Cloudy day at Montreat in black and white

A cloudy, rainy Sunday seemed like a good time to drive over to Montreat and walk around the pond, taking in the rhodo-filled valley’s cool, damp vibe.  On the way, nestled between I40 and Hwy 70, is the abandoned Working Hands Gallery shop. Someone added the ship’s figurehead to the side:

Ship’s figurehead on the prow of an abandoned craft gallery.

Photos from the pond at Montreat:

Maze walking

Stone and wood

Sky in the water

Looking up the ridge from the pond

Roots and trail

End of the maze

The Cottage at Long Beach

Mama Nellie & me at Long Beach, 1960

Mama Nellie & me at Long Beach, 1960.

Decades after my uncle took this picture, time and storm-borne tides would try to pull my grandparents’ beach cottage into the sea. In 1960, however, when my grandmother was a spry sexagenarian and my grandfather, just off camera, was creating a cottage in the shifting sands of Long Beach, this was a place of magic and practical craftsmanship. I was two years old when this photo was taken, and family lore relates how I helped build a ladder under my grandfather’s tutelage, pounding in the general direction of nails while he attended to the task of building this modest seaside manse.

My family hails from Eastern North Carolina (“Down East”), and has called that part of the world home for generations. My parents left there in 1946, simultaneously eloping and escaping their childhood homes to embark on Dad’s career in the Air Force. My mother had a difficult relationship with her mother (partially due to the fact that Mom eloped with Dad, something my grandmother never really got over), and I  realized later in life that this made trips back home difficult for my mother. My father, on the other hand, was a recently returned World War II combat veteran, and never really adjusted to the fact that he would always be considered the baby brother by his four older sisters. My Down East roots, then, were cast somewhat adrift as my parents had defined their Down East “homes” as a place you visited but would never return to.

Green paths for newly hatched turtles to make it to the sea, twisted after a storm and heavy surf.

Green paths at Long Beach for newly hatched turtles to make it to the sea, twisted after a storm and heavy surf.

My grandparents’  beach cottage was “neutral” in a way. There were no household chores or familial obligations to attend to at the beach, in contrast to visits to my parents’ respective home towns. Free from my parents’ hometown baggage, the cottage became an anchor of sorts for me, providing a touchstone with the Eastern part of my home state, a place I would visit and revisit for decades until I finally found a part of the state – the mountains –  to call home.

As places go, the seaside has a unique appeal. No rhythms surpass the ebb and flow of the tides. During the countless times I would venture to the cottage, I witnessed turtles emerge from the surf during the May full moon, lay their eggs, and lumber back to the sea. Pelicans flew in linear formation just above the waves, terns scurried among the tidal pools, and crabs peeked at you from their holes. When I went there I would put my watch in a drawer and set my schedule by the tides. I shunned the paper and news from the wider world, opting to listen to the surf. The beachfront cottage was where I first began to really pay attention to natural time, where I became aware of that nebulous metaphysical place that T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.”

Smelling of salt water with an ongoing wind coming off the Atlantic, the cottage was a frequent place of solace during my college years and after. Alone and with friends, visits entailed long hours on the beach, cooking seafood in the somewhat rundown kitchen, listening to specially curated mix tapes on portable cassette players (sporting titles like “Sea Songs and Silly Shanties”), reading book after book, writing bad poetry, and, quite often, drinking a bit too much. Through it all, the surf crashed, winter storms lashed the siding, the dunes eroded, and the high tide line crept closer each year.

Stormy weather, looking South from Long Beach

Stormy weather, looking South from Long Beach

For a while, after my grandparents died, my mother and her brothers continued to rent the cottage. My wife and I would join my parents for a week of cottage maintenance before the rental season. The sound of crashing surf mixed with hammers and power tools, the bouquet of briny air mingled with fresh paint. Collectively, the family gathered in an ongoing effort to keep the ocean at bay and to keep my grandmother’s dream of renting the cottage alive for yet another summer season.

But generational change brings different ideas, new ways of viewing the world. The cottage became a burden to my aging uncles and mother and they sold it in the 1980s. However, the deep seed of this particular beach – now called Oak Island, NC – was firmly planted. My wife and I continued to go back and rent different cottages on the same stretch of beach – places sporting silly names like Toki Doki, Nap Monster, Sea N’ Stars, and Time in a Bottle. We’d drive by my grandparents’ old cottage (once simply named John F. Lewis, Parkton, NC, later renamed the Mason Oaks by the new owners) and watch it slowly decline as the thick ocean air witnessed its steady, slow demise.

Hurricanes hastened this process, and over the course of several years in the 1990s Hurricanes Floyd, Bertha, and Fran ravaged the cottage. For a while, after these hurricanes, the cottage was rendered little more than a box on stilts with no stairs, no plumbing, no wiring, no deck, and no boardwalk to the beach, an eerie container of memories suspended in the air, waiting for a final, fatal punch from the ocean. It has regained a second life after the hurricane battering, as efforts at beach rebuilding and stubborn persistence by the current owners  managed to keep it alive, even if it seems a bit run down and ready to tumble into the ocean.

Even as I write this the tides and winds of Hurricane Matthew are battering Oak Island. A film clip posted on social media showed the Oak Island Pier collapsing in the storm surge, and this may be the time that the cottage meets its fated tumble into the sea. After all, it was built  on sand and its outcome was sealed from its inception. Yet its legacy is deeply embedded in me, regardless of when it meets its end.  It was often a place of solace, one where I was first exposed to the fine craft of swinging a hammer, building a ladder, and stopping to listen. 

Sunset, Long Beach

Sunset, Long Beach

Backyard saplings and the Appalachian ecoregion

As a kid one of my favorite pastimes was romping through the woods that ringed the neighborhoods I lived in, areas that had been carved out of forests and fields as cities spread into the countryside. These trees were a constant source of fun and frolic, woods and creeks that I loved to hang out in. This simple, generic idiom best describes my relationship with the woods – I just like to “hang out” in them. This has remained true all my life.

Now, as an adult, I live on a wooded Appalachian hillside in a neighborhood surrounded by trees. When our subdivision was built in the 1990s the developers gave it a sylvan-themed name (“Woodland Hills”) and tagged the streets with nature-evoking titles like “Wilderness Road” and “Wildflower Drive.” Despite their efforts with wordplay, the term “wilderness” seems a bit out-of-place with the asphalt roads, power lines, and houses that make up our neighborhood. I suspect that this irony was lost on the developers.

Backyard woods. Olympus E-M1, 12-40 lens, f/3.5, 1/125, ISO 800, early morning light

Backyard woods in the early morning light.

Naming ironies aside, this is where I live. And while suburban, our yard, like such lots in the mountains, is chopped out of a hill. A flat spot was sliced from the slope,  a drainage system was dug around the foundation, and a retaining wall of railroad ties was placed in the backyard. Collectively these were designed to channel water away from the house and to keep the carved hillside from following its natural inclination to erode downhill.  Above the retaining wall is a mess of ground cover intended to deter erosion and mask the gash left by excavation.

Maple sapling and broken egg the morning after a heavy thunderstorm.

Maple sapling and broken egg the morning after a heavy thunderstorm.

Above that are the woods, which were (relatively) untouched by the developers. Our yard includes oaks, maples, tulip poplars, hickories, and pines, some 50 to 60 feet tall. Our lot is intersected by a chain link fence and a few small paths for easy human and canine passage. Above our property is another road with more houses and more woods running up to the top of the ridge. You could walk through the woods to the top of our mountain and follow the wooded ridges east all the way to the Blue Ridge Parkway, crossing several roads that traverse the ridges along the way. There aren’t trails from here to the Parkway, and much is private property, but it could be done.

Dog on trail.

Backyard path with domesticated Canis lupus familiaris and plenty of English ivy.

Geographically, we live on the north-facing slope at the mouth of Reems Creek Valley.  Reems Creek flows down from the western slope of the Blue Ridge, past our neighborhood, and on to the French Broad River. Our hill and this valley are part of the larger Appalachian – Blue Ridge forest ecoregion, which according to the World Wildlife Fund, “represents one of the world’s richest temperate broadleaf forests.” This area was heavily timbered early in the 20th century, and while I have no records of logging on what is now our property, there’s plenty of evidence that these trees are second or possibly third growth. Adding to the mystery is an old roadbed in the corner of our lot that could have been a logging road at one time.

This is very much suburbia – the sounds of peepers in the evening are tempered by the mechanical groan of the neighbor’s air conditioner, while the calls of the morning birds on the hillside are mixed with highway sounds from I-26 a mile or so away. On a winter’s day you can look across the valley and see Hamburg Mountain in Weaverville with its garish cover of houses. There are several light industrial plants within a few miles of our house. All this suburbia notwithstanding, the woods that fill the hills and valleys around here are part of a vibrant, verdant ecoregion, a small portion of the larger canopy that covers this part of the Appalachian mountains.

I’ve been thinking about this verdancy during an ongoing foray into my backyard, a place where it’s easy to understand how a forest can grow and spread.  It’s a fertile place, where every year an astounding number of saplings spring forth, youthful sprouts that emerge from seeds scattered from the taller canopy above. Our upper yard is relatively undisturbed forest floor, forming the perfect breeding ground for young trees. Maples, pines, oaks, and tulip poplars seem to be the most fruitful – saplings from all these trees dominate my yard, bounding from too-small-to-notice to 6-8” tall in a very short time, especially given the rainy summer we’re having this year. 

Forest floor.

Forest floor in our yard with spotted wintergreen,  maple saplings, and a pine sapling.

Countless saplings had taken root in the embankment above our retaining wall, seeking this break in the canopy to do that whole acorn-to-mighty-oak thing. On our north-facing lot direct sunlight is at a premium, so in order to keep the canopy clear some sapling weeding was in order. The embankment is too steep to stand on so I placed a ladder on the hillside ground cover, systematically moving it along the retaining wall so I could remove saplings. All the recent rain made it easy to pull out these small trees with their roots intact.  Over the course of several hours I pulled over 100 saplings from the embankment – a fledgling forest in and of itself. I felt a bit guilty thinning these baby trees, but for every one I pulled I spotted another couple starting to grow.

Tulip poplar, maple, and pine saplings removed from the yard.

Tulip poplar, maple, and pine saplings removed from the yard.

As I was removing these saplings, I found myself reflecting  on the lushness and fecundity of these little trees. Tulip poplars alone are remarkably fertile. A study in 1966 found that a one-acre Appalachian stand of tulip poplars produced 1.5 million seeds per acre. One person reported that they planted a 5′ tall tulip poplar in their yard and it grew to 20′ tall in 36 months. 

Based on how quickly and thickly tall trees sow their young in my yard, I could see how, unchecked over time, trees will return the area to its native forest.  There are hints of this process here and there. In the country you’ll see old barns and outbuildings with trees growing through the windows and roofs, establishing a forested foothold. It even happens in town – there’s a shell of a building in Asheville’s River Arts District with a healthy little glade emerging through its shattered roof. It seems that trees have a long range development plan of their own, willing to slowly dominate, one sapling at a time, as generations of humans march past.

In my tiny section of the Appalachian forest, I marvel at the heartiness of these saplings, ambitious versions of their relatives that tower above.  I’m constantly surprising myself that I can pull an entire tree out of the ground and toss it on a pile of similarly sized trees.  I smile at the notion that this act gives me the power to keep the forest at bay. It’s a pleasant folly that I like to entertain.

Trees taking over a building in the River Arts District.

Trees taking over a building in Asheville’s River Arts District.

Bantering Bibliocrat, redux

After a year and a half of inactivity on Blogger, I’ve resurrected my blog in WordPress. This updates and continues my previous Bantering Bibliocrat blog. As usual, all photographs and writing are my own (and copyrighted thusly) unless otherwise indicated.  I’m also bringing back my fledging (well, half-started then abandoned) cooking blog, Epicurean Librarian, which will be incorporated into this blog.

Kituwah, the Cherokee home village

Kituwah, the Cherokee home village