Appalachian Thursday – Porch Sitting Weather

Olivia kisses
Porch-sitting at the farm.

While it’s still a little early to proclaim the season changed, we are getting the loveliest taste of fall this week. Which means it’s prime porch sitting time!

The house we live in has the sorriest excuse for a front porch. But it’s still a porch and I’ll take it. Because the need to sit on the front porch is embedded in my genetic material.

Porch sitting is simply a way of life in the mountains. It’s for work, for socializing, for relaxing, and for keeping an eye on the neighborhood (people AND critters). Characters in my novels do all kinds of things on porches–cry over men, talk about weddings, wait for family, digest meals. Porches make an appearance in pretty much all of my stories.

Every dog I’ve ever had loved ducking under the porch. Sometimes wild animals move in under there (we had a skunk for a time). If the porch is high enough, kids will, too. The porch light serves as a beacon of welcome. Once, we slept on the porch.

On these cool, pre-autumn days, my husband and I will take a glass of wine out after dinner to sit on our skinny little excuse for a porch and enjoy some lazy talk. No serious topics, no important decisions, just chat. Because porches bring that out–that desire to idly talk about nothing in particular. At peace and in communion. Waving to the cars going by.

Probably, if we could get the people we don’t see eye-to-eye with to sit with us on a porch with a glass of lemonade (or something stronger), we’d learn that we have a lot more in common than we ever realized.

Just don’t disturb the bird nesting in that hanging basket. The eggs should hatch any day now.

Life After a Hurricane

flood2
The great room and kitchen. That small desk is one of the few things I regret losing.

My heart is heavy for the folks in Texas who are dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. They’re dealing with a horrific mess that won’t be tidied up quickly. But I do want them–and anyone else who feels like the worst has happened–to remember that God often does some of his best work through the worst messes.

We’d had floods and hurricanes before Floyd blew through Conway, South Carolina, on September 16, 1999. As a matter of fact, I owned my very own pair of chest waders. They were camouflage and they kept me dry when I had to park my car and wade the quarter of a mile in to our house overlooking the Waccamaw River.

Floyd didn’t amount to much in the way of hurricane winds, but it surely did dump an excess of rain. The problem with rain in a place where the land is flat and near the ocean, is that runoff has nowhere to go.

Although our house sat on a rise near the river and was a good three feet off the ground, the water just kept coming. We moved what we could to a neighbor’s second story bedroom. We wrapped the legs of the poster bed in trash bags and piled belongings on counters or on top of furniture we never liked. We loaded clothes into more garbage bags and stowed them in the kayak with our three dogs.flood1

Then we abandoned ship, paddled to high ground, and drove to my in-law’s in upstate South Carolina.

When we returned a few days later, the water was still rising. When the water crested, the only part of my car still showing was the tip of the antennae. Water in the house stopped just shy of the light switches. On a perfectly sunny, early autumn afternoon, we paddled our kayak through a set of French doors and into the great room. Light reflected off the water and shimmered across the vaulted ceiling. There was a stillness. An unexpected peace.

That was in September. Less than four months later, in January of 2000, we loaded what we’d salvaged into two cars and a moving van and moved to Western North Carolina. Eighteen years later, life in the mountains is good. And mostly dry.

We still look around at the beauty of the mountains and the changing seasons and marvel at our good fortune. Neither one of us misses the ocean or the flat land or the long, hot summers. We’re right where we’re supposed to be.

And all it took to move us, was a hurricane.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm, plans to give you a hope and a future. Then you will call upon and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:11-13, NIV)

*This is an abbreviated version of an essay I wrote for “When You Pass Through Waters: Words of Hope & Healing,” a collection of essays written to help raise funds for those affected by record flooding in SC in 2015.

Appalachian Thursday — Apple Pie Days

applesEarly signs of autumn are showing. Ironweed and Joe Pye weed blooming along the road. Cooler nights. A few leaves beginning to turn. And . . . apples! Oh, such an abundance of apples.

We’re blessed with a neighbor who has five apple trees all burdened with fruit this year. My favorite are the sweet/tart green apples that I’ve already been eating for more than a week. Next are the lovely, speckled rusty red apples perfect for applesauce and pies.

What kind are they? I call them Shopestone apples, named for a nearby creek and the neighbor who lets me pick all I want.

There are few things more pleasing than picking apples late in the afternoon and then eating warm apple pie with vanilla ice cream that evening.

If you want to test that theory yourself, here’s the recipe my friend Marilyn gave me written in her own shorthand style.

Marilyn’s Apple Crumb Pie – “The Family Recipe”

Crust: Pillsbury, red box, dairy aisle. Use single crust–put in pie plate, trim, flute.
Filling: Apples–cut, pared, sliced (Granny Smith is the best)
Sprinkle: 1/2 cup sugar mixed with 1 tsp. cinnamon
Topping: 1/2 cup sugar, 3/4 cup flour, 1/3 cup butter
Bake: 400 degrees F–40 minutes (sometimes longer)

I find that 5 large, grocery store apples fill the crust. Smaller, homegrown varieties may take 6 or 7. And you’d be remiss if you didn’t serve this warm with vanilla ice cream.

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.

HORNETS’ NEST

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.”

Indeed.

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!

 

Appalachian Thursday – Berry Season

HelvetiaSummer is a fruitful time in the soft, green mountains of Appalachia. The black raspberries are gone and the blackberries are just getting started. Typically we have MORE than enough to go round–even sharing with the bears!

When it comes to blackberries there are pies, jellies, jams, sauces, salads, and even sweet tea. But really, I think most of two things–cobbler and wine. My great-grandmother was a believer in blackberry wine to cure most things. A family story goes that when my brother was a baby he had an, er, intestinal complaint that doctors couldn’t cure. A tablespoon of blackberry wine from Grandma Jane and he was good as new!

So here’s a recipe from a booklet titled, Oppis Guet’s Vo, Helvetia. It includes recipes, household hints and cures collected by Eleanor Mailloux from the residents of Helvetia–a Swiss Village near where I grew up in WV. I don’t know if the recipe is any good, but the writing is great!

“On a lovely August day, find yourself a blackberry patch and pick a couple of gallons of berries. Put in crock and cover with water. Let set for a day–whenever you think of it mash and stir. Strain into containers and add 3 1/2 cups sugar to every gallon of juice. Usually, blackberries don’t take yeast, but for your first try you might add 1/2 cake dissolved yeast in 1/4 cup lukewarm water–add to juice and stir well. Ferment until stops working, put in jugs and cover tops with cloth. Let continue to work in warm place until bubbles cease to rise. When completely fermented, seal. Drink the following spring.”

And for a more practical recipe, you might try this cobbler from the Jubilation Cookbook for the Joyful Woman given to me by Anna Cutright in January 1989.

Blackberry Cobbler – Margaret Holmes
-Put 1 stick of butter in a deep dish and put into oven at 350 degrees.
-Mix: 2-4 cups blackberries with 1 cup sugar
-Mix: 3/4 cup plain flour, 1 cup sugar, 3/4 cup sweet milk, 2 tsp. baking powder
Stir into a smooth batter. Pour batter gently into center of melted butter. DO NOT STIR. Gently pour fruit into center of melted butter and batter. DO NOT STIR. Bake about 1 hour at 350 degrees.

My advice would be to serve that with a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream!