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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.

 

The Jewel of Fancy Gap

In Mt. Airy, North Carolina, I turn onto Rt. 52 North. After crossing the state line into Virginia, the terrain changes from hilly to mountainous and the road snakes almost straight up. I grip the steering wheel and press the gas pedal to the floor, urging my van to keep climbing. Good thing there’s a passing lane so the locals don’t get too impatient with flatlanders like me.

The road almost levels out and I breathe a sigh of relief. A sign says Fancy Gap and a stone arch carries the Blue Ridge Parkway over the highway. I love the Parkway, but grandchildren wait on the other side of the Blue Ridge, so I’ll stay on 52 to Hillsville, after which I’ll take a series of mountain roads to the New River Valley.

Fancy Gap is a quiet village, if you stay away from the Interstate that roars through, and the countryside is a vista of rolling hills and farmland. Between Fancy Gap and Hillsville, as I round a curve, I’m treated to a vision that could have dropped out of a fairy tale. On a hill with a magnificent view of surrounding farmland and mountains, sits the Sidna Allen House, an exquisite Queen Anne home built over 100 years ago.

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The first time I saw it, I could hardly believe my eyes. What was this jewel of Victorian architecture, with gingerbread trim and stained glass windows, doing here in Appalachia? The second time, I stopped to take pictures and read the large billboard advertising tours. There was no one at the place, so I jotted down the phone number on the sign. But when I called the number, it no longer worked. I pass through here a couple times a year on my way to and from my daughter’s, generally stopping to admire and take pictures, but I always respected the No Trespassing signs and enjoyed the house from the roadside.

I didn’t give up my desire for a tour. I learned the house had changed hands from the family that owned it to, thankfully, the Carroll County Historical Society. Unfortunately, no one was giving tours. But I remained intrigued.

I searched the internet and found a colorful history. Sidna Allen was a prosperous merchant in Fancy Gap. He built the house in 1911 for his wife Betty and their daughters. Sidna spared no expense. He used the best materials and finest workmanship and the house was a showcase in its day. But now it sat empty. Year after year as I drove by, I watched paint peel and the place look more and more neglected. I hoped the interior was holding up better than the façade. Pictures on the internet showed an artfully appointed residence, shining woodwork, beautiful wallpaper. How I longed to see inside.

The history of the Allen family and Fancy Gap is a tale worthy of the Wild West. Many of Sidna’s brothers and nephews were criminals and bullies, but they were either too slick to get caught or in cahoots with the law. Brother Floyd actually served as a deputy. The house of cards eventually collapsed, however. When two nephews were arrested for assault, Floyd waylaid the deputies who were transporting them and freed the boys. He was subsequently charged with battering the lawmen, but he vowed he’d never spend a day in jail.

The trial took place March 12th and 13th, 1912. Despite death threats, the judge refused to prohibit firearms in the courtroom. Even the defendant was packing. When the verdict came down—Guilty!—Floyd Allen stood up and declared, “Gentlemen, I just ain’t a goin’.” To this day, no one knows who fired the first shot. Over fifty bullets were later collected and the courthouse stairs still has two holes from Floyd’s last shots. When the smoke cleared, the judge, prosecutor, sheriff, a juror, and a witness were dead, and many, including Floyd Allen, were wounded. The incident went down in history as the “Hillsville Courthouse Massacre” and through the years books and songs and a play have been written about it. Floyd and his son Claud died in the electric chair and other family members went to prison, including Sidna Allen.

Sidna’s involvement in the shoot-out has been debated for 100 years. If not one of the shooters, he was guilty by association. His family lived in their beautiful home only a year. Floyd spent his last free night in the house. This was probably Sidna’s last night there as well. The tragedy changed everything. The family of one of the victims sued and the property was part of the settlement.

On August 22, having spent my summer traveling and visiting grandchildren, I set out for Florida. I gassed up in Hillsville and headed toward Fancy Gap. Driving by the Sidna Allen House, I noticed something new: people and activity. A man sat on the front porch. I pulled off the road and asked if I could look inside.

“Just be careful crossing the road,” he said.

As I climbed the steps to the porch, I heard a noise and looked up. A small drone was flying overhead. How odd.

The man turned out to be Ed Stanley, President of the Carroll County Historical Society. He said I could come in and look around, but they were getting ready to do some filming. A documentary. They were trying to raise money to restore the house. A handsome woman in period costume came to the door and invited me in—Betty Allen herself! She said she had a few minutes to spare and took me on the grand tour. At long last! I felt like a kid at Disneyland.

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Not a large residence, it was a palace in its day. Miss Betty is very proud of “her” house and knowledgeable of its construction and what it will take to restore. Despite the tattered wall paper, cracked and peeling paint, and plaster separating from its lathes, the quality remains evident. Floors are oak and white maple. Mantles are cherry and tile. Windows and doors are situated to catch cross breezes in summer. Miss Betty proudly pointed out these and many other features.

She has immersed herself in her character and agreed the story would make a good movie or miniseries. I think part of what makes the tale so fascinating is the characters. Despite being scoundrels, the Allens were smart and resourceful. Sidna was a skilled craftsman. In prison and after, he made beautiful pieces of inlaid furniture.

Sidna and Betty in front of their parlor fireplace. Unfortunately, the historical couple weren't able to grow old in their home.

Sidna and Betty in front of their parlor fireplace. Unfortunately, the historical couple weren’t able to grow old in their home.

I got to meet Sidna briefly and he and Betty allowed me to take their picture in the parlor. I didn’t have the time or opportunity to take more pictures, though, as the film crew was soon ready and I’d promised to be out of their way before they started.

Now the house is being restored. They are still trying to raise money for this expensive project. I can’t wait to see the finished product. For more info: https://www.facebook.com/SidnaAllenHomeFoundation/ This video shows the house’s interior: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoUTz8WGpbw The Ballad of Sidna Allen may not be quite accurate, but it’s charming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_uCwBJNCwPo  I look forward to seeing the documentary.

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