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Wild Mushrooms

I’ve acquired some shiitake mushroom spawn and now I’m looking for the right log to inoculate so I can grow my own. On my way to the mailbox today, I spotted a pretty purple mushroom and wondered if it’s edible. That brought memories of collecting mushrooms in my grandmother’s cow pasture when I was a kid.

In late summer when the common field mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) began to pop out of the ground, my sisters and brothers and I would go out in the early morning and gather all we could find. There is no better cuisine than fresh mushrooms sautéed in Grandma’s butter and served hot for breakfast.

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Common Field Mushroom

I remember the cool of the August mornings, dew on the ground, tramping through the pasture while the cows were busy being milked. The mushrooms shone white among the greens of the grass and browns of the cow patties. Often they grew right next to, or in, the cow plops. That didn’t deter us country kids. We always washed the mushrooms when we got home. Sometimes they grew in broken fairy rings, created by the mycelium, the underground part of the plant, ever reaching outward to fertile ground.

fairy ring

Fairy Ring – I don’t know what species

When we gathered more than we could use, we’d package the excess and Grandma would take them town and sell them to her butter customers. That earned us a little spending money. I accompanied her one time. An old lady, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, delighted to get fresh wild mushrooms, peered at them carefully and said, “I’m glad the children know what to look for.”

Today, I’m amazed at her faith in us. Yes, we did know what to look for, but I, the oldest, was not more than twelve. By then I’d been collecting mushrooms for years. I don’t remember when I was first taught or by whom. Probably Dad, but it could have been Grandma, or both. My siblings and I knew the difference between the field mushroom, which is almost identical to the mushrooms sold in grocery stores, and the similar looking but deadly destroying angel (Amanita bisporigara). To us, the two were completely distinct, but a less savvy observer might not see the difference.

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Destroying Angel – Can you tell the difference?

This is why I don’t go mushrooming in Florida. The field mushroom doesn’t grow in this climate. Many other kinds do, but I’ve had no one to teach me. I collect and eat all kinds of wild foods, mostly greens, but I leave the mushrooms alone. I can identify weeds. If I’m not already familiar with a plant, there are books and the internet. I have cookbooks with recipes for wild foods and the website Eat the Weeds http://www.eattheweeds.com/  has a wealth of information. While this author, Green Deane, has information on wild mushrooms, he prefaces it with “Do not eat any mushroom without checking in person with a local, live, mushroom collector.” I take him seriously. On his mushroom page I see some that I’ve found growing in my woods, but I wouldn’t try them Continue Reading »

I Was There

Sometime in our lives, we have an experience that words are inadequate to describe. I had one on 8/21/17, the day of the Total Eclipse. It was my first. I’d missed every other solar eclipse in my life by being in the wrong place or because of cloudy weather. I wasn’t going to miss this one. But summers are so busy. I traveled through eight states in three weeks. Serendipitously, a library in West Virginia had free eclipse glasses. I picked up a pair.

On my way home, I checked for available campsites at my favorite state park in South Carolina. They were booked. I returned to Florida a week before the eclipse, having made no plans, and my van needed TLC before it could make another trip. Despair was not an option.

 

Not my van, but definitely my sentiment.

 

Fate began to smile. My mechanic made the critical repairs in a timely fashion. When I told him where I was going, he said, “You must really like to drive.”

“No. I just like to go places.”

South Carolina campgrounds were full, but what about Georgia? Only about 100 miles from Orangeburg, Magnolia Springs State Park still had vacancies! Instead of a grueling six hour drive to Orangeburg, I faced a four hour trip to Magnolia Springs, followed by only two hours the next day. I made reservations.

Sunday afternoon, I headed north. With no rangers on duty when I arrived, I chose a campsite and enjoyed my evening at the park. Bright and early Monday morning, I reported to the park office, but the staff wasn’t ready to do business yet. I told them I was going to South Carolina to watch the eclipse. “You registered online?” they said. “Then just go! You can do the paperwork when you come back.”

I drove through fog, optimistic the sky would clear. There was little traffic on US 301 although the interstates were jammed. I arrived in Orangeburg at 9:45 and found a shady parking spot at Edisto Memorial Gardens. With hours to spare, I walked around the Rose Garden and decided this was where I wanted to watch the eclipse. Workers were busy mowing and weeding. I thought, what a great job they had—being paid to experience the eclipse!

When I returned to the parking lot, it was full. I’d been wise to get an early start. Half the cars, it seemed, had Florida tags. I strolled through the Sensory Garden and rang the farm bell. Then I went down to the Azalea Garden, where other folks awaited the big event. From time to time, I heard the farm bell ring. Despite growing numbers, the atmosphere was peaceful, friendly, upbeat.

I asked those I encountered, “Where are you from?” Many were from Florida. A mother and daughter from Orlando had driven all night and slept at a rest stop in their Mini Cooper. A couple of ladies came up from Georgia. One couple was from Denver but had been vacationing at Hilton Head. Family members wore matching eclipse shirts. Some had brought their dogs. All races were represented, and many nationalities. I heard accents I could only dimly place, and one group spoke German.

Every so often, I put on my eclipse glasses and looked at the sun. It looked like an orange cookie. The sky cleared and clouded again. Some expressed concern that we wouldn’t be able to see anything (Oh you of little faith!) but others were, like me, optimistic that the weather would be kind.

I walked through a sunny area where families had set up canopies. As I approached a scattering of trees, someone called my name! Who here would know me? It was fellow writer Jessica Elkins and her husband. They’d stayed in a motel in Statesboro, Georgia and were enjoying a little picnic of fruit and cheese and crackers. I joined them.

About 1:30, people wearing eclipse glasses stood pointing at the sky. The sun looked like someone had taken a bite out of the orange cookie. Over the next several minutes, the bite grew larger. Then a cloud occluded the sun and we couldn’t see anything. The cloud gave us some relief from the heat, but many were anxious we’d miss the eclipse. I kept saying, “The cloud will move on and then the sky will clear.”

