Feeds:
Posts
Comments

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.”

Grappling with Irma

Every day during hurricane season, I pull up the National Hurricane Center website to see what’s brewing. Irma began as a tropical wave off the coast of Africa. When she was christened on August 30th, I was preoccupied with my daughter Carrie who was in the hospital. Overnight, Irma grew to hurricane strength. When Carrie was discharged, I expected life to return to normal. It did, for a few days. While Irma snaked across the Atlantic Ocean, I went to church on Sunday and ate a hamburger to celebrate Labor Day.

Tuesday, as Irma approached the Leeward Islands as a Category 5 storm, I was packing for an out of town meeting. I’d planned to meet my friend Jackie after lunch and head south. Jackie called. In a voice tight with anxiety, she said she was having second thoughts. A friend in Titusville called to say she’d been told to evacuate with her invalid husband. But Irma’s a week away, I said. We’ll be home before then. Jackie said if they’re starting to evacuate the coast and South Florida, we’d run into heavy traffic and gas shortages. Besides, she had a bad gut feeling. I’ve learned to heed gut feelings, so I stopped arguing. We decided not to go. Later, the meeting was cancelled anyway.

I unpacked my suitcase. Living inland in a sturdy house, I had no need to evacuate, but I checked my supplies and made a list of things I needed. Irma was projected to hit Florida. Dwelling in the woods, I could face a week without electricity.

On Wednesday, Irma threatened Puerto Rico with 185 mph winds. I went to Publix for a few items. People were snatching up bottled water and emptying the shelves of staples and snacks. Why? Didn’t they have containers they could fill with tap water? Was there something magic about bottled water? And didn’t they have food in their pantries? I had come mainly for perishables. At gas stations, cars were lined out into the streets. I found one with no lines, but they were out of gas. No problem, I had a quarter of a tank.

Thursday, Irma attacked the Bahamas, 500 miles away. Schools were closed. Football games, church services, and meetings were cancelled. I busied myself picking up my yard, securing things that Irma could fling through my unshuttered windows. I moved plants to places I hoped they’d be safe and brought the most fragile ones inside.

Irma skirted Hispaniola and cast her roving eye on Florida, as yet undecided where to strike. The projected path was up the east coast, possibly off into the ocean. Good, I thought. At 11 pm, she jogged westward, threatening to come up through the peninsula—directly toward me!

Somewhere under here lies the late great state of Florida.

During 2004, when Florida was hit by four hurricanes, I made a “safe room” in the closet under the stairs. When Hurricane Frances lumbered through, we hunkered there for two days until she moseyed on. Since then, that space had deteriorated into a jumbled, dusty collection of everything I didn’t want to throw away or stash in the attic. Anticipating a need for a safe room again, I cleaned it out. It took me two days.

On Friday, Irma weakened to a Category 4 and began to maul Cuba. I managed to find a gas station still in business. My sister in the panhandle called to see how I was doing. She was worried about us in the path of the storm, but she sounded like she was about to fall apart herself. She’d already called our sisters who live south of me and was amazed at how calm we all sounded. Well, yes, we’d weathered hurricanes before. (https://marieqrogers.com/2014/09/29/hurricane-dora/) We know how to survive. So had she—Ivan in 2004 and she didn’t want to go through that again!

Saturday, Irma spent a second day scouring Cuba as a Category 3 and her little dance with Florida shifted to the Gulf coast. I remained calm. Yes. Calm. I took a break from closet cleaning to relax and crotchet. I was so calm that I picked up the wrong size hook and had to rip out what I’d done and start over. Anticipating a need for comfort food, I decided to make brownies and a healthy alternative, banana cranberry bread. I was so calm, I peeled the bananas, put the skins in the bowl, and caught myself about to throw the bananas into the compost! Yeah, I was so calm, I forgot to add cranberries.

Sunday at 5 am as Irma hit Key West, pumped back up to Category 4, I woke to heavy rain. What? The center of Irma was 400 miles away! Around 10 am, a strong windstorm blew branches from trees and my lights blinked off for a few seconds. By now ankle deep water flowed through my yard. No problem. I live in pine flatwoods. That’s why I built the house well off the ground. But my driveway would soon be impassibly muddy and some roads were already closed due to flooding. Between squalls I drove into town to fetch Carrie and her husband and bring them to my house. Afterward, I parked in my neighbor’s field where it was high and dry and away from trees.

This is after the water went down.

Irma was 300 miles away, battering South Florida as a Category 3, when my electricity went out at five pm. No problem. I have a gas stove and a supply of water. Whenever I empty a bleach bottle, I fill it with water in case of a power outage. The trace of chlorine keeps the water fresh. My store of “hurricane water” has come in handy. One Thanksgiving, with a houseful of guests, my pump inexplicable stopped working. No problem. I took out some hurricane water and heated it on the stove so I could wash dishes.

Wind and rain continued all night. Every so often I’d hear a thud—something small hitting the roof or something large falling in the yard. I braced for the worst, prepared to retreat to my safe room. Around 2 am Monday, Irma reached Tampa as a Category 1 and churned up the Gulf coast. The bully that had wrought death and destruction on every island in her path found the Florida mainland a tougher victim. Irma weakened. By 8 am, she lost hurricane force and was downgraded to a tropical storm. Sometime during the morning, her center passed less than 20 miles away, her winds lashing the trees but not as violently as Frances 13 years ago. Her momentum carried her into Georgia, then Alabama where she petered out before midnight. What an anticlimax—I didn’t even need my safe room.

During a lull, I went out to check for damage. I still had a roof. Three young trees leaned over, ready to fall, and a large branch had been torn off a mature tree, but none threatened the house. The ground was blanketed with branches and shredded leaves. That afternoon, my neighbor drove up in his tractor. He said my driveway had been washed out where it crosses the creek, but he and another neighbor had repaired it. Adversity can bring out the best in people.

I have a deck under here somewhere.

Tuesday dawned bright and clear. I don’t know where the butterflies had sheltered, but now they flitted from flower to flower and danced in the sunshine.

Zebra Longwing
Florida’s state butterfly

I took Carrie and Al home. Their house was also intact, the inevitable branches littering the yard. I listened to the news. Floods, downed trees, roads closed, bridges washed out. An estimated 15 million without power. That’s ¾ of the state’s residents. It might be weeks before all would be restored. No problem. I have hurricane lamps.

Then—miracle of miracles—a few minutes before 7 pm the electricity came back on!

Mile High

The mountains beckoned. I had to get high. My daughter in Virginia lives on the west side of the Blue Ridge. The trip there usually takes me two days, but I had to get away from the low country’s heat and humidity and mosquitoes, so instead of my usual route I took US 441, which tracks further to the west. I spent the night in a national forest campground and the next day I was in the mountains. I consulted my roadmaps and my GPS for a good route to my daughter’s and could have driven there in one day, but I couldn’t resist. When the highway intersected with the Blue Ridge Parkway, my heart soared and I turned right and drove all day.

(Disclaimer: You who are familiar with the Rocky Mountains and other lofty ranges may wonder why I find the Appalachians so spectacular. They may appear modest by comparison, but these are old mountains with ancient stories you can feel in your bones.)

This part of the Parkway snakes through the Smokey Mountains, with more ups and downs, twists and turns, than any other part of the road. Heading north, I found the afternoon sun on my right. What? Wasn’t it supposed to be in the west? That was the west! At the moment, the winding road had me going south. The speed limit is 45 mph, but a flatlander like me isn’t going to take hairpin curves at that speed. Fortunately, there are scenic overlooks every quarter mile, it seems, so I could pull off to let more mountain-savvy drivers get by.

Whenever traveling, I try to stop every hour or so to stretch my legs. I reached Waterrock Knob Visitor Center late that afternoon. A good place to stop, I thought, where I could get a new map and inquire about camping. But once I stepped out of my van, I was assaulted by a magnificent view, wildflowers, and mile-high air. On my way to the Visitor’s Center, I was waylaid by a trail. Why not? I’d been driving too long. A long walk would do me good.

 

The sign at the beginning showed options: a two mile trail and a shorter one, only a half mile. The sign didn’t mention that it was half a mile straight up.

I took the asphalt-paved path. Before I reached the first bench, I was out of breath and had to rest. I forced myself to breathe deeply, filling my lungs with the rarified air, and once my heart stopped pounding, I pressed on. The paved path gave way to stone steps which twisted up the side of the mountain. Some had been placed there by mankind, but most appeared to have been graciously set forth by the mountain itself, inviting me to a higher realm.

I made use of every bench beside the path and finally came to a round lookout area enclosed by a low stone wall just the right height for sitting. Had I reached my destination?

A group of young women came down the path. Foolishly, I asked them how far it was to the top. “Oh, it’s a ways, not really that far. It seems farther than it is. We had to stop and rest a lot.” Did I look doubtful? “But it’s really worth it. You’ll be glad you went up.”

I thanked them. They were sweating and out of breath, but they had me—I couldn’t lose face. One was a heavy girl. If she could make this climb, so could I. Struggling to my feet, I resumed my ascent.

Beauty surrounded me—mountains, trees, wildflowers, rocks. I took pictures. Some of the wildflowers were familiar, a few I could guess at, and many I couldn’t identify as they were not found in Florida. The rhododendrons were in bloom. Their southern relatives, my wild azaleas, had blossomed in March. Was the season so late at these heights?

I met two more groups coming down the trail. Each time I asked how much further to the top. The second was a trio who answered as vaguely as the girls had. “Are you just going to the top or are you making the loop?” No! Not the two mile loop! “Oh, it’s a ways, but not too far.”

The third was a fit-looking middle aged couple with backpacks and gear. “You’re just going to the top? You’re almost there. When you get to a wooden bench, take the path to the right and you’ll come to a big rock.” At least they told the truth.

I reached the bench too eager to sit down. The short path to the rock yielded its promised view of more and more mountains. Way down below, in the parking lot, was my van. Yup—a half mile straight up. But the air! I don’t know when I’ve breathed sweeter air. My lungs had blown out all of Florida’s humidity and discovered Oxygen on Steroids.

As I took pictures, the mist rolled up and thunder growled in the distance. Time to go down. I took my time. As I descended, I found more spectacular things to photograph. How did I miss them before? Once I reached the parking lot, my fatigue was gone. I felt good, ready to drive on.

 

But the mountains weren’t done with me. More overlooks, wildflowers, and the approaching sunset. I was higher than the clouds which crept among peaks and valleys below. Finally, I came to Highest Elevation on the Parkway, at 6053 feet, more than a mile high.

A silver car had kept pace with me, stopping to photograph wildflowers, pulling into or out of overlooks as I entered or left. They caught up with me here and the lady said, “We’ve been following you.”

They, too were from Florida. Although heading north on the Parkway, they were returning home from Ohio. The gentleman had never experienced the Parkway, so they’d taken a detour. Kindred spirits, we chatted. I took pictures of them with the magnificent view in the background and they returned the courtesy. “See you at the next overlook,” they said as we parted, but we didn’t connect again.

I camped at Mt. Pisgah and the next day exited the Parkway at Fancy Gap, ready to see my grandchildren, taking the exhilaration of the mile high drive with me.

(See: marieqrogers.com/2017/02/28/the-jewel-of-fancy-gap)

It was a dry year, until the rains came. I had to water my potted plants and raised beds just about every day. Miss a day and someone would die. In late May, the rains came. In June, we’ve had more rain than we had in the eight previous months—since September!

I had so looked forward to June. The weather in May is as perfect as can be, pleasant but not too hot. But not for yard and garden work because of the yellow flies. Their bites are painful. They come in swarms. Some years I can’t sprint from the front door to the car without getting a half dozen bites. They thumb their noses at insect repellent. I can’t work outdoors without wearing armor. June is hotter, but I don’t mind the heat. I had so looked forward to June.

Then the rains came—seven inches one day! With the rains, mosquitoes. I diligently went through my yard dumping anything that held water where mosquitoes could breed. Yet breed they did! I have no idea where, unless the wrigglers can live in humidity alone, and there’s plenty of that. The mosquitoes are so thick I can’t sprint from my front door to the car without getting a dozen bites. They thumb their noses at Skin so Soft. Insect repellent works for barely an hour.

Even if Mosquito Control came back in my woods, I wouldn’t want them to spray. Too many other things live here. Besides, they spray at night. I don’t garden at night but the mosquitoes that bother me are out in the daytime. I had such plans for my yard. I wanted to work on the blueberry patch that inspired me last month. I had so looked forward to June.

Here in the South, we have wondrous creatures called “skeeter hawks” that fly around and devour mosquitoes. Elsewhere they’re called dragonflies. Usually they’ll follow a plague of mosquitoes and make short work of them. So be patient, I told myself. Soon the dragonflies will come and I’ll be able to go outside again. But it’s the end of June and no dragonflies yet.

The Good

Why? I knew dragonflies breed in water, like mosquitoes. A creek runs through my property and there are several ponds in the neighborhood, but they can dry up during drought, so the dragonflies likely had nowhere to breed. Even with all the rain we’ve had this month, my creek is still dry. The land was very thirsty.

When the ponds fill up, the dragonflies should lay eggs, but how long before their babies grow up and eat mosquitoes? I turned to Google. I learned that, unlike mosquitoes, their larvae, called nymphs, live in the water for months or even years before they become adults. Mosquitoes take only a few days to grow up. The nymphs aren’t idle–they eat mosquito larvae in the water, but they’re not ready to take to the air for months or more.

This isn’t the worst plague of mosquitoes I’ve seen. When my family lived in Moore Haven, they were so thick even window screens didn’t protect us. Dad always claimed one mosquito pokes a leg through the screen, another pokes a head through, and so on, then all the parts get together and make a whole mosquito. Enough body parts and you have a swarm of them. Some nights they were so bad in the house I’d sleep with a blanket over my head. In summer. In the Everglades. And we had no air conditioning. But at least those mosquitoes came out mostly at night. During the day, we could safely go outside.

The Bad

Why didn’t dragonflies keep the mosquitoes under control in South Florida? We were surrounded by water—Lake Okeechobee, the Caloosahatchee River, and scads of drainage canals. We were also surrounded by sugarcane fields. Who knows what chemicals they poured into those canals? This was in the 1960’s, long before the EPA, and dragonflies are more susceptible to pollution than mosquitoes. Also, draining the Everglades for agriculture destroyed dragonfly habitat while mosquitoes could still breed in a teaspoon of water.

According to the National Wildlife Foundation, there are 307 species of dragonflies in the US and 15% of them are in danger of extinction. The ones most in danger are the stream dwellers, due to water pollution. Who’d have thought dragonflies could go extinct? Mosquitoes are in no danger of extinction. They outbreed dragonflies.

The most dangerous mosquitoes, that carry things like malaria and Zika, are active during the day when we humans want to be outdoors. Several years ago when I was a social worker, there was an outbreak of West Nile Virus. I drove out into the countryside one day looking for a family and found a little old lady who knew where they lived. She was trying to load some things into her car and I offered to help. I stood with an armload of dishes while she rummaged in her purse for her keys and her mosquitoes chewed my ears and elbows. I couldn’t swat them without dropping her stuff.

Finally, her goodies safely deposited in the car, I could freely swat while she gave me directions. Then she said, “Did you read in the newspaper about the man who caught West Nile Virus? That was my husband.”

Whoa! Did the same mosquitoes trying to devour me bite him first? Fortunately, I escaped that unpleasant fate and lived to be bitten again.

I’ve thought about getting my yard certified as a Wildlife Habitat. https://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Certify.aspx I have everything required except a water feature. (In fact, I have so much of the required vegetation that I need to clear some out to make a human habitat.) Now I think I’ll raise my own home-grown skeeter hawks so I’ll have a head start on the next  mosquito plague. The NWF website has information on building a pond for dragonflies: https://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Gardening/Archives/2002/Attracting-Aerial-Acrobats-to-Your-Yard.aspx/.

The Ugly

Amazing how something like this can grow up to be a beautiful dragonfly! But how can I keep mosquitoes from breeding in my pond until the nymphs hatch and eat them? Fish would eat wrigglers and nymphs alike. There is a product called BTi, mosquito dunks, that kills mosquito larvae but won’t harm nymphs. I must get some. I wish I could provide a habitat for the stream dwellers, too, but my little creek dries up when there’s no rain.

