Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Health Update and Movie Review

This is my 494th Post! (What should I do for my 500th?)

I’m back. My temperature was normal this morning and after being secluded for most of the past few days, I’m re-entering the world. I don’t exactly feel like I’ve experienced a resurrection (I always had an image of Lazarus dancing a jig after his recall from the grave, but my legs are so tired it feels like I did a double work out with heavier than normal weights). But I’m back. I haven’t slept this much in a long while. With a fever of 102.2, I went to bed on Sunday at 1 PM, and stayed there till Monday at 3 PM (only getting up because there was a meeting I felt I had to be present in order to bless people with my germs—my office was Lysoled before and after). I went back to bed at 7 PM on Monday and slept till mid-morning on Tuesday and then mostly hung out, working on a puzzle and watching a movie (see below) before going in to the office for two late afternoon meetings… I’m glad this was going to be an easy week, but so much for me being able to catch up on things… Thanks for the well wishes.

Off the Map, 2003, 110 minutes, PG-13

Thanks you to who ever recommended this film! I’ve had it for a month (I haven’t been watching many movies lately), and wasn’t very excited about watching it, but it was the only movie I had. From the moment it started and I saw that high desert landscape of Northern New Mexico, like William Gibbs in the film, I was enchanted. This is a quirky movie, somewhat of a fairytale, but I loved it.

It’s the early 70s and the eleventh summer for Bo Groden (Valentina d”Angelis), a daughter of parents who have escaped to the wilds where they live on her father’s VA disability check and what little they make from selling crafts and junk. Her father Charlie Groden (Sam Elliott) believes in working for no one but himself. He’s a master handyman who can fix anything and has a dream of being self-sufficient. He’s also going through a deep depression and speaks very little during the first half of the movie and only gradually comes out of it as the movie unfolds. Her mother, Arlene (Joan Allen), holds the movie together with her grace. A strong woman, she struggles to keep the family together while dealing with her husband’s depression. Arlene, who is part Hopi, connects to nature in a way that appears to come from her Native American ancestry. The story is told through Bo’s eyes. She is a Tom Sawyer-type character, hunting squirrels with a rifle and a bow and arrow, giving thanks to each animal for the nourishment they’ll provide her family before she hangs them on her belt. She dreams of living a normal life and having a MasterCharge Card. She writes companies complaining about defective products, a scam that results in her regularly receiving token products and samples in the mail.

There are two other main characters in the film. George is Sam’s best friend. Arlene mentions at one point in the movie that he had saved Charlie in Korea, giving a hint of where his depression came. The other character is William Gibbs, an IRS agent who comes to investigate the family’s lack of tax filings. He’s spent four days trying to locate the family and after abandoning his car, walks up to the family compound, only to find Arlene nude in garden. He’s stung by a bee and has a reaction and is ill for several days. When he awakes, his car has been stripped and he’s in love with Arlene. He asks to stay for a few days and moves in. He takes up watercolors and does a 41 foot long painting of the horizon over the ocean for Bo—the two of them place the painting around her walls so she can lay in bed and see the horizon regardless of the way she’s facing. The movie ends with Charlie coming out of a depression. Bo has managed to get herself a MasterCharge Card and purchased him a sailboat. The boat is delivered in one of the funniest scenes in the movie—a boat being pulled through the desert. Although Arlene is horrified at the thought of having to repay the bill, the gift is enough to snap Charlie out of his funk as he laughs at his daughter having brought him a sailboat… Everything quickly comes together as Gibbs becomes a famous painter and all is well on the Groden homestead.

First of all, I would have watched this movie just for the scenery. It made me homesick for sagebrush and the high desert and the way the light paints the land. But I also loved the view of the world from an eleven year old and the way the movie dealt with depression (both Charlie and Gibbs suffer from it). It was also wonderful to see how father/daughter relationships. I love it that Bo knows something seriously wrong with her dad because he no longer takes her to the dump to shoot bottles. Although they are not a very traditional family, all the adults showed concern for Bo’s well-being. And even though Gibbs fell in love with Arlene, there was no hint of the relationship going any further as he becomes entranced with the landscape and focuses his creativity in his artwork.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sunday Prompt: A Poem

A Plea for Sympathy

The temperature climbed into the triple digits early and stayed there
and I feel a kinship with King Tut, wrapped in a sheet and three blankets,
and laid prone on the flatbed of a two-ton, rumbling over the desert.
The washboard road shakes my bones and my stuffed and swollen head
Causing me to see double
to see double…
I’d wanted to write about love and beauty and passion
but like Tut, I no longer care where I’m taken down this dusty road,
just let me rest
and if I survive, I promise,.
to write a new chapter for the Book of the Dead,
for I will have experienced resurrection.

Yes, the flu has hit, coming on last night and I now feel like crap having slept most of the afternoon. Today’s Sunday Scribbling prompt is “passion.”

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Real Quick (just some thoughts)

Photo taken a few weeks ago on a cross country ski trip.

This has been a long week. The week’s highlight came last night when I took my daughter downhill skiing (sorry, no pictures). This was her first time on downhill skis and we had fun. She was great and by the end of the evening, she was up on top of the mountain (we’ll, the very large hill). Downhill skiing here in this end of Michigan isn’t great. The place had 280 feet of vertical and I’m sure if we go again, I’ll get her on their black diamond run (in most places out west, this black diamond would be an easy intermediate run), She thought she was tough getting to the top of the mountain.

On another subject, scientists have now discovered that the fastest way to the top of a steep hill is to zigzag up it. Check it out. I suppose zigzagging is the fastest way if you don’t have a helicopter or ski lift. I wish those folks who like to short-cut switchbacks and create erosion problems would read this article, but most of them can’t read trail signs so why should I expect them to read something with more than a few words in it… As for this scientific study, couldn’t they be working on creating new energy sources or the cure for the common cold?

One final thing. Do any of you know anything about blogshares? My blog has been linked there (as well as many of your blogs). It’s some kind of game where you buy and sale blogs… Kind of like you buy and share stocks (wonder if there is a mutual fund for blogs?). I don't really have time to figure out the game, but I noticed that my blog has shot up in value to 1.4 million. If any of you want to buy it for ½ that price, I’ll sell. Then I’ll finish funding my retirement account and go off someplace where the pace of life is slow and I can write a book…

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Ordeal: a memoir

A little over a week ago, I wrote about being "tapped-out" for the Order of the Arrow. If you've not read that piece, you might want to check it out first. All this happened back in the summer of 1970.
The week after the ordeal, I was sitting at the kitchen table, scratching my bug bites while telling Mom all I’d endured. I thought for sure she’d be impressed with her macho 13 year old son, but I was mistaken. I don’t recall if she used the word fool, but that was essentially what she called me for having allowed myself to endure a day of hard work on meager rations and without the ability to talk back. “You did all that for a patch and a white sash with a red arrow embroidered on it?” she asked. Mom had a way to put me in my place and I was knocked off, cold-turkey, the high I’d been riding the past several days.

A few weekends after the tap-out, I was back at Camp Tom Upchurch for the ordeal. I didn’t know much about what to expect. In addition to our scout uniforms, we we’d been told to bring work clothes and sturdy shoes. As the camp was over two hours from my house, I rode up with other scouts. There were about thirty of us, mostly kids but a few adult leaders, who had been tapped out for the ordeal. After dinner in the dining hall, we were told to stow our gear and to report to the campfire circle with only a pocket knife, a poncho and a blanket. We knew we’d be spending the night in the woods, so we all doused ourselves with bug spray before heading to the campfire. I don’t remember much of the ceremony, except that when we arrived, we were greeted by older boys who were already members of the Order of the Arrow. They all were dressed like Indians. I remember a flaming arrow being shot into the lake and the chief reappearing. He gave us instructions about the ordeal we had to endure. How we were to spend the night alone, how we needed to maintain silence for the next 24 hours, and how we needed to carve an arrow that we’d wear around our neck. We were told that if we talked, a notch would be made in our arrow and if we got three notches, our arrow would be broken and we’d not pass the ordeal. I had been worrying all along about not passing the ordeal.

After giving us our instruction, we were lined up. In our left-hands we carried our poncho and blanket. We placed our right hands upon the shoulder of the scout in front of us. In front and back of the line were Indian braves carrying torches. We were led down a two track road toward the rifle range. To the right of the road, the land rose and was covered with pines and wiregrass. To the left, the land dropped off into a swamp, with thick vegetation. As we moved down the road, I could tell there was a lot of running around behind us, in each direction. Then, the guy behind me dropped his hand from my shoulder and I felt him being whisked away. I was next. Two braves grabbed me and led me to the left, down next to the swamp. There they sat me in a dry spot and told me that they’d be back for me in the morning. It was a moonless night. I looked at the stars as I listened to the mosquitoes buzz and the frogs sing. I thought about carving the arrow, but decided it wasn’t a bright idea to attempt to do that in the dark, so I spread out my poncho and wrapped myself in my scratchy wool blanket in an attempt avoid the mosquitoes. Surprisingly, I quickly fell asleep.

Something moved nearby, waking me up. “Was it an animal?” I worried. I opened the blade of my pocketknife and laid still, clutching the knife and looking around. My eyes had become somewhat adjusted, but the vegetation was so thick that I couldn’t make out what it was. Then a twig snapped and I turned and saw another scout, testing branches, obviously trying to find wood for his arrow. We looked at each other but didn’t speak and in the darkness, I couldn’t recognize him. He had been placed about fifty feet from me, and without saying a word went back to where his poncho and blanket were lying. Lying back down, I watched the stars and battled the mosquitoes for a few minutes. The bug repellant was no longer working. I rolled up in my blanket and, despite the heat and bugs, somehowe fell back asleep.

When I woke the next time, the stars had faded away and there was enough light that I could orient myself. Mosquitoes were still buzzing. I knew I needed to carve and arrow before they came to retrieve us, so I looked around for suitable wood. Nearby, I found an old stump from a longleaf pine, its inners filled with lighter-wood. I broke off a chunk and began to work shape it in the form of an arrow that was approximately four inches long. Such wood splits easily and has a nice sheen from the resin it contains, but the wood is hard and therefore difficult to carve. I worked with it and even though my arrow wasn’t the best looking one in camp, it had a nice rich golden color and, because of the way the wood splits, was probably the sharpest arrow around. This wasn’t a particularly good thing since the arrow had to dangle from my neck.

I barely had enough time to fashion the arrow before being rousted up and led with others back to the main part of camp. We were told to sit down under a tree beside the dining hall, where we were given a carton of milk and a fried egg between two pieces of bread for breakfast. We sat for the longest time and after eating. I used my time to shape my stick into more of an arrow and to scratch my numerous mosquito bites. Then, we were assigned to work groups. As the smallest kid in the group, it was my fate to be assigned to the group with the toughest task.

Our taskmaster had our group jump in the back of a truck and drove us to a sandpit beyond the rifle range. Our job was to load sand onto the bed of a truck and haul it to the waterfront where we filled in several gullies. Another group was there constructing dams in these gullies to help hold the sand in place. As the morning wore on and the sun rose higher, the temperature climbed. We kept making signs of wanting water to our task master, an older scout who was probably sixteen, kept saying that we’d have a water break later and pushed up hard. At least mosquitoes were leaving us alone. When he finally did let us drink, we gulped water down at an unhealthy rate that several guys got sick. After a morning of hauling sand, we were led back to the same site where we’d eaten breakfast for our lunch. Large containers of bug juice (watered-down Kool-Aid) were sitting on a table and we could drink all we wanted. For lunch, we were provided with a bologna sandwich. As it was with the egg at breakfast, it was just a piece of bologna between two pieces of bread, no mustard, mayonnaise, or cheese. I ate my sandwich hurriedly and laid down, closing my eyes knowing that before too long I’d be back working a shovel.

That afternoon, our taskmaster continued to be stingy with the water breaks. At one point several of us got so thirsty that when unloading the sand into the ravines by the lake, we ran out into the water and wet our shirts as well as cupped out hands and gulped water lake water. Later, our task master stopped the truck at the camp trading post and brought himself a coke with ice. He drank it in front of us, making slurping sounds and then poured the ice out on the ground, taunting us while trying to get us to talk. This was observed by an adult leader who called the boy over and had what appeared to be a serious conversation with him. Thereafter, we were provided frequent water breaks and there was no more hazing.

Our afternoon ended at about 4 PM. We were still on silence, but told to go get cleaned up and to put our uniforms on. We showered, first with water, then with calamine lotion, then dressed and spent a few hours resting. At 6 PM, we were called to the dining hall where we were served a feast prepared. Still, we were not allowed to talk, but we consumed some of the best food I’d ever eaten at camp. Much of what happened after dinner is now a blur. I was tired and it was so mystical, unlike anything I’d experienced. We were again led out into the woods in a single file, with a hand on the scout in front of us, to a secret fire ring located deep in the swamps. When we got there, a fire was already blazing and behind it was the Chief. He welcomed us, had us sit down and told us the legend of the Order of the Arrow. He then gave us a secret sign and handshake and we were presented with our sashes and our patches. We’d passed the ordeal. I was proud of the fact that I gotten through without having a single notch in my arrow; however I can’t say that I didn’t talk during the day, we just made sure we talked away from the taskmasters and others in charge of the ordeal. After the ceremony deep in the woods, we all made our way back to the dining hall where a cracker barrel was waiting. No longer on silence, we talked about our experience as we ate crackers with cheese and sausage and drank plenty of bug juice. I was now an Arrowman and would be on a high for the next several days, until that morning when I told my mother about my experience.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sailing the Inland Sea: A book review and personal essay on my shopping habits

Susan Neville, Sailing the Inland Sea: On Writing, Literature, and Land (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 220 pages

Although I tend not to be an impulsive shopper, I sometimes deviate when it comes to books. A few weeks ago I was talking to the proprietor of our local bookstore when I noticed this book sitting on a table. The cover grabbed my attention. The photograph had to be taken a day before the moon was full, right as the sun set (of the day after the full moon, right before sunrise). With the sun in the background, providing the reddish tint to the waters, the nearly full moon can be seen above the horizon. The swamp doesn’t look to be a place of sailing, but it did look inviting for a canoe. I imaged a large bass lurking around one of the stumps in the pond… I was in the process of purchasing another book when I picked this book up and asked the proprietor if he had read it. He hadn’t, but he had met the author at a bookseller’s convention and he was impressed with her presentation and had picked up a half dozen signed copies of her book. Like a bass lurking around a log, I took the bait and he sold his first copy…

I should note that there were two other reasons I purchased this book. First of all, I figured it was time for me to delve a bit more into Midwestern literature, as so much of my reading over the past decade has either been Western or Southern. The second reason (and if you’ve read my blog for long, you’ll know this) is that I am interested in the role “place” plays in our lives and stories and even in our philosophies and theologies. Books like of Craig Child’s The Secret Knowledge of Water, Richard Francaviglia, Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin, and Belden Lane’s Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality along with other writers like Terry Tempest Williams, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, and Annie Dillard have helped me see the importance place plays in the way we see and interpret our world. This book promised to be of a similar nature…

Sailing the Inland Sea is a collection of essays in which Neville explores the meaning of place and geography as she interacts with writers from the Midwest as well as other authors from around the world. In doing so, she also explores writing techniques. Some of these essays are brilliant. In “Sacred Space in Ordinary Time,” she begins a Sunday looking for sacred places, starting her journey at a shopping mall. Another powerful essay “Where’s Iago,” discusses the way a story needs an Iago (a character from Shakespeare’s Othello) to serve as a catalysis and to move the story along. Iago has a long and noble and sinister history, tracing his roots back to the snake in the Garden of Eden (page 126). As in many of her essays, she weaves in different threads including a discussion of evil, the philosophy of Nietzsche and theology of Neibuhr, the wisdom of Vonnegut and a novel by Tayeb Salih, a Sudanese author (his book, Season of Migration to the North is now on my reading list). A third essay that I particularly liked was “The Gift of Fire,” when she discusses her work patients in a mental institution and the linkage between mental illness and creativity.

Water is a constant metaphor used throughout these essays. She humorously quips, when told to gather a particular yacht club for a river trip, that “There is something incredibly midwestern-populist about calling the place a Yacht Club.” (23) She constantly refers to rivers and lakes and even to seas that no longer exist. She notes that Indianapolis native Vonnegut was fond of saying his hometown is the largest city in the world without a navigable body of water. The sailing aspect from her title comes through in her technique of weaving a variety of themes together. Like a sailboat running against the wind, her essays tack back and forth, always moving toward a particular destination but never in a straight line. (See her discussion on this on page 102).

Although Neville must mention a hundred authors in her essays (maybe even mentioning too many authors), the late Kurt Vonnegut comes up most frequently. Not only are they both from Indianapolis, their grandfathers worked together. Vonnegut’s was an architect who built many of the stately homes in the city, and Neville’s grandfather was a cabinetmaker whose craft can be seen in these homes.

Sailing the Inland Sea didn't provide the background into Midwestern literature, as I hoped it might when I purchased the book. But that’s not its purpose. It does, however, provide insight into the role place plays into stories but more importantly, the essays serve as a wonderfully creative “writing guide.” I enjoyed these essays and recommend them to you.

Let me leave you with one finally bit of insight from the book. When writing about the lack of cars in New Harmony, she notes that it’s “because it’s hard, as it should be, to find your way to harmony, new or otherwise.” (93) Although I ain' t no Baptist, in Baptist tradition I think that deserves an Amen!

For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Winter photos (along with a rant to keep things warm)

The weather has been cold and snowy for the past week and a half. Saturday night through Monday was bitter as the temperature dropped well below zero and the wind howled. Some of the gusts on Sunday in the 30+ mph range. But I ain’t complaining. I’ve had many fires over the past week, drank hot drinks, and best of all, have had plenty of opportunities to ski. I took these photos last Friday, when I was skiing south of town at a local nature center. The first shot is of a meadow where last August I shot a photo of a field of Queen Anne’s lace. Click here to see what this prairie looks like in the summer.
I discovered that the beavers had dammed up another creek. Two weeks earlier when I skied this section, the waters hadn’t not flooded over the banks. I love the reflections of the snow covered sticks in the water in the shot below.
Below is the dam. Notice the ice on the pond behind the dam and that the water is flowing freely under it.
This is the point on Brewster Lake. Last October, I caught a 19.5 inch bass out of this lake. As you can see, it's now well frozen. Click here for photos of the lake in the fall.
A Rant: There is political discussion going on about the Democrats holding another primary or a caucus in Michigan and Florida. I think that’s a terrible idea. I hated that we had that stupid primary that didn’t count back in early January. According to the DNC rulings, no Democratic delegates were going to be seated from Michigan or Florida. No one campaigned here and only Hillary was on the ballot, so I went over to the dark side to vote against Romney. Now, the Clinton camp says she should get the delegates she won (in the non-primary) and the Obama camp thinks there should be a caucus in the states to divide the delegates. I don’t know how they can play into either side. It makes sense to me for the DNC (as well as the Republicans who are punishing the state by not seating ½ of the delegates) to stick to their guns and tell each state they didn’t play by the rules (regardless of how unfair they may have been), but the rules are the rules. If they want to allow the delegates to go to the convention, that's fine, but don't let them vote for the nominees. Of course, I'm pretty sure you don’t read my blog to get serious politic insight (and personally, I prefer satire, but that muse just hasn't been around much lately).

I’m working on my follow-up to the Tap-out story, telling about the ordeal. Hopefully I’ll have it up by Friday. I also have a number of book reviews to write… But right now I am more content to sit by the fire and read or nap than write.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Tap Out: a memoir

Photo of the Order of the Arrow pocket flap patch for the Klahican Lodge, the lodge into which I was "tapped out."

"Wednesday night campfire at Camp Tom Upchurch in Hope Mills was a big thing. Families were invited and on this particular night, my grandparents had driven over from Pinehurst. Grandma brought a picnic dinner—fried chicken, rolls, potato salad, fresh tomatoes, deviled eggs, a jug of ice tea. It was a welcome relief from the food they served in the dining hall.

A bugle called us to the campfire circle about an hour before dark. We sat on wooden benches, the scouts in front, each troop sitting together, with family members sitting behind. It wasn’t actually a circle, but a semi-circle that faced the lake, with two fire pits between the benches and the water. It was still warm and humid when we arrived. The buzz of mosquitoes filled the air and in the distance, we could hear the roll of thunder. Or maybe it was artillery from Fort Bragg. To be prepared, we all had our ponchos and had doused ourselves with OFF. As soon as everyone was seated, a staff member dressed as an Indian warrior from the Plains called down the fire. Arrows shot into each pit, igniting the wood. It seemed to be a miracle, but it really “only takes a spark to get a fire going” (to quote from a church camp song) when one utilizes petroleum products. With the fires burning, we sang songs, watched corny skits and listened to stories as the light drained from the sky and the chorus of frogs threatened to drown us out. When it was finally dark, the mood became more somber and we sang the song of the voyageurs.

Our paddles keen and bright, flashing like silver; swift as the wild goose flight, dip, dip, and swing.
Dip, dip, and swing them back, flashing like silver; swift as the wild goose flight, dip, dip and swing.

Over and over we sang the song, each time getting softer. Soon, we could hear fish jump in lily pads near the water’s edge. We started another round and then it appeared. In the middle of the lake was the Chief standing in a canoe, his arms folded across his chest, a full bonnet of feathers surrounding his head and hanging down his back. A lantern sitting in the bottom of the canoe illuminated him as two braves paddled quietly. We watched in awe. The canoe beached and several other staff members, dressed as Indians were on hand to help the chief out of the boat. In the distance, a drum began to beat and the warriors started to dance around the dying flames. Then the Chief joined in, dancing across the front and then up into the benches where he crossed back and forth in front of the sitting scouts, just inches away. Had one of the scouts been so inclined, he could have plucked a feather from his bonnet, but we were too entranced for that. When he came to me, he stopped, turned, slapped my shoulders, and then lifted me up. Before I knew what was happening, one of the braves quickly whisked me to the front and had me stand by the fire with my arms crossed over my chest. Several other scouts soon joined me. After a while, the Chief led us away as the campfire closed with the singing of the scout vespers.

Softly falls the light of day, as our campfire fades away. Silently each Scout should ask,"Have I done my daily task? Have I kept my honor bright? Can I guiltless sleep tonight? Have I done and have I dared, everything to Be Prepared?"

I had just been tapped out for the Order of the Arrow, the brotherhood of honored campers. That night, the Chief told us we’d been elected by our peers to be a part of this elite fellowship, but before we would be welcomed into the group, we’d have to pass an ordeal. The ordeal was scheduled for later that summer. I was excited, yet nervous about what I’d have to endure. I’d heard about the ordeals: a night alone in the woods, a day of little food, hard work and silence.

When he told us we could go back to our troops, I set out to find my grandparents. I could tell that they were proud of me. Granddaddy asked me to walk with them to their car and once we got there, I spied on the floor board of the back seat, one each side of the drive train hump, a watermelon. Granddaddy gave me one and he took the other and we walked over to our troop site. My grandma carried a butcher knife and salt shaker. She cut up the melons on a picnic table, sprinkled salt on them, and gave everyone a thick wedge. I think the watermelons came from Coy’s farm. Coy was grandma’s uncle and he was still farming a little in 1970. In addition to growing and curing some of the best bright-leaf tobacco in the county, he was well-known for his watermelon patch.

I’ll have to write more about the ordeal later… I should also note that Camp Tom Upchurch closed in 1974. I wish I could find some photos of it.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Sage looking for a Muse...

For some reason, I just ain’t been up to writing much lately, ‘cept for what I have to write and even that has been a chore. Maybe I need to spend a night in a Holiday Inn Express—I could wake up refreshed, ready to write and also solve the cold fusion challenge... But I don’t have any such plans. Anyone have a Muse that I can borrow?
After warm temperatures on Monday and Tuesday, along with rain which greatly reduced our snowpack, winter returned today. Taking a break from my cozy spot by the fire, I looked out back and it was beautiful. These are evening shots taken from the backyard. Taken at 10 PM, camera on a tripod, f5.6, shutter speed around 10 seconds. It now looks like I’ll be back skiing again this weekend.
Have a good evening (or if it's morning, have a good day).

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Weekend Photos

I’m kind of watching the Superbowl as I’m creating this blog. Tom Petty is getting old, but that’s not what I wanted to grip about… I’m getting tired of this weather. We get a good base of snow, then it warms up for a day or two and rains and we have to start all over. But for this weekend, I’ve been able to enjoy cross-country skiing. Friday afternoon I skied with my daughter. The first picture is of her and the Triscuit (the dog). The dog loves to go with us, but he constantly has to stop and clean the snow out of his paws (I know, I should get him some booties, but I also don’t take him (or my daughter) when I putting in miles.

This weather also brings out the birds. In the dogwood tree outside the kitchen window are two female and one male cardinal. The next picture is of a cardinal at the feeder off the breakfast nook.

Today I went skiing with friends along the North Country trail. The trees are beautiful when snow hugs the trees…
When completed, the North Country Trail will be the longest in America, running from Upstate New York to North Dakota, over 4000 miles (no, it doesn’t take the most direct route). Below is a trail sign along the way.
I know Kenju has decorated some lovely Christmas trees for the Governor of North Carolina, but nature can put the best florist to shame.
Our skiing took us along side Glass Creek…
Ok, back to the game. I'd kind of like to see the Giants win (they're down by 4 right now), but I really don't care...

Friday, February 01, 2008

Looking for Longleaf: A book review and personal reflections

"A Yankee is worth two bails of cotton and is twice as easy to pick."
-a saying in Thomasville, GA when northerners flocked there for health, which they believed came from breathing pine scented air.

Lawrence S. Earley, Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 322 pages, a great bibliography, 22 pages of photos.

I grew up under longleaf pines. When I was six and we moved (or maybe we were exiled?). We left the Sandhills of North Carolina for Virginia, I remember thinking the pines in Virginia were so ugly. They were shortleaf varieties with stubby little cones on them. The needles on a longleaf are, as the name suggests, long. And their cones are huge. As a child, we’d pick up cones when in North Carolina and bring them back to Virginia. My brother and sister and I decorated the cones, creating miniature Christmas trees, and then sold them to neighbors. We made enough money to buy Christmas presents for our parents and grandparents. People there couldn’t believe the size of the cones. After a three year stint in Virginia, we moved down to the coast of North Carolina. Again, the longleaf was the dominate tree and covered our neighborhood as well as the woods behind our house (except for swampy areas in which cypress grew). Many of these trees had slash marks where they’d once been tapped for turpentine. In the woods behind our house, there were several mounds about three feet high and 20 or 30 feet across. We thought they were Indian burial mounds, but later I learned that they were probably places where the longleaf was burned to harvest tar and pitch. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, with the wooden sailing ships still in use, tar and pitch were vital industries. These commodities were the major product being shipped out of the port of Wilmington.

Earley divides his book into four distinct parts. He first deals with the ecology of the longleaf. For many people, the pine forests are boring. But under their canopy and in their branches, there is a great diversity of life. In the Sandhills, wiregrass covers the ground. In wetter areas, carnivorous species such as pitcher plants and, in a small area of southeastern North Carolina and northeastern South Carolina, Venus flytraps flourish. Earle also discusses a variety of other animals that like the pine habitat including quail and woodpeckers as well the role fire plays in the ecosystem. He also discusses the pines unique seeding arrangement, of having a bumper crop of seeds every six or seven years. If the trees always produced high numbers of seeds, more animals would depend on them for food. Sporadic concentration of seeds is a strategy that has evolved to help the trees ensure that every so often enough seeds are available to take root.

In the second part, titled “Exploitation,” Earley explores the peoples who used the longleaf habitat. He starts with Native Americans and then with the Anglo-settlers in the 18th Century. These people used the pines for tar and pitch and later timber. Heart pine, with its high rosin content, is extremely strong. In the late 19th century, as the great pine forest of the Upper Midwest was cut, loggers moved south. The logging was mostly clear-cutting and when new trees were planted they were generally loblolly or slash pines. After the timber was cut, the next industry to demand pines was paper mills, which put pressure on the longleaf. It is estimated that when the Spanish arrived in the new world there were approximately 92 million acres of longleaf, stretching from southern Virginia to Florida and across the Gulf States to East Texas. In 1996, there was only 2.95 million acres left.

In part three, “Forest Management,” Earley discusses how the longleaf pines not only faced problems from industry, but also from forest management practices. Throughout much of the early 20th Century, foresters tried to keep landowners from burning the brush under the pines, a practice that hurt the trees ability to reproduce as well as increasing the fuels in the forest which, when fires do strike, cause hotter fires (which damaged the pines). It’s only been in the last 25 years that foresters have successfully been able to grow and reproduce the longleaf.

The final part of Earley’s book is dedicated to "Ecosystem Restoration." Several things have come into the longleaf pine’s favor. The Endangered Species Act has been invoked to protect the red cockaded woodpecker, a bird that depends on old growth pines for its habitat. Also, commercial interest has come back to the pines. Bailing pine straw is a major business in areas with concentrations of longleaf pines (my cousin has a thriving business that employs a host of employees who bail straw). Even the desire for hunting preserves for quail has lead to attempts to protect the longleaf. Although urban growth continues to threaten the longleaf, the author does end with a more hopefully outlook for the pine. After losing the majority of its habitat, maybe a remnant will survive.

For sometime I’ve wanted to learn more about both the tree and the people whose livelihood used to depend upon them. I doubt many of my readers will be overly interested in this book, (except maybe a few of ya’ll Southerners), but for me this was a fascinating read. Earley is a wonderful writer who draws you into stories as he provides a natural history of the longleaf pine. Although I don’t make it a habit to read natural histories of pine trees, I have read one other book which is also fascinating and authored by a friend with whom I’ve hiked part of the John Muir Trail. If you find such books interesting, check out Michael Cohen’s, A Garden of Bristlecones: Tales of Change in the Great Basin (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998).

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