Eventually, that cloud moved, but another took its place! Blue sky lay all around, but that cloud seemed happy to stay put.

The weather was kind. After a very long 20 minutes, the cloud went away and the crowd went, “Ahhh!” The sun now looked like a crescent moon. The light around us was subdued, as though clouds still shaded the Earth. The crescent grew slimmer. Around 2:20, I took leave of my friends.

On the way to the Rose Garden, I passed a group of Seminole Indians who were drumming and chanting. The light continued to dim. I sat down on the ground in the middle of the Rose Garden.

Dusk is falling.

By 2:35, the sun was only a thin sliver and the air was noticeably cooler. Dusk had fallen. Then it grew dark. The crowd cheered. We clapped with excitement. We laughed with delight. The drummers increased the volume of their chant. I took off my eclipse glasses.

In the sky was a silver white ring—the most beautiful thing I have ever seen!

Streetlights came on. At 2:45, a band of sunlight appeared on the north side of the garden. The crowd went, “Ohhh!” I glanced up to see a tiny jewel of sunlight on the edge of the silver ring. It was time to put the eclipse glasses back on.

Pictures don’t do it justice. (Photo by Jake McElveen.)

Daylight returned. People stirred, their eyes lit with wonder, exclaiming, “Wow.” “Cool.” “Incredible.” As I made my way back to my friends, I encountered a phenomenon that wasn’t visible on the lawn of the Rose Garden. The asphalt was covered with little crescents of sunlight filtering through the leaves of trees, as though the image of the crescent sun had been shattered into a thousand pieces and  projected onto the ground. A stander-by said they’d been present before the totality, facing in a different direction.

A Thousand Crescent Suns

There were no strangers. Everyone was overcome with awe. One said, “There are no words to describe it.” Another, “Words are inadequate.” A lady said she now understood why people get addicted to solar eclipses and will go anywhere in the world to see them. I’d heard that the experience was a life-changing event. It’s true.

Jessica began to talk about the next one, in 2024, and said she intended to watch it. Yes, I thought, me, too. The wonderment buoyed me all the way back to my campsite. That night, all I could think about was that beautiful silver ring that was the sun. It still remains in my mind’s eye.

The next total eclipse in Florida is August 12, 2045. I’ll be…how old by then? In the meantime, there are others in parts of the world I have yet to visit. On April 8, 2024, less than seven years from now, a total eclipse will begin in Mexico, cross Texas and Arkansas (where I have family), the Midwest, and into western New York and New England.

Arkansas, 4-8-24, here I come!

CANEBRAKE

I was elated when the 2015 Bacopa Literary Review accepted this short story for publication. Now I want to share it with you. I hope you enjoy it. For more information on Bacopa, visit: http://writersalliance.org/bacopa-literary-review. You can order a copy of the 2015 issue through Amazon. It has more short stories as well as poetry and creative non-fiction. Happy reading!

Cattle Gap

Cattle Gap

Mario stepped off the school bus into the late August heat. “Remember, no TV till I get home,” Aunt Ginny, the driver, told him. “Make a sandwich and do your homework. I’ll be home in forty-five minutes.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Aunt Ginny was his foster mother, not his aunt, but he didn’t want to call her “Mama.” He had a mother. He’d just finished the first week of sixth grade, but he felt so lost. Changing classes was a new experience, and there were so many new faces. He wore nicer clothes than he used to, but old classmates still treated him with contempt.

He should have gone to middle school last year, but he had flunked fourth grade. Not because he was stupid. He’d missed too many days. Last year, he did better. He learned to get himself up in the morning, even if his mother overslept or wasn’t home. He missed his mother.

Mario checked the mail and found a letter from his father in California. “Dear Mario,” it began. “I hope this finds you well. I am quite good, as is Cissy, and the kids. The social worker was here today to do the house check. She said she saw no problem with you coming here. It will take awhile for the paperwork to get to Florida, so we have to be patient. I’m saving money for a plane ticket to come get you.”

A joyful bark interrupted him. Aunt Ginny’s dog Skeeter bounded down the driveway and knocked the letter from his hands. Skeeter always came to greet him. Mario wondered what Skeeter would do after he left. By then, there might be new foster children to greet.

“Hey, Skeeter,” Mario stuck the letter into his backpack to read later. He paused at the cattle gap. This was a relic from the days when the old place had been a farm. The cattle gap was a grate made from railroad rails laid horizontally across a small ditch. Cows would not venture to cross, but it was no barrier for vehicles and most boys.

The ditch held a little water from yesterday’s thunderstorm. It looked like a good place for snakes to hide. Aunt Ginny had warned him to beware of snakes. What he feared even more than snakes was slipping and falling between the rails. He gripped his backpack, inhaled deeply, and balanced on the first rail.  Safely across, he let his breath out. He had never lived in the country before, and there were so many things to worry about.

Aunt Ginny’s farm now grew pine trees. Halfway up the driveway, Skeeter started barking again and dove into the palmettos that grew among the trees. Mario heard a great thrashing noise. Something big was in there. What could it be? A bobcat? A coyote? What if it was a bear?

“Skeeter! Come back!” But Skeeter was too busy to obey.  Mario set his books down and followed. A fine net settled over his face and he cringed. He brushed and sputtered to get the cobweb off. He wiped his mouth with his shirttail and brushed frantically over his head and shoulders. Could the spider be on him? It would be one of those enormous yellow ones that spun great webs between the trees. Aunt Ginny hated them and killed any she found in her yard. So they hid in the woods to ensnare unsuspecting boys.

He stepped forward. Skeeter stopped barking. Mario eyes darted around and looked down. Skeeter sniffed at a large gopher tortoise which tried to run from him. Its short legs flailed against a palmetto frond, which rattled against its neighbors, creating a noise way out of proportion to the size of the creature.

Mario let out a nervous laugh. “All this fuss over a little ole turtle!” He poked it with a stick and watched the gopher’s head and limbs draw into its shell. Maybe this would make a good pet. He carried it to the house, found an old washtub, and filled a dish with water. He’d ask Aunt Ginny what they ate. He never had a pet before.

Mario went back for his backpack and let himself into the house. He fixed a sandwich and poured a glass of iced tea before settling down at the kitchen table with his homework. Then he remembered his father’s letter. “I’m so looking forward to seeing you again. It’s been so long. You must be nearly a man by now.” His mother had called him her “little man.” He had taken care of her when she couldn’t take care of herself. After they put him in foster care, everyone treated him like a child. His first foster parents even made him go to day care. Aunt Ginny wasn’t so bad. She fussed over him, but she also gave him independence.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been more of a father to you,” the letter went on. “I didn’t know how things were with your mother.” Mario winced. He didn’t like people saying things about his mother. “You see, after we split up, every time I went to see you, we’d fight so bad, I thought it was best to just stay away. I thought sending money every month was enough.” Mario had not been aware of any money. His mother said his father was dead. He had a vague memory of a man arguing with his mother, but he was not sure if that had been his father or a stepfather.

His musings were interrupted by Skeeter’s frantic barking. Mario rushed out. There was a new noise, an intense buzzing, like that of a windup toy out of control. And there, on the ground, not two yards from Skeeter’s nose, was a coiled rattlesnake.

He dared not panic. He called Skeeter, who only kept barking and circling the snake, keeping a distance of four or five feet between them. What should he do? Call for help? But Skeeter could be dead before it arrived. His pounding heart drowned out the sounds of both snake and dog. Mario crept up behind Skeeter and grabbed his collar. He dragged him up the steps and through the front door. Skeeter was an outside dog and Aunt Ginny didn’t let him into the house, but this was an exception.

After the rattling noise ceased, Mario looked out and saw the snake crawling across the yard toward the back of the house. What if it got in the house? He ran to the shed and found a hoe. He tried to sneak up on the snake, but it turned back toward him and started to coil. Mario raised the hoe as high as he could and brought it down onto the snake’s neck with enough force to drive it into the ground. The body twisted every which way, but its neck was broken. Mario chopped with the hoe until he severed the head from the body. He trembled back to the porch and collapsed on the steps.

Then he remembered Skeeter and let him out. Skeeter immediately returned to the snake, but when it didn’t react to his barking, he began to sniff. Mario jumped to his feet. Maybe it couldn’t bite, but it still had venom on its fangs. He scooped up the head with the hoe and buried it in the garden. Only now did he examine the body. He’d never seen a real rattlesnake before and didn’t know they were so pretty. This one had diamond-shaped markings on reddish skin. He had seen belts and hat bands made from snake skins. The body was thicker than his arm and might be enough for more than one belt.

Warily, he picked it up. The skin was not slimy, but smooth and cool, like glass. Mario carried it to the back porch and got a knife from the kitchen. Although he had never skinned anything before, he’d seen it done. He cut off the rattle and put it in his pocket. Then he carefully separated the skin from the carcass, which he buried in the garden. He stretched the skin on an old board and nailed it down.

Only then did he truly appreciate his feat. The snake had been as long as he was tall. He shook the rattle in his pocket. Now he knew what a rattlesnake sounds like. The deadly creature could have killed him, but he had killed it. He marveled at how easy it was to kill. He stood up straight. Perhaps he was a man after all.

Suddenly, he heard the school bus out on the road. He put the skin and the tools in the shed and hosed off the back porch. The bus turned into the driveway. He washed the knife and put it away. He slipped into a chair and opened a book as the bus came to a stop in the yard.

A few minutes later, he heard Aunt Ginny say, “What’s this?” He had forgotten all about the turtle.

“I found him in the woods. Can I keep him for a pet? Do you know what they eat?”

She shook her head. “No, you can’t keep him. They’re an endangered species. The game warden’d throw us both in jail. You need to let him go. He’ll find food in the woods.”

Disappointed, Mario hopped off the porch. The motion jiggled the rattle in his pocket. Aunt Ginny perked up as though listening, but when she heard nothing more, she went inside. Mario carried the turtle with one arm and held his other hand over the pocket to keep the rattle quiet. After he released the gopher, he returned to the house and found Aunt Ginny brushing paw prints off the living room couch.

“What was Skeeter doin’ in the house?”

“Uh, there was a rattlesnake in the yard. I didn’t want him to get bit.”

“You left it alone, I hope.”

Mario couldn’t lie to her. His hesitation told on him.

“Empty your pockets,” she directed.

He had no choice but to show her the rattle. Her eyes bulged.

“Where’s the rest of it?”

“In the shed.” He told her the whole story.

“I don’t think it’d come into the house. It was just trying to get under the house where it’s cool.” When Aunt Ginny saw the size of the skin, she clutched her chest and hollered, “Holy Jesus! Snake that big could kill you!”

“Yes ma’am.”

“It’s a canebrake rattler. That’s why it’s so red. They don’t usually bother anybody. They usually just run away.”

“But it was trying to bite Skeeter.”

“Only because he was harassing it.  If you see another one, you and Skeeter stay in the house till I come home. Promise?”

“Yes ma’am.” He felt like a child again. He looked down at his feet.

Aunt Ginny put an arm around his shoulders. “Was you scared?”

“No ma’am. Well, maybe. I guess. I was afraid for Skeeter.”

“You were very brave to protect Skeeter. I’m proud of you for that.” Then she turned him to face her and put a hand on each shoulder. “But from now on, leave snakes alone. I can’t have a foster child bit by a poisonous snake.”

“Yes ma’am.” When he looked into her eyes, they were twinkling.

“What do you plan to do with that?” She meant the canebrake skin.

“Can I take it to California with me?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“What do you think my dad will say?”

Aunt Ginny smiled. “I think he will be very proud of you.”

Many years ago, when my oldest son moved to Raleigh, I began making frequent trips north to visit his family. On my first sojourn, somewhere in South Carolina, I noticed an expanse of roses to my left. It must be a plant nursery, I thought.

Then he relocated to West Virginia and my daughter moved to Virginia. Although I vary my itinerary, I often travel on US 301, which takes me to Orangeburg, SC, where the roses bloom. From there I can take 601 north to Virginia, or branch off onto another highway to other destinations.

I passed by those roses few times before I realized it was not a nursery but a garden, so I stopped to check it out. To my surprise, it was open to the public, with no gates and no admission fee. I pulled into the parking lot and crossed the street to smell the roses.

But there was much more. Wandering about, I found more parkland with ponds, shady acres with azaleas, and a boardwalk through wetlands by the Edisto River.

I had discovered Edisto Memorial Gardens in Orangeburg, SC.

My research tells me that this beautiful garden was once a dump. In the 1920’s, it was converted to a park, with azaleas, and later, roses.

When traveling, I’m always on the lookout for good, safe places to stop and stretch my legs. This has become one of my favorites. I rarely travel through South Carolina without stopping to smell the roses. Last year, this is where I went to watch my first Solar Eclipse, from the Rose Garden, of course.

As you turn off 301, at the entrance is the Veterans Memorial Park, honoring local veterans from every war since the American Revolution. Then you pass a beautiful fountain, also dedicated to veterans.

Veteran’s Fountain

I usually park in the shaded parking lot up on the hill and visit the Sensory Garden first. Then I walk through the log cabin which was the original park office. A few years ago I was dismayed to see the rustic building being replaced by a new one. I later learned that the original had caught fire and burned. I’m sure the people of Orangeburg were as devastated by this loss as I was, so they rebuilt it.

Restoration of Original Park Office

From there I descend to the shaded area with banks of azaleas. I haven’t visited when they’re in bloom. Beautiful in any season, they must put on quite a show in early spring.

The Rose Garden is the largest and most impressive I’ve ever seen. The city hosts a Festival of Roses in early May. The roses are at their best in spring and early summer, but something is blooming throughout the year. I can’t resist going from bed to bed, enjoying the scents, and taking more pictures than I can ever use.

Sculpture by Zan Wells

In the Rose Garden, a bronze child hands a flower to a lady. By one of the ponds, three bronze children fish and feed the ducks.

A half mile long boardwalk follows the Edisto River through the Horne Wetlands Park. Shady and peaceful, I’ve never encountered a mosquito problem there. The river is swift and dark. I’ve read that it’s the longest blackwater river in the world. Blackwater rivers flow through forested swamps or wetlands. The water is clear, but the color of tea, stained with tannins from decaying vegetation. These rivers have a certain charm and can be quite lovely.

Edisto River

Nearby is a butterfly garden and open lawns with ponds, one of which sports a fountain. There always seem to be ducks and other bird species which change with the seasons. You’ll find turtles in the waters.

Making Memories by Zan Wells

Depending on how much time I have, I may not walk the entire park, which is about 175 acres. Near the Original Park Office, there is a small Meditation Garden and the Angel Garden, a shrine to deceased children. Beyond that is a sunny area with a fountain, the Centennial Park.

Angel Garden

Although I seldom leave the Sunshine State in winter, I visited Raleigh one December, stopping by the Gardens, of course. From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, the city offers an impressive display of Christmas lights, the Children’s Garden Christmas. I managed to be in Orangeburg after dark on that trip to enjoy the sight. Thousands of lights line the street through the park, with Santa and his elves, a train, a Nativity Scene, and many other things to delight children. The child in me was enchanted.

I stopped again this summer, as usual. This time, I walked by a date palm I hadn’t noticed before. What caught my eye was the ripe dates, so ripe they were falling from the tree. Apparently other people don’t know they’re edible. They’re delicious. I picked a bowlful to take with me.

Date Palm

Unfortunately, the boardwalk was closed and parts of lower areas were flooded. Mother Nature, usually kind to the Gardens, does not always spare them. Floods, frosts, and hurricanes have taken their toll in recent years. As a gardener, I also see signs of neglect. The Sensory Garden, designed for the blind, has a farm bell and water features for sound. Unfortunately, many of the scented plants have died and not been replaced. I have resisted the urge to pull weeds, as this is not my garden. Or is it? Would anyone object if I claimed temporary ownership when I stop to visit?

When Hurricane Florence threatened the Carolinas in September, I prayed that the Gardens would be protected. I watched the storm track veer a little farther north, where Florence spent most of her fury on other communities. And, I fear, on other gardens.

Then in October, Michael threw a left hook to the same battered states. He spawned three tornadoes in Orangeburg County, but they seem to have spared the Gardens. I can’t wait to get back to see for myself how well the Gardens weathered the storms.

My garden club is planning a city park on not quite so grand a scale. I’m taking lessons on the prospects and pitfalls of a public garden and Edisto has taught me much. Someday our local park may be a haven for weary travelers. I doubt we’ll have roses, at least not as many as Edisto has, but we’ll offer other pleasures to delight the senses.

Three times within one week I heard this phrase, or a version of it. That was over a year ago. Since then, this message keeps parting the clouds of gloom and doom that hang over us these days. I can no longer ignore it.

The first time I heard it was in an interview with Erik Lindbergh, the grandson of Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo airplane flight from New York to Paris in 1927. A day or two after this interview, scientists announced the discovery of seven earth-like planets around a star only 40 light years away. Then at a solar energy meeting, the sentiment was repeated: this is a good time to be alive.

My father was a baby at the time of Lindbergh’s flight, but he didn’t escape the hero worship given to “Lucky Lindy.” To hear Dad talk, you’d think he personally witnessed the historic flight. His grandfather, my Grandad, was so inspired that when he sold a few building lots on the edge of his farm, he named the lane that led to them Lindberg Street.

Lindbergh’s plane

Charles Lindbergh’s flight was an attempt to claim the Orteig Prize. In 1919, Raymond Orteig offered a prize of $25,000 to the first person to make a successful solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Several aviators died in the attempt and Charles’ struggle to get financial backing was almost as difficult as the flight itself. In a world on the edge of economic collapse, teetering between two destructive world wars, Lindbergh’s flight was a bright spot in people’s lives.

Seventy five years later, Erik Lindbergh retraced his grandfather’s route, but in a modern plane with all the bells and whistles the Spirit of St. Louis lacked. He was also involved with the Ansari X Prize that awarded $10 million to the first non-governmental outfit to develop a manned, reusable spacecraft. In his interview, Erik discussed breakthrough technology in aviation, including electric and ecologically sustainable airplanes. He said it’s a good time to be alive. I was inspired.

The scientists discussing new exoplanets weren’t talking about manned flights to them, not anytime soon, but about the advances in telescopes and other technology that will lead to more exciting discoveries in the near future. They said it’s a good time to be alive.

I like to say I was born in the horse and buggy age and grew up in the space age. When I was a small child, my grandfather worked the farm with draft horses and I attended a one room schoolhouse. I remember when Grandpa bought his first tractor, a Massey Harris.

Massey Harris

I also remember when Sputnik was launched. Sputnik was Earth’s first artificial satellite, launched by the USSR in 1957. The reason I recall this historic event is because the adults in my life talked about it. They didn’t know what it meant. Was it a spy satellite? Could it drop bombs on us? I sensed their anxiety. It was a blow to the American ego that the Russians beat us into space. Sputnik launched the Space Race, and that shaped my childhood. The importance of science education was recognized and the US poured money into public schools.

Sputnik

The Russians also sent the first man into space, Yuri Gagarin, on April 12, 1961. Then a few weeks later, on May 5th, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. The Mercury Astronauts were my heroes. I followed their feats on radio and collected newspaper clippings.

I took a small transistor radio to school one day when a launch was scheduled. It was during social studies class. I tried to hide the radio and turned it on at low volume, but when the teacher noticed, instead of reprimanding me, he asked me to turn it up so everyone could hear.

In 1961, President Kennedy proposed landing a man on the moon by 1970, a tall order for a country just a few years from the horse and buggy age. If you go to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, look at those early space capsules. They are little more than oversize tin cans.

Can you imagine flying to the moon in this?

 

Then on July 20, 1969, I was glued to the TV to watch Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. Months later, I shared the anxiety of our entire country when the Apollo 13 crew was not expected to make it back to Earth alive, but they did. Space Shuttle Columbia was launched the day I went into labor with my daughter. The midwife said I should name her Columbia, but I had another name picked out.

Last summer I had a conversation with a music student who was entering graduate school. His dream was to become a composer. I asked if he could make a living at that. Yes, and he told me about all the opportunities open to him, including writing for the movies. “For a composer,” he said, “it’s the best time to be alive.”

On my “To Read” list is Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World. I heard him interviewed on the radio. The book is about the five major extinction events Earth has weathered in the past and how we may be facing a sixth. Who can find optimism in such gloom and doom? One statement he made stuck with me: “It’s an interesting time to be alive.” While Science may not have all the answers, new discoveries help us better understand our word and ourselves. He was optimistic that the more we learn, the more opportunity we’ll have to do the right thing.

When I heard a version of the message again within the past week, I failed to note the source, but it pops up so often, I can’t ignore it. If you listen to the news, it seems like we’re on the eve of destruction, but this is not necessarily so.

Trying to improve my health, I watch self-improvement webinars. These gurus acknowledge the ills that beset us: disease, poverty, hate, injustice, yet a common theme keeps coming through: we hold the keys to our own destiny. The darkness that threatens to overwhelm us is only the death throes of the old order. The seeds of a better future are quietly sprouting. We are nearing the dawn of a new age of compassion, cooperation, and love.

It’s a great time to be alive.

 

You’d be surprised what interesting bits of history you stumble across when you’re trying to avoid the interstates. On one of my trips to Arkansas, traveling on US 84 in rural southwestern Alabama, I crested a hill and encountered a picturesque group of white clapboard buildings.

Masonic Lodge 3

The largest had a historical marker in front. I’d been driving for a while and it was time to stretch my legs, so I slowed down and looked for a good place to pull over. A couple of cars were parked across the road from the building and a small group of people were checking it out—fellow tourists. I parked beside them.

Masonic Lodge 2

I had come across the little town of Purdue Hill. The two story building that caught my eye was the Masonic Lodge, the “oldest building in Monroe County.” It was built in 1824 in nearby Claiborne and moved here sixty years later. Like many buildings in small communities at the time, it served more than one purpose. It was once the Monroe County Courthouse and also used as a town hall, school, and a Baptist Church. The Masons met on the second floor until 1919. Famous people connected with the building were William Barret Travis and the Marquis de Lafayette.

Masonic Lodge sign

Purdue Hill is located at the junction of US 84 and County Road 1. It boasts of a gas station and a post office, but it seems to have always been a modest community. According to the 1880 Census, it had a population of 110. Ten years later the number had risen to 282. That was the last census recorded. It probably has fewer people now.

The Masonic Lodge is listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage. I walked around the building and peeked in the windows, but it wasn’t open, so I couldn’t go inside.

This website has pictures of the interior as well as additional information on the Lodge and Purdue Hill:

https://www.ruralswalabama.org/attraction/masonic-lodge-3-at-perdue-hill-al-built-1824/

William B. Travis is famous for dying at the Alamo with Davy Crockett. He was born in South Carolina in 1809 and his family moved to Alabama when he was eight. As a young man, he “read law” under a Claiborne attorney and practiced law in the courtroom of the Lodge. He was also a Mason. He taught in a local school and married one of his students in 1828.

