Appalachian Thursday–Stinging Insects

hornetsIf you read Monday’s post, you know why stinging insects are on my mind this week. Late summer and early fall in Appalachia is prime time for running into yellow jackets, hornets, wasps, and bees. First, their hives (hence their populations) have been growing all summer. Second, the bears, skunks, and other critters consider their larvae candy. And third, they’re going to die soon.

I might be running around looking for someone to sting, too!

But as you may have realized, in my world, everything is fodder for words. So here’s a poem from a few year’s ago that came to mind this week.


After the leaves fall and the cold comes
I see the fragile, grey houses
of wasps and hornets high in the trees.
Empty nests hang like ripe fruit,
so obvious, so apparent, so safe
now that winter has come and only
the queen remains, tucked away
somewhere warm—somewhere else.

I have walked this path again and again,
spring, summer, and early fall,
without sensing the activity above,
without knowing the danger
humming just over my head.
But now it’s clear— both the nest
and the danger that faded with
the first hard frost and I feel bold
for having braved this gauntlet.

I feel grateful for having failed
to know a gauntlet was ever here.

Bees, Rattlesnakes, and Bears – oh my!

rattlesnakeYou know it’s a doozy of a hike when the least scary thing to happen is a bear thundering off through the brambles.

That’s how my hike with Thistle started one evening last week. And we weren’t much alarmed. After all, the bear was leaving. Then Thistle ran on ahead and in short order came streaking back past me.

While hiking with my husband that morning she’d gotten into some yellow jackets (bears crack those nests open like pecans this time of year). I thought, surely that hadn’t happened again. I called her to me and two yellow jackets flew from her fur. Okay, it had. We ran down a side trail where she wallowed in some tight brush, divesting herself of any insects. Which was good since I had that MAJOR allergic reaction 15 years ago. (I’m theoretically cured after 7 years of shots, but who wants to test that?!?)

We made our way to a stream and gathered our wits. The bees were quite a bit scarier than the bear. Even so, we had hiking to do, so off we went, taking the long way around. As we came back down the mountain on a nice, wide trail, we stumbled across the scariest thing yet.

A rattlesnake.

A yellow phase timber rattlesnake to be specific (I only learned this later). And when I saw it, stretched full length in a sunny spot on the trail, Thistle was standing tail to tail with it. Or tail to rattle. My dog had no CLUE there was a snake in the world.

I convinced her to come to me with some treats and we stood there for a moment, marveling. (I did–Thistle just wondered why she had to wear her leash and might there be more treats?)

Then we went the even longer way around.

One of the themes in my upcoming novel, The Sound of Rain, is how we’re never really safe. No matter how many precautions we may take, bad things will still happen in the most unexpected ways. It’s just how this fallen world works.

My first thought after such an eventful hike was that maybe I should give up hiking until the first good freeze. But honestly, I love walking in the woods. It’s my freest, most creative time. And it’s something my husband, dog, and I love to do together.

So, I’ll keep hiking with the bears, the bees, and the rattlesnakes. Because, as my characters also learn, we may not be safe, but we are secure. Not because of any precautions we’ve taken, but because of who we trust.

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. For thou art with me.”

Appalachian Thursday – Staghorn Sumac

sumacIt’s a running joke with my husband and me.

I say shoo-make.

He says soo-mak.

Clearly he’s wrong and just enjoys aggravating me. Oh, I know, I know. If you look up the “official” pronunciation it says that either soo-mak or shoo-mak is acceptable. There’s no mention of tagging “make” on the end. But the folks from Merriam-Webster probably haven’t spent a ton of time in Appalachia, so they can be forgiven.

In addition to offering endless fun with pronunciation, sumac is lovely and tasty. I long thought the velvety red tips were flowers, but I finally looked it up and turns out that’s the fruit–or drupes. You can steep them in hot water, strain the liquid, then sweeten it to make a sort of lemonade (tartness is due to malic acid). The drupes can also be dried and ground to make a tart spice (a key ingredient in za’atar).

Critters will also eat sumac, although I don’t think it’s their favorite. I got tickled by this line from the USDA data sheet about the plant: “The germination of sumac seeds is enhanced by their passage through the digestive system of rabbits, ring-necked pheasants, and quail.”


While I NEVER recommend going out into your backyard and eating anything you aren’t 100% certain is safe, I will set your mind to rest (at least a little) about staghorn and poison sumac. The poison kind has white berries and grows in really wet habitats so it’s somewhat easy to avoid. Which you should do since I hear it makes poison ivy look like a mosquito bite (it has the same urushiol).

So, join me everyone, and let’s say it together . . . shoo-MAKE!


Three Years an Author

3 booksIt was in August of 2014 that my first, full-length novel released. We launched Miracle in a Dry Season with a bean supper and square dancing. It was the best day of my life after my wedding day. Talk about a dream come true!

So how’s the dream coming along three years later as I prepare for the launch of book #4, The Sound of Rain? Well, it’s still pretty dreamy.

Of course, reality does come crashing in. One book sells great. Another not so well. This book wins an award. That one gets several one-star reviews. (And sales DO NOT necessarily jibe with awards!)

Some days the writing flows like a mountain stream after the rain. Other days it’s an annoying, drippy faucet. Marketing is alternately a pleasure and sheer torture. Doing events when people turn up is a delight. The ones where I sit at a table alone are agony.

So basically, this dream is a lot like . . . life. Good days, bad days, mediocre-nothing-happening days.

But the upshot is, even on the bad days, this is still my dream and my passion. Stepping into the world of my characters remains one of my very favorite things to do. And hearing from readers who have been touched in some way by the stories I’m blessed to write . . . well, that’s pure gold.

I think, when you love doing something, the hard stuff that comes with it is a price you don’t mind paying. I don’t know how long this writing gig will last. But I do know that I’ll keep telling stories as long as God keeps giving me joy in the process.


Appalachian Thursday — Meeting Wendell Berry

Wendell BerryI’ve never been what you’d call on the cutting edge when it comes to famous people and pop culture.

My first concert was the WV Symphony Orchestra conducted by Henry Mancini when I was in high school. My second was Glenn Yarborough when I was in college. That time I asked to go backstage and meet the man. He seemed confused as to why I was there.

And when it comes to wanting to meet celebrities my top choices have been Gregory Peck (who is gone–sigh), Jan Karon (met her twice–she’s delightful!), John Hagen (the cello player in Lyle Lovett’s band), Francine Rivers (still hoping!), and Wendell Berry.

So, when I saw that Mr. Berry would be speaking at the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky as part of their Appalachian Writer’s Workshop, I signed up for a ticket (which was FREE!!).

I sat in the front row and when Wendell Berry came in and sat just down the way from me, I couldn’t stop grinning. There he was. My literary hero. I first discovered him when I realized Dad’s copy of Farming a Handbook was NOT an instruction manual but rather poetry. Really amazing poetry about, of all things: putting up hay, sowing clover, wild geese, trees, rivers, the land and very being of Appalachia.

I had no idea such poetry existed. And then I discovered his stories and his essays and I was hooked. I even wrote him a letter 20 years or so ago, which he very politely answered.

Honestly, it’s largely Wendell Berry’s fault that I’m a writer. Reading his work gave me permission to write about what I know best–the people in and the place where I grew up.

He was a delight to listen to and meet. Humble, thoughtful, and patient with the long line of fans waiting for his signature. I brought him a new copy of Farming a Handbook for his signature and explained that it had been a sort of handbook for me–teaching me, encouraging me to write.

And then I gave him one of my books and said it was the fruit of the seed his book planted. He thanked me. And while it’s possible he was just being polite, I got the feeling he really did mean, “thank you.”

Appalachian Thursday – High School Dances

Jim and me
Dancing with my husband at the launch party for my first novel.

Okay. That was a trick.

This could really be about high school anywhere, not just in Appalachia. But I grew up in  a small town squarely in the middle of Appalachia, so we’ll call that good enough for Appalachian Thursday.

Plus, I just want to tell you this.

I didn’t date much in high school. Senior prom was my first official “date.” This could have been due to the fact that I was “coach’s daughter.” Plus, my wrestling coach dad was a math teacher and six-foot, four.

Or, as Dad suggested, it could be because I was so smart and so beautiful the boys were afraid to ask me out. I prefer the second reason, but suspect the first.

Anyway. My husband and I were watching a televised concert last weekend and the band began playing a song I recognized. I laughed and said, “I started to say this is a song I danced to in high school, but actually this is a song I wished someone had asked me to dance to in high school.”

Guess what he did? Yup. He danced with me.

This, my friends, is why, after 21+ years of marriage, I can so highly recommend the institution. My husband and I have only danced a few times in those decades, but each dance has been perfect and memorable whether it was our wedding day or a Saturday evening in our pajamas.

This, I think, is one of the secrets to a good marriage. Filling each other’s gaps.

And he’s from the South.

My Favorite Kind of Stories

About TimeI don’t often write about movies. Maybe because I don’t watch that many. Two hour chunks of time are typically reserved for reading or writing. But this past weekend, my husband and I stumbled upon a movie called “About Time” and it was EXACTLY the kind of story I like best.

The story was created by the same guy who did “Notting Hill” and “Love Actually,” which makes me wonder how I missed it. It’s a story about Tim–a sweet and slightly goofy British guy who learns at the age of 21 that all the men in his family can travel in time. Although it’s only to the past and only in their own lives. What would you do with such a gift? If you’re Tim, you’ll try to get a girlfriend.

The characters are delightful and winsome. The story is charming and sweet. But there’s a deeper message about appreciating love and life that makes this movie a new favorite for me.

So what makes this movie my favorite kind? The use of science fiction/magic/miracles to emphasize a universal truth. But only a little sci-fi/magic/miracle. It’s adding a dash of dream to real life in order to draw attention to something that’s there regardless. We’re just too busy and inattentive to see it.

Other favorite stories that use this technique include:

  • Harvey – A movie starring Jimmy Stewart as a very kind man whose best friend is an invisible, six-foot  white rabbit.
  • The Bishop’s Wife – A movie starring Cary Grant as an angel come to earth to help the Bishop see what’s really most important in life.
  • The Wedding Dress – A book by Rachel Hauck about a dress that fits the size and style of several generations of women who need it.
  • Big Fish – A book by Daniel Wallace and movie starring Ewan McGregor about a son who comes to understand his father through a series of tall tales presented as truth.

If you want to get technical, the technique is called magical realism. And some people find it hard to swallow fantasy when it’s rooted in the real world. But I’ve long thought there’s a great deal more going on than we can comprehend.

That’s the kind of story I like to see, hear, and read. And it’s the kind of story I like to write. Here’s hoping you do, too.