Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Wheeze, honk and hack

The lump in the back of my throat Sunday night wasn't for my inept Tar Heels, who had gotten blown away by Rutgers a couple days earlier, or the Washington Redskins, which had gotten blown away by Dallas in a forgettable end to a forgettable season that represented an absolutely miserable experience for fans of these old teams this fall.  Well, OK, beating Duke was nice, but East Carolina and N.C. State plumb wore us out and dumped us in the waste bin. Oh, me.

Nope, it was not a lump of sorrow. It was a lump of aggravated, annoyed, irritated, raw as hot gravelly gullet, and I knew what it meant. It was time for my biennial bout with the evils of the season -- what few medical specialists call the coldus hideosis horribilis, Latin for "You ain't gonna be fit to live with for some time, Bubba."  That's a very rough translation, but it is what it is fixing to be: just godawful.

Back in my smoking days I used to get head colds with hacking coughs, explosive sneezes and an ample flow of nasty nasal emissions a couple times a year.  When I finally quit after a couple of decades of abusing cigarettes, pipe tobacco, starlight mints and chewing gum, the rate of what we called Chapel Hill Chest Rattlers diminished considerably.  Sometimes I'd go three years without one, but more usually every other year.

This one is a beast. Probably qualifies as a Belcher Mountain Wheezer.  I'm surrounded by patent medicines, boxes of Kleenex (expect the stock to shoot up rapidly next week; I'm buying it by the freight car load), packs of exotic teas, vials of supplements in caplets and capsules and a little blue bottle with an eyedropper for dispensing some sort of potion said to ease pain, restore health and make childbirth a pleasure, a pitcher of Patrick County well water and, somewhere around here, a dwindling bottle of Knob Creek. It rained yesterday, then froze, then snowed and the thermometer is hanging around 29 while the wedge fog has us boxed in.  Like the Bob Dylan song, You ain't goin' nowhere.

I have a stack of books -- a Bernard Cornwell, a Pat Conroy, a Michael Connely and a Burke Davis  -- to keep me company, a stack of split oak on the deck that feeds the old wood stove and keeps it ticking, and a stack of blues CDs that I haven't listened to in years. They ought to be good for the soul in this winter of physical misery.

Don't think for a moment this is all bad.  I've cleaned out five years of deleted e-mails, restored a Christmas card list lost in in a 2011 retirement move and decluttered a hard drive that had way too many widgets and tuits and thingamajigs that have been slowing the contraption down for a couple years.  Found a couple of short story starts that still might lead somewhere, an outline for a book about growing up in the South and a first-whack at a song about the Blue Ridge.  There's work to do here, son, and the sooner you get better, the sooner you can get going again!  Now where's that Knob Creek....

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Chestnuts on a Virginia hillside

The Dan River starts as a seep near the edge of a cornfield just up the road and over the ridge from us. It makes its way a few thousand feet west before it becomes a pond or two, then a rushing creek, then a river that winds its way over to the Blue Ridge Escarpment and plunges down into the Kibler Valley near the Virginia-North Carolina state line.  It meanders for a good many miles, hooking up with the Mayo River near Mayodan and then in Eden with the Smith River, which has its headwaters in a lovely fold of the earth a few hundred feet from the rockers on our front porch.

Watching over this noble set of waters, well before it joins the powerful Roanoke River and eventually waters the Atlantic Ocean, is a group of dedicated folks who do the Lord's work in picking up trash and taking care of the aquatic life and helping folks understand how to do a better job of keeping the countryside healthy.  It's the Dan River Basin Association, and its members and small staff do a great many more things than keeping up with the needs of one lovely river.

So it was that the DRBA put out a call the other week for volunteers to work with the American Chestnut Foundation and with naturalists and other outdoors-minded people to help replant chestnut seedlings on a hillside in one of Southwest Virginia's lovely woods.  As a matter of policy, they don't bandy about where these fields are, in hope of avoiding a lot of pedestrian traffic from the curious about what the chestnut plants look like. A dozen or so of us answered the call one bright day not long ago and went about putting in year-old seedlings to replace an earlier planting that was not successful. Here's a photo of the volunteers after setting out about a hundred seedlings in a field that had been cut over in the past few years.

The first planting may have failed because the seedlings were not protected well enough from animals looking for a quick snack. So the job here was to dig new holes of sufficient depth to spread and plant the seedlings, then place a plastic tube around the stalk of the seedling and support it with a short post, and then to surround the seedling with a five-food high cage staked firmly to the ground.  
 After a slow start as volunteers learned how to put these things securely in the ground, the pace picked up. It wasn't a race, exactly, but crews of two and three volunteers worked together to break ground, chop up the clay soil, spread the roots and firmly place the soil around the roots, pack it just a bit, guide in the tube, pound in the stake and then figure out how to secure the cages to posts, either with zip strips or, as several of us learned, how to weave the flexible pipe posts through the cage wire before hammering them into the ground.
If all goes as hoped, these plants will get enough rain and sun to take root and grow into candidates for the return of the once-mighty chestnut forests that covered many parts of Virginia and other states before the blight  devastated the chestnut. It was  a huge blow to the Appalachian economy, because chestnuts provided mast for animals, good material for fences, better lumber for furniture and stout cabins, and cash income for farmers who shipped chestnuts to large cities in the northeast.

Just last summer I pulled a few boards off a crumbling farm shed down the hill a ways, planed the slabs, glued up a coffee-table top that would look good on our side porch, and thought once again about how the chestnut blight had robbed generations of the chance to work with a lovely and sturdy wood that almost seems to like to be shaped into something useful.  Maybe one day some of these seedlings we planted will somehow help instill that sense of delight in others who live in these old hills.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nocturnal visitors in the yard

Took the last of the apples and threw 'em out in the little patch of woods on the east side of the house, and tied the game camera to a maple.  Here's what we caught:

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ode to some old boots

These old boots have a lot of miles on 'em.  Bought 'em years ago in Asheville, when our daughter, now 36, was in her first or second year in college up yonder.  Best boots I've ever had.  Comfortable, lightweight, mostly waterproof, and I could walk in 'em all day without getting the wobblies or the barking dogs. 

Hiked in Idaho and Maine in 'em, built an outhouse, a workshop and a garage in them, plowed the gardens, tramped through the ashes of our burnt-down log home in them, hauled timberframe parts for the replacement house, picked  asparagus and the blueberries, mowed the dam and the hayfields, hauled cars stuck in the snow and put nearly 200,000 miles on my pickup truck with 'em on. Great boots.

Trouble is, I've worn them out two or three times. Soles are all but slick. Went through  innumerable sets of laces and at least two tubes of Shoo Goo, but now they come apart in a matter of weeks, the sole flapping like some talk radio host that loves to hear his own voice rattle on, the damps seeping in along the stitches and the toeboxes rising up like elf shoes.

They're going into retirement, because earlier this fall I finally found some replacements -- reasonably lightweight clodhoppers with good ankle support and soft grippers that let me climb on the metal roof without slipping. Liked 'em so well I thought about buying an extra pair, and using the old Army boot trick to tell 'em apart.

I don't expect anyone does this anymore, but when I went off to Ft. Bragg for basic combat training in April of '69, the quartermaster issued us two pairs of black boots -- the old black shoe Army gear.  And the drill sergeants of Company B, 10th Battalion, 2nd Basic Combat Training Brigade ("Bravo, Bravo, B-10-2, First you see Rest, Now you see the Best!", we used to chant whenever drill sergeants ordered it up)  required us to wear one set of boots on odd-numbered days and the second set of boots on even-number days.  They could tell which pair of boots we were wearing by the white dot of paint we had to put on the back of one pair of the boots. You'd wear a white-dot pair one day, the no-dot pair the next. That way, the boots would get broken in equally.

Well, the recruits of Company B didn't want the toes of both sets of boots to get torn up by the constant scraping and grinding and hopeless struggle of being made to low-crawl the machine gun course, the company street, the parade ground and anywhere else those soul-less drill sergeants could think of to make us miserable.  If you've never been made to low crawl, it's exhausting and filthy and hateful. You can't rise up even an inch. You're suppose to drag yourself over whatever terrain is in front of you the same way a snake would -- stretching and reaching and pushing forward but staying in full contact with the ground. There was a point to all this -- not just breaking down the troops in order to rebuild them, but also teaching soldiers how to crawl as flat as possible in order to avoid being shot by an enemy looking for anything moving that they could shoot.

So to avoid ruining both sets of boots, we'd rise in the night during lights out and change the white dots from one set of boots to the other.  This allowed us to continue wearing one set of boots while keeping the other set in perfect unworn condition. 

We thought we were so clever.  And it wasn't until a few days before graduation after eight weeks in basic hell, when you could actually have a human conversation with the drill sergeant, that we learned the truth. It might have been Drill Sergeant Glenn Warner, a tough little bantam of a soldier, who clued us in with something like: "Y'all probably think you invented the white dot trick and were fooling your sergeants. You didn't. We knew what you were doing and we allowed it because you all were starting to work together.  That's what basic training is all about. And now you got a decent pair of boots for your graduation parade.  Outstanding. Now drop and give me 50 pushups."

So I thought about Drill Sergeant Warner and his colleagues back at Ft. Bragg a lifetime ago, and I bought that second pair of new boots. About to put 'em on for the first time.  And I won't have to resort to the white dot gimmick to tell 'em apart, either.  They now come in both brown and black, and today is going to be black boot day. Outstanding!