Wm Travis Home

Next to the Lodge is a tidy little cottage in which the young couple lived. The house was originally built in Claiborne in the early 1820’s and moved to Purdue Hill in the 1980’s. In 1831, for reasons lost to history, William Travis left his wife and children and moved to Texas. There he practiced law and became involved in politics and, ultimately, the rebellion against Mexico, which cost him his life.

Travis home

You can read more about William Travis and his house at:

http://www.exploresouthernhistory.com/travishome.html

Travis home sign

Lafayette was the French hero of the Revolutionary War, who convinced France to ally with the United States against England. In the 1820’s, he returned to the US on a tour of all the states. On April 6, 1825, among much fanfare, he gave a speech to the people of Claiborne at the Lodge.

Old school 4

I wandered around the grounds and looked at the other buildings. One appeared to have once been a schoolhouse with two classrooms, but I have been unable to find any information about it. Down the road is a charming little church, Purdue Hill Union Church which was built before the 1880’s. I don’t have any photos of it, but the church and the old store sit in their original locations.

Old store 6

The. W. S. Moore Store was built around 1875 as a doctor’s office, and presumably his home. In the 1920’s, it was enlarged and became a general store.

Outhouse

Behind the store is this outhouse.

Inside outhouse

After spending a pleasant time photographing the buildings and reading the information on them, I got back on the road and headed west.

Just down the hill I spied another historical sign and stopped. This was the site of the Purdue Hill Industrial School, which educated African American children from 1918 until it was closed in 1964. All that remains is an open field and the sign, which says the school grew from a one room schoolhouse with 11 students to a 12 room institution with 250. students and 10 teachers. It probably served all the black children in the area before integration.

Site of African Am school

I continued my journey and crossed the Alabama River. I must have passed through Claiborne, which is on the map, but I don’t remember seeing a town. I wondered why the Lodge and the Travis house, two historically significant buildings, had been moved to Purdue Hill. And what about Claiborne itself? After researching it, I learned that Claiborne is a ghost town.

Ghost town? My kind of place! Ft. Claiborne was established in 1816 during the Creek War. Afterward, it grew into a bustling frontier community. It was situated on the Federal Road and was served by steamboats and a ferry on the Alabama River. When General Lafayette visited and gave his speech at the courthouse, the town had 2500 inhabitants. Later it doubled in size and became the first county seat of Monroe County. The county seat was moved to Monroeville in 1832. Later, outbreaks of yellow fever and cholera began the town’s demise. During the Civil War, it was occupied by Federal troops and looted. By 1872, population dwindled to 350. When bypassed by the railroad, its fate was sealed. The historical buildings were moved to Purdue Hill to preserve them.

According to my research, all that remains of Claiborne is one antebellum home built in 1835, three historical cemeteries, and historical markers. This summer, I plan to visit Purdue Hill again and locate Claiborne. Ghost towns can be fun.

 

 

Here is a little window into the past, a window somewhat cracked and smudged and incomplete.

In August, 1946, about a month after burying his second wife, Grandad put an ad in the newspaper for a housekeeper. I don’t know the exact wording of the ad, but it must have gone something like this: “Housekeeper wanted, must not smoke or drink. Must be able to play piano.” Perhaps other qualifications included good looks and being able to drive a car.  A number of ladies answered the ad and Grandad saved their letters. Why? Did he regard them as love notes from admirers? Somehow these letters survived the years.

This portrait of Grandad was sketched by an itinerant artist during the Depression.

Grandad was 72 and in good health. He still worked his farm and chopped his own wood. He lived to be 97. But based on housekeeping skills I observed when I knew him, the place was probably a mess by the time he placed the ad.

All the envelopes were addressed to Box R-112, Binghamton Press. Was that common practice then or was Grandad being cautious, afraid of gold diggers? He was not a wealthy man, but he lived in a beautiful Victorian house complete with a seldom used parlor that contained a piano and had gingerbread trim in the gables.

What amazes me is that respectable ladies would put themselves in possible harm’s way, willing to go unaccompanied to the home of a man they knew nothing about. In those days, most women were homemakers and had few marketable skills. Once widowed, unless their husbands left them a comfortable sum, they were dependent on the generosity of relatives. The women who answered the ad were in their 40’s and 50’s, not old enough to collect Social Security. A position as a housekeeper would keep starvation at bay.

(Mrs.) Vina Capron of Brooklyn, Pa. wrote, “Dear Sir: I saw your ad in tonight’s Press for a housekeeper and I am writing to apply for the position. I am a widow, 50 years old. Can play a piano and sing.” She gave the location of her home and her phone number.

Mrs. A. Smith “Saw your ad in last night’s Press. I am a widow, neat, nice looking, play the piano and am a good cook. If interested, I’m at 37 Warren St. up stair apartment. I neither smoke nor drink and can drive a car.”

Mable Walker of Endicott, NY wrote, “I do not drink nor smoke. I play piano some. I also play second for a violin. Would like to know more about the job.” She gave her contact information. “I am a middle aged lady… P.S. I have done housework all my life. You can come here, better phone first.” Did she audition for Grandad on the violin? He was musically inclined. I don’t know if he played piano, but he played the fiddle.

Frances Erekson said, “I do not chew, smoke or drink. But I can play piano. I have since I was four years old… I have a son 19 over sea and a daughter 25… I am looking for a place, either rooms or something similar to your add. I am white and American…49 years of age.” Whether a room was part of the deal or not, I don’t know. Some of these women lived near enough to commute to the job, if they had a car.

Mrs. Lena Fleming’s stationery had a bouquet of flowers in the upper left corner. She wrote, “I am a widow forty-two years of age and don’t smoke or drink as I don’t approve of it. Am a member of the M.E. Church. Am fairly good looking and have a nice personality. Cannot play the piano but would be willing to learn.”

Letter from Lena Fleming

Blanche Page “read your add. It attracted my attention. No smoking or drinking. Maybe no drinking on your part.” (She sounds a little suspicious.) “I used to play the Piano, but haven’t had much time for it lately.” She gave her address and phone number but “If by chance you would like to talk things over, I could meet you at the Y.W.C.A… Due to conditions I hardly know what I want to do myself. I am a widow. Have a home… Can you drive a car? Well, I can if it will go. My troubles are when it won’t go.”

A lady who didn’t give her name wrote, “Although I do not pay piano except some by ear, I do not smoke, drink or swear. Am a refined widow and can cook and keep house. If you are at all interested and care to make an appointment for an interview, you may reach me by phoning any day after 3 P.M. Simply ask for the lady who answered your ad. At that time we can exchange names etc.”

These women had nice, clear handwriting. Not so Mrs. Nellie Bailey. Hers was difficult to decipher. “I now endeavor to write to you to see if you have a lady yet as I wish to get a place like yours… I have cooked in hospitals and I played organ in my church so I can play piano. I want a pleasant home and I can give best of references. I am not to loving and I can cook and I like to dress and I don’t drink or smoke. Some prefer loving girls. And now days they like to have a good time. And some don’t no how to cook or bake. Parents don’t to live right of late years.” Nellie was willing to go to his house to meet him and asked, “Have you a car?”

Despite her poor handwriting and grammar, she got the job. How did Grandad make his decision? Did he turn down the other women or were they deterred by his messy house? Was Nellie more “loving” than she advertised? When and why did their arrangement end? Grandad had a third marriage that ended in divorce. Later, Nellie showed up again as his housekeeper. They made a cute couple, sitting on the porch or walking down the road holding hands.

 

Healing Weeds

One day when I was volunteering at the elementary school, the children and I stood around a raised garden bed discussing what grew there and what we were going to do that day. One of my philosophies about weeds is—if they’re not doing any harm, let them be. Some may argue that they take nutrients from the vegetables, but if they’re not trying to take over, I let them live until they must be removed for a valid reason. Besides, they may be of some benefit we have yet to discover.

Ponysfoot grew in that bed. I pointed it out to the kids and said, “It’s not in the way, so let’s leave it for now. It’s probably good for something, I just don’t know what.”

That bugged me. I should know what ponysfoot’s good for, so when I got home I asked my friend Google. Google doesn’t know much, but it knows whom to ask.

If someone is selling something on the internet, that’s the first thing that pops up. There were several ads selling ponysfoot seeds! Why would anyone buy ponysfoot? Because it’s a good groundcover, used for erosion control. Silver Ponysfoot, which grows in the Southwest, is used in landscapes and even hanging baskets. The species that grows in Florida is Dichondra carolinensis, Carolina Ponysfoot.

Ponysfoot (Dichondra carolinensis)

The website “Natives for Your Neighborhood” said that although ponysfoot is a garden weed, as a groundcover it competes with less desirable plants, thus can be beneficial. So I was right to leave it in the garden bed. Among its uses are habitat restoration and as a butterfly plant. (So far I haven’t found any info on its use as a butterfly plant, although it does have flowers.) One site mentioned a Dichondra lawn, which may have been popular at one time because it was easy and inexpensive to maintain.

I was happy to learn that Carolina Ponysfoot is edible, if bitter, and surprised to find that it has medicinal properties. Among other things, it can lower blood pressure. As I ventured down this path of discovery, I learned that other common lawn weeds also have medicinal uses. Dollar weed, Hydrocotyle bonariensis, also called pennywort, is another herb that lower blood pressure. I’ve eaten Dollar Weed Slaw, which is delicious, but try though I might, I can’t get dollar weed to grow in my yard. Long before I discovered the virtues of this plant, my daughter Carrie had a lawn full of it. Unfortunately, although she did nothing to make it go away, it did.

I began to google plants that do grow in my yard. Chickweed (Stellaria media) was used in the past to treat scurvy and is still used for a number of ailments, including weight loss. I’ll have to try that. You can buy it in herbal capsules, but I take advantage of the chickweed growing profusely in my yard and use it in salads, cooked greens, and green smoothies.

Chickweed (Stellaria media)

When my daughter Amber lived in Virginia Beach, a neighbor had a lawn overgrown with wild violets (Viola sororia). When she remarked on the pretty flowers, the homeowner said, “Yeah, I’m trying to get rid of them.” Amber was aghast. She knew the blossoms and leaves are edible, but not if they’ve been sprayed with chemicals. Euell Gibbons praised the common blue violet for its high Vitamin C content. With the flu going around, I try to stay healthy, so once my violets started to bloom, I began eating them. My research revealed that violas have been used in Europe for centuries for everything from cough to cancer. Caution: don’t confuse Violas with African violets which are totally unrelated.

Wild Violet (Viola sororia). The leaves are similar to Ponysfoot.

A few years ago, we Master Gardeners were planting a butterfly garden in a local park. One container was full of bluish flowers all abuzz with honeybees. When told we had to clear those out and replace them with the prescribed butterfly plants, I protested, to no avail. I did manage to rescue a few of those wondrous wildflowers, take them home, and replant them. These are Stachys floridana, Florida betony, another weed hated by lawn enthusiasts. Not only edible, I now find that the leaves can be made into a tea to treat colds, headaches, anxiety, and diarrhea.

One of my favorite weeds, Bidens alba, aka Spanish needles, is one of the most cursed because of the seeds that hitchhike on your clothes. Butterfly enthusiasts like Bidens because it’s a great nectar plant. I’ve been eating it for years but never knew it had medicinal properties. It turns out that it’s said to cure just about anything, including MRSA! Other bidens species are also useful, and you can even buy Bidens pilosa tincture.

Spanish Needles (Bidens alba)

I can’t leave out Lyre Leaf Sage, Salvia lyrata, which grows all over the eastern US. It gets its name from the leaves that are shaped like a lyre and have a burgundy stripe down the middle. The blue blossoms, when grown en masse, make a lovely show. This is a nectar plant for butterflies and has the same properties as garden sage, just not as strong. One common name, “cancer root,” refers to its use as a folk remedy for cancer. It is certainly edible and makes a good tea for sore throats.

Lyre Leaf Sage (Salvia Lyrata)

Now tell me, does it make any sense to spend money on poisons to kill herbs on your lawn, then spend more money at the drugstore to buy potions prescribed by a doctor, when your yard, if left alone, will grow its own pharmacopoeia?

Always be sure of what you put in your body. Don’t go by common names. There are several different species called chickweed, for instance. Research any plant before you use it. Herbs can have side effects and interact with medications. If you have any doubts about a plant’s identity, ask someone who knows.

 

This past summer, my sister Sue and I embarked on a genealogical expedition. Our main focus was Hampshire County, West Virginia where the Rogers family has roots going back hundreds of years. I’d  visited this area before but this was Sue’s first trip. We camped at Wapacoma Campground on the South Fork of the Potomac River, west of the county seat of Romney.

Wapocoma Campground

It takes a special kind of nerd to find pleasure in digging through old documents for clues to our past. We visited the main library and the Capon Bridge branch, both which have historical and genealogical records. I’ve spent many hours in these libraries and always find new treasures, but the weather was too nice to spend all day indoors.

Most of our West Virginia ancestors came from the British Isles in the 1700’s and settled in the vicinity of Slanesville, a small community in the Cacapon River Valley. Daniel and Nancy Slane and their six children immigrated from Ireland in the late 18th century and settled in what became known as Dogtown because the Slanes had so many dogs. Later it was renamed Slanesville.

Almost Heaven

The Rogers moved here after the Civil War and married into the McDonald clan. After farming in Pennsylvania and Kansas, this part of West Virginia must have seemed like Heaven. For the life of me, I don’t understand why they left this lovely valley for the bitter climate of upstate New York. Not all of them left. William Lewis Rogers remained and is buried in the Kidwell Cemetery.

Sue’s favorite place to look for ancestors is in old graveyards. The Kidwell Cemetery is at the end of a private lane with one residence which is a family day care. In addition to Kidwells, there are a variety of other family names, including McDonald. William Rogers was not related by blood to the Kidwells but through the marriage of his son John Thomas Rogers, my great-grandfather, to Rebecca McDonald. Apparently William got along well enough with his in-laws for them to provide him with an eternal resting place.

Sue meticulously inspected each headstone, deciphering weathered inscriptions, while I took notes and photographed them. I noticed more comings and goings at the day care next door than usual, but I didn’t give it much thought. Finally, no more tombstones to examine, we moved to the nearby Mount Union Church Cemetery. I’d never stopped here, but Sue couldn’t pass it by.

We parked on the dirt road behind the church and found dozens more Kidwells, McDonalds, and other names connected with our family. While we cataloged more possible dead relatives, quite a bit of traffic zipped by on the dirt road, which I thought was strange. Sue went back to my van for something, leaving me to take notes and pictures. When she didn’t return, I went to check on her. I found a pickup truck parked near my van, and a man was talking to Sue.

Apparently, my big blue van with the Florida license tag had attracted attention. The valley was buzzing with questions about who we were and why we were hanging out in these graveyards all afternoon. Hence, the traffic at the day care and behind the church. Finally, this man had the courage to stop and check us out. He had a good laugh. Two ladies doing genealogical research had spooked the whole community!  He said we were welcome to visit any dead relatives we wanted to, and he would notify the citizens of Slanesville that we were no threat.

Not only accommodating, but helpful, he said, “You see that house next door? That man knows all about these cemeteries and who’s buried here. Go over and tell him I sent you.”

So we did. I wasn’t sure what kind of reception we’d get, but by now word must have gone ‘round that we were harmless. The man next door didn’t know much about our dead relatives, but he did know some of our living ones. Names like Hiett and Kidwell, previously known to me only from dusty documents and decaying headstones, tumbled from his mouth. He gave us directions and phone numbers. I’d always suspected we had distant cousins here but wasn’t sure how to find them. Could our attempts to dig up dead relatives yield some live ones?

I drove around trying to locate their residences while Sue tried calling them on her cell phone. Country directions being what they are, I couldn’t find them. Sue couldn’t reach anyone by phone and left messages. We headed toward North River Mills in search of the historic Evan Hiett House.

“Evan Hiett House” in North River Mills

On the way, we passed a little church with a cemetery. We stopped and, no surprise, found more dead relatives. While there, Sue received a phone call. One of her messages had reached someone who passed it on to the family historian, Linda, a distant cousin who was more than willing to share her knowledge of the Kidwell/Hiett/McDonald families. We met her for lunch at the restaurant in Slanesville the next day.

Mary Virginia Kidwell McDonald, ca 1930

Linda turned out to be our fourth cousin, descended from Francis Marion Kidwell,  the brother of our great-great grandmother, Mary Virginia Kidwell McDonald.  Cousin Linda came armed with a wealth of information, including old photographs and family crests.

Kidwell Family Crest

Cousin Linda kept making references to the “tiara” she should wear because we are descended from royalty, specifically the Plantagenets who ruled England before the Tudors. Then she burst our bubble by explaining that many people are of noble descent. We know more about our exalted ancestors because the nobility kept better records than the peasantry. No surprise—we’re also descended from peasants.

Hiett Family Crest

Cousin Linda said the house in North River Mills wasn’t our ancestor Evan Hiett’s residence, that his was up the road from Slanesville. She showed us pictures of his and other ancestral homes. These are on private property and not readily accessible, but she knows who to ask for permission to visit them.

Unfortunately, Sue and I had to leave the following day, so further adventures had to wait. This coming summer I look forward to exploring the nooks and crannies of Hampshire County for more stories about my roots.

Read the story of Linda’s ancestor, our Uncle Frank, at https://marieqrogers.com/2012/12/30/falling-off-dutchess/

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