Monday, November 29, 2010

Last Day (of the season)

SG and I finished our season of work today as groundskeepers of the Mountain Magnolia Inn, my parents' business. To the best of my calculations, I have been tending those 2 1/4 acres of grounds there for 12 years now. Every year I tell myself and others that it is my last year, and then early the next spring I go back and work the grounds for another year. There are several truths of the matter. One, I love the place. Two, it's a killer work gig for Hot Springs, land of very few job opportunities. Three, each season that I work the grounds there, my awareness becomes more finely tuned to the sense of place and the subtleties that can only be perceived about a place slowly over time. I love how I can smell the first breeze of spring there in about mid February, and how the flowers of April and May always shock me with their beauty and intoxicating aromas. I love to drink wine from the enormous petals of the magnolia tree, and how its perfume transports me back to my childhood and sometimes it seems even to a time before I was born. I love the summer cicadas, and how the very first wind of fall blasts me with sadness in August and sends walnut leaves swirling all around the place- I always have to stop in my tracks and watch that happen. And then the third week of August rolls around and like clockwork, the spider lilies pop up out of the lawn with no leaves and bloom like crazy. In September the zinnias get really moldy, but the garden asters go hog wild. October brings leaves to rake, and there is always lots of comradarie to be had with fellow rakers. On a chilly damp day we burn all the brush and branches pruned and gathered throughout the year, and usually someone from the fire department comes to see that everything is OK. In November the light is scarce afternoons as we prepare our hearts for the dark of the year and tuck in all the gardens for the winter. The end of the end is cutting off the well pump and draining the irrigation. That happened today.

Tending the gardens there year after year satisfies some deep need of mine- a need to stay put and be a part of something. I lament the fact that I did not get to spend my childhood on that piece of earth, with those trees to climb and the river just across the railroad tracks. I wish I had known this place my whole life, and that all my people were here and that there were not missing links or fragments of life and memories. Really, I have this opinion that us humans are not hard-wired to live the way we live in this day and age, to see so many places but not really know them, to take in so much information and try to keep tabs on the whole wide world.

But alas, we are an adaptable species, and I will continue patronizing the world wide web, and listening to the news on NPR as I drive to a whole other city and county to work most mornings. I will continue to watch foreign movies and travel to other places and talk to all sorts of people just to hear their stories. The thing is though, I bet come next spring, about the middle of February, you can find me pruning hemlock trees and sowing larkspur seeds at the Mountain Magnolia in Hot Springs- even if I may have sworn up and down I wasn't going to be doing that again.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Book Review: Stones from the River

Stones from the River, a novel by Ursula Hegi

I just finished reading this book, and people, let me go ahead and recommend it for a beautiful winter read. The book follows the life of a woman, Trudi Montag from her birth in 1915 through the second World War to 1952. The setting is Burgdorf, Germany, a town through which the Rhein river flows. The story chronicles the life events of Trudi, a dwarf woman, and her journey to find herself at home in a body that is taboo, a time that is full of war and suffering, and a town that has a deeply rooted tradition of hiding its secrets. The story successfully weaves the lives of the people in Trudi's community, giving us readers access to the layers of stories and secrets that the townspeople bring to Trudi, who has an unspoken role as the town story keeper. We learn not only of the dark secrets of the town- affairs, obsessions, violence, incest, bigotry and betrayal, but of the subtle undercurrents of love and kinship in the town- the workings of the unknown benefactor, love and loyalty between neighbors, secret underground hiding places created by townspeople to hide and protect Jews from the Gestapo, private redemptions of individuals in an impossibly conflicted time period.

What I love about this book is that it is thick and complex. There are many characters, and throughout the book we learn the humanity of each one- the inner struggles, the play of the light and the dark, the complexity of each life story. The book spans a fairly long time period, and Ursula Hegi takes her time weaving the stories of the townspeople together through Trudi's life and work in her family's pay library. She navigates us through the painful years of World War II, slowly guiding us into the darkness and terror which was the Nazi regime and the genocide of the Jewish Germans. And then she holds us there in the darkness with Trudi and her father, other neighbors who hide the Jews, and the friends who are hiding. And while we get a good long painful glimpse of the dark side of humanity, she never abandons us there without something beautiful to be aware of. And when the war is over, she reveals to us the deep wounds and scars that are left on the town, the community, and the individuals whom we have gotten to know quite intimately. We are also allowed to see the resilience of the human spirit, but not without the signs of brokeness. She addresses a topic most people wouldn't touch with a 10 foot pole, and she does it boldly, justly, sadly and beautifully.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is the continuous presence of the river in all of the stories within stories. I realized when I finished the book that the river was a main character, and it was the crucial character that tied together so many of the stories, the witness and the active participant of the town's collective story through time and space. And Ursula's storytelling is very waterlike- fluid and constant, with emotion swelling and flooding like the river, then retreating and finding stillness like an eddie beneath a large rock. She makes us realize that our lives can be understood better in the context of our environment. I like the fact that the river ties it all together.

If you are looking for something deep and meaningful for the dark time of the year, read Stones from the River. Then call me because it would be nice to talk about it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Shadows are Long, my Breath is Short

November 19 and I have succumbed to a wind invasion. This is a Chinese Medicine term for a cold. Well, based upon my limited understanding of the complex medicine, it can be a condition of disharmony in the body caused by actual wind (air moving quickly through space) or by airborn pathogens. It's funny how language informs experience. Ever since my introduction to the phrase "wind invasion," I find myself more edgy and aware of my suseptibility when the cold wind is blowing. Anyone who spends any amount of time with me can tell you that I am quite vigilant about covering my neck at all times when the wind is blowing- because this protects from the invasions that are carried by this element (which, in my opinion, can also be cleansing and uplifting and definitely has its place in the scheme of things- moving weather systems in and out and such). Of course, the wind and the pathogens it carries usually won't get me unless I am run down, which I must say, after 11 months of busting ass at 2 jobs and working the land on weekends, I might be a little. Temporarily. It is all temporary. So for the time being (like today and likely tomorrow), I am resting in the warmth of my mother's house, out of the wind, drinking hot and spicy ginger tea and sleeping whenever I feel sleepy. It's not too bad.

I did venture out of the house in the warm part of the day to go out to the land and see about the progress of the house building. Part of the first floor was there. Check it out.

The shadows were long, of course, what with the days being short and all. I stood on the partial floor and imaginged how the light will come in the windows. Please god help me Daniel Boone, I hope this all comes together- floors, walls, windows, roof, budget and all. Heck, I'll even toss sanity into that list.

With the shadows being long and dusk falling soon these days, the nights are colder and the wind more dangerous. Last weekend, Michael T came out and helped me by cutting down the old tall pear tree. Poor pear tree. It kicked out some sweet juicy pears in its day and grew tall, very tall. I bought 20 pear root stocks this spring so that I could graft the old boy, but turns out there was no proper scion wood. I even pruned off a large branch hoping for some new shoots of growth for a late summer graft job, but no luck. The tree was rotten inside and dangerous standing there in the middle of the comings and goings of the place that was not trafficked much by humans at all for years and years and is now seeing all sorts of folks rolling up in there. I had a moment with the old boy, then Michael did the deed. It took a minute though, because we had to secure a rope for me to pull with all my might at the right moment, and Michael had to do some skillful chainsaw manuevers. When the tree finally fell safely and not on any person or Airstream, we stood there for a moment looking at it. Then Michael commenced cutting it into pieces that could be roped to the truck and hauled down the driveway. When he cut the first log, out popped a bat. The little feller was most disturbed and I believe frightened. (S)he was probably hibernating in her/his trusty ole undisturbed hollered out pear trunk. What a problem! I poked at it with a stick because I couldn't help it, and it got awful mad. It showed me its teeth and hissed and clicked. Then it climbed up on the stick and I hollered to Michael, who was standing right there, "Look, it's on the stick! It's on the stick!" I was real worked up. Then it flew into the woods. I couldn't stop recapping it to Michael over and over. "That bat just popped out! That bat was so mad! That bat got on the stick! That bat just flew off into the woods!" He just let me repeat myself over and over and over. I guess I was pretty excited with that little run in with a dark mysterious creature.
The next evening, after I had been foraging in the woods for lovely native plants to transplant to the spring area, I was standing in the clearing, and wouldn't you know it, that bat came back at dusk and flew 3 circles around where its pear tree had been. It was sad. Then it flew off back into the woods, where hopefully it found an equally suitable place to spend this season of long shadows and short days.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

I love Hot Springs because

Some people refer to Hot Springs, NC as the banana belt of Western North Carolina. While this is a "figure of speech," and we do not indeed grow bananas here, we are nestled into a protected valley which allows for hotter summers and more temperate winters than the surrounding areas. Many people seem to expect Hot Springs to be a colder place than nearby towns and cities. Perhaps this is due to the windy mountain roads that bring you here, but our elevation is low, and the weather is warm. For example, one year it was so warm on Christmas that Jenna and I decided to do some post-stocking canoeing. Luckily we wore life jackets because the river was up and just past the "Sand Bar" we wiped the F out. We saw some waves ahead of us whose crests were about at eye level, and I knew that our little patched up lake canoe would not stay upright. No way no how. The French Broad flows north from Asheville through Marsall and then Hot Springs to Newport. That friggin water from Asheville was very very cold, and when we wiped out, the temperature of the forceful water knocked the breath right out of us. We had to swim that long rapid until the water was still again and we could get to shore. We heaved ourselves out of the water at the base of a cliff and found a deer skull with antlers. After climbing the cliff up to the road, we walked home in soaking clothes and life jackets. The canoe was lost, but later found, and that's another story. I meant to tell you that it can be pretty warm around here even in the winter.
Like yesterday, I was at work at the Mountain Magnolia Inn, where I have been tending the grounds for 12 years now. It warmed my heart to find an "Apricot Nectar" rosebush in bloom and kickin out hella new buds to boot. There was also a little Teddy Bear sunflower by the lamppost fall display holding its own against the wintry looking mountains in the background.
I love the gardens there, which boast a hearty hedge of large rosemary bushes and pineapple sage that overwinters (or at least did once.) I think we are even in a different growing zone than surrounding areas. It can be really nice this time of year.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Keds

The year was 1993. The setting was suburban south Charlotte. Julie and I were about 17 and connected at the hip "blood sisters." We were about one half straight edge, one half granola, and one half pure wacko. High school mostly sucked and in all of our free time we journeyed out into the world of Charlotte and its surrounding chaos, seeking meaning and beauty-- and finding ourselves laughing a lot in the process. Funds were sparce- our jobs as hostesses at the Old Spaghetti Factory only afforded us gas money to power my 1979 doo doo brown Pontiac Catalina, "The Brown Rocket," which could comfortably seat 3 in the front and 4 in the back. We would get up real early in the morning sometimes and drive it out of the city 45 minutes to the nearest mountain, Crowders, and climb up for daybreak, breathing in something we considered purer nature than the trail that ran through our adjoining neighborhoods (something we walked everyday eating honeysuckles and keeping tabs on the pair of red tailed hawks that nested there.) We would hurry down the mountain and load back up in the Rocket and still make it to school on time. I guess with any money we had left, we would buy cassettes and records at the local neighborhood record shop. Once I bought Julie a cd- that was a new thing back then. It was Dead Can Dance "Into the Labryinth." That was the only cd I bought.

Daytime fun for us was easy and covered- go outside and study nature. Night life was a challenge. Of course we weren't tired, even after all our tromping around, because we were teenagers. We probably would have been content to walk around at night too, listening for owls and watching cockroaches climb out of the sewer and sneak around the asphalt toward the houses. But our moms would not let us wander around at night for fear of our lives and well being. So we had to get creative.

Once we went to a Krispy Kreme late night and took pictures of people coming out of the restroom. We got a good one of a man with an embarrassed look on his face coming out of the women's. A lot of nights we would talk for hours on end to our friend BTW who lived in Davidson, wore only black, was a bona fide genius and chess champion, loved the night sky and didn't like very many people other than us. Sometimes we would go out to a coffee shop called something like the Penny Cafe, where the lighting was low and there was mellow jazz music playing and people were quietly enjoying books or a game of chess. This was real good. We would buy one cup of peppermint tea and stay for hours. But one of the owners supposedly overdosed, and they quit letting people under 18 in there.

There were a lot of nights when, desperate for some stimulation of any kind, we would go down to the 24 hour Harris Teeter mega grocery store and wander around (always ending up on aisle 14 to pay comical homage to this weird chocolate spread product called Crumpy). Then we would go next door to Borders Books and people watch while sampling music and looking at the books we couldn't afford to buy. The particular event I want to relay to you now occurred one of those nights at Borders.

Julie and I had gone in to Borders yet again, just for something to do. I think they closed at 10:00, and it must have been sometime after 9:00 that we were in there. We were particularly restless that night, at least I was, and I couldn't seem to focus on anything. I was wandering around the store wishing Charlotte didn't suck. Nature called and I told Julie I was going into the bathroom. She said she would come too (you know, girls always go to the bathroom in pairs...) There were 3 stalls in the bathroom, and the middle stall was occupied by someone wearing a pair of dayglow white spotless Keds, about size 6. The person was still and quiet. I took one outside stall, and Julie took the other.

I don't remember whether I sat down on the commode or if I just squatted over it. All I know is that out of nowhere, I mean I really didn't know it was coming AT ALL, blasted what is likely the loudest most forceful fart of all time of humanity. It was so loud it sounded like a cannon. It was epic, the stuff legends are made of, like a catacalysmic explosive from the Otherworld. Something perhaps channelled from Thor, the thunder god. What followed is something that I will ponder for the rest of my life.

After a brief moment where I was stunned in space and time, I began laughing. The laughter erupted from deep deep within, like water that had been dammed for a long long time. I laughed in convuslive waves that felt almost like vomit. I laughed and laughed until I almost fell down in the stall. It was a painful laughter, something totally and completely out of my control. It was an epic laughter- a laughter of a degree that may never be experienced by me again in my life. And it went on and on for about 10 minutes. I could hear Julie over there, laughing and laughing like a muppet in the other stall. I don't know if the laughter hurt for her as well, but I suspect it did. And all the while, the Keds in the middle stalled, the brand new dayglow white size 6's, NEVER BUDGED, NOT AN INCH OR EVEN A CENTIMETER. Not a single peep or movement came out of the center stall. NOT FOR THE ENTIRE DURATION OF THE WHOLE EVENT.

And that is something I will ponder for the rest of my life.

Sometimes Julie and I still talk about the Keds. What in the name of God and everything holy on this planet was that woman doing in there? Was she OK? Perhaps she went to some safe place in her psyche, curled up in a fetal position and rode it out that way. Perhaps she came face to face with her Maker. Did she look Thor in the eye and reckon with him, with very still feet? Whenever I think about the whole thing I get a feeling deep within, a reminder of the illusion of control. It is like a renewed awareness of the pressure of the dam, holding back the pool of laughter and farts.

This story is for you, Julie.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween Weekend: A photo diary

Jenna and Nauni kick off the festivities Saturday afternoon:

Food was abundant- this dessert display was only the beginning; other feast items included beef stew, barbequed bison with homemade cole slaw from Girl in an Apron, vegetarian chili, cornbread from Jenna, fresh tomatillo salsa, winter squash, apple crisp, Iliana's no-bake cookies... What am I forgetting?

Rachel takes a good long whiff of Laura's persimmons butter:

Jason enjoys a crucial walk in the woods:

Fall color is kickin:

This looks like trouble...

So does this...

Sunday morning stoking up the fire in my pink bathrobe:

Laura follows Zoe's lead and cooks a croisant over the fire by inserting a stick into it and performing a slow roast:

Laura does a little dance as she prepares to do some Sunday afternoon drawing:

Hair of the dog:

Jenna busts out some moves to a little Michael Jackson...

Admiring Angelo:

M.H. and Walker hanging out by the fire: