Journalism Writing Samples

From GreenPrints Magazine, National Gardening Publication

“The Stink Plant”

One summer, when I worked for a small town newspaper, Don and Willalea Kelley invited me to their home to view (and photograph for the paper) what Don calls his “stinking plant.” Don was a board member at the local senior center, he and Willalea long-since retired. Don is especially proud of his blueberry bushes and also, apparently, of his exotic lilies. His stinking plant, he told me, is commonly called “The Sacred Lily of India,” but it is also known as “Rattlesnake Plant,” “Devil’s Tongue,” “Corpse Flower,” “VooDoo Lily” or “Stink Plant.” The actual scientific name is Amorphophallus rivieri.

Before arriving to report on it, I did my research on Don’s plant. Amorphophallus rivieri is a tropical perennial, which typically grows 2-3 feet tall into a top spurt of leafy branches that make it look like a small palm tree. But every now and then, it blooms a single flower. This fleshy flower has splotches similar to age spots on its stem, which rises into a huge cowl (called a spathe) that looks like an upright funnel. Then, a phallic columnar pillar (called a spadix) pokes out of the spathe and embarrassingly extends skywards for one to three feet. It has a reputation for smelling foul, thus the nicknames.

I visited the Kelley’s home in early June, on a perfect early summer day. Don, proud and waiting, already stood in his front yard.  Outside their picture window in a brick-lined flower bed stood a two-foot tall blood-purple stem that opened into a large, thick waxy funnel with an eight inch protrusion emerging from its center. It was both beautiful and haunting, blatantly out of place in this non-tropical setting, in this quaint front yard.  It was an exotic, erotic monument displayed with pride to the neighbors, a phallic point of local pride I was assigned now to share with our entire community.

There were several smaller samples of the plant in the front flower bed, most of them in their leafy palm tree like presentation. I could smell a slight odor, which seemed of little consequence at the time. That day in was just lovely, sunny with a slight breeze which only occasionally wafted a rank sniff – like the passing of a distant fart – across the yard to where I stood. When I zoomed in on the plant with my camera, I saw a fly land upon the skin-like edge of the funnel and took the photo.  I thought the name “Sacred Lily of India” was most poetic, and in my mind assigned that name to the plant.

Later that fall, when Don was preparing to dig the plant bulbs up for winter storage, he asked me if I would like to have a few of these special plants. “Yes!” I said, and arrived at his house the same day. He had dozens of bulbs gathered in the garage. For me, he had a whole produce box full of them, ranging from an inch in diameter to nearly six inches across.

There were more bulbs than I would ever want to plant, but another use for them quickly came to mind.

At Christmas, I am prone to give gift baskets. I fill them with home-canned jellies, relishes, sauces, whatnot – and then toss in some candy canes, dried herbs, votive candles, or other things to customize the basket. This plant was unique and interesting! Something uncommon and long-lasting! Something my friends and I could giggle and laugh about for years to come. So, that Christmas, all my gardening friends got a Amorphophallus rivieri bulb in their gift basket, wrapped in tissue paper with curly ribbon and a label card saying, “Sacred Lily of India: Put in a cool, dry place until spring.”

I put mine under the kitchen sink.

At the February Town Council meeting the following year, Don asked about my plants. I proudly told him how I had shared them with others, still tickled at my resourcefulness – with the special gifts I shared. There was something in the twinkle in his eyes, a sideways slant to his smiling response that caused me to wonder on the way home that dark cold night, “Why did Don ask me that? I won’t be even thinking about those things ‘til late March or early April.” At least that’s what I thought.

My neighbor Becky was the first to call.

“Uh, Lisa?” She asked, sounding a bit foreboding.

“Yeah?” I tentatively responded.

“You know that plant-thing you gave me?”

“Uh-huh…” I slowly replied, still wondering where she was going, hoping the dog hadn’t eaten it.

“Well, we put it in the closet at Christmas, and… Well, it’s growing.”

Relieved there was no dire emergency, I assumed then that Becky’s closet simply wasn’t cool and dry enough and told her to move it somewhere else.

Then, I came home one day, and Frank was working under the kitchen sink.

“You might want to do something with these things,” he said.

I guess my sink cabinet isn’t “cool and dry” enough either. Five lilies had begun growing. One fleshy stem grew in a serpentine fashion up to the bottom of the sink bowl, then turned at a right angle towards the back, then turned again to run straight up along the wall. Another had wormed out sideways, through the handle-hole of the box I had them in. Another was cockeyed, and had grown among the plumbing.

I smelled the stems. Nothing. So I put them in pots in the corner of a basement room where there’s a constant draft. They continued to grow – inches a day.

Later that week, my friend Judy called me at work.

“Okay, so here’s the thing,” she said. (She often starts her calls that way, straight and to the point.) “That thing you gave me is growing.” I advised she do what I had done. Put it in a pot – with or without dirt – in a cool place, and wait until spring.

That night, I came home from work and Frank was cleaning out the refrigerator.

“Something in here is rotten,” he said. Knowing our refrigerator, I assumed he was right. But when he was finished thoroughly cleaning, the smell was still there – and the little light bulb above my head came on.

“Hey, I bet it’s those plants!” I said, heading to the corner to sniff. I got about halfway across the room when the putrid scent hit me like a ball bat – and the plants weren’t even yet in full bloom.

“Oh! Ugh! Oh!” I reeled back in a disgusted recoil.

“Put them outside!” Frank insisted.

“I can’t! It’s too cold!” I responded, desperately trying to think of alternatives.

Frank stomped off, muttering things under his breath I refused to hear.

Gagging all the while, I moved the plants one by one into the laundry room – the least used room in the house. A room, by no means, cool or dry. Thus, the waxy blossoms flourished, and bloomed in full force. Within a day, their aroma reached the neighboring bathroom.

Frank tried reason again. “Lisa, those plants! You can’t leave them in there. They have to go outside! How about the out building?”

“I can’t. They’ll turn to mush.” I said. “Spring’s coming, I’ll spray some Lysol.” As I sprayed, I made a mental note to contact those who I’d given plants to – but couldn’t specifically recall them all.

I imagined that Judy’s and Becky’s bulbs were already outside turning to mush, my ears burning at the thought.

By evening, the stench reached the kitchen, and Frank resorted to shaking his head and muttering four-letter words. I tried to ignore him, thinking of my friends, searching their homes for the source of a putrid smell, cursing my name when they discovered the source.

Worn down by Frank’s incessant muttering and the terrible smell, I admitted finally what needed to be done to the plant, even though I feared it could affect its reproduction. “Don said if you cut the middle stamen out, they won’t stink so bad.”

Frank had a knife in his hands within seconds.

That vicious circumcision helped a little. But it was too cold outside to air out the front room, kitchen, bath room or laundry room for very long, so a rancid, musky scent still lingered the following morning when company arrived. A long-standing, coffee-drinking friend, Kenny’s visits are often spent in the kitchen.

“Somethin’ die in here?” He asked while he poured his coffee, looking at me from under the brim of his greasy ball cap with an ornery raised eyebrow.

Frank exploded into his explanation, cursing the things he puts up with from his beloved wife, hands flailing, while Kenny giggled over his coffee, pleased with his talent for hitting just the right button. Yes, Amorphophallus rivieri is known by many names, and that morning, Frank came up with a new one.

I’d rather not repeat it here.

Only two of the bulbs Don gave me were planted come spring. The rest were made into mush when placed outside in the cold far too early. Only mine (circumcised) and Shelly’s (in her cellar house) survived. The rank blossoms lasted a few dramatic days, then fell over, limp and withered, to the ground.

When planted outside in the spring, the bulbs grew again into their unscented palm tree stage. That fall, neither of us dared bringing them in for winter. Mine died, left outside in the moist valley ground over winter. Shelly’s have survived in her hilltop garden bed, and grow up palm-like every summer. But they have never blossomed again.

 

From Wonderful West Virginia Magazine, Cultural State Publication

“Show Me Hikers Search for Rare Wildflowers”

Greenbrier State Forest, and her home on Kate’s Mountain, is a bountiful spring display-ground of West Virginia plants and wildflowers, both common and rare Kate’s Mountain’s box huckleberry, for example, is said to be at least 6,000 years old; the oldest living being in the world. In late April, two weeks after the park opens for the season, wildflower enthusiasts, naturalists, and hikers gather in the park to search the forest and identify as many species as possible. However, those who participate regularly in the hike search each year for six or seven rare, endangered or popular species of the mountain.

The 43rd annual Show-Me Hike checklist includes 228 vines, shrubs, herbaceous and tree species. Some discoveries are easy. May apple nearly covers many of the sun-speckled paths, and trillium, pink and perky, stand proudly next to campsite wastewater basins. Violets appear in five different shades, along the gravel roadway. Trees in the campground are labeled for identification: yellow poplar, American beech, sugar maple, sycamore. Even the dreaded poison ivy has a sign.

In the lower elevations of the forest, hemlock, white pine, red maple, beech, oak and rhododendron provide a moist, shady environment for gaywings, bloodroot hepaticas, phloxes and golden ragwort. Scattered here and there along the hillside are clumps of the rare box huckleberry. But, Kate’s Mountain also is home to a unique habitat — steep slopes of exposed shifting fragments of shale called “shale barrens.” This term, introduced by botanist Edward Steele in 1911, describes areas of southern exposed slopes of at least twenty degrees with shale fragments and unstable, dry soil conditions.

Shale barrens are scattered through the dry forest of Kate’s Mountain. (A good place to look for them within the state forest is on the slopes northeast of the overlook on the Rocky Ridge trail.) Very few plants can tolerate the harsh conditions of shale barrens, and as threats to these plant communities increase, the herbs and wildflowers indigenous to shale barrens are becoming harder to find. Each spring, wildflower enthusiasts search for fourteen of eighteen species that are endemic (native to a limited geographical area) to shale barrens which were once commonly seen growing on the mountain.

Three shale barren plants were originally discovered on Kate’s Mountain, including Kate’s Mountain clover (Trifolium virginicum). Kate’s Mountain clover is listed as endangered by the West Virginia Natural Heritage Program, and has only been confirmed in recent years growing in West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania. First discovered in 1892 by botanist John Kunkel Small, the plant became commonly known as Kate’s Mountain clover in honor of the mountain area where he discovered it. After Small’s discovery on the mountain, this species was not collected from any other locality for about 30 years. About one foot tall, with narrow, clover-like leaflets and round, white flower heads more than an inch in diameter, the namesake of the mountain is one of the main treasures enthusiasts search for each spring.

Another shale barren plant species discovered on Kate’s Mountain long ago is now rarely seen. First discovered by Kenneth K. Mackenzie in August 1903 Mountain pimpernel (Taenidia montana), still appears within Greenbrier State Forest and sparsely in the surrounding area. This nationally rare species is listed as “threatened” in Maryland and “endangered” in Pennsylvania. A member of the parsley (Umbrel) family, Mountain pimpernel is distinguished by an unpleasant odor. With smooth leaves of three to five parts and several umbrella-like clusters of tiny yellow flowers, the Mountain pimpernel is an exciting discovery for those who seek to confirm its continued existence.

The third plant species originally discovered on Kate’s Mountain, is found only in the central Appalachian mountain region. White-haired leather flower (Clematis albicoma), a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), is an upright species with undivided, coarsely veined leaves. In the dry environment of the shale barrens, this relative of the cultivated clematis vine grows as an herb about two feet tall. Solitary flowers lack true petals instead have four or five very thick, pale violet sepals. The plant’s seeds have a silvery, silky tail nearly two inches long. Often found around Kate’s Mountain clover, this plant was recorded in July 1877 by the explorer Gustav Guttenberg, but half a century passed before Edgar Wherry issued its formal, scientific name.

Shale Barren buckwheat (Eriogonum alleni) is also only found in the shale barrens of Virginia and West Virginia. The United State Department of Agriculture now lists only five West Virginia counties where this rare plant species grows. A foot-tall plant with circles of three to five woolly leaves topped by tiny clusters of yellow flowers, Shale Barren (or Yellow) buckwheat is considered common globally, but within the state is located in fewer than twenty populations, and is rare and imperiled.

One shale barren plant species, Shale Barren rockcress (Arabis serotina), was named as a Federally Endangered Species on August 8, 1989 by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. Shale barren rockcress is one of the most restricted shale barren endemics. Once found only in shale barrens of West Virginia and neighboring Virginia, this species has not been identified in the region in several years. Arabis serotina, a slender member of the mustard family with four-petaled white flowers, exists now in less than 34 populations nation wide. Most of these groups of plants number less than 100, many containing fewer than ten individuals. Each year, plant and wildflower enthusiasts search, in vain, for the ever-dwindling Arabis serotina, but only relatives Lyre-leafed rockcress, (Arabis lyrata), and Smooth rockcress, (Arabis laevigata) have been found.

While Kate’s Mountain is known for the rare shale barren species, wildflower enthusiasts also know the mountain is home to wildflowers and plants that live in the tucked away nooks and crannies of the rolling land and babbling stream waters. Those who search for shale barren endemics should not limit their search to the shale barrens alone. One interesting shale species, Buckley’s phlox, (Penstemon buckleyi), grows along stream banks near the base of the slopes. This large pink phlox was discovered by Samuel B. Buckley, who let the dried specimen lay unnamed in a herbarium for years.

One forest species, the most common lady’s slipper in North America, has found its way into the hearts of regular Show Me Hike participants. None, however, would dare call it common. The large Yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium pubescens), a beautiful member of the orchid family, can grow to a height up to 32 inches. The slipper-shaped flower has beautiful dark brown to maroon petals with rich, waxy looking yellow lips accented by internal maroon spots. Noted for its size and beauty, Cypripedium pubescens has only been noted in 25 of West Virginia’s 55 counties, likely because white-tailed deer readily consume the foliage. A colony of large Yellow lady’s slipper in the Kate’s Mountain region is now threatened due to commercial and residential development, and regular hike participants will be watching out for Greenbrier State Forest’s population.

In mild seasons, over the 43-year history of the Show Me Hike, the average number of flowers found in the spring stands at 120. Yet, under perfect conditions, the record number of finds has reached 137 different species. Rules on the hike govern what may be check-marked on the species list. To be counted as an official hike find, the plant must be in bloom or with buds swollen to the point that color is recognizable. Some hikers seek to break the record; some go up the mountain just to see what they can see. But those in the know of Kate’s Mountain and her flora look to record a sighting of the rare, endangered or threatened species that, hopefully, continue to be protected by the boundaries of Greenbrier State Forest.

***

“History is Revived at Calhoun’s Heritage Village”

In a quiet field clearing at the edge of the woods, Calhoun County’s newest village stands quietly in the sunset. No classes are held in the one-room school, no mail passes through the post office, and no cloven feet will be shoed in the blacksmith’s shop. Items on the shelves of the General Store will never be sold. Heritage Village will never be home to people, for it is the place where Calhoun County history has come to reside.

Heritage Village was a dream of historian Lorentz C. Hamilton III, president of Calhoun County Historical & Genealogical Society in the early 1990’s. As a lawyer working in Washington D.C. until the early 1980’s, Hamilton had seen such historical villages in his travels. When he returned to Calhoun, he hoped to create a village somewhere within the county, comprised of buildings filled with artifacts found in the region.

Today, the village of Hamilton’s dreams has been established at Calhoun County Park at Mt. Zion. For ten years, the quiet village has been growing and now has a school, store, post office, and blacksmith shop which have become home for Calhoun history – community history that volunteers have brought back to life.

Stevens School originally stood at the top of Pine Creek Hill above Grantsville. One of 104 one-room schools in the county, it was built around 1885, and was donated to the historical society before a location for the village was available. Thus, the building was dismantled in 1994 and stored in the basement of a building on Main Street for two years.

Once the park land was secured, volunteers, including former students, returned their attention to the school house. Beams of hand hewn poplar and oak, put together with hickory pegs, had not been marked or identified. One volunteer remembers, “Rebuilding the school was like working a jigsaw puzzle.”

After members prepared the park site and set cut stones for the foundation, others cut timber from their own land and sawed it in their mill to replace damaged framing. Another volunteer provided boards from his mill for the tongue and groove interior. All the windows needed replaced, and new windows were constructed in a former Calhoun resident’s workshop in Fairmont.

Stevens School was under roof, standing on the original cut stone foundation by summer 1997, but high winds then nearly leveled the building, knocking it off the foundation. When the school was reassembled, a tree fell against it just days before the October 2002 dedication. Even still, volunteers made repairs in time for the ceremony.

The school is now filled with an assortment of old school desks a variety of sizes and styles, including one with a cane bottom. A pot-bellied stove sits in the center of the room, still used when the groups meet there in the cold winter months. The paddle, referred to as the “attitude adjuster,” hangs near the chalkboards, and walls are decorated with old maps, historic pictures and a 48-star flag.

Other “school necessities” include the water bucket, schoolbooks, a dictionary on a metal stand, a learner’s bench and other artifacts. The coat rack has antique doorknobs for hooks. Furnishings within the school were donated by the Calhoun Board of Education, Stevens School alumni or were located by historical society volunteers Jim Bell and Donald “Duck” Stevens who have made Heritage Village their “pet project.” Jim also constructed the recitation benches inside the school and the benches for the new front porch, and The Calhoun County Retired Teachers Association maintains the flower beds.

The Jarvis Store originally stood in Chloe, and was once operated by Spencer “Dock” Jarvis. Jarvis was known throughout the state for his Hereford cattle, which he introduced to the area. In 1926, he had trees cut from his farm on Yellow Jacket (road), and the lumber sawed by his neighbor. The lumber was then placed inside a homemade dry kiln for weeks, with the bark slabs used to keep the kiln heated. Dock’s friend Lonnie Watkins built the store at Oka, upon a stone foundation cut on Beech Road.

Jarvis Store was moved to the park in August 2003 after being donated by Dock’s daughter, Irene Gunn. The park is actually the third location for the store, which was already moved once to the intersection of Oka and Beech Roads.

The store was moved, intact, 25 miles to the park at Mt. Zion with the roof slats removed and rafters laid flat to pass under electric and phone wires. For the move, the building was loaded on a flat bed truck which transported it over rural roads and into the park, down the wooded lane to the village location.

Using the original cut stones for a nearby flowerbed, workers from Calhoun County set the building on a block foundation, then restored woodwork of the shelves, walls and floors, and repaired the windows. Meanwhile, a crew from Stumptown (Gilmer County) volunteered to reassemble the roof.

The floors and counters are both tongue and groove, now polished to a shine. Some store original furnishings, including the wrapping paper from the store, were donated by Mrs. Gunn. The collection of dry goods, grocery items, hardware and medicinal sundries from the 1800’s and 1900’s were donated from throughout the county, or were located by Jim and Duck, who also painted and hung the new store sign. Special items in the store include Jim’s nail collection, antique scales, and an antique fire extinguisher which came with the store.

Jarvis Store was dedicated August 28, 2004.

Starcher Blacksmith Shop was originally located up the right fork of Barnes Run in Hur, where Charley Starcher opened his blacksmith shop in 1915. He served the Hur community as the “smithy” until 1950.

The Starcher Blacksmith Shop and nearly all the contents were donated to the Historical Society by Dottie and Lou Slider. In 2005, Jim and Duck, with the help of society members, worked two weeks to stabilize the structure for relocation. They also prepared the site at the new location, setting concrete block foundation piers. After being towed across six miles of winding Calhoun roads, the blacksmith shop was reassembled, and given a new tin roof.

The building, when donated, had not been opened in 35 years. To everyone’s pleasant surprise, volunteers discovered much of the original equipment was still inside, including the wood and stone furnace, and Charley’s own primitive tools. Today, Charley’s furnace is surrounded again by horse and ox shoes, tackle and blacksmithing tools. One item of interest is a panel in the wall containing a natural image of a wolf. Jim and Duck added to the original contents, including the harness shop items, wagon wheels, ox and horse shoes and anvils ranging from 100 to 300 pounds. A display rack shows examples of two old-time saddles and harnesses.  The names “Duck and Jim” have been added to the rack.

The town of Freed grew in the last years of the nineteenth century, and once rested on a grassy bottom beside Leading Creek at the mouth of Coal Fork. The town, and thus the post office, was named after the first postmaster, George Washington Freed.

Freed Post Office was originally located on Leading Creek Road, off Route 16, ten miles northeast of Grantsville. It was a staple in a town developing around a coal mine, and once stood near a telegraph agency, hotel, general store, wheelwright and flourmill. Most of the town was erased by a fire in 1933, but the post office was spared.

Today, Freed is home to honored dead, including Phebe Tucker Cunningham, noted woman of pioneer days, who was captured by Indians. Phebe rests at Freed Cemetery with at least four Civil War soldiers including Henry A. Ferrell, Joseph Jenkins, John W. Keebaugh and Hiram Boner.

The building was donated by Marguerite Collins Hardman, daughter of Seth and Ivy Collins. Seth built the building in 1886, and Ivy was postmaster in 1903. Letters with the original Freed post mark have been donated for the project. Freed’s famous residents may have been laid to rest, but the post office has been revived.

Freed Post Office was the fourth addition to historic village, and the small building was easily relocated on September 8, 2005. After the post office closed in 1954, the building was used for storage. But now the building is again home to post office boxes from the 1930’s (found by Jim Bell) and a set of antique mail-sorting shelves and a sorting table. The original drop slot still exists in the front board slats.

Freed Post Office and Starcher Blacksmith Shop were dedicated this past May, and Heritage Village will open to the public this fall with volunteers serving as tour guides. Yet, even after reaching this goal, volunteers are still working and recruiting, and Heritage Village continues to grow. One of Calhoun’s oldest standing log houses, the Ahab Stemple House, will be moved to Calhoun County Park’s Heritage Village next. Built about 1880, the structure currently stands near Rowel’s Run, not far from the Village of Hur. The home, donated by Georgia Stemple Weaver and Carolyn Stemple Kelley, originally stood along main Rowels Run. It will be dismantled, log by log, for the relocation.

For more information about Heritage Village tours, write to Calhoun County Historical and Genealogical Society, P.O. Box 242, Grantsville, WV 26147-0242, or e-mail rbonar@access.k12.wv.us.

 

From The Calhoun Chronicle, Weekly County Newspaper

“Burdens and Blessings”

Life is a series of burdens and blessings. Unfortunately, both can cause stress and anxiety. You can be dealt one, then the other, then back again, a million times a day. The trick is to learn to just roll with it – and hope burdens don’t outweigh the blessings. You have to count them both to survive…..

Last year, Frank and I were blessed with a new (to us) vehicle (blessing). Frank was not “going to work” (burden) but instead was working the farm (burden/blessing), and could piddle around the roads in our beat up Ford truck (blessing). His back has been ailing him (burden), but visits to the chiropractor are helping (blessing).

With that situation, we decided to sell our old van (burden). It was my father’s (blessing) but now has 400,000-plus miles (burden) and just sits in the yard (burden). We listed it in all the trader’s mags, and people came and went and called to see it (burden), and never did buy (burden).

Then Frank went back to work (blessing), and we didn’t feel so pressured to sell the van (blessing). He no longer carries his wallet in his pocket when driving (which helps keep his back aligned), and he feels better (blessing). He was working again without extreme pain (blessing).

Two weeks after he’d been trekking back and forth to Glenville, the Ford truck broke down (burden). But, we still had the van (now a blessing) so we parked the truck for expensive repair (burden) and both of us worked (blessing), preparing on the sidelines for the upcoming annual family reunion (blessing). Close to 125 people (blessing), expected at our house (uh, burden).

So, two days before the reunion, we pile in the van to go pick up tables and chairs for the event (burden). On the way, the van breaks down (burden), right in front of our friend’s house (blessing), who was home (blessing), but doesn’t have a phone (burden).

We both have to work the next day (now a burden), still have to pick up tables and chairs (burden), and we only have one operating vehicle (burden), which is somewhere where we aren’t (burden), and won’t hold tables and chairs (burden).

However, we have just enough time (blessing) to get to our house, call to find a part, (which was affordable – blessing), get in the new-to-us ride (blessing) and fly to the parts store in Spencer who had it in stock (blessing.) While Frank’s on the phone, I take out my wallet to show our friend (blessing), who gave us a ride (blessing), a picture of my niece (blessing) and her unborn jelly bean who will be a boy (blessing).

Meanwhile, another family member (FM 1) whose vehicle went down last month (burden), has a new (to him) vehicle in his driveway (blessing), but the paperwork to make it legal hasn’t been processed yet by the state (burden). He, after work, knew we were supposed to pick up chairs and tables (burden), and had his ride drop him off at the table and chair location, knowing we could bring him the rest of the way home (thinking – blessing.)

We are pulling out of the driveway to head to the parts store, when in pulls a helpful friend in a truck (blessing)  – pulling the non-operating vehicle (burden) of a second family member (FM 2) who had been sitting, broken down, on the far side of Sand Ridge Hill (burden) for more than an hour.

But, that one’s an easy fix as well (blessing), and an affordable part (blessing) and guess what – we’re just on our way to the parts store (now a blessing).

So, on a quest for two parts (burden), we fly towards Spencer, not knowing FM 1 is waiting for us to pick him up with the tables and chairs (known and unknown burdens). We arrive in the parking lot with twenty minutes to spare (blessing).

We can fix the van tonight (blessing), get tables and chairs tomorrow (uh, maybe), get FM 2’s vehicle back on the road more quickly (blessing), and both go to work in the morning without issue (blessing). Right?

Frank reaches to the console for his wallet – which is in the van, broken down, in front of our friend’s house.

I reach then for my wallet –  which is still on the kitchen counter where I showed my friend my niece’s picture.

!!!

I am glad to report that neither of us spontaneously combusted in the parking lot of Advance Auto Parts in Spencer (blessing). In fact, we both just sat, completely beaten and defeated (burden), thinking that life had decided we were going to be dealt a lot of crap that day (burden), and there was just nothing we could do about it (burden).

As I lowered my head to wallow in my misery, I spied the money bag I used that day to collect on my newspaper delivery run. Within it was just enough cash to cover what we needed (Blessed Miracle!).

Meanwhile, a third family member (FM 3) with a truck (blessing) encounters FM 1’s original ride home (blessing). FM 3, knowing we are one vehicle down and in Spencer (burden), heads towards FM 1 and the tables and chairs (blessing).

So, we head back from Spencer in our working vehicle (blessing), to the broken van (burden), which Frank can easily fix (blessing), now in the dark (burden), across from a friend’s house (blessing), who has flashlights (blessing) with dead batteries (burden), but just fixed a big dinner (blessing).

Frank fixes the van (blessing) and while we’re on the porch eating hot dogs (blessing), we think about when to pick up chairs and tables (burden), still ignorant that FM 1 was counting on us for a ride. (Actually it’s a blessing that we didn’t know, or the added pressure may have caused a mental meltdown for either of us earlier in the evening).

Up pulls FM 3 with FM 1, in a truck with a bed full of tables and chairs (double blessing).

FM 1, who hasn’t had dinner (burden), while waiting two hours for a ride (burden), is also fed by friends (blessing).

So, before too late (blessing), we had operating vehicles (blessing), and all family members home (blessing), all family members fed (blessing), tables and chairs unloaded (blessing). We were ready for the reunion (blessing), and both had vehicles (blessing) to get us to work (blessing) the next day.

Anyone who says life isn’t a roller coaster ride isn’t counting all the highs (blessings) or lows (burdens). The best you can do is roll along, laughing when you can, gritting your teeth when you can’t, and occasionally throwing your hands up in the air – all without throwing up.

Then, at the end of the day, the blessings will outnumber the burdens. And that, in itself, is a blessing.

 

From Two-Lane Livin’ Magazine, (The Writer’s own publication)

“Lying Fallow”

As we grow near to Two-Lane Livin’s 10th birthday, I have been looking back through our early archives. And though I am old enough to reflect on nearly five decades of life, only the last ten years have been recorded in a monthly publication I can look back upon.

When we launched the magazine, I was so excited about gardening and canning, learning how to be healthier and more self-reliant. I was thrilled to welcome chickens and bees to our family, was stockpiling seeds and lamp oil and teaching myself to sew and crochet.

Somehow, I thought this “back to the land” mindset was going to simplify my life. I look back at all that now and laugh.

When it comes to farming and gardening, I have found that it is quite easy to over do it. I have learned, truly, moderation is key. But baby chicks can be purchased in bulk, in fact, when ordering, you must purchase at least a dozen.  One more tray of spring plants can produce another thirty or more pounds of tomatoes. One more row or seed packet of beans can double or triple the bushels of beans that need strung in the fall.

A ten year old oregano patch can spread to cover more than eight square feet. Mature perennials need divided. Fences eventually need mending, spades sharpened, hives and pens need maintained.

All the projects I was so excited about ten years ago, I now know, are work. Work, and time. And though I knew back then and was not afraid of the work, I sorely underestimated the amount of time truly required.

Gardens, bees, chickens, fields, these things do not wait. They do not wait until you have time, do not wait until you are ready. Weeds need pulled, beans need picked, hay needs cut. Bees swarm. Eggs, water, and feed need dealt with more than once a day.

There was a time when we had more than 30 chickens, and planted more than 100 tomato plants and six rows of beans.

For two people? Insanity is what that is.

These days, my sewing machine is packed away, as are my crochet needles, my pressure canner. And though June is upon us, we have not planted a garden this year. The pantry is still filled with jars from previous years, and we still get near a dozen eggs a day from our small flock of aging hens. We have four bee hives, but three of them are swarms we caught this spring.

We can certainly take a break from gardening this year, but it feels shameful to not have a garden. I feel shame, and I feel a loss. A loss of a chance to fill more jars, a loss of the mornings pulling weeds and smashing stink bugs. A loss not to wander out again in the evenings sweating in the late day sun and swatting at deer flies. In many ways, gardeners are slaves to their gardens–you weed and water when it’s needed, pick and harvest when it’s ready. But at the same time, a garden is nourishing, not just to the body, but to the soul.

In some ways, I feel like we’re taking the summer off. Like we’re cheating, or being lazy.

Of course, we still have asparagus, garlic, horseradish, mushrooms in the perennial beds, and thyme, oregano, lemon balm, sage, and chives in the herb garden.

Won’t we miss fresh produce? I don’t think so. I have learned that someone will inevitably grow too many cucumbers and squash, and will bring some to the library or the local mom and pop store. Heirloom tomatoes will find their way to the local farmer’s markets.

What will I do with the extra  summer days that for the last ten years have been spent tilling and canning? I hope I don’t waste it on facebook. I hope to work on other things, like moderation and maintenance. My approach to simple living ten years ago wasn’t simple at all. I was so excited about getting started, I didn’t really think about the upkeep. But you have to think about upkeep, or you won’t be able to keep up. Over the past ten years, we have fallen behind.

Where to store empty canning jars, or tomato stakes not in use? Do we really need all those plant trays? I’m going to sharpen my hoe before I ever use it again, and I’m going to spend more time in the back porch swing, watching the grass grow.

So this summer, our garden will be lying fallow, a term used to describe land tilled and plowed but left unseeded. Some farmers do this to raise the fertility in the soil. I wonder what lying fallow will do for us, the humans that tend the garden, what fertility might rise in our lives and souls–if any. Perhaps I will find a way to combine simple living and self-reliance. But it hasn’t happened so far.

***

“We Are Nature”

I love the way thunder rolls across the sky, how it rumbles in our bones at the first boom, then ripples, grumbling past the eastern hillside and on across the horizon. When I was young, we would watch for the flashes of lightening, like watching for fireworks, and count as we were taught to determine the distance to the strike. One, one thousand. Two, one thousand. But now, I am happy to listen to the rain and the thunder as the sky chastises the earth.

Today, a storm crossed overhead, with consistent rumbling for nearly half an hour. Instantly, the heat of the afternoon was erased. Rain fell steady, but not pounding, and ground drank it in. I spent as much time as I could on the back porch in the glider, as porches are made for storm-watching. You can experience the storm and be exposed to it, but remain dry and relatively safe.

After the storm passed, wisps of fog swirled up from the valley, moisture drawn up into the system, just to be dropped back down somewhere else. From the valley to the hilltop perhaps, to keep the cycle turning. Once the storm moved on, its grumble fading as it wandered across the atmosphere, the setting sun raised temperatures again, and new wisps rose and swirled. The orange light shone more than usual, heightened by the moist reflections of everything just washed clean.

There are no evenings to match a summer evening after an afternoon thunderstorm in the hills of Appalachia. I feel as though I am inside a terrarium, the moisture dripping down from a giant glass dome above. Sometimes, life here feels sealed inside a bubble, secluded from the rest of the world. Sometimes stifling hot and sweaty, sometimes baking, parched and dry, sometimes fresh and clean and sparkling.

As the skies cleared, and the water temperatures on the lake out back balanced, I watched the green duckweed expand again across the face of the water, no longer compressed by rippling waves, and a mother deer appeared on the bank of the island, and a fawn that had to be out for its very first walk it was so wobbly. With the rumbling over, bird song started again, and the chickens and the robins pecked in the saturated yard for earthworms and bugs. And in that moment, the fields around me and time itself seemed to expand, and the concerns of the world shrank to a pittance.

I felt relief. Relief from the heat of the day, relief from the stress of the week, relief in knowing there are still magical moments in this world–the way nature can make us feel small and immense at the same time, connected when we are or feel alone. Humans have forgotten that we ARE nature. We are hardwired to benefit from exposure to it. We get Vitamin D from the sun (statistically, the average American is Vitamin D deficient), and multiple studies show that 20 minutes in nature can lower blood pressure, relieve stress, depression and anxiety. We are not technical, mechanical creatures. We are (or were?) natural creatures. Writer Laurence G. Boldt says, “a society at odds with nature is a society at odds with itself.”

* * *

I recently attended the WV Writer’s Inc. annual conference at Cedar Lakes in Ripley, a weekend of seminars, readings, and networking. One seminar I took was how to remain focused on your life as a creative existence. Deep down, I hoped there might be a magical pen or technical device that would keep me in creative mode, impervious to the restrictive mentalities we all encounter in our culture and societies today. Perhaps a creativity pill I could pop every morning. Of course, these things don’t exist.

During the seminar though, I was reminded of many things I already know, but do not regularly practice. Stretch upon waking. Meditate. Be grateful for the little things. Be positive. Be open. Don’t get on the computer first thing in the morning. Limit exposure to social media and digital devices. Turn off the TV. Take a walk. Breathe. Immerse yourself in nature.

After the recent summer storm passed, I contemplated why that moment was reassuring, comforting. How that moment “outside” of society, disconnected from man but connected to nature, could soothe my spirit so. And again I was reminded of something Boldt says in his book, Zen and the Art of Making a Living. He said, “Society can be interested in a man or woman only as a political or economic entity; a culture is interested in more… Cultures care for their peoples as natural, spiritual beings and not simply as workers or consumers.” In other words, humans are not just political, economic beings. We were meant for more than work and consumption. We are nature, spiritual, but we live in a society that neither acknowledges, values, nor endorses us as such.

Boldt says, “Our whole effort is to gain and hold, acquire and defend.” The American approach to life and living is a mindset typically used for warfare. We are focused on getting–striving, consuming, keeping, maintaining–status, power, reputation, cars, houses, etc.–no matter the cost to our own well-being or the natural world around us. Americans live with a mentality to conquer and defend. No wonder we’re so stressed.

I believe this is why time in nature is so soothing to the soul. Nature is the ultimate level playing field. Nature doesn’t care about status, reputation, shoes, or the latest cell phone app. Social media, television series, all our little rat race games and power struggles are irrelevant. Our narcissism, prejudices, irrational judgments, daytime dramas, are insignificant. And if anything, that’s a relief.

Boldt says, “We cannot be fully awake, fully alive, fully human–and remain indifferent to the world in which we live.” The costs of denial and suppression are devastating to human happiness and creativity. Boldt notes, until our society changes its consideration humans as nothing more than workers and consumers, “it will continue to take uncommon courage, strength, and perseverance for individuals to realize meaning in their every day experiences.”

When we stop and take a time out with nature around us, Boldt says, “the mind is arrested and raised above desire and loathing… the contemplation of beauty eliminates selfish desire.” In turn, “Ugliness depresses and diminishes life–sapping the creative spirit of the individual and weakening the character of society.” Did you get that? Ugliness saps creativity and weakens our character. No wonder the beauty of the hills after a storm provided me with such relief. How lucky we are to live where the natural beauty around us can soothe our souls.

From Encounter Calhoun, A Community Promotion Publication

“More than Just a Place”

Calhoun County, West Virginia isn’t just a location. It’s a story, woven over the years, quilted every day. As the rest of the world scurries around the borders, within Calhoun County the community seems to pass time at a slower pace, still caught in an era of community food and fellowship. Dinners, dances, festivals – all arranged and worked by volunteers – have a history and tradition that springs from the roots of the culture itself.

Presented within this magazine is only the surface of our story, the abridged version of what Calhoun County has become after 150 years. These are the accomplishments of four generations – all four of which you could encounter, in person, when you visit today.

More than five annual festivals are celebrated in Calhoun County – an area that also includes five public parks. History is still alive here, not ink on pages of paper, but an ever-present being, given breath by the tales of those who stand before you, and formed by the lasting results of our families’ labors.

The features of Calhoun are discovered only by those who venture off the four-lane, along the curving paths of Routes 5, 16 and 33. Festivals, camping, music, food, fishing, hiking, a spectacular night under the stars – all are just a few winding moments away from the beaten path.

These parks, events and public features all offer simple pleasures – the sound of the whippoorwill at dusk, the taste of wild foods, the smell of dew in the grass, the sight of a deer and her fawn. Our locations may be like many others, but come listen around the roasting pit, or over the steaming sorghum. This is where you will hear the stories of Calhoun’s adventurous history. There is where Calhoun County truly shines.

Calhoun parks and events are not just offered and maintained by groups or organizations. Our greatest assets are the accomplishments of families, of neighbors of friends. Our events are our celebrations, our reunions, our fun.

When we invite you to visit, we don’t just mean visit places. We are asking you to come and visit, literally, with us. Grandma’s in the kitchen, and mom is stirring the apple butter, dad is chopping firewood while son feeds the fire, and daughter is likely somewhere selling raffle tickets or organizing a parade.

In fact, you need not come on a event weekend to enjoy the characters of Calhoun County. Stand on a corner in Grantsville for an hour, and you are likely to meet half the town while you’re there. If you have any questions, any questions at all, or need any help, you’ll find someone quick to assist, no matter where you are.

Don’t just pass through our community. You’ll miss Calhoun’s best if you rush.  Ours is a place where life is a little more leisurely. The only traffic light is yellow and flashing. Our campgrounds are not crowded, our walking and hiking trails are not heavily populated. There’s a chance, when you visit some of the places described herein, you’ll have the whole place to yourself. But, take your time and wander around a little, take a moment to chat. One thing Calhounians know well is how to visit.

As you watch the pot boil, the grass grow, the children play in the sun and elders sit in the shade, you can almost feel a slip in time—feel the weight lift from your shoulders. Waters flow, breezes blow, and as the sun slips down over the mountain top, it comes to mind –  Calhoun County simply feels like home.

***

“Upper West Fork Park:
Year-Round Music, Food, and Fun”

Tucked along Route 16 in the southern end of Calhoun County lies an affordable get-a-way, complete with camper hookups and rough camping along the babbling waters of the Upper West Fork of the Little Kanawha River. If you arrive on the right weekend, you may find yourself enjoying one of the Upper West Fork Parks four annual events.

The Upper West Fork Park’s Ramp Dinner in the spring is a feast. Saturday morning, before the event, cooks are on hand by 7:30 a.m. to fry 120 pounds of bacon. Nearly 400 pounds of potatoes are peeled and cooked, and 72 dozen eggs scrambled. Eighty pounds of ham are cooked, and desserts are sliced and spread across six long tables, all donated by the great cooks that live on the “Fork.”

Although the doors open at 4 p.m., the crowd will began lining up shortly after 2:30. In the past, some stood in line more than two and a half hours.

In 2004, the 32nd annual Ramp Dinner was recorded for a documentary on Ramp Festivals, entitled “The King of Stink.” The film aired a year later on West Virginia PBS.

Memorial Day weekend, the park is filled for The Upper West Fork Park Bluegrass Festival — one of two bluegrass festivals held each year, each featuring local and legendary performers. The annual Fireman’s Bluegrass Festival, scheduled the second weekend in August each year, concludes with a fireworks display. Festival highlights include not only great old timey music, but also pork barbecue sandwiches, with meat roasted under a pit pavilion.

Octoberfest is an old-world celebration of harvest time. Fresh apple butter is made in a copper pot over an open fire, and the Octoberfest Parade on Route 16 starts at 1 p.m. There are games and prizes for the children, in addition to a sack race and a three-legged race. Music is provided by several local bands.

A weekly traditional bluegrass jam on Saturday evenings begins in the fall, and runs through spring. In the summer, the park hosts the Calhoun County Farmer’s Market twice a week.

Every day of the year, the Upper West Fork Park offers free rough camping, and electric for campers available for only $5 a night. The community building and the outside shaded pavilion is free – on a first come, first served basis.

Many descendants of the pioneer families of the Upper West Fork Community plan their family reunion at the park for the same weekend each year. Relatives from across the United States gather at the park to reminisce, welcome new members and remember the passing of the old.

The air conditioned community building not only plays host to reunions, but also may be rented for showers, birthday parties, business meetings or club events.

Of course, the staple features of the park also exist, including playground, ball fields, picnic tables and outdoor flush toilets.

The park has also added a hidden treasure this year; a geocache. Geocaching has become a popular “sport,” and is spreading through the nation and the state. The UWF Park geocache was hidden in May 2005.

For more information about services at the Upper West Fork Park, call Sharon Settle at (304) 655-8280.