Appalachian Thursday – Southern States

growing chicksNo, not the states below the Mason Dixon Line. I’m talking about the cooperative store started by farmers in Virginia.

When I was a kid, we’d go to Southern States to buy things like cattle feed, bulk dog food, bag balm, seeds, medicine for cattle, and SPRING CHICKS. Mostly, going to Southern States wasn’t all that exciting. The store had a kind of chemical/sweet feed smell and there wasn’t a whole lot to interest an eight-year-old. Until the spring chicks arrived.

We’d walk in the store and hear them. A chorus of tiny cheeps. There they would be, moving balls of yellow fluff, walking around, pecking at feed, sipping water, and pooping (it wasn’t ALL adorable). We could hold them as long as we were G-E-N-T-L-E.

Back at the farm, the box of chicks would go out in the barn with a light to keep them warm and we’d visit and cuddle as often as allowed.

But here’s the problem with adorably, baby chicks — they grow into chickens.

And it happens much more quickly than you’d expect. One day some of the fluff has been replaced by rough feathers and soon the adolescent chickens are as awkward as any teenager. Then, next thing you know, they’re just plain old chickens waiting to peck the back of your hand when you gather their eggs.

But isn’t that the way with so many things? Nothing stays the same. Nothing lasts. Seems like Robert Frost had something to say about that when he wrote Nothing Gold Can Stay.

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

Yep. Baby chicks don’t stay adorable very long. But the memory of them . . . oh, that lasts and lasts. I haven’t gone with my dad to pick up spring chicks in nearly forty years. But I can close my eyes and hear their cheeps, feel the softness of their down, and smell the must and dust of their warming box.

I think Robert Frost was a little bit sneaky. When he captured a bit of gold on paper, he made it stay. Here’s hoping I can do a bit of that myself.

Appalachian Thursday – Signs of Spring

crocusEvery year a few hardy daffodils jump the gun and bloom in February.

Every year we act surprised.

Somehow it seems too soon, but I’ve looked back at notes from five years ago and this is nothing new. Every February the daffodils unfurl seemingly fragile yellow petals. Crocuses appear like someone scattered them in the night while we were sleeping. Sometimes there’s even a buttercup or dandelion smiling up at me from the dead lawn. And this year, the temperatures have veered wildly into the 70s trying to make us think spring is well and truly here.

But I try not to get TOO excited. I can’t help but remember how we often have at least one snow in April and I want to warn my flowers to take a steadying breath and wait.

At the same time, I love seeing signs of spring. I love getting hints that soft, warm days are right around the corner. The ultimate Appalachian harbingers of spring is, of course,  peepers. For a week now I’ve been hearing them each morning and evening in the swampy spot down by the creek. A chorus cheering spring on even if it IS too soon.

Because we’re still going to have some icy, wintry, northern days before it’s time to complain about the heat again. More than once I’ve seen apple blossom bitten back by a late frost. The old timers look at the daffodils and shake their heads. “We’ll have winter, yet,” they say.

I have a terrible habit of looking for “signs” in every area of my life. The catch is, I spend too much time looking for signs and not nearly enough living in the moment. I’m too busy trying to guess what comes next. Planning and anticipating can be good things, but they can also become debilitating. Spring and the future will both come when they’re ready.

In God’s own good time.

A Poem for Remembering

Aunt BessWe all have special people in our lives. Folks who have an impact on us–whether fleeting or long term. I’ve been thinking lately about how many of those people in my life are gone now–Grandma Burla, Aunt Bess, Dusan & Marsha, Aunt Dorothy & Uncle Willis, Smutt & Anna, Grandma Ginny . . . the list goes on.

But maybe, since I carry a little bit of each one of those folks with me, they’re still here in a way. As long as I remember . . .

So here’s a poem for Aunt Bess who shaped my life and the person I am in ways I’m still discovering.


Sometimes love has no motive.
Sometimes love sprouts wild
between the rows of corn,
string beans, and tomatoes.

At 95, Aunt Bess took her cane
and walked me round—
down to the mailbox,
over to the swimmin’ hole,
past the garden where she
remembered her only son
shooting a groundhog the day
he died of scarlet fever.

At 98, she sat me down
on the porch and held my hand.
She talked about Uncle Celly who
appeared like a ghost for dinner
and drew pictures of the Devil.

At 101, she laughed with joy
to see me through the screen door.
She sat in a patch of morning sun,
pulled a kitchen chair close,
asked about people whose deaths
slipped her mind. We resurrected
them there, in that old house,
and they were as good as alive to us.

Always, she cupped my face in soft,
bent hands and said, “You are
so dear to me. So dear.”

At 102 I gave her eulogy, told how
she loved me for no good reason
and how I loved her just the same.

Appalachian Thursday – Burning Brush


Just a baby brush pile. This one will need to get quite a bit bigger before burning!

Last week I wrote about how we burned much of our trash growing up. Then, on Saturday, we had a soft rainy day with no wind–a perfect brush burning day!

Brush piles were simply something that had to be dealt with periodically on the farm. Clearing the pasture, trimming trees, picking up deadfall–there’s just a lot of bits of wood and branches that need to be gotten rid of.

Burning a brush pile is an art. And I like to think it’s one I’m pretty good at.

Now, most of the men in my life prefer the gasoline accelerant method of burning brush. My technique is more subtle. First, I rake the area around the pile clean so there’s less danger of a spark catching something close by. Then I make a sort of cave or opening in the bottom of the pile and add cardboard and some newspaper. Next, I drag out my hose, water bucket, rake, and a hoe so I’ll have the tools I need to keep the fire in check. And my work gloves, of course.

Then, light that baby up!

I prefer a slow, steady burn. I burn from one side of the pile to the other, slowly raking and pushing to keep a decent sized fire that’s not so big it’s likely to get out of hand. There’s a pleasure and a peace to watching flames reduce wood to ash. The best is when it’s a chilly day and I can enjoy the contrast of the cool air on my back and the fire on my face. A few snowflakes add to the ambience.

My most memorable brush pile burn was when I still worked for Biltmore Estate. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was leaning on my hoe, watching the fire die down when my husband called me inside for a phone call. My supervisor wanted me to get out to the estate to meet a VIP guest who was taking pictures on the front lawn of the house.

It was Andie MacDowell.

I didn’t have time to shower.

Somewhere, there’s a picture of Andie MacDowell and me with my hair shoved in a ponytail, wearing minimum makeup, hoping I don’t smell too much like smoke. I didn’t ask for a copy.

I hope they burned it.

Appalachian Thursday – Snow Day!

Snow DayWe had a snow day yesterday–a couple of inches of the white stuff, hardly anyone venturing out, bacon for breakfast, and a good book to read (not to mention one to write!). Ahhhhh.

When I was a kid, of course, snow days were a bit more exciting. And in West Virginia in the 1970s, they seemed more dramatic, too. I remember missing almost the entire month of February one winter. It was so cold that a skim of ice would form on the top of the pail of milk in the time it took Dad to walk from the barn to the house.

Poor Mom. Stuck inside with three kids day after day. And it was too cold to play outside. At least Dad had livestock to tend.

I remember the power going out during a snowstorm once. Dad stoked the fireplace and we got to sleep in the living room floor in sleeping bags. Mom made us wear knit hats since those were the days when we still believed you lost most of your heat through the top of your head.

There was tomato soup with grilled cheese. Card games and board games. Sledding and the building of snowmen. We played in the hayloft, which was a smidge warmer than outside. Mittens were soaked through. Chapstick was applied. And woe to the child who realized she had to pee while wearing a snowsuit too far from the house.

We also fed the cattle. The winter my older brother had appendicitis, I got to ride on the trailer, cutting the twine on bales of hay, and pushing it off for the cows. Bart, our Black Angus bull, would steal bites of hay from the trailer. He was a sweetheart, though, and I’d scratch him behind the ears anyway.

It got dark early those days and in my memory the house was the coziest place in the world. A nation unto itself. A place where the snow and cold could never reach.

Now, snow days frustrate me–make me wish I could get out and work on my to-do list. Maybe I need to go back in time and embrace what I can’t change. Make a snow angel. Throw snowballs for Thistle. Snuggle under a blanket inside and, instead of being frustrated, give thanks for the reprieve of snow days.

Seven Ways to Embrace Appalachia in 2018

bluegrassAppalachia is kind of cool these days. Of course, I’ve been thinking it’s pretty fantastic for quite some time now. Guess I was ahead of the curve. Or maybe just incredibly blessed to grow up there!

If you, too, want to be Appalachian-chic, I thought I’d suggest a few things you could try in the new year.

  1. Grow a garden. It’ll be a few more months before you can start seed flats in a sunny window, but it’s prime season for garden catalogs. And if nothing else, they brighten gloomy winter days. Dig in and plan those rows of corn, beans, tomatoes, and potatoes.
  2. Learn to quilt. Start with something small like a placemat or wall hanging. Stitch your project by hand and if nothing else you’ll appreciate the incredible talent, patience, and persistence that goes into a full-size specimen.
  3. Attend a dinner on the grounds. Find a country church and ask when they have homecoming–even if they eat the meal indoors, this will be the spirit of a dinner on the grounds. Eat a little bit of everything and ask for at least one recipe if you want to get on their good side.
  4. Listen to live bluegrass music. The best way to do this is to find some out-of-the-way place that holds regular jams. Hopefully someone will dance. If you play an instrument, bring it along!
  5. Catch, cook, and eat something yourself. You can use a weapon, a trap, or a hook and line. Whatever it is, appreciate the process that starts with a living creature and ends with nourishment for you. It makes food so much more REAL. If you’re a vegetarian start with wild food (nuts, berries, etc.).
  6. Learn shape-note singing. I grew up with Heavenly Highway Hymns shape-note hymnals. I didn’t realize there was anything special about it until I saw the movie Cold Mountain with its shape-note singing. Different notes are represented by different shapes, simplifying the notation for folks who don’t read music.
  7. Go Sunday visiting. It’s just what you do after church and dinner on a Sunday afternoon. We spent many a Sunday at my great aunt and uncle’s or grandmother’s. You don’t go for a meal or for a purpose any more than just being together. A fine tradition to carry into the new year.

First Footing (and other firsts)

door swagMy grandmother used to pay attention to who first stepped over her threshold on the first day of the new year, claiming that person set the household’s luck for the coming year. This is likely based on the Scotts tradition of first-footing. For the best luck, Scottish tradition holds that the first person in your door after midnight should be male, tall, and dark-haired.

Grandma wasn’t that particular, apparently believing that family entering her house was luck enough (although the men of the family are tall and dark!).

Thinking about New Year’s traditions and all the first times to come for 2018 got me thinking about other firsts in my life and which ones I wouldn’t mind repeating. As I move into the new year and all I hope it brings, here are a few things I’d love to do for the first time all over again:

  • Read certain books – Pride & Prejudice, Little House in the Big Woods, A Voice in the Wind (hmmm, I need to read that one again) . . . Oh, the joy of discovering beloved authors!
  • Meet my husband. That was a pretty wonderful night full of first-time flutters.
  • Taste chocolate. I don’t remember the first time for this one, but how wonderful would it be to discover really good chocolate now that I fully appreciate it?
  • Be kissed–but this time I’d choose more wisely 😉
  • Hold a book I wrote in my hands. Of course, holding the fourth book I wrote was pretty wonderful, too!
  • See some of nature’s wonders–a spectacular sunset, a shooting star, a full moon tangled in the trees . . .

I’m eager to see what “firsts” I’ll encounter in the coming year. How about you–what first would you like to experience all over again?