wrong time today. Noon. The sweltering sun at its zenith. And yet. Buck had taken a few minutes before lunch to work out on the weight bench. I was frustrated with my lack of focus, and told him I was going down to the gate. we agreed we would take a swim and have some lunch when I got back.

Approaching the stream bed, two graceful whitetail deer woke me up to my life as they leaped from woods to woods across the gravel road. Thanks to them I got out of my stuffy head and into the moment. Suddenly there was beauty or arresting ugliness everywhere, Sensations were sharp. Life is simply better when you’re not asleep.


All the others scuppernongs (fox grapes) are gone, but this natural arbor was too high for the deer to reach, or me, either They are beautiful.


This grotesque black mushroom is magnificently horrible. I poked it with a stick and ugly little bettle-ish bugs crawled out.


Buck and I kept seeing this flash of white at the edge of the woods out back. I finally walked out there today. Don’t know the name, but it sure is pretty.


The American Beauty (French mulberry) is a harbinger of fall. Seems like it has begun to bloom early. Okay by me.


Yesterday, I led Maggie out the front door for a slow, short walk around the driveway to woods edge. She hobbled, then warmed to it, and walked out from the border of grass into the recently bush-hogged brush where her good nose picked up a scent of something that interested her. I walked quickly over when I realized she had picked up speed and was about to dive into the woods.

“Maggie, no! Stop!” I shouted. Last thing I wanted was to lose her in the thick brush. Too late. She was gone.

And then, only about six feet from me, a tiny spotted fawn sprinted across the clearing. Maggie was in lukewarm but very interested pursuit. The baby bleated, “Aahck!” It sounded like a peacock. I ran, grabbed Maggie by the collar and began walking her back toward the house. She strained against my hold, but never barked. She made weird guttural huffing sounds and watched the fawn. It had run into the plastic sliding doors of the pool house. I looked and saw that it was pressed against the plastic, all brown spots, toothpick legs and big eyes. Thunderclaps spiced the air and big raindrops began to fall. The baby cried out again.

I got Maggie back into the house. She was so charged up she ran into the master bedroom to see if she could see the deer from the glass doors there, but the angle was wrong. Finally she came back to the foyer and stood staring out the front door, still breathing heavily.

By this time the sky had fallen with thunder and heavy rain.

Buck and I put Maggie into the garage and drove to the grocery store to pick up supper supplies. The baby was gone.

This morning I saw a big doe patrolling the area. Mama. Good.

As for Maggie, she had a big adventure. The vet has approved an aspirin regimen to go along with her twice daily doses of SAMe and Cosequin. Her metabolism has settled back down and the pain seems to have ameliorated for now, thank heavens. It was a joy to see her get all revved up, even though the baby deer was scared half to death. Maggie wasn’t baring teeth or growling. She was just curious and, for a moment, young again.

Yesterday. Today. Good days.

Lessons on Love from the Longleaf Woods

Once I absorbed the reality that my heart could break, I became a master of defense. My evasive maneuvers, wariness, and high walls guaranteed isolation and the illusion of safety.

Longleaf pine twisted by a tornado that struck it during 2004’s Hurricane Ivan. Soon, the remaining shards will be on the ground, cover in vines, no longer visible, recycled into the earth.

The first death in my young life that taught me this lesson was not that of a disintegrating blankie, a gold-fish, or a kitten. It was the sudden death of my father. “Old material. You’ve written about your Daddy before.” I know. Will again, too.

IMG_4531Sometimes life is as curious as an indented space in sandy ground filled up with animal hair. How did it get there? It seems so neatly arranged. Just another one of those things that make me go “Hmmm.” For most of my life, living in community with other people has felt like an unnatural act. I’m not any good at it, either. Except for living with Buck, that is. He is the only person I ever gave the password to for the secret way to me. Actually, I never told him. He guessed it and when he did, there he was, right beside me, where he has remained for the last nearly thirty years.


Odd-looking dirt clods clumped all over one section of the woods at the edge of a clearing. Now abandoned, they look like a winter encampment for a commune of architecturally creative moles. When a nascent relationship or environment becomes important and then is threatened from without or within, default mode for me is to walk away quickly and first.


Sundew colonies are spectacular clustered like this. I see beauty in the repeating patterns. They become living art, a Christo-like display on the ground. “I don’t care,” the little girl says as she walks quickly away. “Don’t look back, don’t look back, don’t look back.” Squares thin shoulders. Breaks into a run. Toward some new world.


Most creatures find a way to hollow out a soft enough place to take shelter from all the hardness for a while. When I first saw surveyors on the ground at Longleaf several years ago and learned of the county’s plan to bisect our land with a major road, a seed sprouted in my heart and began to work its strangling way into my analytic, cold head. I began to lose interest in taking quite so many photographs of Longleaf in its various incarnations. I began to think, “This is just a bunch of pine trees, sand and weeds.”


I began to inoculate myself from intimacy with the forest.


This is a patch of ground we call the Iron Rock Forest. Seven years ago there was nothing on this ground but the dull sheen of iron rock chunks covered over with wire grass. One large Longleaf pine stood at the edge of the iron rock. It persisted in hurling seeds into that inhospitable ground every year. Buck and his son, Richard, busted through the iron rock in several places to plant a few seedlings more out of curiosity than a belief that the seedlings would be able to thrive in that hard ground. And yet, behold. This morning was the first time in quite a while that I gave in to the ineluctable pull of the forest. We walk from house to gate several times every day, but I am talking about the way I used to explore, to strap on a fanny pack equipped with camera, cell phone and peppermints and go out alone. Buck reminded me to tuck my small 350 magnum pistol into the pack, too. Times past, I might have scrooched up my face at the suggestion, but today I simply said, “I will.”


The first turn out of sight of the house I was tentative. Gun and cell phone felt right. It had been so long. I felt as though I was going into unknown territory, a strange and possibly hostile neighborhood. Probably my conscience working overtime, guilty at having abandoned the lovely forest while its future is played out in public meetings, legal notices, and our own choices for how and where we choose to live.


Luminous underbelly of a saracenia purpura pitcher plant. Nothing is certain. Nothing is permanent except perhaps love and without engagement there can be no love. I have been wrong to withhold myself in the childish wish to avoid hurt. I’ll be back in the woods tomorrow at first light.

July 2008 at Longleaf Preserve


I feel like an invader walking in the woods on these early July mornings. Baby turkeys with their mothers, a clutch of young quail, bunnies playing hide and seek, the young spike buck still in velvet, and innumerable hidden nests with peeps like an amateur orchestra tuning up. They are at home here, and I try to walk softly. Buck and I discovered a nursery of granddaddy longlegs of all sizes. Question: What are the metaphysical implications of being born a granddaddy?




First June at Longleaf

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Buck and I built our cottage here just over three years ago. We have spent the last seven summers in North Carolina’s Rice Cove. This is our first June here at Longleaf. I grew up in Florida summers and know them well. Still, it’s a shock.

The temperature is nearly 90 degrees, and so humid my glasses steam up when I walk outside. It rained several inches yesterday and there have been flash flood warnings today.

We walked for an hour yesterday, wandering through a gauntlet of showy bead tongue colonies, which are much prettier than the name suggests. We marveled at the thick stalks bursting upward from last year’s planted pines, and the “me, too” effervescence of this year’s seedlings.

Beads of sweat running down my spine turned into a rivulet. Clearly, my medium long thick hair has got to go. Tomorrow. The air felt too thick and moist to breathe.

And yet — my eyes, which have been swollen and red due to allergies from the beautiful hayfields in North Carolina, are almost back to normal, no long itching and crusting.

And everywhere, flowers I have never seen before; flowers that only emerge in this wet, tropical season. They are surprising me with their paint box welcome.

It’s home, and I thrill to each new discovery. The southern fox grape, or scuppernong, vines have covered acres of woodland, tiny grapes have formed up, and are swelling with juice. I get so excited, I begin to babble about making scuppernong wine. Buck casts a sidelong glance in my direction, raising an eyebrow as if to check on whether my brain has begun to simmer in the heat.

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Some of the most beautiful wildflowers are Thumbelina-sized, like this Milk-Pea.

June 13, 2004 007

We walked and talked, Maggie’s tongue hanging out, but staying with us. When we reached the spring, she gratefully lowered herself until the cool water touched her belly. I want to plant fig trees and Buck wants a grape arbor, and as we talked, an idea emerged for a sort of fruit salad of trees and bushes near the (to be built) pool. I can only imagine how happy the raccoons and possums will be when they hear that news.



The coffee beans ground, Maggie and I slipped out to the woods early this morning, leaving Buck to work out whether to design in a fireplace on a glass wall or place it between two rooms as a see-through.

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Another gorgeous morning bloomer, some member of the Mallow family, I believe.

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Rounding a bend, I saw bright pops of purple yellow, like lollypops.

Walking yesterday afternoon with several of the grandchildren, five year old Julia asked me to tie her shoe. “My big sister told me how to do it,” she explained, seeming to feel this was a skill she should already have mastered, “but when she told me, she talked so fast, I just couldn’t focus.” Looking up into her earnest little face, I had to top tying the laces and hug that sweet child.

I feel as though I should be able to handle the details of moving, family matters, working with Buck on the house plan and gearing up for virtually living with construction crews for months, and still write with some semblance of coherence.

But, like little Julia, it seems to me my world is spinning a little too fast right now, and I just can’t focus.



Walk on the Wild Side

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.

After the Rain


It rained last night, the kind we call a farmer’s rain, not a frog strangler or a gully washer. It was steady and gentle, a good soaking rain. At 8:30 this morning, when I walked to the gate, a clean mist hung in the woods.


A pleasant smell of rich earth mingled with wild onion and mint. I developed a hunger for a bowl of taboulleh scooped up with crisp Romaine lettuce leaves. White toadstools with purplish splotches had sprung up beside the dirt road. I found the dotted horsemint again and, after a bit of looking around, discovered an entire colony nearby.

Due to a trick of light, a spider’s web was completely invisible, and it seems as though she is magically suspended in mid-air.

I walk this path almost every day, at least once, but the gaudy violet beautyberry clusters which have sprung up seemingly overnight are lovely in the mist. Up close they remind me of the plastic costume jewelry beads worn by a girl I knew in high school named Rhonda.