A Mystery at Royal Orchard

You know how you get invited to an event sometimes that’s outside your normal scope and is either exciting all by itself or exciting because of where it is or who else will be there, and you can hardly wait? And other times you get the invitation and your mouth makes a weird shape – the kind that’s trying to form some variation of Oh, yay! but just can’t because you are at the opposite end of the excitement spectrum? And other times you are smack-dab in the middle and the best you can come up with is Eh or Okay?

I generally veer toward Eh when I am unsure. Combine Vagueness (various aspects of the event are unknown)

with Else (going requires me to switch mental gears)

with Extreme Overall Body Soreness. It has been a week of gung-ho carrying/ placing/ leveling/ finagling 50+ cinder blocks as well as shoveling tons – has to be tons – of dirt and “crusher run.”

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Add an unexpected memorial service to the week and I am ambivalent. But I said I was going so I’m going. I had RSVP’d YES to this thank-you-to-CASA-volunteers event weeks ago. On the upside, it would be a reason to put on something besides overalls, and there would be great food and drink there, and nice people would be commending important work, I was sure of that. And doesn’t it often happen that once you get there, it’s so fun and amazing that you wonder whatever made you hesitate?
But the venue, “Royal Orchard” – never heard of it.

I worked in hospitality for years, a job that requires you to know about local attractions including wineries, breweries, cideries. Royal Orchard kinda sounds like it falls into that general category, don’t you think?

I could have looked it up. I could have asked around. Even if I had, it would not be found in a printed or posted or anyone’s mental listing of local cideries. That’s because Royal Orchard is a private home. They don’t sell apples, they don’t make hard cider, they don’t have a pumpkin patch and they don’t make donuts for tourists, though it turns out they do have a vast network of walking trails open to the public. Who knew?

We turned off the main road onto Royal Orchard Drive and started climbing a single-lane road up, up, up the hillside. Slight curve, serious hairpin, up some more, up, up, up. No mile-markers, but it has to be right. There were no other roads. Suddenly the house appears before you.

This is the Royal Orchard “Big House,” or as much of it as would fit in my camera’s viewfinder. The host of the event, who owns it along with “about a hundred of my cousins,” said his great-grandfather did well (I guess!) in the railroad industry and built the house (or let us more correctly say had the house built) around 1913.

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This is the side driveway. That building way over to the right seemed to be some sort of carriage barn.

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That’s a lot of stone.

The interior is lavishly furnished in period style. This is one of the (I stopped counting at 15) bedrooms.

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This is the view.

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If you adjust the lighting and look carefully at the foreground of the view, you see a curious thing. Four curious things. See them?

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Zooming in doesn’t really help figure out what they are.

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I want to know your guess.

Glorified grain silo? The door has to be around the back.

Primo-natural rock-climbing wall? For the outdoor experience that is not a mountain.

Tomb? The grandfather? But then who are the other three for?

Monument? To those who did all the work? (I can hope!)

Above-ground dungeon? You would not hear the screams from the house.

Newfangled monolith? Who says it has to be just one large, upright stone? These Virginians, they do what they want and call it what they want.

It is a question for the host. It is a question for which, surely, there is a good answer. “I wish I had a better story” is not the answer I was looking for. “We think they just didn’t know what to do with all the leftover stones,” he said.

Huh.

I got to thinking about all the built things I look at and wonder about. Why is it there? Why did they build it like that? Who thought that was a good idea?

Maybe there’s not a good answer.

Maybe there wasn’t a better thing to do. Maybe someone was bored and made the thing absentmindedly. Maybe they goofed. Maybe they were sure it would come out nice and it just didn’t. Maybe they wanted people to wonder in a hundred years: What is it? and be dumbfounded. (Funny little joke – think they’re still laughing??) Maybe they assumed a legend would arise. Maybe not everything is purposeful.

I think someone buried something in there. Not necessarily a corpse, though the Edgar Allen Poe part of my mind has to entertain the possibilities of even gruesomer images. But more like a time capsule. You could argue that the house serves that purpose, and be right, but something more personal maybe.

What would you put in a box and tuck into a stone tower for someone to find in a hundred years?

Ode to Miss D’Uccle

Please note up front: I am not mourning, and if I were, I would not be mourning just any chicken. I know chickens die on a routine basis. I eat them without thinking about it them having died. But it has been a long time since one of my own up and keeled over. They have been heartier than that. They are well protected, well fed, practically pampered (thanks to Sandy who, no doubt, takes secret pleasure in watching them dive after tasty dried mealworms). Miss D’Uccle’s demise is a bit of a mystery.

This is the bird whose fate I relate.

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She was a piece of work, this one. Can you tell? Smallest hen in the flock, full of spitfire, always the one guests asked about because of her fancy coloring and perky attitude. I called her Miss D’Uccle, though technically she was (note past tense ☹) a Mille Fleur D’Uccle, a breed that comes from the Belgian town of Uccle, outside Brussels. Descriptions say they are a “bearded” breed, but I see mostly sideburns, don’t you?

A profile shot better reveals the beard of which she was surely proud.

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The feathered feet are a thing as well. Let the others sport their bare-legged, three-toed-for-all-the-world-to-see business. None of that for her. Miss D’Uccle’s soft brown and white speckled body was complemented beautifully by her perfect red comb (imagine if humans had red combs!).

Just yesterday she was sitting on an egg or two – hers perhaps, and one of the silkie’s probably. (You can never be totally sure unless you nudge them away from the sitting spot and find a warm one underneath, and even then, it’s only a most-likely-it’s-hers situation.)

Did something poisonous bite her? Did she have heart failure or an unknown chicken disease? Or was she sitting because she was brooding, the chicken form of depression? Did her feelings get hurt? Did she decide it’s all just not worth it anymore? We will never know. I went out to collect eggs this afternoon and found her face-in-the-straw. There’s no hope when you are face-in-the-straw.

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Typically in the past, when a chicken dies, we throw it – chickens turn ungendered to me upon death – over the hill, the very steep hill that overlooks many acres of additional woods beyond my property. We do this for two reasons: 1. it’s the easiest thing to do, and we have a lot going on around here, and 2. so some lucky fox or raccoon or hawk can find a free meal and be happy and praise God in their own way. It’s not recycling, it’s full-cycling, giving back. There are perils to such an approach though, as we reviewed at the dinner table when discussing what to do next while said bird remained for the time being in the coop.

Peril #1: The Standing Obstructions. There was the time when Sandy went behind the garden and attempted to throw a dead one down the hill, but it got caught in the crotch of a tree about ten feet up. Likely, when you live next to an unmanicured forest where towering trees, saplings and every height of green woody thing in between fills the space, something solid will get in the way.

Peril #2: The Unexpected Return. There was the time when Bridget, a golden retriever I had, came charging back up the hill with a dead chicken in her mouth. Granted, it should not be surprising when dogs with “retriever” in their name, when dogs famous for, routinely used for, retrieving dead birds in the field should appear having thus retrieved. Nonetheless, you think when you throw a dead bird over the hill, it will stay over the hill! The thing about dead birds is – unless you are going to eat them – you really don’t want to see them again.

Peril #3: The Cannibal-in-Them Emerges. We have not seen this, but we fear it. The same chickens that happily eat anything you throw in their outdoor space, anything, including the leftovers from a chicken dinner (and they will pick those bones clean!), just might have no qualms about a free meal in their own midst, assuming they could get past the feathers. My experience tells me you don’t put anything past chickens.

The disposal alternative to the hopefully-far-flung fling is digging, and digging a hole in Virginia concrete (in other places referred to as dirt or soil), especially after weeks of little rain, involves a pickaxe and rather a good deal of physical labor better applied to porch-building, gardening, etc. All things considered, you find a way to give a free lunch to the wildlife wandering in the woods outside the coop.

Samuel, wanting to avoid the trees-as-catchers problem, said, “I’ll walk it down.” Bless him. That would be a good idea. Pre-walk, however, he was not agreeable to a photo. This is his I’m-not-posing-with-a-dead-chicken photo. Note poor quality of photo with uncooperative subject. And I don’t mean the chicken.

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Being flung into the woods is not the most heart-touching finale to a well-lived life, I’ll grant you. I cannot be accused of over-sentimentality when it comes to my chickens, much as I am amused by them and appreciate their wonderful eggs. (Dogs are another thing, don’t get me started.) But Miss D’Uccle was a good one, and we will miss her. And we didn’t eat her. And here I am ode-ing her, right? That has to count for something.

 

Egg with Tail, Paper Piles and Real Towels

She just didn’t finish. That’s what it looks like to me. The hen that laid the egg with the tail (yes, you read that right) either got bored and distracted and forgot when to pinch off, or it started to hurt and she just eeked through the pain, or she is protesting her egg-laying job but had to get it out anyway. Let it be said that none of us knows exactly what it feels like to plop out an egg, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to get the general idea.

This egg was like the other weakly shelled egg from earlier this summer, squishy just the same, a bit like jello with the thinnest of a crust, just enough crust to keep the yolk and white from making a gooey mess all over the place. Only this one had a tail. What’s up with the chicken that lays such an egg? I wonder which chicken? Miss Old Gray? Don’t-Mess-With-Me White Brahma? Sister Cinnamon Queen?

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I wonder if the same chicken laid both. I wonder why.

I’m thinking it’s one of the Queens. I see an attitude, don’t you?

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Why give an egg a tail? Is it because what else, given her limited physiology, can she do for fun? You know, to let her artistic side run wild? See what they think of this design! Did the chicken misfire or did the misfired shell surprise the chicken? At the Chicken Council will she defend herself with Hey, sisters, really, that shell material had a mind of its own – I didn’t try to make it do that! As if (overall weak shell aside) the hen tried to get the tail to break off and it just wouldn’t? A little like, well, you know. Perhaps the shell proper, taking an autonomous stand, was unwilling or too embarrassed to break off? Or maybe the blame goes back to insufficient shell material in the production line – Hey, Jack, you shorted me! How am I supposed to make a good shell if you short me on the hard stuff?

No getting around it (no pun intended), this egg is unfinished, improper, abnormal.

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There was nothing wrong with the egg inside. I had it for lunch, scrambled with a bit of leftover rice. The shell reduced to a teeny, wet, plastic-bag-like mess once the innards were removed, and that was gross and instantly trash, but the white and yolk were perfectly normal. This egg-with-a-tail anomaly caused me to wonder about other kinds of unfinished business, other things that I never quite wrap up in a neat little package and call DONE, like mail and laundry, and that led to fond memories of systems-that-work-but-are-somehow-unimplemented and environmental consciousness. Bear with me.

Mail: It’s true they don’t send as many catalogs as they used to, increased postage having changed that game. My paper piles don’t get as high and toppling as they used to. A lot of bills come electronically now, and they send you ads online instead. Last week I was looking at websites for outdoor furniture because sooner or later I will have a finished porch (speaking of unfinished business!) and later, while reading a New York Times article, up popped an ad for the very chair I had been looking at. That’s just plain creepy. I assume it’s legal for some program to be tracking my views, and I know it happens all the time and waaaaaay more than I know, but I don’t like it a bit. I think I’d rather deal with the pile!

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Still, I can’t blame my pile(s) on the creepy internet. In the mix you’d find checks I don’t know what to do with after I have mobile-deposited them (can I really throw them away?), receipts for the next time I do taxes, that great garlic-planting guide Tracy gave me (I’m going to need that in October), the really nice visitor’s guide from when I was at the Ringling Museum in April, bank statements (I still get some in paper form), to-do lists (I still write them to keep myself on track and I sometimes like looking back on them to see Oh, look how much was accomplished! – though be assured I do throw the shopping lists away after the shopping trip), random business cards, occasional invitations that are too pretty to throw away (and isn’t it somehow disrespectful to throw them away?)…

What kills me is that I have had, have used and have benefited from a perfectly good system for dealing with such random papers – a filing system! You get plain pocket folders (a variety of colors is more fun) and label them Bank, Garden, Travel, Projects, etc., and then you put the lists, receipts, etc., in the corresponding folder, which then goes in a file box somewhere handy. How hard is that?? No paper piles need exist at all!

I could say it’s hard right now because of living in a construction/ undone/ upside-down zone. Three rooms of my house need sheetrock work. Here’s one.

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The foyer houses a lot of tools and construction materials because you can’t run downstairs every time you need a different level or drill bit. And if you can call the new porch a room, that makes four undone zones – two of the three new sets of windows are in but not trimmed…

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…roof is on but not siding, some new ceiling lights now (as of yesterday!) turn on and some ceiling plywood is up but not all, and not all lights are in, and I still have not picked out the fans, and some of the old cedar siding is planed (to become ceiling material over the plywood) but not all, etc.

It’s a mess. A work-in-progress, I-begin-to-see-the-light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel mess. A beautiful-vision-in-my-mind mess. Can a person be expected to maintain neat file folders under such circumstances?

Excuses, excuses! I hear you! Try living in my house, you say.

So-and-so (no names) adds to the mess / takes all my time / distracts me unspeakably!

My job is so demanding right now!

If only the people who said they would do the work would actually do the work!

Truth be told, I myself can never remember to buy the pocket folders! All right, all right, I’ll put them on the list. Now where was that list?

Laundry: When do we come to the end of laundry?! I operate a little b&b, so there are always sheets and towels, to say nothing of my other life and the sawdusty clothes from porch-building and oh-yeah-my-other-life the inside-out workout pants that I love.

But I don’t really mind. I even hang my laundry on a wonderful outdoor clothesline most of the time. There is nothing under the sun like sleeping on sheets that have dried in a sunshiny breeze. (I do not hang bath towels – they do need to fluff up in the dryer.)

There is in fact one portion of my laundry that I am even proud of in a way only some of you will understand.

I am not one for paper towels any more than necessary, nor throwaway wipes and that sort of thing. There is something about using a real piece of cloth that is fully intended to get dirty and be the thing between my hand and a mess I have to clean up, something about the softness of the cloth coupled with its toughness/ reuseableness/ tried-and-trueness. There is a difference between a real towel vs. something that tries to be a real towel.

Imagine my delight when I read in A Boat, A Whale and A Walrus (lovely birthday present cookbook from my daughter) by Seattle restaurant owner and entrepreneur Renee Erickson:

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REAL TOWELS

I’m a fan of towels – not the paper kind, but real cloth towels, the kind you hang from your oven door. At home I keep a huge wicker bin of them next to my oven, and I use them in lieu of paper towels, to mop up messes, blot food and soak up excess liquid wherever it appears. I accumulate them when I travel, mostly, but especially in Parisian antique markets. They’re pretty, and they’re washable. And because living in the restaurant world inevitably means making a lot of waste, it makes me feel good to use a little less paper at home.

I did not acquire my own cloths at Parisian antique markets, nor are they all the same. Some are terry, some soft knit, some woven cotton, some gauzy. They are my go-to for cleaning, for spills, for drying things, for polishing things. If they are rendered trash – such as when you use them to mink-oil your shoes – so be it. There are always more. Most of the time they go in the wash (thereby adding to the laundry, yes, but I am going to do laundry anyway, and so are you) and go back in my rag drawer. I can only imagine having space in my kitchen for a huge wicker bin of them.

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I wish I had a way to know how many paper towels I have not used over the years. I wish I knew the amount of money I have saved by not buying massive packs of them or could see the still-empty corner of a landfill that’s not filled with just my lifetime’s worth of them. I know someone else’s use of paper towels will fill that corner. I know that what I don’t use in a lifetime is probably what a football stadium, say, accumulates during one event. I certainly use paper towels sometimes.

Still, every time a paper towel is just the thing (such as on the plate I am about to transfer crispy bacon to from the hot pan), I pause and see mountains of trash in my mind, with bulldozers pushing it around to try to make room for more and more coming day after day, and I say to myself it’s okay this time. The “leave as little a footprint as possible” directive was intended for campers at first if I remember right: Take away anything you bring to the campsite, allowing the next camper to enjoy the natural environment as much as possible (instead of having to deal with your leftover stuff). To me this applies to everyday life too and to the big picture of my footprint on the environment. I am responsible for mine, after all, not someone else’s. I do what I can to be a good steward of my resources, earth’s resources. And a part of me is very satisfied about that.

As the chicken was probably satisfied. Hey, doing the best I can here!

It Smells Like Earth

This morning as I made my bed, I again smiled at a gift I received last year, a small pillow filled with I don’t know – pieces of pinecone? I picked it up, held it to my face and breathed deeply in. The earthy scent of the filling filled me. My eyes closed, my body relaxed, my smile broadened.

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Gabi wrote a note to explain the un-ordinary pillow. It helps us get a good sleep, she said. Just have it near you in bed. Why would someone want a pillow filled with forest material? Why would I want one?

Trees stand tall all around me, some towering over 100 feet. Giants they are. This time of year my windows are wide open. Cool freshness wafts in. I hear birds chirping, squirrels chittering, insects singing, an occasional train in the distance rumbling, not much else except my confused hen (the one that thinks she’s a rooster) sometimes crowing.

Yet I love this pillow. And if I love it, I who live in the country, I can only imagine how other people in other settings might love the scent of earth at the ready, packaged neatly and freely evoking thoughts of earth’s predictable-yet-always-slightly-different cycles, of forest filled with boundless unseen dramas, of blessed, beautiful trees with fluttery leaf dances so high up.

I wonder how a pillow like this strikes a person who lives near the sea, where saltiness would pervade the air, water would predominate the landscape and the rushing, ebbing, flowing tides, rustling dune grasses and hungry shore birds would replace the forest sounds. The waterfront scene is as lovely as the forest, some would say as lovely as the sea of waving grass in the plains or the jagged, white peaks of high mountains. All these places can be our connection to earth, to the intelligent design it presents, to things we often hardly give thought to – how magical and majestic are these natural wonders, how awesome and complex is the schematic that includes all the moving parts of this picture, how utterly spectacular is a sky that is different every single sunset and sunrise.

What do people do who do not have the natural world in their everyday life? I don’t mean you have to have a forest around you or a vast body of water in your sightline. I mean just a piece of nature, like Rachel’s pawpaw trees.

Once I had guests at the cottage, parents and two middle-school-age daughters. As we were exploring the garden, the mother said, “Girls, this is nature.” To me, quietly, she said, “The closest we get to nature is the fruit bowl on the counter.”  Oh, dear, can this be true?

Maybe nature – the wondrous creation of things not-man-made – doesn’t speak to other people the same way it speaks to me. Maybe I just want to think it has a lot to say if only we hear and listen, look and see, touch and feel. The older I get, the more I think there’s more to everything than we can ever know, and that makes it not only endlessly unboring, but also ever able to teach us something new, something we need to know, something that helps or serves something else. Maybe I just hope it.

One Determined Marigold

Various people in my world are struggling. Some have chronic pain. Some have jobs that make them crazy. Some feel creaky, obsolete, scared, unwanted, frustrated or alone. All of them are like my one little marigold.

Apart from certain, strangely-not-completely-out-of-control areas, my garden is a mess this year. I’ve had some perfect veggies, enough for the marginal labor to have been worthwhile, but roughly half of the space qualifies as a jungle. With the front porch project I simply haven’t had the time. Plus this aggravating shoulder of mine, unimproved after three weeks of physical therapy (maybe worse), holds me back.

Still, I like fresh green pepper on my pizza and Samuel said he’d make some the other day. My contribution amounted to walking to the garden for a pepper. The jungle mess did not encourage lollygagging – it wants to get about its wild business without critical observers – so I got my pepper and was about to leave when a spot of gold caught my eye.

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There it was, one single marigold, standing tall and beautiful despite the choking weeds not far away. I had not planted it. I am unconventional in a list of ways, but it would not even occur to me to plant a flower in the middle of a path. One of the seeds from last year’s lovely crop must have found its way to this spot.

In August of last year the marigolds I did plant were huge and just beginning to blossom. My granddaughter Rise, five years old at the time, sweetly gives you the idea how tall they were.

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By September they were so full and heavy they fell over with gorgeous weight.

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This year I planted gourds instead, and some of them are remarkable (see the one hanging in the upper left? it keeps getting bigger!), but no zinnias, marigolds, asters or any other purely-for-color-and-show plants. Yet here is this one flower – standing strong, beautiful in its own way, determined – despite the mess – to have its moment.

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What a lovely parallel. Just like each person I know who is not in ideal circumstances presently, each person struggling with this or that, my one marigold is determined to

Stand strong: It’s hard to endure pain! It’s hard to have no time for yourself, or be far from those you love, or go to a job that feels dead-endish or keep up your end of a deal when those around you slough off. It’s hard to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, to remain positive when you feel like crap, to hold your tongue when someone is out of line, to go to the gym when you feel weak, to push through when you want to stay in your comfy little cave. Yet all around me I see people standing strong just like this marigold. It doesn’t care that it’s the only one. It proudly manages feeling like the first grader in the college class, being the newbie on the block, saying the words that are hard to say. Bravo, little marigold!

Be beautiful: See all the green around the marigold? The scene of mostly weeds (other than that one funky gourd) sets the stage for this one determined flower to shine. In our own mess of life, in the chaos or worry or disharmony we endure more often than we would like to, it’s easy to simply become part of the mess, to add to it, to blend in and become invisible. Instead we can choose to be the marigold – at least sometimes – and be other, be radiant, be beautiful.

Have its moment: The older you get, the more fleeting time proves itself to be. Time is so limited. Resources are so limited. So what. None of us will be here forever, or do everything we want to do or reach all of our goals. We are bound by our bodies, our relationships, our location, our circumstances, our education, our wisdom (or lack thereof). Bound. Having a bum shoulder has made me think a lot about the elusive thing we call equality. I can’t do what I want to do! I have a disadvantage compared to people with good shoulders! (Funny how you see things like good shoulders that you didn’t see before!) But this shoulder is mine, for better or worse. I own it. It is unique to me and limits me in ways I wish I could change right now. Alas, we do what we can while we can with what we have. This little marigold will be seen and admired by precious few people before it succumbs to the frost in a few months. No matter. In this season, this year, in this place, it will be like a gem in the dirt, determined to have its moment and do what it can despite its limitations.

I wonder if it grew in this spot just to bring these ideas to me.

Geocache on a Pinecone

Why do people traipse through forests? Hiking maybe? Hunting? Birdwatching? I expected my next foray into the woods to be a search for small dead cedar trees to use as poles. We need some small poles around here. Never before has it been my goal to find a mysterious object, investigate it, write in it, put it back and walk away. But that’s what geocaching is all about.

If you have never heard of geocaching, join the crowd. From the few people we talked to about it last week, it seems you’re either really into it (or know someone who is) or you’ve never heard of it.

My sister Lynn was here for a visit with her daughter Erika and granddaughters Kaileena (11) and Brea (5). We decided to explore some of the pristine lakes in this part of Virginia, having been motivated in part by a free-entry-pass that came in the mail (these promos do work sometimes!). On the way to Sherando Lake in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Erika mentioned that they had what you could call a mission while in Virginia – finding a geocache in which to put a little “travel bug.” You’re doing what? Mom said.

This is Sherando Lake. Ooh, so perfect.

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Kaileena’s “travel bug” is plastic, the size of a large coin or a key ring and has a cartoony dragon image on it. It was found at a geocache in Southwick, Massachusetts, by Kaileena’s Girl Scout troop leader, Lisa, who handed it off to Kaileena when she found out about the trip to Virginia. The idea is to give this little bug/trinket a ride from there to here to some other place eventually, and in doing so, connect with fellow-geocachers in a worldwide hide-and-seek adventure. Every cache is some version of a little treasure chest and contains a list of who has been there. Some of the caches also contain a constantly changing array of trinkets like Kaileena’s dragon, placed there for the next person to find.

For geocaching though, peaceful and picturesque Sherando Lake was a bust. We had fun there, don’t get me wrong. The weather was splendid, as you can see. Mom clearly demonstrated You are never too old to be silly with a fishing net!

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Kaileena and Brea spent hours in the water — til they were “prunes,” as Mom says. And we watched some people throwing a watermelon around in a water game – one presumes there were rules, but I cannot be sure. See the watermelon? The guy with the open hand had just thrown it. Or maybe he’s trying to catch it?

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Alas, geocaching – along with so many other activities nowadays – requires internet. Zeroing in on a specific cache online gets you exact (longitudinal and latitudinal) coordinates that take you to within 16 feet of the cache. Erika had checked the online global geocaching map and knew there were some caches near Sherando Lake, but of course they are not out in the open – what would be the fun of that!? By the time we got to the lake, we had no signal. She even drove to a parking lot next to the fishing end of the lake, but mountains will be mountains and will sometimes very effectively block signals.

We had better luck at Walnut Creek the next day. A county park closer to home, Walnut Creek is almost as pretty as Sherando Lake.

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The lifeguards told us internet was sketchy here too, but “See those two little pine trees up on the hill? Try there.”

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They are hard to see in the shadow, but Erika, Kaileena and I trekked up toward them anyway …

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… and sure enough, service! Terrible service, make no doubt, but as we all know, one bar is better than no bars. Within a quarter mile, the coordinates told us, up the hill more, to the right and through the woods, we would find the cache. Erika switched to compass mode on her phone and off we went, following the arrow. It tells you almost step by step how close you now are.

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No two caches will look the same. When on the search, as you make your way toward the hidden or not-quite-hidden cache, the thing to look for is something odd, something out of place, something not as it should be. Hmmm, here we were, branches snapping underfoot, clueless about any specifics to look for other than “it will look wrong.” See how on top of the phone it says “One of these things is not like the o…” We knew ahead of time that this cache was a micro-cache, meaning it would be too small to put the bug into, but we were determined to find it anyway (challenging as that might be!).

We got to where Erika’s arrow stopped. “We are within 16 feet. It’s got to be here somewhere.” Miraculously, she suddenly found it – a pinecone hanging at eye level from a branch with fishing line (which is not as pinecones should be hanging from trees). “One of these things is not like the o…” has to mean “One of these branches [from which a pinecone hangs] is not like the others.”  Hanging right underneath the pinecone, a little cache. Ta-da!!

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Closer up, the pinecone looked like this. See the little cache hanging off it? See the fishing line above?

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This little waterproof case holds a paper list of those who have stopped by.

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Both Kaileena and Erika added their info. Erika then re-rolled-up the list, tucked it back in, screwed the lid on and put it back on the pinecone. That’s it, folks! Quite the lovely view we had from the top of that hill…

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… but back to the lakeside beach we went.

What about the dragon-bug, you ask? (I knew you didn’t forget.) The next day, Erika and Kaileena got new coordinates, found a box in a stone wall near the hospital in Charlottesville, deposited the bug and signed their code names. The box was a bit worn and shabby, could stand to be replaced, so Erika added a note to the online info about this particular cache. Someone else will come along sooner or later and replace the box hopefully, and maybe even decide to give that bug a ride and take it elsewhere.

Who knows where it will land next!

 

Enough is As Good As a [ _____ ]

When Claudia visited in 2016, her first trip to the states in a few decades, we were acutely aware of how rare and precious our time together was. You know how it is – time flies with dear friends. You want to do everything you’ve been talking about for so long: Let’s make that no-knead bread and the homemade mozzarella cheese and a salad so you can dress it the way I love, oh and let me show you how we make our pizza now. Let’s watch Downton Abbey and Witness and The Lives of Others – and have you seen The IT Crowd? (Both stupid and hilarious, for when we just want to laugh!) Monticello is nearby, and Yoder’s, and the downtown pedestrian mall that’s so much like Burlington’s, and don’t forget Barboursville Vineyards with its cool stone ruins of Governor Barbour’s mansion. Let’s take walks in the morning when it’s brisk and in the daytime when the sun is warm and in the evening when the sun glows in the western sky – oh, yes, and Humpback Rocks is a great hike, best in the evening (not like Tirol, okay, but for Virginia, a great hike!).

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We had only nine days. And when I had asked her ahead of time what she wanted to do when she came, she replied with one word: “Rest.”

So let’s, instead, be real. Life comes down to choices, right? As I lamented, she comforted: Zu viel nimmt weg von genug, which I wrote down on a post-it, duly translated and left stuck on the side of my fridge.

Too much takes away from enough.

You could play with the translation and say Too much is worse than enough or Too much negates enough. The idea made sense – if we try to do too much, the time will not be restful, we’ll make ourselves crazy, we’ll miss the balance. And the German had a nice cadence to it. But the verbatim translation didn’t quite work for me. It stuck in my mouth somehow. And it never occurred to me to flip it around and put “enough” at the beginning.

This past week I got help from Mary Poppins. As I watched my five-year-old great niece giggling her way through this classic, I stumbled on a translation of Zu viel nimmt weg von genug that I’d missed the last, oh, say, five times I watched this movie. After the bit of nursery magic when all the toys and clothes dance and bounce and jump around, finding their way into drawers and cabinets and closets, converting the room from messy to tidy in a few delightful minutes, Jane and Michael wanted to do it again. More magic! More fun! How can that be bad? Mary Poppins drew the line in her practically-perfect, matter-of-fact way: “Enough is as good as a feast.” Click on the link to watch her say it.

Well, look at that! In 1910, the setting for this film, they too were struggling with When is enough? Where is the line? Clearly this is not a new problem. Well before that, people in biblical times were likewise advised about moderation. Have you found honey? Eat only what you need…. (Proverbs 25:16)

The idea of potential excess, should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-cross-that-line, comes up all the time.

What fills a day (or nine days)? Activity, yes, but how much is enough to be fun and satisfying yet avoid utter exhaustion?

What fills a house? Stuff, but how much is enough to fend off clutter and inundation?

What fills our bellies? Food and drink, but how much is enough for good health? How much crosses the line?

Decisions. Every day I have to make hard decisions – not every day as in on a daily basis, no, I mean continually    throughout    every    day – what to say yes to, what to spend money on, what to put in my mouth. Abundance has a downside, some would say a curse.

Funny, we don’t have trouble deciding how long to stand there rubbing our hands together with the soap before we decide they are clean enough. We know when’s enough. We’re pretty good about knowing how fast to drive (we value our lives), how much physical space should exist between us and the person standing next to us (how close would be too close), how many toppings we want to put on our pizza (how many would be too many), when we’ve been sitting too long (need to move!), when enough time has passed since we last heard from an old friend (time to send a message). How come that same mostly-good judgment can’t apply so nonchalantly and easily to (pick a temptation, any temptation) shall we say ice cream?!

While standing in line to get ice cream recently, the person next to me ordered a small but said out loud while staring at the price list that looked something like this,

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“I want the super-size.”

Aren’t people the same no matter what year it is!?

A friend who was watching her weight once told me that a small scoop of ice cream didn’t taste better than a large bowlful, and that when she had less, she savored it more – or at least she was trying to train herself to think this way!

Maybe training is the answer. We can train ourselves (or be trained) to do new tasks at work. We adapt to new surroundings or circumstances with a bit of self-talk. It’s an idea.

Hmmm, but I like a feast as well as anyone. (We have only nine days! … That bread is fresh now! … I really like that bowl/table/shirt/game/book/gadget!)

How about mental gymnastics? Maybe I could reconfigure the feast, spread it out over time a bit or have one a little less often?

I hear once again my wise professor’s words. The topic at the time was bacon: Should I eat it? Shouldn’t I? How much? He calmly said three words: Balance. Variety, Moderation. Is it really that simple? Maybe.

My Imperfect Home

If you could live anywhere, where would it be? Do you have a top three? Are you there now? Have you ever been there? Does that place appeal to you because of the people who already live there or the people you would be with if you went there? Do the politics draw you? What about the culture? The natural beauty? The economic opportunities? Would you go because of the proximity to hiking trails, golf courses, excellent restaurants? Did you get where you are somehow and happily (or complacently) just stay, or did you firmly and purposefully decide that’s where you want to be?

I came to Virginia when I needed a job. We had been in Vermont many years, then moved to Maine so I could attend grad school. You get more for your dollar in Maine. I traded a standard raised ranch in Vermont (which, to be fair, we had made very nice) for a very cool log house in Maine. It was on the first fairway of a golf course, had three interior staircases, two driveways, a 20-foot granite fireplace and exposed logs in the living room…

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…and access to a pristine, private lake. (Oh, did I ever wish I could airlift that house to Virginia when we moved here!)

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Winter of 2004-05 in Maine was a snowy one. I was not unfamiliar with snow – we got plenty of it in Vermont as well. But we did not have a plow for shoveling the driveways, instead had plain old ordinary snow shovels. One morning as I was leaving for school, the snow was so deep I had to take it down one layer at a time, three layers deep. That means I took as much onto my shovel as I could once… twice… three times in order to get to the asphalt. That’s a lot of snow. When the time came to choose a new place to live, I think it can be understood that part of my reasoning was Yeah, maybe not so much snow.

Mom and Dad lived in New Jersey and I wanted to be a reasonable car ride from them, so as a starting point I drew a one-day’s-drive-from-them circle around their location and decided that anywhere within that circle was acceptable – point being, I did not want to have to get on a plane to get to their house. Their health was okay at the time, nothing alarming, but I look ahead. When a job came up in Charlottesville, Virginia, I remembered that some Vermont neighbors had moved there and had said nonchalantly one time that the daffodils bloom in February.

Daffodils in February?? After thigh-deep snow that sounded heavenly. Plus it was “only” a seven-eight hour drive from Mom and Dad. Okay. Virginia it is. I took this photo in February of 2017.

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As it turns out, this part of Virginia has a lot going for it. We get all four seasons – glorious blooming spring (oh the redbuds!)…

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…a longer growing season than up north (you can harvest spinach in December!), colorful foliage in the fall (okay, maybe not as spectacular as in Vermont, but still breathtaking) and real snow in the winter (though half an inch in the forecast causes school to be closed).

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But we are far enough west from the Eastern seaboard to avoid the more serious downsides of crazy coastal storms (winds usually dissipate by the time a storm moving north up the coast gets this far inland – which applies to both hurricanes and winter storms). And being on the eastward side of the Blue Ridge Mountains means that storms coming from the west or southwest are interrupted in their movement by those mountains and we get a lesser version of their fury and usually less snow. Summers are hot but there’s air conditioning and c’mon, with a/c it’s tolerable. When I am gearing up to complain, I try to remember that a/c is a relatively new comfort – imagine living in the South when there was none, and people were not so free to choose airier, lighter and less body-covering clothes.

So, yes, the climate has pluses. Also, the University of Virginia is in town, there are resorts and wineries and historic sites nearby for my visitors, and Washington DC is a two-hour drive away. I’m very happy in my neck of the Virginia commonwealth. All good, right?

Nope. No place is perfect. Everywhere, every place, has some negative to it, some imperfection. I didn’t say Overwhelmingly Imperfect. I didn’t say Intolerably Imperfect. But Imperfect nonetheless.

Funny, on Saturday afternoon Samuel and I were driving together talking about places to live and why a person would go here or there. “They have scorpions in the Southwest,” I told him. “I’d hate that.” New Orleans might get flooded again, Austin has tarantulas, California has some serious fault lines and the North is so darn cold.

Then, on Saturday evening, Sandy was driving out past the chicken coop and thought he saw a black snake in the driveway. You might recall from a previous post that I am not fond of snakes, even black snakes that are supposedly the good ones. On closer inspection, this snake was not a black snake. It was the ultra-nasty, potentially deadly kind called copperhead. He chopped its head off with a shovel (thank you, Sandy!) before coming to get me and Samuel. For least fifteen minutes we stared at it and took some pictures before our Disgust Sensors reached their limit and it was time to pitch the body and the head over the hill into the woods. Despite the amount of time since the head had been severed, those jaws were still in chomping mode and that body was still twitching. Ugh! Mega-ugh!

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As we walked back to the house, I said to Samuel, “Why do I live in the country?”

He replied, “How long have you lived here?”

“Eight years,” I said.

“And how many copperheads have you seen here before today?”

“Zero.”

Not that others hadn’t seen them. Not that Sandy hadn’t killed five the first year and Bradley hadn’t seen a black snake eating one the second year. But they are rare. We’ve seen bear once on the property and so has our neighbor. I’ve seen a black widow spider once. We hear the coyotes frequently. There are supposedly wolves again in the Blue Ridge and I’ve heard of rattle snakes around here too. All these creatures are possibly deadly. Hey, we even had an earthquake a few years ago.

My Airbnb cottage guests sometimes say this place is a slice of paradise. In many ways it is. But no place is perfect. No place is without some negative. It may get to twenty below in Vermont, but you don’t have deadly snakes and spiders – they just can’t tolerate the cold. You might have an occasional monstrous earthquake in San Francisco, but you don’t need a sub-zero parka.

By extension, the same applies to a job, a church, a relationship, a pet, a car even. I LOVE driving a stick-shift, always chose that option when I could, but when I was in the market in 2012, the most reliable car with the best gas mileage was a Prius and there was no option for 5-speed standard clutch. It just isn’t made that way. So yeah, I drive an automatic now.

Imperfect is the norm, and that’s okay. Imperfect is enough work, enough trouble, as it is. I shudder to think how stressed I would be if I upped the bar and expected perfection of myself, of my home, of the people in my world. I’d make myself crazy, or miserable, or both. No, thanks.

A Mighty Oak Meets the Earth

Imagine being a very big tree, a mighty red oak. You have been standing in your same spot on a Virginia hillside for a very long time, say, at least a hundred years. You are part of a forest, not a national park or anything so grand, just a peaceful forest not terribly far from the Blue Ridge Mountains. You grew strong over the years, pushed your way ever higher toward the sun.

Ah, the sun, the seasons. Bask. Bask.

When you were about 50, some humans came to the site to build a house, but you survived this possible demise because of being just far enough away from the spot they decided was best. They put a utility pole fairly near you, but its inanimate state was uninteresting, and you said Paugh, who cares about that?

When you were about 90 and towering proudly among your adjacent tree-fellows, another risk came along, another building project, a cottage this time, but your majestic canopy and the glorious shade it provided these new humans saved you. You said to the young beech trying to grow right next to you, I’m feeling a mite weak in the joints, little fella, but don’t get any ideas about taking this spot. I’ve been here a long time. No offense, but it’s mine.

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Wind. It comes, it blows.

The sound of a tree-fellow nearby crashing to the ground during a storm always adds to the drama of the day, always causes you to ponder your own strength and good fortune. You tell yourself that if you were not meant to become the mightiest grandfather in this neck of the woods, you would have fallen already. Some tree has to become the giant among giants – it might as well be you. Then one spring day that blasting wind comes again, and in one super painful stroke, your hugest north-pointing limb lets go at the joint, its weight bringing it instantly to the forest floor below and leaving a massive, open, splintery wound on your side.

Crap.

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The humans come and inspect. They bring other humans to come and inspect. They all shake their heads and use words like risky, problem and electrocution. Electrocution? They point to that inanimate pole that’s closer than it used to be… or, oh, maybe you’re just bigger than you used to be. No! you want to say to them. Don’t worry! I am still strong! I can stand another fifty years! You are a little like Mike Mulligan, who used to say about Mary Anne (his steam shovel) that “she could dig as much in a day as a hundred men could dig in a week.” In this classic children’s book, Mike’s assertion is always followed by “but he had never been quite sure that this was true.”

You are not quite sure that you will not fall one day and hit the cable coming off that pole. You cannot be sure. The humans cannot be sure. As they walk away, you want to believe it will all be okay. You settle into your new life, feeling somewhat off balance, slightly less steady, especially when the wind kicks up, now that you have no huge branch on the north side counterweighting all the other branches. Weeks go by. The humans seem to have lost interest. What a relief.

Then one day some big vehicles arrive. They stare and say, “See how it leans?” They curiously turn their attention to a perfectly nice (younger, smaller) oak that stands between you and the biggest vehicle.

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Odd.

You watch. A man sits in the bucket attached to the vehicle, starts at the top, lops off branch after branch, then sections off the main part of the trunk one piece at a time, letting each one crash. Huh. They cut that poor little fellow down to earth-level for no seemingly good reason. Then they move the truck in closer.

Oh.

It’s your turn. They start on the side closest to that damn pole. They work carefully to make sure nothing falls near the cable. The 75’ reach of the bucket is barely high enough to get them to the best position. But they manage. Bit by bit, they buzz their tool and drop your limbs. Parts of you that only ever knew sky meet the earth.

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Then they move on to the side that hangs over the little cottage. Yeah, you knew that lowest one was perhaps your weakest limb. Maybe they had reason to worry about that one. It didn’t take much for it to break. They were careful on that side, using a rope around it to make sure that when it swung down, it would avoid the cottage roof and land where they wanted.

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This is it, you realize. You reached, you grew, you survived. You gave beauty to the forest, shade to the humans, home sites and abundant food to forest creatures for many years. Now you will give warmth by way of firewood. Lots of yourself is already on the ground, the danger of hitting the pole now a thing of the past, but they left some for the next guy to come and fell.

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“Sad,” you hear the lady of the house saying. “Reminds me of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein,” she says, “a book that’s been called ‘a touching interpretation of the gift of giving.’ Maybe that’s what this tree did. It gave. For many years it gave. As with all of us, its days were numbered – even if none of us ever know the number! But chapters do close….”

Since Micah’s death, there have been two more people that I knew for years, two more I talked with, played with, greatly admired, two more who gave to those around them, who added depth, joy, love, fun and substantial contributions to the circle they walked in, two more whose chapters have closed. To the families of C. Wayne Callaway and Ken Brown, I offer my deepest condolences.

Shakespeare’s Pick Up Lines

It’s funny to me that when we go to a Shakespeare play, we understand at the outset that we will miss a lot of the dialog, we will miss some of the meaning and some innuendos, therefore possibly even some basic elements or twists of the plot. The language is challenging to say the least. Yet we continue to go at least two or three times a year. Last week we saw The Comedy of Errors. Even if some of us didn’t understand about how the gold watch and the money for it fit in till the end, we were still rolling in laughter almost the entire time.

These two “servants” in their matching plaid shirts (shown here during the pre-show, take-photos-now-or-never, come-get-a-drink-on-stage time) and all their compatriots performed hilarious slapstick that needs no words.

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The basic premise of the story involves, according to the American Shakespeare Center’s website, “two long-separated twins, their two tricky servants (also twins), a jealous wife and her lovelorn sister….” You can’t help but enjoy how they find each other, fool each other and ultimately feel great joy together in this all’s-well-in-the-end family drama.

The costuming is from the 1940s. Why not? One actor embellished her role with a heavy Brooklyn accent. Shiny-red-with-big-white-hearts undershorts made a brief appearance, as did fluttering eyelashes, hops onto the laps of those patrons watching from the primo on-stage seats and ouch-didn’t-that-hurt(?!) dives onto the wooden stage.

This troupe of professional actors, performing three or four plays a season, eight or ten shows a week in Staunton, Virginia, has never failed to make me glad we drove the 45 minutes up and over Afton Mountain to get there. They don’t do only Shakespeare. Every year we attend their version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which they keep as fresh and enlightening as traditional and heartwarming. Scrooge generally works his way roughly through the audience as, in the script, he is fighting the crowd on the street on Christmas Eve. One year on his trek between rows, he took a cup an audience member was holding, tasted it, made a face and gave it back. We roared.

You can’t get away from funny at this theater. We all know Shakespeare’s material runs from comedy to tragedy, and there is generally some love interest (because in life, there is generally some love interest). This is the theater that boldly boasts (after they explain that the play will be performed in full lighting as it was in Shakespeare’s day), “We do it with the lights on.”

Bravo to the person who decided to put Shakespeare’s top ten pick up lines on a t-shirt. I expect this is a perennial bestseller in their gift shop.

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In case you find them hard to read on the shirt, allow me to make it easier (minus the references). I cannot speak to the order they are in: chronological according to when the play was written? favorites of the t-shirt creator in reverse order? most or least likely to achieve desired outcome?

You can decide which is your favorite, which you wish someone would use on you, which is most romantic, which you would soooo enjoy using one of these days just to see the reaction you’d get, which would warm your heart, which would bring images of intimacy most effectively to mind…

10. If thou hast sinned, teach me.

9. I come to answer thy best pleasure.

8. I thy parts admire.

7. Come sit on me.

6. Madam, my instrument’s in tune.

5. I entreat thee home with me.

4. I’ll do it in my shirt.

3. Make some sign how I may do thee ease.

2. Let me take you a buttonhole lower.

1. With thy lips keep in my soul a while.

There is no way to top the top ten. I leave it right there for you to do with as you please 😊