 

 

Blueberries

I guess I need to plant more blueberries. The other night, I dreamed I was buying organic blueberries for $3 a pint. “That’s a good price,” I said. My father didn’t think so. He was thinking 20th century prices. Behind the table where the blueberries were displayed in my dream was a poster about growing blueberries. “You really should, you know,” said Dad. I had to agree with him.

My dad was a real character. He could be cantankerous, especially in his later years. Although he dropped out of high school, he was one of the most intelligent men I’ve known, and he never stopped learning. He didn’t see much value in fiction, but he read things that interested him. He was definitely a male chauvinist. He didn’t put much stock in daughters, expecting them to marry and become another man’s responsibility, but he expected his sons to become partners in his businesses. I don’t know why—he left his parents’ farm and went his own way, to the disappointment of his  father. His sons followed suit and went their own ways, leaving only daughters to help out.

The last picture I took of Dad, with two of his farmhands (granddaughters).

He was jealous of people with a college education. He’d call them “edjicated fools.” He especially saw no sense in a girl going to college, but I went anyway. Before I retired, I told him I might go back to graduate school. He said, “Why? You can learn anything you want to know on your own. There’s always the internet.” And this came from a man who hated computers! I concede he was right on this one. Most anything I want to know I can find on my own, on the internet or the old fashioned way, in books. I don’t need more letters behind my name, nor do I want another career, except writing. Maybe that’s why I listened to him when he said I should grow blueberries.

Although he grew up on a farm, the only farming he did before he “retired” was beekeeping. He liked honey and always wanted his own beehives. When I was a teenager, a swarm of bees flew though our yard and he caught them. From this first hive, he expanded to a successful honey business. The lure of farming never left him and he eventually bought a farm in Blackfork, Arkansas. Most people retire to Florida. My parents retired from Florida to Arkansas and my sister and her husband took over the bee business. Dad tried to establish a honey business in Blackfork but, no one is sure why, honeybees wouldn’t thrive there.

You’ve heard the expression, “God put me on earth to accomplish a certain number of things. Right now, I’m so far behind I’ll never die.” I lived by this axiom for years. Look at Dad. At the age of 80, he had more projects going than anyone knew. His parents had lived to 95 and 96 and I expected Dad to make it to 100. I also considered my prospects promising, as long as I followed his example. When talking about how busy I was, I’d say, “It’s not that I have too many irons in the fire. It’s that I have too many fires.” I too could live forever!

Dad sorely disappointed me when he exited this world at 81. The day of his funeral, the farm was suddenly full of honeybees. They must have come from miles around to pay their respects. Then they went away and never came back.

In the years since, many times I’ve wished I could talk with him. I miss calling him up and saying, “What do you think about this?” I wonder what he would think about what’s going on in the world. At times I’m glad that he didn’t live to see certain things.

Lately I’ve heard a lot about the virtues of blueberries. My property is just right for blueberry bushes. Wild ones grow in my woods. A few years ago I bought five commercial plants and three of them survived neglect, drought, and late spring freezes. A few more might make the effort worthwhile.

Gardening in the woods has its challenges—finding enough areas of sunshine and battling wildlife. I had a nice patch of strawberries once, until wild hogs plowed them up and destroyed them. The few survivors were too traumatized to live. I planted a lily bed which the armadillos dug up. So I went to container gardens and raised beds. A crop of broccoli was almost ready to harvest when the deer ate them down to bare stems. So I put chicken wire over the beds. The deer squashed that down to feast on my carrot tops. In this constant battle of wits, the dumb animals are one move ahead of me.

Other people have a problem with deer eating their blueberries. Not me.  Besides vegetables, they eat my ornamentals, even my succulents, but so far no one has eaten, dug under, or plowed up my blueberry plants.

Maybe it’s worth a shot. Thanks, Dad.

Last month, I worried about the late arrival of the Chuck-wills-widow. Now they’re back, having trickled in. I heard one in the distant forest one night, none the following night, another the third night. Then a few more. A month later, they’re filling the nights with sound. They start calling at dusk and are most vocal in the early night hours, but I hear them in the middle of the night and early mornings before dawn.

They must have sensed my concern over their absence. As though to reassure me they’ve come home, a pair has taken to serenade me every evening in my yard. One perches in a tree north of the house and another in the south. They call back and forth, as if in conversation, and don’t seem to mind when I go out on the porch to listen, but if I venture any closer, they fly away.

Lately, the nights have been mild enough to sleep with a bedroom window open, the better to hear birds and peepers and other inhabitants of the night. At dawn, every bird in the neighborhood begins to sing. Who needs a clock radio when such music invites you into the day?

After it grows light, the concert is over and they go about their business. Still, the day is not silent. Wild Turkeys gobble. Cardinals, Wrens, and fowl I can’t identify keep the music going. I’m no bird watcher. In the woods, you can’t see the birds for the trees, but you can hear them.

Lately, I’ve heard a familiar “Cheeri-up? Cheerio!” The Robins migrated north months ago, but they passed through, leaving their songs. Our Mockingbirds mimic the Robin (as I wrote in Robin Song), but they prefer open spaces and my yard is mostly wooded, so I suspect it’s a Brown Thrasher, a close relative of the Mockingbird who prefers woods and thickets, like where I live. Here is a link to Brown Thrasher songs, but none of these recordings includes an imitation of a Robin song:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Brown_Thrasher/sounds

The Brown Thrasher’s repertoire is almost as varied as it’s cousin the Mockingbird’s.

Birds are not the only creatures making their presence known. The Carpenter Bees have invaded my potting shed. They came out in early March, then in the middle of the month we had a few 25 degree nights and they disappeared. (Maybe they went to Florida for the rest of the winter.) Now they’re back. They make nests in unpainted wood, like my potting shed.

When I approach, something like an oversized bumblebee flies at me, buzzing like he means business. This is a male trying to threaten me, but I know he has no stinger and can do no more than be annoying. His mate, who does have a stinger, is too busy to bother me, preparing a home for her babies. But even the females seldom sting. I hear them buzz their way into 2x4s, leaving a pile of sawdust behind.

This Carpenter Bee is all buzz. He can bite, but he can’t sting.

Once I sawed into a piece of scrap lumber which, unknown to me, contained a Carpenter Bee nest. Suddenly, a bee flew out. I don’t know who was more alarmed, me or the bee. The poor thing took off, never to be seen in the environs again. These Carpenter Bees are pesky, but as long as they don’t drill holes in my house, I leave them alone. Like most bees, they are important pollinators and this kind can pollinate flowers that are too difficult for others, including Honeybees, to service.

There are thousands of species of bees. I’ve become interested in native bees. Honeybees aren’t native. They’re immigrants from Europe. Many of our native bees resemble Honeybees and Bumblebees and others look like wasps or flies. Most don’t sting or make honey. Bumblebees make honey, but only in modest quantities, unlike Honeybees. While I love honey, the Honeybee is overrated as a pollinator. There are many flowers, including important food crops, that Honeybees lack the proper equipment to pollinate, but there is a native bee that has been designed just for that flower.

One of Carpenter Bees’ nature enemies is woodpeckers. Although I haven’t noticed any reduction in the number of bees, Pileated Woodpeckers have taken up residence at my place. They probably like it here because I leave dead trees standing, as long as they’re not close enough to fall on my house. I hear woodpeckers drumming on trees and occasionally their large wings flapping through the woods. Here is a recording of a Pileated Woodpecker:

https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Pileated_Woodpecker/sounds

Today I saw one on the pine tree just outside my living room window. He gave me time to get my camera, but when I stepped near the window to snap a picture, he took off with loud flapping wings.

These are big woodpeckers.

Here’s something few people know. While birds eat seeds, they must have protein from insects in order to reproduce. Folks will put out all kinds of bird feeders to attract birds, then spray every bug they see. Pesticides are unhealthy for birds (and people) as well as insects. Learn to live with a few bugs in the yard. Let the birds eat them. Nature is not always convenient.

Earlier this spring, a house wren took up residence on my front porch and raised a brood. Every time I stepped onto the porch, she startled me—I swear they can fly faster than a speeding bullet! They nest in hanging plants, under eaves, and in my shed. One spring a wren nested on a window sill when I left an awning window open during a warm spell. When cool weather returned, I had to leave the window open so as not to disturb her nest. Fortunately, these birds don’t take long to raise a family. One morning, I heard the most joyous singing. The wren perched on the edge of her nest announcing motherhood. In no time at all, the babies grew up and flew away so I could close the window again.

House Wren singing.

As I said, nature is not always convenient, but it’s always wondrous.

https://marieqrogers.com/2015/02/28/robin-song/

https://marieqrogers.com/2017/03/31/finally-the-whippoorwill/

I had almost given up. I wasn’t worried that spring would never come, but that something had happened to the whippoorwills. Had they forsaken this troubled planet?

They’re not really whippoorwills, and they don’t even make the whip-poor-will sound, but that’s what we call them here in rural Florida. If I told a neighbor I heard a Chuck-wills-widow call last night, I’d get a blank stare that would last into next week. If I say I heard a whippoorwill, I’d have full understanding.

You can’t describe their call as a song. It sounds almost like they’re spitting out, “Chuck! Will’s widow,” or something like that. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings described it as, “Chip hell out of the red oak.” You can find a recording here: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Chuck-wills-widow/id. On summer nights, I can hear several in the woods around me, calling ceaselessly through the night, the same call over and over. Sometimes one comes close to the house, but if I go outside to try to locate it—immediate silence.

Chuck-wills-widow. (Photo courtesy of Dick Daniels)

I’ve never seen one clearly enough to recognize it. They are active mostly at night and are so well camouflaged they blend in with dead leaves and tree bark during the day. Sometimes, driving down the road at night, a bird will suddenly shoot up from the roadway and fly off. That’s a Chuck-wills-widow that has been picking up grit from the road. I suppose they sometimes get hit by cars. I read that their numbers are declining—the usual story— pesticides and loss of habitat. They must be too shy to stick around when their forests are taken over by housing developments. They don’t build nests, but lay eggs on the ground, which puts them at risk despite their camouflage. They’re vulnerable to pesticides because their diet is mostly insects, although they’ve been known to eat small birds and even bats.

I hear them only from March through July. They winter in the Caribbean and Central America, but I don’t know what they do in late summer and fall.

I wasn’t too surprised they were late this spring. We had another weird winter. Winters in Florida are typically weird, but these last two were worse. Not hard winters, but warm for the most part, and late. My dog fennel, loyal predictor of the first frost, has been dead wrong two years in a row. No frost in November, as predicted. Not until after Christmas.

Last spring I still had nearly a full cord of firewood left over. I usually stock up before my firewood man goes away for hunting season, but I didn’t run low until after the first frost. When I called him, he delivered right away and said I was lucky to catch him before he took one last trip to his hunt camp. After the second frost, it appeared my supply would last me again into the next fall.

Our tomato plants

A few weeks before Spring Break, I had the school kids start tomato plants and told them that after the break we should be past the threat of frost and could set the plants out in their gardens. Boy was I wrong! After the children returned to school, we were hit with the coldest spell of the winter. I woke to a half inch of ice in the bird bath.

(I can hear you northerners saying, “Now really, just get over it!” I know. You’re digging out from under three feet of snow. Spend a few winters here and see how soft you get!)

So, we held back on planting our spring gardens. Everyone I talked to said they hadn’t heard a whippoorwill yet, either. The next part of the conversation goes something like, “My mama/granny/grandpa always said we can have frost up ‘til Easter.” This year, Easter comes in the middle of April! Can Spring really be so late? The whippoorwills have never been this late. What’s wrong?

On mild nights, I slept with a window open, hoping to hear one call. If the night was too cool, I’d step out on the porch every few hours to listen. March melted away, but no whippoorwill.

Finally, on March 30th, I heard the call! Far away, faint, and short lived, one called. My world was set right again. I heard the promise of Spring, and it was music to my ears.

 

%d bloggers like this: