Saturday, November 01, 2003

A Dog Torn Heart

It's Halloween and I'm not quite sure what God is doing. I'm really not sure what He's been up to this past month and a half. Perhaps he was really tied up with painting the mountains with gold and red and orange or dabbing the sky with autumnal sunrises and sunsets. I know how self-absorbing artwork can be. He could have been really busy with all that California fire stuff. Maybe He was propping up the Pope's failing health. Or perhaps He just took to His big ole divine bed in distress over the Middle East situation. All I know, is that He's really dropped a few pegs in my eyes and has dropped the ball on the whole omniscient/omnipotent thing He had going.

There was a small soul here in East Tennessee that needed Him. This little guy had seen a world of hurt in his short six and a half years. He'd finally landed in a soft spot about two years ago and it seemed his troubles were over. He did nothing but bring joy to the world around him with his handsome looks, sweet nature and giving soul.

I speak of my much loved cocker spaniel, Hi-Lite. My little guy passed on to the Rainbow Bridge on Wednesday, October 29, 2003. He'd been battling hemangiosarcoma for a month and a half. On his last day, he looked at me with those shining, liquid eyes and I knew it was time. I took my sweet boy to the vet and I put him down before the worst of the cancer took hold of him. It's the hardest thing I've done since my mother died.

Folks around here don't quite get it. How I can be ravaged by such intense grief over one small dog. Dogs and animal life are cheap here. Maybe it's because life is so hard for people that there just isn't enough grief to spread around to animals and such. I'm not sure, but I'm pretty much alone up here with the beating of my torn up heart.

Rudyard Kipling wrote a wonderful poem called, "The Power of The Dog", in which he asked an important rhetorical question.

We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept ’em, the more do we grieve.
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-time loan is as bad as a long—
So why in—Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?

Kipling was well aware of the answer, as are most of us who gladly and freely give our hearts to a dog to tear. The joy and happiness they bring, when allowed to fully express their part in the human/animal bond, surpasses even the healthiest human relationships. It's the only place on this plane that we can truly be assured of achieving that holiest of holies…unconditional love.

Let's face it. We human beings are lousy at this sort of love. Even the most sacred of human bonds, the mother/child relationship is fraught with failures. Ask any social worker. But for some strange reason, this goofy offshoot of the wolf family excels in this sort of love.

I remember my Chow-Chow, Cockleburr. I rescued her from a dreadful situation where she was abandoned by people who beat and kicked her. It was a long hard road to gain her trust, but once I did, we shared a special bond. One day, one of her former owners came to visit her. Cockleburr remembered this narrow eyed, mean woman and fawned like her long lost friend had returned. I was consumed with jealousy…and not the sort that makes you want to butt someone's head out of the way.

It is indeed a special sort of soul that can forgive with that sort of magnanimity. I recognize my own limitations in this department and adopt the dog as my emotional role model. If only I could be as emotionally available and forgiving as my dog…then I would truly be a remarkable person.

Folks like to point out that Dog is God spelled backwards. I think there might be something to that. Actually, if I may be somewhat heretical, I harbor a belief that the love one receives from one's dog may be the closest example we have to divine love on Earth. It is most certainly more tangible. There is no confusion in a dog's love. One doesn't have to parrot to one's self or congregation ad nauseum that Dog LOVES you. There is no evidence to the contrary that Dog doesn't love you. There are no bumper stickers proclaiming "DOG LOVES YOU". Sadly, we are surrounded with nagging suspicions and some pretty solid evidence that God might not like us as much as we think He does.

Mrs. Busbee has been missing my Saturday visits during Hi-Lite's illness. I couldn't leave his side during his last two weeks. We lay on the sofa during the day and watched the fire burn in the woodstove. I stroked his back trying to commit to memory the silken texture of his fur. I wanted that memory to be burned into the skin of my hand, so I could remember it like a poem written many times. Now that he is gone, his softness burns like a brand on my soul.

I buried my baby high on the mountain near the garden overlooking the frog pond. It was there that he so loved to course through the race trails hunting for small forbidden creatures. He'd hear my call from the house and dash through the wood, swim across the pond …racing through the tall grass to the sound of my voice. His long golden fur would be muddy and peppered with beggar-lice. The dismay in my voice would be met with a happy, rascally grin.

I loved him more than tongue can tell and will not see his like again on this earth.

When Mrs. Busbee called me during these past two weeks, it was clear that she couldn't relate to exactly what I was going through. She spoke of the death of her husband and how afterwards the two dogs they shared seemed to grieve and fade away. How she lost two cows. I recognized her struggle to relate to my sadness, but finally she had to fall back on the old standby.

