Sunday, January 29, 2012

In the bright midwinter, some green

We've seen a little of everything up here in the hills this winter -- an ice storm in October, long before winter set in, in fact, and a couple of dustings of snow, and one 3- or 4-in snow, gone in just a few days, and a frozen fog a week ago. But the main thing we have seen this winter -- in the bleak mid-winter, as the poem and song put it -- is a lot of sun. Say hallelujah.

Today, like so many days this strange but welcome season, has been gorgeous.  Cool, for sure. We got up around 41 before the temp started sinking back into its hole, but the skies have been clear and many nights we've seen the brightest winter star shows ever. Well, of course, part of this is because this is the first time we've lived this close to the stars. Back in Raleigh where we lived since the mid-1970s, we saw only a bit of the night sky as we walked the dogs up toward Millbrook Road -- and much of that was dimmed by the bright lights of the 10,000 or so shopping centers of the Cap City and their incessant incandescents. Or sodium vapors. Or mercury vapors.

Two years ago the ground here was buried under snow and ice for months on end. Last year we had a few sizable snows and a cold spell that made my knees seize.  This year our severest weather has been rain -- blessed, welcome, rain. Sometimes coming down so hard the house seemed to shake. We had a howling screecher of a rain Thursday that put me in mind of Hurricane Fran in 1996 and Hazel when it blew through my hometown of Greensboro in 1954.  We were almost grateful for Hazel because the worst drought in decades had hit the Piedmont that year. Hazel wrought destruction and took lives up and down the East Coast, but it also ended the drought.

The winter rainstorms up here have also ended our mountaintop drought, at least temporarily. Our leaky pond has as much water in it as I have seen since early 2010. The springhouse, so nearly dry in early fall, is now full of water. As I walk along the brier-choked creek that feeds the pond, the sound of rushing water is a reminder that soon enough spring will work its way into our consciousness again, and in time there will be sandwich-grade tomatoes again.

Spring has already sent out its first skirmishers. Down by the old house in the bottom, scores of daffodils have sent up green shoots.  I know, in my mind, that this happens everywhere as winter moves along -- a few warm days, and bulbs put out harbingers of one thing or another. But it still knocks me out every winter when I see the first hazy, dim signs that one season will end and another begin, all in due time. I'm a sucker for this, and freely admit it. I also get excited when I see a deer, or a flock of turkeys.  It never gets old with me.

We know better than to get overly excited. A few years ago we had a remarkably warm spell in March, -- some days in the 80s, and buds were popping out all over. Then came a bitterly cold spell that ruined an entire season for blueberries, apples and raspberries, and even slowed the normally generous asparagus patch.  This is the price you pay for living in a paradise, willingly paid even when you don't know how the tab will run.

So we'll take this winter as it come, grateful for these lovely, crisp days and spectacular nights. By the fireside we pore over the seed catalogs and the spring training schedule for the Grapefruit League -- the Orioles surely will need me this season -- and study the offerings for chartering sailcraft on the Chesapeake, when the waters warm and the southwesterlies promise a beam reach all the way up to Baltimore.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

When the fog freezes...

When the freezing fog wafts in on a gentle breeze, it coats the 10-gauge hog wire around our deck with a half-inch wide horizontal knife's edge of ice.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

There's just one hitch...

When it snowed a couple of inches the other night, it reminded me of a chore I'd been putting off for months: hooking up the big scrape blade to the back of the tractor.The tractor was still attached to an old Haban sickle bar mower -- too short to get at all the vile-tempered briars growing along the banks of our creek but better than any of the bush-hog brutes we've got to help keep the foliage down and the fields open. So I had put off what needed to be done.

I'm the hired hand on this old farm and I've been fighting tractor hitches just long enough to have an appreciation for the mule. Nope, never plowed with a mule, but the notion of an uncooperative, stubborn, recalcitrant, mind-of-its-own beast adequately describes my view of the three-point hitch. Shoot, just getting an implement unhooked from the tractor hitch can consume more time, effort and strength than you might have for the remainder of the day.

Or used to, anyway, until I traded in two old, leaky, shackley underpowered tractors that would barely pull some of the steep hills we have up here at 3,100 feet elevation. A fellow clued me in to part of the problem -- the two lift arms on each of the old tractors weren't adjustable,  and thus all manner of levering, banging around with a nine-pound hammer and cussing in the style of a stevedore on steroids was part of any change from, say, a finish mower to a box blade. It will wear you out.

A word about three-point hitches: They're far safer than the hitches many farmers used in the early days of tractors. I've written about this before: The three-point hitch was developed by Irishman Harry Ferguson in 1926 after the British government asked him to develop a system to prevent tractor accidents caused by plows catching on rocks.

"The plow would halt but the tractor would attempt to keep going – and with the large rear wheels’ axle serving as a fulcrum, the tractor would rear up and flip over backward, killing or maiming the driver. 
Ferguson came up with the three-point hitch, a sort of A-frame shaped connection whose two lower bars would provide stability and whose top bar would apply forward pressure, keeping a tractor from flipping back when a plow hung up on a rock. He also developed the hydraulic lifters that allowed the driver to pick up the plow or bush hog it was towing. That made turning or getting to and from the fields a lot easier."  Ferguson years later became the Ferguson in Massey Ferguson Tractors.

Yesterday the wind was screaming and the mercury around 30 when I finally fetched up the grit to go out and unhook the sickle bar mower and put on the scrape blade.  We're having a relatively mild winter, but I keep remembering two years ago when there was snow and ice on the ground from early December to the first week of April, and there was no way to move that stuff around once it froze.

This time it was almost pleasant. The picture at left, pulled from a website called TractorByNet, shows part of the solution.  After I finally learned how to extend the lift arms by pulling a clip and a clevis pin on each side, the old mower miraculously slid right off the now-loosened lift arms and settled onto a couple of six-inch beam cutoffs that keep the thing out of the dirt.  It's a lot easier to slide off the power take off (PTO) link, the devilish device that transfers engine power to the farm implement you're trying to attach, than it is to put it on. Detaching the top link is a simple matter of backing off on a threaded sleeve.  And hooking up the heavy-duty scrape blade was just about as easy, especially with no PTO to reattach.  I was done in about 10 minutes, a new world record for an aging, arthritic farmhand with too much newsroom experience and not enough farmland savvy.

I wrote about three-point hitches nearly five years ago for a newspaper blog I was putting out at the time. Shortly after it appeared, I got a nice note from a Raleigh lobbyist for agricultural interests. In part it read:

"Once you master the PTO, you can move up to the manure spreader!"

Several ways to take that, of course, but I decided it was a compliment. At my age you got to take them any way you can get 'em. Let it snow.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Snowed in today? Drive the 'Digital Blue Ridge Parkway'

It snowed a couple inches overnight up here at 3,100 feet -- not nearly enough to snow anyone in  -- but for those who appreciate the Blue Ridge Parkway yet can't get there as often as they'd like, there's good news: Anne Mitchell Whisnant has done it again.  The author of "Super Scenic Motorway," a myth-busting history of the parkway published in 2006 by UNC Press, and, with David Whisnant' "When the Parkway Came," a 2010  children's book that adults will also appreciate, Whisnant has collaborated with libraries at UNC-Chapel Hill, the N.C. State Archives and the National Park Service's Blue Ridge Parkway, among others, to produce an online digital history with maps, photographs and satellite view of the region through which the Blue Ridge Parkway runs.

  Like her previous works, the new project is reflective of her meticulous approach to what many of us believe qualifies as a modern wonder of the world. It's called "Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway."

In a note she sent the other day, Whisnant said, "Although the grant funding for site development has ended, we will be continuing throughout spring to publish  more and more of the NC digital photos online, as well as creating more and more interactive, georeferenced maps.  As we can, we will also be adding more of the short narrative essays we call “overlooks”.

Here's part of a news release from UNC:

The history of the Blue Ridge Parkway, America’s most visited National Park System site, is now online.
The new collection, “Driving Through Time: The Digital Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina,” was created through a collaborative project based at the library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“Driving Through Time,” available at, presents photographs, maps, news articles, oral histories and essays documenting development and construction of the parkway’s North Carolina segment.
The site invites users to explore parkway history chronologically, geographically or by dozens of topics from access roads and automobiles to wildlife and workmen. An interactive maps feature layers historical maps atop current road maps and satellite images. The comparisons provide insight into the parkway’s development and its impact on pre-parkway towns, farms, roads and topography.

The 469-mile parkway radically altered the landscape of 29 Virginia and North Carolina counties when it was built between 1934 and 1987, and its construction sparked intense controversy, said Anne Mitchell Whisnant, adjunct associate professor of history at UNC and the project’s scholarly adviser.

Whisnant, author of the parkway history “Super-Scenic Motorway” (UNC Press, 2006) and the children’s book “When the Parkway Came” (Primary Source Publishers, 2010), was often frustrated as she combed archives and historic documents and tried to translate conflicts about routing and land rights into words.
“I found myself thinking, ‘If only I could see and show what and where they’re talking about, it would be so much easier to explain the arguments,’” she said. “‘Driving Through Time’ makes the park’s history visible and accessible to historians, planners, local communities, landowners and anyone who wants to know more about this American landmark.”
At the heart of the project are thousands of items from three institutions that collaborated to create the site: The Wilson Special Collections Library at UNC; the Blue Ridge Parkway headquarters (a division of the National Park Service, located in Asheville); and the North Carolina State Archives.
Materials in the online collection include:
  • Historic photographs showing construction of the parkway and images of communities it passed through;
  • Maps depicting private land parcels purchased for the parkway, proposed alternate routes, landscape planning and the completed parkway;
  • Letters and documents pertaining to the community of Little Switzerland in McDowell and Mitchell counties, which sued the parkway;
  • Oral histories from parkway designers and laborers;
  • Images by the late N.C. photographer Hugh Morton, depicting the parkway as it passed Grandfather Mountain, which he owned.
Eleven essays share more insight into the building of the parkway and its impact. Whisnant and her students wrote about issues including competition between the tourism and logging industries, the parkway’s impact on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and selection of the parkway route. 
Also included are K-12 lesson plans that faculty from the School of Education developed to help students use the site’s extensive primary source materials and interpretive essays.
“Driving Through Time” was made possible by a $150,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services under provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, as administered by the State Library of North Carolina.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Parkway card from a century ago

Bob Clark, a member of the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and an authority on Flat Top Manor, a popular parkway site built more than a century ago by the Cone family, sent along a link to a postcard featuring a photo of the house that was sent in 1911 from Etta Cone, Moses Cone's sister, to her friend and writer Gertrude Stein in Italy.  Here's an image of the front of that postcard:

It's one more item of interest about the Cone family, which was instrumental in developing the textile business in North Carolina and the South, built the 13,000-square-foot Flat Top Manor (near parkway milepost 294) as an escape and as a showplace for many of the Cone interests, made philanthropic gifts across this part of the South and, indirectly brought my parents together during the Great Depression.

Etta Cone and her sister Claribel were great art collectors, counting among their friends Pablo Picasso and Henry Matisse.  The Cone family had immigrated from Germany, changed its name from Kahn to Cone, and become prosperous in Baltimore for its grocery business. Stein often visited the Saturday evening salons that Etta and Claribel held at their Baltimore home.

Two Cone sons, Moses and Ceasar  (yep, not Caesar), represented the family business in the South and took note of the rise of the textile industry. At first they also represented other textile interests, and about 1895 their built their first plant in Greensboro -- Proximity Denim Mill, so named because of its proximity to the N.C. Rail Road, whose tracks came through the city, as well as labor and other resources. It would eventually become the world's largest producer of denim.

By then, Moses Cone and his wife Bertha had already begun acquiring land around Flat Tom Mountain near Blowing Rock, N.C.  One web site describes Moses Cone as a nature lover and avid environmentalist, and in 1899 he and Bertha had begun building the manor house.  More than half a century later, after the death of Bertha and long after the death of Moses, the Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital in Greensboro -- whose opening I had attended as a boy because the company my dad worked for had sold a lot of the medical equipment used in the hospital -- gave title to the manor house to the Blue Ridge Parkway with the proviso that it be known as the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park.

The message on Etta Cone's July 23, 1911 postcard to Gertrude Stein in Florence, Italy, is online. In it she notes that the roof of Flat Top Manor, seen as red in the postcard image, "is still olive green."  And she also notes that her sister Claribel was in Munich and that the school the Cones had founded on the mountain now had 43 students. Here's a link to that message. 

Bob Clark, who spent his summers near Flat Top Manor, found Etta Cone's note particularly interesting because she called it " 'Her" (Etta Cone's) school.  This place has such a fascinating history that has gone much too long under the radar.'"

I've always had a fondness for the Cones, not least because I wouldn't exist without them.  In the Depression, the Cone family recruited teachers to Greensboro to teach the children of mill workers by offering an additional month's pay if they would make home visits during the summer to make sure the kids were all right.  Sounds paternalistic now, I suppose, but the Cones provided decent housing at the time, built a YMCA and even though the Cones were Jewish, built Christian churches in a number of places.  My mother had been teaching in Anderson, S.,C., and came to Greensboro to take advantage of the Cone's offer.  Her first job in Greensboro was teaching at Proximity School -- and not long after she arrived she met my father.  It was years before they could afford to marry, but in time they were able to build a little house and have two children.  So whenever I read about the Cones, I'm grateful to them for many things -- their contributions to economic development, their generosity to their adopted state, their magnificent gift to the magnificent Blue Ridge Parkway -- and for bringing folks together.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Nights getting colder, days getting longer

Thin snowflakes sprint by my window on a cold First Monday, and forecasters call for cold nights -- dipping to 9 here about 4 miles north of Vesta, VA in the Blue Ridge.  With the wind, the chill factor will be about -1 Fahrenheit, or so says my NOAA forecast for our coordinates.  It's 30 degrees today and the wind is howling, but the warmth of family and friends from the holidays lingers on the first really harsh day of winter. The snow, just a flurry that comes and goes, won't amount to anything, but it's pretty to watch. Never have gotten tired of that.

Friends down in the flatlands often ask us whether we're really prepared for spending all winter in the mountains. We tell 'em we don't know for sure, but so far so good. Fact is we like the winter landscape. You can see much further into the woods and a lot more along the ridges when the leaves are off the trees. Last week I was driving back home and spotted our fields from two miles away -- something you cannot see from that ridge during the other seasons of the year. There's also something dramatic about the nighttime sky in the winter. It's a cathedral of stars, so close and so bright it would take your breath away if the cold hasn't done so already.

I've settled in with The Old Farmer's Almanac for 2012 and I take some small satisfaction in noting that the days have already begun getting longer on their hike toward the next equinox. The shortest days were Dec. 20, 21 and 22, at 9 hours and 5 minutes. On the 23rd they began getting a minute longer every few days; today's is 9 hours and 9 minutes and the day will be 9 hours and 57 minutes by the end of January: more light, if not so much heat.  But we'll take it; at my age I've learned not to take anything for granted, and we'll greet each cold day as it comes -- with the seed catalog in hand.  We're already thinking of summer tomatoes and rabbit-eye blueberries.