"Trust in God," she said, "You can talk to him when you cain't talk with no one else."

Unfortunately, God and I are not on speaking terms right now. I've decided we best just not talk until one or both of us calms down a bit. It will probably be me who first breaks the silence. He'll show me some unexpected bit of wonder or hope and I'll start babbling like a fascinated child.

But I won't forget this betrayal. It is a human failing, this poverty of forgiveness. When next I meet with my happy golden boy, we will march with purpose to God's house.

Together we will stand and howl in unison, "WHY?"

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Summer seemed to arrive punctually, on June 21st. The first truly hot hazy days arrived then and the air conditioner was turned on for the first time. With the haze came asthma and I unpacked my yet unused inhalers to deal with the side effects of the limited visibility that now cloaked the holler across from my house.

The driving rains of spring showed no sign of letting up. My once cleared hilltop and gullies were now sprouting tall grasses and weeds with abandon. I seemed powerless to keep up with it all. The garden was infested with ragweed and it seemed to resist my most diligent efforts to eradicate it. By the time I'd weeded and hoed and cultivated it…it was back in two days.

I was now facing a more eminent threat. My chickens were being killed at an alarming rate. I was now glad that I'd purchased 35 of them…for it now looked as though the flock was being decimated. This was partly my fault. I'd gotten a bit lazy about locking them down in the evenings…. The thought of slogging up there in the mud, rain and crashing lightening on some nights was more than I could bear. This changed on the morning I came out to find 9 of my precious pullets gone. The marauder had left only one sad little gizzard behind. The consensus on my chicken list is that the culprit is a raccoon. I began locking them all down every night. This was war…make no mistake about it. The chickens were being terrorized by an unknown intruder who left no sign behind and I was determined to catch him. I began calling him Osama bin Raccoon.

I'm past warm, fuzzy, ecologically correct thinking at this point. I'm looking up coon recipes. I bought a "Hav-a-heart" raccoon trap. It's a complicated gizmo that is evidently harder for me to operate than for the raccoons to evade. It's a live trap. After four nights of finding the bait stolen out of the damn thing...I've now set snares.... they are deadly traps. I haven't used snares since I was 10 years old and a wild little "Lord of the Flies" hunter child. It's really weird how it all came back to me. As the war escalates...I might be spending my nights up on the hill with the .22 and the spotlights on my Jeep. My chicken list people tell me if I can kill one, that tacking it's hide and head on the coop, as a sort of warning will keep them away. I always wondered why people did that.

I find myself morphing into Bill Murray's character in "Caddy Shack". I keep coming up with more inventive ways to do away with Osama. He seems to be a master of trap evasion….capable of snarfing all of the delicious bait without tripping the device. One night, he does trip it but escapes. Evidently, this pisses him off and he rips up the barnyard, overturning grain bins and exacting terrible damage in his rage.

I trip down the back way to Newport for advice. On the edges of Newport is a small farm supply that deals mostly with the poultry folk in the area. Most people with chickens here raise game fowl and one can find an amazing array of fighting chicken supplies at this place. I've gotten sort of chummy with the folks here. I buy my dog food there…I feel sort of guilty about getting the less expensive scratch and feed at the big Co-op rather than there, so I try to ease my guilt by getting the dog food at their small establishment. They always have the most interesting, if sometimes completely off-base advice.

I recount my raccoon problems to the large friendly woman who works there. I like all of the folks who work here…the handsome, sad-eyed fellow with the blue-eyed dog and the smart, thin lady who owns the store, but this large friendly woman, I enjoy talking to the most. She can lift a 50 pound bag of dog food into my jeep with far more ease than I can and I envy her that strength.

She tells me I need to use marshmallows as raccoon bait. Yep, coons can't resist a good marshmallow. Every fiber in my being tells me this is wrong, but I dutifully pick up a bag of stay-puffs at the grocery store later.

Our conversation starts predictably with the weather. This place is so like where I lived in England…every conversation should start with the weather then move to other topics. I mention the return of my asthma and how the hazy days had brought it back.

"You needs to get yourself a Chihuahua!" she proclaims as though this was the most natural thing in the world.

My brain does a few flips as I try to connect small rat-sized dogs with breathing problems.

"A Chihuahua?" I repeat. I find myself repeating things quite often up here. I know I heard her correctly, I just need some sort of verification that I'm not completely off my rocker.

"Oh, yes," she says in a tone that suggests she can't believe I don't know this, "A Chihuahua will 'take' your asthma."

She goes on to relate to me an anecdote of a relative who has been able to completely go off her oxygen since getting her Chihuahua.

My skeptic's mind thinks about this. The Chihuahuas I have know have all been owned by elderly ladies who doted on them and fed them boiled chicken. Most of these dogs suffered from breathing problems and quite often engaged in reverse sneezing…a canine event brought about by the dog's inability to deal with post-nasal drip. Quite harmless, but gives the impression that the dog is near death. I decide that watching these little guys gasp could only make you feel better since you obviously can breath better than they can. At least, that's my explanation for the Chihuahua Cure.

I recount this tale to the lady at Black's Market. She gave me an unlikely insect repellant idea that involved vanilla extract. I think I probably repeated it to show that I was hip to the local "cures".

"Oh…everybody knows about that one!" she told me.

Once again, I had failed to impress. Perhaps I should start repeating the cures I know from my own rural area of South Carolina. I'm not sure the raw oyster poultice for head colds cure would be something they could relate to.

I return from Newport armed with marshmallows and fish flavored cat food for the Raccoon War. I artfully disguise the trap as suggested by folks on my chicken list. The next morning reveals, as I expected, raccoons don' t much care for marshmallows. Back to square one and frying up crispy bacon each night.

It took a few more days, but finally sweet victory was mine!

A big ole tom Coon was in the trap at long last. I was really glad it wasn't a momma surrounded by all her little baby coons...that would have had me pretty sad. I dispatched him with a .22.

His hide is now tacked up on the far side of the coop where the race trail lets out. I threw his head and entrails down the mountain. I imagined that the message left for other coons would be ominous. We are Killer Chickens and are fed up and ain't gonna take it anymore!

At least that's the theory. The rest of the coon is cleaned and aging in my fridge.

I ran into Aurthur, my muleskinner friend on the road. He's started visiting again, but is much better behaved. I told him I'd caught the coon I'd been telling him about. He asked me what I did with it. I could see the mountain man approval in his eyes when I told him. I expect he thought I'd just dump the carcass instead of putting it to use.

The dogs were completely beside themselves. Shadow and Aegis were mostly interested in the live coon in the trap...very exciting. Fat Buddy registered the exact moment...somehow...that it went from scary critter to tasty snack. He had to be locked up for me to scrinch and clean it since he completely lost all sense of decorum and kept trying to steal it. Poor Hi-Lite couldn't tell if it was alive or dead...he just didn't like the way it kept looking at him.

A few weeks later, I am about find out exactly how much of an "orphan" meat coon is.

In researching the preparation of coon, I found that one of the more important elements of its preparation was finding and removing the scent glands. These are little kidney-shaped globs that hide in the armpits and secreted away in other parts of the carcass. I'm pretty sure I got them all.

I researched different coon recipes. I was hoping to find some in my antiquarian cookbooks. See...I had this idea that coon might be sort of like ribs. Ribs used to be "poor folks" food and I can remember my parents talking about how you didn't eat ribs unless you were really hard up. Now...they are a perfectly acceptable and tasty food option.

Seems from my research that I was wrong about coon. Mssr. Escoffier has no coon recipes...ditto for Fannie Farmer. I was most disappointed that Marjorie Rawlings (The Yearling) completely ignored the entire genre of coon cuisine in her "Cross Creek Cookery". This is a woman who has at least three cooter (turtle) recipes, possum ...but no coon. River Road did have one recipe for Coon Delta Style.

I spoke with the locals around here. Most said..."Coon is nasty...they'll eat anything".

After collecting a number of recipes...I decided to wing it. Here is my own coon recipe that I came up with.

Coon de Resistance

Get one youngish coon. Clean and dress taking care to remove all scent glands and remove all fat. Cut into serving size pieces. Soak overnight in brine.

Dredge in a mixture of flour, pepper and Old Bay Seasoning. Brown in hot Crisco. Place all coon parts in a pressure cooker with red wine, four quartered onions and six large cloves of garlic. Cook for 20 minutes at 10lbs pressure. Let cooker depressurize on the stove.

Discard liquid with onions and garlic. Place coon parts in a baking dish. Cut and place with coon pieces, carrots, new potatoes, onions and peeled butternut squash. Cover with chicken broth and more red wine. Cover dish and bake at 350 until vegetables are tender. Serve on a bed of pokeweed wilted in bacon grease. Accompany with sweet potatoes and biscuits.

This came out really well. The meat tastes like and has the texture of beef.

My theory is now this: On one hand is an animal that weighs between 15 and 25 pounds and produces tasty stew meat. On the other hand is an animal that weighs between 1200 and 2000 pounds and produces the identical tasting meat plus some tasty by-products like tongue and sweetbreads. I've now answered the age old question, "Why are there no coon ranches?"

I chatted with my friend in New York City about the whole thing. She's also from South Carolina and has a similar background to mine. She said the same thing most of the locals said to me…"Coon is nasty…they'll eat anything!"

I was shocked to hear myself reply, "Well…they aren't as bad as possum…they really will eat anything!"

My veneer of polite civilization seems to be gradually tarnishing as I, too, will now eat anything.

Friday, July 11, 2003

It was on March 1st when my internal clock started chiming "Spring". Not that the weather had anything to do with it, mind you. It was still bitterly cold and wet. More than once, the locals had accused me of bringing the hardest winter in 20 years with me from South Carolina. I had thoroughly enjoyed it. After three years of being held prisoner by the air conditioner for the nine plus months when the temperature soared above 90 degrees in Bluffton, I welcomed the cold.

March 1st was significant because I wandered into to Tractor Supply in Morristown to price fencing supplies. I'd already started buying seeds and had planted certain things that needed vernalization. As I opened the door to the store, my ears picked out the sound immediately. I was drawn to it like a zombie to fresh brains.

A large banner was flying over the center of the store. "Chick Days Are Here!" If you've never heard the sound of a hundred day-old chicks then you truly have missed out on one of the great mysteries of life. There is something amazing about these tiny fluffballs. Just knowing that your standard breakfast egg ...which first of all, comes out of an impossibly small bird...can, if fertile, after 21 days, turn into this impossibly adorable little creature...and then grow up to be a sometimes crazy and vicious bird...that then pops out these breakfast eggs. Knowing this, the chicken/egg paradox becomes worthy of the great philosophers.

I nervously look down on the bins of little chicks. Oh...Look...Baby Ducks too! I know that I want chickens on the farm. I even know what kind of chickens...Silver-Laced Wyandottes. I've been studying chickens my entire's all been leading up to this moment. The acquisition of Chickens! I see now that there are omens sprinkled throughout my life that make chickens my destiny. My old alma mater's team was the "Gamecocks". I'd moved to Cocke County, Tennessee. I use such portents to justify what is essentially, a poorly thought out impulse purchase.

I decide then and there to get Chickens. I'll set up a brooder out of the dog crates in my laundry room. The saleswoman has to do a bit of hand-holding as she shows me the supplies that I'll need. I place an order for 25 wyandottes. I can't resist the little fluffballs so I take home 5 straight-run chicks...and oh what the hell...4 ducks as well.

It sleets the entire way back home. The cheeps from the little box of chicks seems to brighten everything up. Nothing says "Spring" like the sound of baby chicks. I'm oblivious to the cold and impossibly excited. The ducks are also very sweet. They are bright yellow and sort of clumsy. When I get home, I eagerly transform my smallest dog crate into a warm, lit brooder with newspaper on the bottom and little chick feeders and waterers that I bought at the Tractor Supply. I have a week before the wyandottes get here so that's plenty of time to set up additional brooders. Finally, I get the little box of livestock out of the jeep.

The dogs have been curiously following this entire process. They know something is up. When the box comes out with it's noisy cargo...they completely loose their minds. Shadow is grinning ear to ear with anticipation. He's convinced these are for him, exclusively. He is unable to shake this conviction for the next two months. Aegis, the lab, is only interested in the ducks. Something in his retriever gene pool stirs to life at the smell of them. He has an epiphany. I'm convinced that he dreams of nothing for the next two months but diving into deep water after duck carcasses. He obsessively retrieves...everything.

My small laundry room becomes a revolving door of poultry-crazed dogs, spent litter and chick starter. I know that raising baby chicks has been the traditional chore of small children up here in the mountains. While I was buying the little metal feeders, an old man came up to me smiling. He said he hadn't seen one of those since he was a small child and in charge of bringing up the baby chickens. How hard could it be? The wyandottes arrive a full four days ahead of schedule. I soon have electrified dog crates in places that I can only get to with a ladder. The babies double in size in the first two days and continue to get bigger and bigger....messier and messier.

I wasn't really expecting the ducks to be such a problem. They never met a water bowl they didn't like. They find inventive ways to overturn the water so they can play in it. They are forgiven, because unlike the chicks...they seem to have personalities. To alleviate the mess, I move them to the downstairs bathtub during the day. There, they can quack and wallow in water to their heart's content. At least, that's the plan. I figured if they insist on playing in their water, that having a scheduled aquatic period in the bathtub might keep them drinking out of the water container rather than wallowing in it. I found out the following morning that I failed miserably. Once again I am mopping out drenched, stinking litter from the brooder.

My house, my life, my bathroom have now been completely taken over by infant poultry. I have no life. Everything revolves around making sure the chicks and ducks are warm, well-fed and safe. Shadow continues to hold vigil outside of the laundry room. He is hesitant to even eat lest he miss one moment of heart-stopping chicken action. I finally move them all to the back porch. The ladder thing is getting dangerous with teetering dog crates everywhere.

So far, I had resisted naming most of the poultry. The ducks got names almost immediately....Duckzilla, Dubbyah, Quasi and Blackbill. I wasn't too sure about gender yet but I was pretty sure that the huge Duckzilla was a drake. The original five straight runs consisted of two roosters and three hens. The roosters were named V.L.B. and Ouday. Both are mean, even in infancy. Then there are the Georges...three rust red Rhoad Island Red females that are curious to a fault and one developes an unlikely affection for Shadow, who was always sitting on ready for cage cleaning time. She sticks her little beak out when he comes to "visit" and is very interested in him. I'm afraid this affair is bound to end tragically. No amount of therapy will expunge Shadow's tendency to objectify George as "original recipe". Hopefully, George will outgrow this tendency to enter co-dependant relationships with dogs. It's just not healthy.

I got so many chicks because I sort of figured that some would die. At six weeks, I'm getting a bit nervous that none have. We had a few close calls once they started growing feathers and flapping around. At one point, one of the wyandottes jumped out of her brooder into the waiting jaws of Fat Buddy. He was so surprised by the feathery flapping mess that he dropped her immediately. Chickens at the Kentucky Fried drive-through NEVER do this. My surburban dogs want desperately to be country dogs...but they just aren't equipped. Eventually, I did wake up to find one of the pullets pecked to death in her brooder.

She was in V.L.B.'s coop and I immediately was suspicious. V.L.B. (not "very little buddy", but rather "Vicious Little Bastard") had already proven to be a nasty customer. And here was evidence that he had used pecking on his own chicken people. Still, I hadn't actually seen him use his weapon of mass consumption in any way to harm the pullets. I thought about exiling him to the duck brooder...a dank place populated with smelly beings with big noses who talk funny. The dogs were in favor of the "running start" exile and formed "The Coalition of the Mostly Hungry Dawgs in Need of Entertainment" to deal once and for all with the V.L.B. menace.

I drove down to the United Newport Farm Co-op (known as the U.N.) and asked about the situation. They said it was most likely the lights. Chickens turn cannibalistic if the light is hung too low and there was most likely something wrong with that particular pullet to have met such a fate. Maybe she was a chicken Kurd. So...V.L.B. had a reprieve for least until he puts on some more weight. We were all watching him very closely though. Some of us with drool stringing out of our mouths.

During the day, I am up on the hill building the coop. The previous owners had left a dog kennel and sturdy fence to contain their hunting dogs. They had also left a big pile of "slabs"...the bark covered planks left over from a saw-mill and a good number of steel T-posts. With my chainsaw, I sided the kennel with slabs and covered it with a "living" roof. It is surprisingly successful. I have no doubt that it will gracefully deteriorate into a dangerous heap of chain-link and rotten boards in a few years, but for now, I'm excited and pleased with the outcome. I cover every available surface with 1 inch hex poultry wire. After running exterior extension cords and hanging heat lamps, I'm ready to move the entire mess of poultry to their permanent home.

I was so happy to see them permanently installed a full 100 feet from the house. Small creatures had started scurrying around under the porches looking for spilled chick crumbles. Shadow was systematically digging the foundation out from under the house to try to get at them.

I have to say, my chick and duckling raising experiment was something of an ordeal. I'll probably be repeating it next spring, if not sooner...maybe with geese. The whole chicken thing is somewhat addictive and I've already filed the bad things in the "repressed memory" part of my brain.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

My best friends on earth were coming to visit. For one night. In February.

I had spent the week cleaning. I'm not the best housekeeper and there have been times that I worried that my friends would get together and hold an "intervention" concerning my sloppiness. I welcome visits since they do tend to get me out of the yard and in the house where I should be mopping and cleaning toilets...or something. The weather had broken a bit and it was a good opportunity for me to get as much of the saw dust and wood mess off of the porch. It was still very cold so I neatly stacked half-logs so we would have plenty of wood. My friend, Tree, was not someone I wanted around the chainsaw. I knew she'd have to try it out if I had to use it.

Tree and I met when we were in college as freshmen theatre majors. She was short, dark and exotic looking and affected a maroon baret. I was tall, waspish and pompous and affected really horrible boots and clove cigarettes. It was the late 70's and we were two small town South Carolina girls determined to be cool beatnik-esque artistes. For some reason, we fell for each other's act and became the best of friends. It wasn't until after many years of friendship that we discovered how vulnerable we each were during those many insecurities we were hiding under those silly fascades.

We smoked pot in those days. It wasn't the scary pot they have now. Mostly, it was really weak weed that smelled bad and God only knew where it came from or what was in it. Tree and I, in our wanna-be coolness, were determined to be accomplished pot smokers. The truth is, we were both cheap dates. It didn't take much for us to become silly, paranoid and hungry. In fact, we could be all those things without the benefit of mind-altering drugs. During our "study" sessions, we'd pass the joint back and forth until we were both insensate. We'd roll our eyes outside of each other's company and say..."Man...she sure can smoke some WEED!" In 1979, this was a huge compliment.

It wasn't until years later that we admitted to each other that we had never intended to smoke that much marijauna. Each of us was trying to be polite, for God's sake. We had, somehow, taken our mother's etiquette advice for tea parties and morphed it into pot smoking decorum. It made absolutely no sense and it made every sense in the world. We would never truly escape where we came from and who we were.

I think our friendship really cemented after our college days. Both of our mothers were dying of cancer and we leaned on each other...whispering over the phone lines of things too horrible to speak of. Things that made others wince to our faces and turn away. Friendships like this are not made, but rather wrought on an anvil of pain and experience. We have served as each other's memory for the times too painful to remember.

I also laugh harder when I'm with Tree than at any other time. Many times at the same things that caused so much pain when they were happening. In hindsight, we always seem to find the sweet, rich, dark humor that hides just underneath a catastrophe or a fiasco.

Tree lives with her partner, Lorna, in a lovely old Victorian in Atlanta. They have been together for many years and I've grown to love Lorna as much as Tree. Lorna's gentle elegance is a perfect foile for Tree's intensity. Lorna and I have built our own history together. During one visit to my coastal home in South Carolina, we sat on the dock chatting as the sun set over the marshes. We have huge bugs in South Carolina. An enormous horsefly landed on Lorna's forehead. She was completely unaware of it. "Ohhh...hold still!", I said. She did, looking at me with a confused look on her face. I walloped her so hard on the head I nearly knocked her out. I think the horsefly got away, leaving me no proof of my good intentions. The funny thing was that Lorna did, indeed, hold perfectly still...even though it must have been obvious I was about to whack her.

I may have lured them on a bit. I'd waxed poetic about the stark beauty of the mountains in winter. How with all the kudzu gone that you could actually see the rockfaces. I don't think I mentioned the "solid sheet of ice". I did tell them that we pretty much lived by the weather report here. This is true. I recently got a weather radio for just this purpose.

It was late afternoon when they arrived. Their new dog, Misha, took an almost immediate liking to my big lab, Aegis. She snarled at him and his heart was hers. She's the sort of dog that shows her affection by curling her lip, then coyly showing her tummy. Aegis is defenseless in the face of such subtlety. He's the sort of dog who will sell his soul for a tennis ball. As the freezing drizzle starts to fall, he escorts her down to the frog pond.

We stayed up late and talked. We told the pot smoking story for the billionth time and giggled like school children. I kept the fire stoked and the house warm. We ate, we drank martinis, we talked shop. I couldn't help but feel sad when we all turned in for bed. They would return to their big city life, a life I had removed myself from, and I wanted them to stay forever. They are the friends that I honor with my lonliness.

The morning broke with that breathtaking clarity that mountain mornings have. The holler below was sparkling and moist with plumes of mist rising like signal fires over the mountains. They ask me if there are fires down there. People often ask this when they see the odd separation of clouds and air here. Sometimes when the wind blows right, the clouds descend on my house and you can almost grab a bit of cloud for your very own.

I pile Tree and Lorna into my jeep and take them to show them my "neighborhood". We bump down Old Fifteenth Road by Big Creek to the Christie Mission. On the way, they comment on the wide array of junk vehicles standing around everywhere. In some places the old cars are the only evidence of someone's one-time home. The house and people are gone, but the Packard remains...waiting for some long dead driver to come back home and start her up. I'm not sure why people collect junks here. It has to be just as difficult to get them here as it is to take them away.

We go up to the Christy Mission. This is the original place made famous by a book about the adventures of Leonora Whitaker, a missionary who came to teach in the Appalachians during the turn of the century. They later adapted a television series from the book. The original structures are all but gone now. Only hand painted signs mark the foundations of the various buildings in the book. Every time I go there, I'm struck by how small the footprints of the houses are for what was once a thriving backwoods community. Some of the local folk are critical of the landowners for trying to turn the mission into a "tourist attraction". But I'm sort of glad I can drive up here and look around. I wonder what Leonora would think of the area today. I think she would find the people had not changed that much, though the roads are slightly better.

We explore the last remaining log cabin and the weather turns once again. More freezing drizzle. The streams are angry and turgid from all the rainfall. I wonder if Tree and Lorna can imagine the sparkling clear water that babbles gently through these brooks most of the time. We head back to the house and they prepare to get on the road.

They took the interstate through Knoxville on the way here. On the way back, they decide to take the route through Asheville and South Carolina, on my recommendation. The weather clears again and I don't even think to turn the weather radio on before they leave. We say our goodbyes and Aegis and I sadly watch their Subaru go down the drive. I go back to my chop wood, carry water, watch TV existence.

An hour and a half later, I am curled up with a cocker spaniel on each hip reading when the phone rings. It is Tree and Lorna. They are barely outside of Asheville attempting to drive through driving sheets of sleet. It's so odd here how it can be perfectly beautiful just over the Tennessee border and a complete mess in North Carolina. I turn on the weather radio to find that a huge ice storm is bearing down on Asheville. I advise them not to turn back since the worst of the weather is behind them.

I am torn with guilt. After all of my fine talk about living by the weather report, I've sent my best friends off into a raging weather pattern. I feel I have not only been a bad hostess, but a dangerous one. I didn't even think to pack up food for them. I spent the evening on the cell phone giving blow by blow accounts of the storm's progress and switching back from the weather channel to the weather radio. I was greatly relieved when they finally arrived home in Atlanta eight hours later.

I know they will come visit again. And as sure as there is mist in the holler...there will be some sort of small near tragic event or happening that will magnify itself into a fiasco. We will all make more of it than it really deserves and it will be completely unexpected. It will also be uproariously funny to us in hindsight.

This is how the chapters of our history are written.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

I'd arrived here the week before Thanksgiving. The closing on my property was difficult, protracted and stressful. On some level, I knew that you could love a peice of land, but I never really felt the full impact until I saw this 20 acre patch of mountainside. I found it the first day I was out looking and it spoke to me clearly. It said, "I'm home."

I'd spent my life traveling from place to place working in the entertainment business. First as a make-up and hair designer in film and television, then as a costume designer in theatre, and finally in television news. Choosing this sort of work is like joining the circus. It's crazy and fun and completely lacking in any sort of stability. I loved it when I was a twenty-something, but somewhere around the middle of my career I began to wonder what it would be like to call someplace "home". The concept of "home" was an abstraction to me, and I longed for it like some women long to hold a baby in their arms.

The first week went by in a daze. After two days of sleeping in front of the fireplace surrounded by dogs, my stuff arrived from South Carolina. Despite my careful weeding of furniture and things, it was evident that I had too much "stuff" for my house. Some of my antiques, big Victorian peices, were ill-suited for my new house. I bartered them for installation of my new, hideously expensive and gorgeous wood stove. I was sad to see them go, as they were things left to me by my mother. But I'd entered into a long-term relationship with the house and compromises had to be made.

By Thanksgiving I was still looking at boxes. I'd accomplished a great deal but still had a long ways to go. I was on a schedule. Certain things had to be done before the first snowfall...since the "solid sheet of ice" that I'd been told covered the road down the mountain would surely hamper my moving-in activities. Still, it was Thanksgiving...and I'd unpacked the I decided to take a break and make a traditional meal for me and my dog family.

Some people, I'm sure, feel a little sorry for me that I spend so many holidays in the company of dogs. I must seem like a dotty old maid. And I probably am. I'd been involved with cocker spaniel rescue for a few years. While helping to rehome a number of dogs, I'd adopted three bratty and completely incorrigible cockers that were now my responsibility. I'd also gotten a labrador retriever.

Shadow came to me from a postal worker who found him rummaging through trash behind a supermarket. He's my squirrel dog and the pack leader. Hi-Lite came from Texas where he spent two weeks in a veterinary ICU for neglect issues. Fat Buddy came to me two days before he was to be put to sleep for pemphigus folliacious...we had a long hard road bringing him back to health. Aegis...the lab...I got as a puppy and trained to help me around the house, do WETT dog work and retrieving. They really are my immediate family.

The dogs were really delighted with the new place. It had woods, brambles and hills that spoke to the cocker's instincts of flushing game. There's a pond and a creek to satisfy Aegis' need for water. Fat Buddy was the only one a bit disappointed by the set-up. He's not a rural dog. Despite losing 20 pounds since coming into my care, he still has a fat dog mentality. He's had to find new, inventive ways of stealing snacks. He tried hiking down to Ronnie and Joanne's to steal their dog and cat food, but after a few of these excursions decided it was just too much exercise. The trash and dog food were now in bear proof containers on the porches...and were now Fat Buddy proof as well. Poor little guy would plop down on his broad butt and bark at the food containers, as if they would magically open to his canine "open sesame" act.

For Thanksgiving I cooked a turkey, made sweet potato bourbon souffle, fresh black-eyed peas with ham hock, collards with pigtails and biscuits with gravy. As usual, I made enough for a small army. Fat Buddy successfully stole two sticks of butter and each time I chased him around the kitchen table like a 1950's lecherous boss after the nimble secretary. While I was thus distracted, Hi-Lite scored an almost full bag of mini-marshmallows and Aegis was about to do "paws up" on the stove to sample the gravy. Dogs make atrocious dinner least my dogs do.

I fixed everyone a plate and we said a blessing. At least I said a blessing while they all drooled. They snarfed theirs down as quickly as possible so they could beg me for mine. We cleaned up together and watched some TV in front of the fire, then made an early night of it.

It was a wonderful first Thanksgiving with my dog family. Don't feel sorry for me, please. While others were dealing with human family squabbles, drunk relatives and surly teenagers...I was cooking to an attentive audience that hung on my every word, loved everything I prepared, asked for seconds and thirds, and never once questioned my choice of TV programming. What's not to be thankful for?

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

I met my first friend from up here through one of my homesteading lists, before the move. Gaynell, I thought for sure, was originally from here. I was wrong. But she came here from New York on the heels of a man as a young girl. She ended up settling here, getting married and having three kids. She's been here 30 years, and that's about what it takes to be an insider.

I'm aware of how I'll never truly be "from here." I come from a place where it's like that. I'll always be a native Blufftonian, but here...I'll be buried on the "stranger's side of the street". Gaynell has been here long enough for folks to forget she came originally from New, she married a local boy and bore local children.

Through emails, we chatted and I revealed myself not to be one of the idealistic homesteaders who come, fail and leave. I knew what I was coming for and knew what I was willing to do. My house is very comfortable. It is not off-grid. I have plumbing. I have no romantic illusions about subsistance living.

Gaynell taught me about what to do here and how to stay out of trouble. It isn't as hard for me as for non-southerners. I grew up in a rural environment with its own set of cultural oddities. I spent my summers at my grandfather's farm in Tennessee, so I knew so I had an idea of what mountain life would be.

Still...some of the customs were strange. For instance, it is considered bad form to speak directly to one of the menfolk without first going through his wife. If I need to hire a man to come fix something or dig some post-holes...I will go through a female relative. Many of the churches segregate men and women during services. Being a single woman in the backwoods is fraught with complications.

I've only been here nine months at this point. I think I've earned the respect of the locals, but I'm still a fresh outsider. I still have much to learn. Each time I run into another cultural snafu...I'm on the phone to Gaynell for an explanation.

I've got a bit of catching up to do here. I moved to the GSM from South Carolina back in November of 2002. My intention was and is, to raise goats and chickens....and generally retreat from the world. I've found a whole new sort of family up here. The Appalachian people are very special. You may find some to these stories amusing, but please keep in mind that I have the utmost respect for my neighbors...who constantly amaze me with their kindness, humor and intellect. It's a different kind of smart that comes from living on the edge of humanity where God makes his presence known on a daily basis.

I am a Southerner by birth and grew up in a rural coastal town in South Carolina. The culture I came from has been erased by development and there are only dim shadows of the Gullah left there. It just became evident that it was time to head for deeper woods. So here I am.