I detect signs of spring. Whether this is fantasy or reality, that’s for you to decide, but I choose to cling to these wisps of hope. Just this past week I grew heartily tired of winter, after cheerily pretending to myself since November that I enjoy snow and cold. Which I truthfully did like for a time, but enough is enough: I’m sick of it now. Here are my signs:
• White-breasted nuthatches are starting to hang out together. My recollection is they stay paired more or less all year, but the males and females grow less fond of one another after the mating season, and pursue individual interests until January or so. Then they grow amorous once again, and the male decides it’s not such a bad thing after all to allow his beloved first crack at the sunflower tray instead of chasing her away and greedily devouring said seeds himself without sharing.
Or, that might not be exactly how the bird-behavior experts describe the nuthatch-mating ritual, but I enjoy my version enough that it would be a shame to look it up and find truth and reality is otherwise, which so often is the case in life. I do remember for sure and accurately (I think) that white-breasted nuthatches are the earliest of our year-round birds to begin the mating process. And mine do seem to be visiting the feeders together; or rather, one flies in to feed while the other patiently waits a turn, and they are making “yank, yank, yank” or is it “hank, hank, hank” noises at one another (that would be “I love you” in nuthatch speak, by the way. See if you get a True Fact like that in a run-of-the-mill nature or birding column).
• The garlic bulbs I planted in November have sprouted through the heavy layer of straw mulch placed on top. Now that’s not really a sign of spring — they probably sprouted on a warm day shortly after being planted — but it is pleasing to me, so I note it here. Seeing the sprouts trigger a warm self-congratulatory glow when I pass them, because I actually got them in the ground when I was supposed to — this instead of letting them molder in a paper bag tucked away somewhere in the corner of the shed or garage, which is often the fate for bulbs in my care.
• The hellebores are budding. I believe it was Elizabeth Lawrence, one of my favorite garden writers, who so accurately noted the earliest flowers are the most important. (That might not be exactly what Lawrence wrote, but the sentiment is close enough, and her books are out of reach on a shelf about 5 feet away from where I’m writing. It would be a hardship to actually get up, walk over there, and hunt down the passage I’m referencing.) Lawrence, as I recollect, was writing about the delicate spring flowers, which if they bloomed in summer would be overshadowed by the great drama queens flowering then. The delicate whites and pinks that charm us early on would be lost in the bawdy colors of summer.
• The tips of the maple trees seem to have developed a slightly reddish tinge. That is good — maples are one of the important early sources of nectar for honeybees in Western North Carolina. My journals indicate they usually start flowering about the first of March, at least down in the lower elevations along warm, sun-facing slopes. I believe the three stands of honeybees I’m nominally supervising have survived the winter. On the few warm days we’ve had, I’ve seen them fly, which surely they wouldn’t do if they were dead. These next few weeks are the most dangerous time of all for beekeepers and their charges, because honeybees could well starve if not fed sugar water between now and when the maples actually bloom. In fact, it would be a good thing if I heeded my own warning and fed them this afternoon.
• Like the maples, Sophie the ewe is swelling, too, the good and excellent work of her mate and ram, Leo. I’m looking forward, for the first time in my life, to seeing lambs gambol, just as they so often gambol in the Victorian novels I sometimes read. (“Gambol” is a lovely word, and it gives me immense satisfaction to work it into a sentence. The pairing of the words “lamb” and “gambol” seems as natural together as the words “mint jelly” and “leg of lamb,” though more cerebral in this case than gustatory, of course),
My epiphany occurred on a bitter cold Sunday afternoon, the snow having momentarily given way to a stray and fleeting glimpse of the actual sun — lately as rare as a celebrity sighting at Ingles. I was outside doing my best to break up the thick ice underneath two or three inches of packed snow in order to make a couple of pitiful tracks to the highway from the church parking lot, where our Camry was trapped like a kitten in a wet bathtub, unable to climb out regardless of how furious the spinning, how desperate the need.
Perhaps I have been softened by years of creature comforts — jet tubs, fleece blankets, microwave popcorn — but let me tell you, I was one miserable sight out there in my mismatched gloves and old workboots, nose raw and running, eyes squinting, teeth chattering like dice in a Dixie cup. Again and again, I attacked the ice with my big silver shovel, and about every third or fourth strike, I’d get through to pavement, then wedge out a heavy piece of snow-crusted ice about the size of a pumpkin pie — or maybe half a pie — an excruciating, slow pace. I tried not to look toward the road, to see how far I had to go. It was a long way, and my back was already screaming at me.
“CHIROPRACTOR,” it yelled.
“GROCERIES,” I yelled back, and kept digging, remembering the stale graham cracker I just had for lunch.
The wind kicked up suddenly. It felt like opening a jar of bees, stinging everywhere at once without pity or remorse. I tucked my chin like a concert violinist, kept digging, trying to position my back to the wind, which seemed to be blowing from all directions at the same time. I was getting tired, and I paused for just a moment to catch my breath. My wife had joined me, offering to take turns with me battling the snow and ice.
And that’s when it happened. A silver Subaru came around the curve, plowing through the snow like a pack of teenage girls going through a mall. We stood there and watched it in sheer astonishment as it crested the hill and disappeared.
“We have to get one,” I said. “We have to get one now.”
I stood there and looked at my Camry, to which I have an attachment that is both sentimental and practical. I took my Dad with me to buy this car in 1998, two years before he passed. My father was to buying cars what Stephen King is to horror novels or Peyton Manning is to football. I vividly remember him reducing a cocky Toyota salesman to a small puddle of frustration years ago when I bought my first car. This time, he let me do the negotiating, said very little to nothing during the test drive, just nodded slightly when I got the price we discussed on the way. Afterward, we went for Chinese, and I remember sitting there over my egg drop soup, looking out the window at my shiny new Camry, thinking, I love that car. I’m going to drive it until the wheels fall off.
Until my epiphany, 13 years and 170,000 miles later, that was still the plan. The Camry actually does pretty well in moderate snow, but you may have noticed that our past couple of winters have been lacking in moderation. Last year, I had a couple of close calls in her, but I chalked it up to an historic winter, the likes of which we wouldn’t see again until our children had children, when we’d haul out the pictures and laugh at the memories of it on holidays.
A year later, it is apparent that this was a profoundly foolish notion. You know what we call a snowstorm packing a foot of snow these days? Wednesday. It’s not historic. It’s just the latest snow. Ho hum, another foot of snow, another week out of school, another few days before we can get the Camry out on the road again, another round of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner, another few hours of fantastic cardiovascular exercise shoveling snow.
I knew I would have to work a bit on Tammy, who is so frugal she is sort of an anti-Kardashian, unwilling to spend a nickel unless it is absolutely and utterly necessary. I reminded her that during last winter’s storm when a twig lashed open a two-inch gash just above our son’s left eyebrow, we had to get a neighbor to drive us to urgent care because — dramatic pause — we couldn’t get our car out of the driveway to take him ourselves. What if the neighbor had been unavailable?
A week later, we were test driving Subarus, and now there’s one in our driveway. From the kitchen window, I can see it out there all shiny and new, just daring the snow to fall, and I think to myself, I love that car. I’m going to drive it until the wheels come off. I’m pretty sure my dad would be cool with it. He loved buying cars.
To the Editor:
I thoroughly agree that it is past time to wake up, get Jackson County moving.” For too long we have relied upon the national and state governments to provide leadership and direction for us in Jackson County and Western North Carolina. It is past time that we came together and charted our own economic future. One of the leaders in this economic renaissance is Timm Muth, the director of Jackson County’s Green Energy Park (JCGEP).
Commissioners, I appreciate your taking a look at various county departments for efficiency, effectiveness, and fiscal responsibility. It is important for our county representatives to promote open, honest, accountable, and fiscally responsible government at all levels. Otherwise, we might as well hold out a tin cup to Washington, D.C., and Raleigh and be grateful for the pennies that we do get back from the dollars that we send them.
Muth appeared before you on Jan. 3 of this year asking for a replacement to his departing assistant. You asked him some pointed questions and made the excellent suggestion that he produce a cost-benefit analysis study so as to better show you how the JCGEP benefits all of Jackson County.
I went to the JCGEP a few days before your Jan. 18 meeting and had Muth show me what he has done, what he is doing, and what he wants to do with his operation. Frankly gentlemen, the benefits of the JCGEP for the county are impressive. Capturing methane gas from the old Dillsboro landfill and using it to create viable, tax-paying, private-sector jobs is no small feat.
According to a study just recently released by the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (www.p2pays.org/ref/-53.52107.pdf), there are currently over 15,000 private sector jobs that have been created to recycle valuable materials here in North Carolina. These private sector jobs, which have been promoted by operations such as the JCGEP, have increased by 4.8% since 2008. The total annual payroll for these recycling jobs in North Carolina is $395 million. There are numerous other benefits created from these public-private partnerships.
What Muth has done at the JCGEP not only is currently paying economic dividends for the investment that our county is contributing, it also has the strong probability of promoting many more private-sector jobs, tourism dollars, and tax monies to return to the citizens of Jackson County.
In the coming weeks and months we’ll be talking more about the JCGEP and the unique, positive benefits that it creates for Jackson County. In the meantime I would urge all of you commissioners to call Timm Muth, invest a little of your time going to the JCGEP, and find out the many positive benefits generated there. Remember, gentlemen, that these benefits that you will see are not in the future, but they are occurring right here and now in Jackson County.
There are many issues to discuss in the wake of the tragedy in Arizona that left six dead and 13 wounded.
The ugliness of the political discourse in this nation is one. We took that subject up last week in news article and column form in The Smoky Mountain News, and I suspect we’ll probably explore this particular topic in greater depth in the future. Gun rights might be another subject to eventually tackle. Though I, frankly, find this particular angle as a potential outcome to the Arizona shootings less than convincing. Perhaps because I own firearms, my family owns firearms, and I grew up in these mountains where almost everyone I knew growing up had guns in their homes, too.
Having acknowledged my tepid interest in the debate concerning gun ownership, I do concede controls of a sort might be worth discussion — such as whether we should truly allow the insane easy access to weapons such as a semiautomatic handgun with a high-capacity ammo clip.
Which ties neatly into what I believe is the single most important lesson being offered in the wake of the Arizona shootings: the consequences of denying the mentally ill the care and monitoring required. The potential outcome of such neglect has been spelled out in graphic, heartbreaking detail. We can ignore what happened in Arizona only at great peril. And, if we choose to do so, I think it should be openly acknowledged that a repeat of what happened there could easily happen elsewhere, and probably will.
Just making sure we’re all on the same page: does anyone have the smallest doubt, simply by looking into the alleged Arizona killer’s eyes in that creepy mug shot taken a short time after police say he gunned down so many, that this young man is seriously mentally ill?
I’ll give a nod of approval to the community college he once attended. After Jared Lee Loughner exhibited bizarre, scary behavior, they apparently acted properly and promptly. Officials expelled him, and agreed they’d let the 22-year old back into school only if he underwent a mental health evaluation (and, I assume, passed it, if one “passes” such a thing).
Then what happened, though? There the storyline of attention paid to Loughner seems to end. At least until all the dead and wounded piled up outside a Tucson grocery store.
In case you’re curious, North Carolina doesn’t offer much support to the mentally ill or their families these days, either. In the name of savings, the state largely dismantled a not-that-great-to-begin-with system a few years ago. Here’s a bit of what I wrote in 2008 in a series of investigative articles on the state’s mental health system for a local newspaper chain. We were examining North Carolina’s then new (translation: cheap) approach to helping the mentally ill:
“Reform, to hear proponents tell it, would empower people with choices. No longer would patients be shut out and shut up when it came time to decide on treatments. Now they would get to pick from a virtual smorgasbord of choices, all conveniently located in their hometown or county.
This, taxpayers were told, would save money – lots and lots of money. Millions, in fact, because more people would be treated in their own communities instead of being admitted to one of the state’s four psychiatric hospitals.
Who could argue with empowerment and saving money? Actually, a few people did, but not effectively enough for anyone in power to heed their warnings.
A mental health system that has wasted, not saved, millions of tax dollars. And worse, many of the state’s most vulnerable residents are unable to obtain adequate treatments. For those people and their families, the price has been incalculable.”
It is time — it’s past time — to face honestly what we are potentially unleashing with our neglect, and in the name of saving pennies. Take a look again at the massacre in Arizona.
Granted, most of those with mental illnesses do not buy guns and start shooting — God knows, I’m not saying that, so please don’t think I’m stigmatizing those who deserve compassion and help.
What I am saying is that we have a responsibility, a duty, to care for and monitor those who potentially pose a danger to themselves and others. The economic costs of doing so be damned — we need a mental-health system in place that works.
By John Beckman • Guest Columnist
I had a birthday recently, which seems to happen every year about this time, and I paused to contemplate what this occasion really meant in everyday life to me and to the world I inhabit. By this exercise in reflection I was hoping to glean some insights into something of incredible importance, but what I found was a jumble of numbers and references that left me somewhat more informed but completely exhausted.
With my computer nearby I found out I share my birthday with Charles de Gaulle (think French history), Lady Bird Johnson (think presidents and wildflowers), Billy Jean King (think tennis and chauvinist pigs) and Rick Nielson (think rock guitarist for Cheap Trick), which together made me think I had a nice, diverse group of birthday compatriots. I discovered that on the day that I was born the “Chipmunk Song” made No. 1 on the charts (yes, Alvin and the Gang), and a photo of a flying saucer over Muszyn, U.S.S.R., appeared in the papers.
On the day of my third birthday, the U.S. tested a nuclear device in Nevada, and my next birthday found the Russians testing one of their own in Novaya. It’s amazing what a year and a couple of letters will do when it comes to nuclear arms I thought.
My 20th birthday was the day Kenny Jones became the new drummer for the Who, and the people of Thailand adopted their constitution. I suspect the former had the greater influence on me that day. And just 12 years later on that special day, Lech Walesa was sworn in as the first president of Poland who came into office by popular election. I was starting to feel better about the day, but wanted to know what had happened in between all of those historic events and where were those many days I’d watch flicker by? I thought it a good time for some reassuring statistics.
With a little math (and a calculator) I discovered that I’ve spent some 19,000 days on planet Earth, and somehow I’ve been filling those days doing something. My armchair analysis uncovered that I had spent over 6,000 of those days sleeping, snoringly unaware of what was going on in the world around me. No wonder some days I’ve felt like I may have missed something. I
’ve used around 700 days sitting in classrooms getting (theoretically) smarter and dreaming of the day I could get out of the classroom, and 850 full days watching television according to the American Time Use Survey (ATUS). I also burned up 800 more days in the bathroom, time those around me would not have wanted me to miss I presume.
I couldn’t help but think of the time I spent as a kid playing baseball, riding bikes, delivering papers and the like, and another 1,100 days vaporized in front of me. About 1,700 days have been spent eating, and another 500 were wisely used vacationing, which I’m sure is where some of the eating comes in.
I added up the time I’ve spent working a job and watched 5,200 days slip through the cracks, and another 800 or so days lost inside a car or truck going somewhere. I figured I must have racked up 900 days on college campuses, but for some reason I don’t remember a lot of details from then.
I noted that I’ve had a computer and a cell phone for only the past 4,000 days, and it made me wonder what I did with all my time before that. I’ve been with the same gal for 9,000 of those days, and I could say sometimes it feels like more, but I won’t because I know better after that much time. Add in the time spent doing laundry, dishes, paying bills, shopping, cooking meals, cutting grass, hobbies, etc., and pretty soon I started to wonder how I crammed so much into only 19,000 days.
I opted not to try to calculate how many days I spent looking for my lost keys, procrastinating, fixing my old trucks or drinking beer with my buddies for fear of running out of days before my time.
I got a little fatigued by all these numbers adding up and decided instead to look toward the future and all the days that lie ahead. If statistics can be trusted, then I have around 12,000 days left before returning to dust or something similar, and I planned to make the most of them. I deduced that if I can stop wasting all those days ahead sleeping, I’ll gain another 10 years in time I can spend doing more important things. I could use that time to work for world peace and discovering new cures for diseases. I can invest those newfound hours helping to repair the environment, educating our youth and cleaning-up Wall Street’s woes as well. My days could be well used feeding the hungry and sheltering the unsheltered, building solutions for healthy communities and fixing the world’s dilemmas. This would be a most useful and valuable way to spend the 12,000 days I have left, I solidly concluded. That’s a lot of work to get done and I’ll have to start soon given my ever-shrinking number of days.
Well, maybe right after my nap. After all, it’s my birthday, and we only get so many days like that.
By Scott Muirhead • Guest Columnist
Frog Level is what remains of the golden age of the railroads, the age when bulk goods, travelers and mail were carried exclusively by train, when neither interstate highways nor 18-wheelers existed. Some might believe that age a better time, more romantic, more soulful, and I don’t know about that.
But it is impossible not to believe that 80 or 90 years ago there was something magical about a lone train whistle calling to a small town deep in the mountains. The train might have come from Winston-Salem, or even Raleigh itself, and it might have been headed anywhere! The train always stirred excitement with its arrival onto the Depot Street crossing. Its presence was reassuring; and if not exactly sacred, it was something, something larger than life.
I don’t suppose any train ever did depart that was not loaded with the expectations of the hopeful, and with the regrets and longing of a whole lot of the rest left standing in its ephemeral cover of smoke and steam. Trains took people away, even those who stayed behind. And nothing then was ever so quiet as the town when the train had departed.
Trains must have been revered. Their roaring and chugging and squealing and rumbling was big, sure enough, but the trains represented something even bigger, really big, bigger than the town, bigger even than the mountains themselves. Was it progress? Was it industry? Was it power? Maybe, probably it was. But there was more. With an ear-piercing whistle blast announcing the approach into town, and then with the click-clacking of caboose wheels as they eclipsed time and space and disappeared, the great steel leviathans spoke to us, telling us unerringly that beyond the horizon there was something more.
Then center stage, Depot Street now is forlorn. The glamour of travel, of new shipments for the department store, of the unceasing energy of commerce, most of that has gone away. The brick buildings remain, but they seem sad for the most part, as if aware they are just mere remnants of another time, faded from this world. Today the freight trains that roll into town are infrequent, and they possess no mystery, just sand for the concrete plant, and lumber for the lumber yard. Trains are incongruous in a high-tech world, mere plodding nuisances to drivers in a hurry.
Frog Level is where two worlds collide, one the lunatic fringe of wastrels, the other a loose set of ambiguous rules, variously interpreted. Above Frog Level is the contemporary commerce of Main Street with all its many shops and subsidiaries, places like the county courthouse and the ubiquitous insurance agencies. Then, two blocks below Main Street is the realm of the wrong side of the tracks, where the complexities of life are less well examined. There you will find the town waver. Anytime, most any day, he’ll be somewhere between the bridge and the car wash, ambling and lurching and punching the air with his open palm at each passing car and truck.
What day is of no more importance to him than the time of that day. All that matters are the cars and trucks passing through Frog Level, his part of town, his Waynesville. It’s where the soup kitchen feeds the winos and the junkies and the ne’r-do-wells; where the chemical company mixes and brews its industrial potions; where the old has been outpaced and outmaneuvered by the new. It is that urban stretch people drive through to get to somewhere, because for them Frog Level is nowhere.
But it is a real place of real events, where can be seen, for instance, the dashed hopes and dreams of speculators emblazoned on the store fronts of stores that never opened. For a couple of years about a decade ago Frog Level had been Waynesville’s real estate bonanza of the post-Vietnam era. Deals were struck, properties were traded and sold, leases were drawn and signed and initialed. The Smoky Mountain Railroad was coming to town, bringing tourists and their money, and the prosperity of would-be merchants was just around the bend.
Then the railroad didn’t come, and now the storefronts are boarded up or blacked out, and all those hopes and dreams have moved on down the line.
Only the soup kitchen and a coffee shop seem to prosper in the microcosm that is Frog Level. The electric motor shop and the cabinet maker and the used appliance emporium are still around, but they have been there through 30 years or more, unaffected by boom or bust. Meanwhile the bridge over Richland Creek, just down from the cabinet shop, serves as the rooftop of a communal campground where the winos take shelter from the weather and the world. They’ve got themselves a regular cardboard condo complex down there; and nowadays they even share a cell phone. Such is the domain of the smiling waver.
It’s doubtful the man knows where he is, surely who or why he is; or whether he knows society has pegged him the crazy guy who waves at everybody. And perhaps that is why he always smiles. He smiles because of all the things he does not know. And maybe he smiles at the irony residing in the fact that so much of what he doesn’t know doesn’t matter anyhow. It implores us to ponder the question: Why do we smile who know so much? The waver sure looks happy, not to know so much.
I would bet that most people feel sorry for the waver, thinking him deprived. I don’t. When I cross over the tracks and pass him by, him standing there smiling with his open palm high in the air, I am usually enroute to a place I am compelled to go. Him, he doesn’t have to go anywhere; but I do, and I am headed to the courthouse to pay another tax on my little bundle of burdens; or to one of the insurance agencies to pay a premium to protect the little bundle; or to one of the banks to deposit the imaginary wealth of a paycheck that seems ever too small.
It’s just one of the drawbacks to prosperity, but riding with me usually are my two boon companions, Worry and Stress. I never see them hanging out with the waver, but they are well known to most all of us of the dubious fortune to be enlightened and aware and playing by all the rules.
Henry Thoreau said, long ago, that he pitied the peasant trudging beneath the weight of all his worldly possessions bundled on his back; but Thoreau did not pity the man because he had so little to his name. He pitied him because he had so much to carry.
The Frog Level waver has no bundle on his back, and he smiles and he smiles. Maybe he smiles and waves to encourage us, us who perhaps he pities.
(Scott Muirhead is a builder who lives in Maggie Valley.)
As I noted in this space a couple of weeks ago, this is the time of year to order seeds and plan your garden. If like me, you are snowbound, thinking about gardening makes for pleasant thoughts.
So, what follows is a list of some of the varieties I’ve had success growing as a market farmer in Western North Carolina. They’ll work wonderfully for the home gardener, too.
Planting dates vary according to elevation. I trialed these at less than 2,000 feet on a southern-facing slope. Keep trying different varieties until discovering those that work best for you.
• I’m a fan of greasy beans for good, old-fashioned taste, and they’ve been grown for a long time here in the Southern Appalachians. Beg some seed off a neighbor, or visit the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center at www.heirlooms.org and order a pack. Greasy beans need trellising, and you also have to string them before they are cooked, but in my book the great taste outweighs any inconvenience.
• Looking for ease of growing and for a prolific return — plus a purplish-red bean that actually retains its beautiful color when cooked? Grow red noodle beans, an Asian yard-long bean. I grow these on a teepee trellis. Be forewarned, like many Asian varieties, red noodle beans are short-day plants. This means they won’t start producing until after mid-summer. I like them raw, stir-fried or sautéed with onion and garlic.
• A good bush haricot vert is Maxibel. I grew these early last year, and enjoyed the taste and abundant production. Pick when skinny and you don’t need to string.
• Soybeans: Easy to grow, and hard to beat in the taste department. I steam them green, unshelled, and scrape the beans out of the pods with my teeth — delicious. The only variety I don’t like is the one most farmers here grow and swear by — butterbean. I like any of the others, though, and there are plenty to choose from.
• Early Wonder Top. The best beet for early planting — and I do mean early, as in mid to late February. These have been bred for good cold emergence, though they are also fine for later plantings. I seed with no cover or other protection. Every few weeks, I sow again, for spread-out bounties of beets. Cook the leaves like you would any other green.
• Bull’s Blood beets, despite the somewhat off-putting name, produces beautiful purple leaves that are perfect when cut small for salads. Bull’s Blood produces an OK beet, but grow this one primarily for the leaves.
• If you can, start early broccoli inside or in a greenhouse in mid January, transplant to the garden toward the end of February or early March — be prepared to cover against the cold when temperatures threaten to drop below 20 degrees. Early broccoli is worth the effort. Tendergreen works well for this. In the fall, use Arcadia.
• I like mini cabbages, such as Gonzales or Caraflex. Perfect for one or two people, with no waste. I use the same planting schedule and methods as outlined for broccoli. I cover both broccoli and cabbage with insect barrier just before the bug invasion to avoid using spays.
• I grow Chinese cabbage in the fall, using in the place of winter-finicky lettuces. My favorite variety has no name, and is known only by WR-70 Days, Hybrid, available through the Asian vegetable seed specialists, Kitazawa Seed Co., www.kitazawaseedcom. This produces a large, beautiful head from a plant that is forgiving of various soil and weather conditions. I direct seed into the garden in August. You can grow Chinese cabbage in the spring, but be prepared to fight an insect invasion if you do. The same holds true with bok choi (pac choi).
• Mokum for early carrots, Nelson for late spring, Sugarsnax for summer and Scarlet Nantes for the fall and winter (buried under mulch or protected by two layers of row cover).
• When it comes to corn, I like the old standby Silver Queen for my sweet corn, Merit for pickling and Hickory Cane for grits and cornbread. Space issues this year might prevent me from planting corn — it needs to be planted in blocks, not single long rows, to ensure good pollination. I’m not sure there’s anything much more beautiful than the sight of honeybees working corn tassels in the morning sunlight, or any more glorious sound than the contented buzzing roar they make when doing so.
• I planted Suhyo last year, a burpless Asian type, and liked it. You need good honeybee activity for success at cucumbers. No bees, no cucumbers. Also, a good steady supply of water is required.
• These are transplanted to the garden after it gets warm, so you need to either buy plants or start them inside during early March. I like to pre-germinate the seed by placing them in moist papertowels tucked into an open plastic sandwich bag in a warm place (the top of a refrigerator is good). Then, using tweezers, plant the seed in cups when germinated. I’ve had decent success with the Asian types, but plan to try something more traditional this year.
• This is an endless subject, and starts by defining what one means by “greens.” In this case, I’m referring to cooked ones. Some people plant greens such as kale and Senposai (a wonderful, hardy and productive Asian green, do try it) in the spring. I prefer to do most of my cooked-green plantings in the fall, however. Then I also plant collards, Georgia Southern or Vates, and mustards (green wave and red giant). Turnips such as seven top, grown for the top and not its root. When it comes to kale, Red Russian grows well in WNC, as does most any other variety.
• One of my market specialties was a pre-mixed, pre-washed salad. I love growing salad greens by broadcasting the seed thickly on top of a prepared bed, scraping it about using a rake to lightly cover with dirt. Then cut with scissors when the leaves are no larger than the size of your hand. The greens grow back readily if given water and adequate nutrients. Arugula is great if you like it, sorrel, black-seeded Simpson lettuce, Buttercrunch lettuce, claytonia (an interesting and should-be-better-known native North American salad green), golden purslane, tatsoi (a great-tasting Asian green) are a few of the easiest ones to grow. I also like baby mustard leaves in my mix, and add whichever fresh herbs and edible flowers are on hand.
• I start leeks in February. Put potting soil in a pot, sprinkle leek seed on top, and grow the plants until they are about the size of a pencil. Transplant into the garden then, by either trenching (the hard way) or sticking into a 6-inch hole made with a stick (the easy way). I’ve grown many varieties, but probably most enjoy the fall- to early winter-harvested ones, such as Tadorna.
• I talked some about leaf lettuce under salad greens, so here I’ll touch on head lettuces. I enjoy growing butterheads such as Tom Thumb and Buttercrunch. I start them inside during February and transplant in early March. Cover when temperatures drop below 20 degrees.
• I don’t like them. Not one bit, not at all. I don’t even like looking at them. You’ll have to get advice on this elsewhere, I’m afraid.
• I’ve grown from seeds and grown from sets (buttons) and grown from plants. Sets, for me, are easiest. Push into the ground and stand back. The varieties available at local feed and seed stores work fine for this purpose.
These have always been a struggle for me, but I know other gardeners and farmers in WNC produce beautiful crops. Sugar Ann is a standard snap pea. I’ve yet to grow a decent stand of English (shelling) peas.
• Because of our individual tolerance for heat, each person has to pick their own favorites when it comes to peppers. I will say this. You get a stronger, faster-producing plant if you start them inside in February, not the six-weeks-before-planting as most books suggest. Do not, however, plant them outside until mid to late May. These can’t take cold, not even a little bit.
• I like early potatoes best. Kennebec potatoes were traditionally grown in this region, and do well most years. Available in feed and seed stores locally, which saves shipping costs.
• I love them, so I plant them frequently in odd spaces left in the garden. Any of them are good, but Shunkyo deserves particular praise for having just the right combination of hot and sweet. In the fall, there are a number of winter radishes to plant, such as the Asian beauty hearts (who could resist with a name like that?), daikons and Black Spanish types. I’m still harvesting and eating some that were protected by row cover even now.
• A pain in the rear-end because the harvest window in WNC is often limited, but if you must have it try Space — this variety doesn’t bolt as quickly as some. How do you know when spinach is bolting? The leaves start getting pointy. Keep it harvested and well watered to prevent even more premature bolting. You folks at the higher elevations have the advantage in the spinach department — the cooler temperatures spell success when it comes to spinach.
• Traditional yellow and zucchini squash are prone to squash-vine borer decimation. Try tromboncino instead — it must be trellised, but the solid stems resist borers. In late May, direct seed winter squash such as spaghetti and butternut (also resistant to squash-vine borers). You won’t harvest these until September or so.
• In certain years they do terrific, other years growing them is just a waste of space. I like the old mainstay, Beauregard.
• Individual tastes make selecting varieties difficult. I’m partial to Brandywine, but you might not like it at all. The battle in WNC is blight. Spray, or grow under plastic, or just hope for the best (which usually doesn’t turn out all that well, to tell the truth).
• Grow in spring and fall. Purple top does great here, but Hakurei have a more refined taste.
Just as I was sitting down to write my column on the controversy surrounding a new edition of Mark Twain’s classic novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which an Auburn University professor plans to publish with the intention of replacing the “N” word with the word “slave,” news of the tragedy in Arizona began to break. Even before the horrific facts of the tragedy were fully established — six dead, a congresswoman shot in the head and fighting for her life in the hospital, 14 injured, the suspected shooter in custody — commentary began to appear on the Internet ascribing blame for the shooting on the vitriolic tone that is so pervasive in modern politics, particularly from the right wing.
“I think the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business and what (we) see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in,” said Pima County, Arizona, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik at a press conference within hours of the shooting. “And I think it’s time that we do the soul-searching.”
Sheriff Dupnik’s comments have touched off a national debate on the power and influence of language, which is more or less the thesis I set out to explore with the recently censored edition of Huck Finn. Advocates of the new version of the book point to the potential harm to self-esteem the repetitive use of the word “nigger” in the novel might cause for young, vulnerable readers. Others fear that exposure to the word might result in its continued use as a racial slur among students looking for a way to justify bad behavior.
In both of these cases — different as they are — the issue seems to be the power of language to inflict damage, and what measures we, as a society, are willing to go to as a possible remedy. As ugly as the ‘N’ word is, are we ready to accept the censorship of what many consider to be the greatest of all American novels in order to avoid exposing students to it, even taking into consideration the context in which the book was written and the word used, not to mention the major themes of the book, not least of which is that the institution of slavery was profoundly wrong and immoral? Twain used the ‘N’ word, at least in part, to demonstrate man’s inhumanity to man. Remember, in helping the slave Jim escape — in learning to see him as a human being and not “property” — Huck becomes an “outlaw” and believes that his actions will cause him to “go to hell.”
When the “N” word is “erased” from the book, the power, context, and authenticity of the novel are severely compromised, and the lesson lessened, if you will. Censorship is not the answer; understanding is.
On the other hand, there is perhaps no way to understand the mindset of a 21-year-old man who goes on a killing spree on sunny Saturday morning in Tuscon. I have not read any conclusive studies done on these mass murderers, but doesn’t it always seem as if they are cut from the same piece of cloth? Invariably, they are young male loners who have struggled to fit in anywhere or find a coherent meaning in life.
In this latest instance, the alleged shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, had posted messages on YouTube in which he rambled on about issues he had with “informing conscience dreamers about a new currency.” According to friends and teachers, he had a tenuous relationship with reality, at best, and had been kicked out of a local community college until he agreed to seek psychiatric help.
All of this makes it difficult to draw a straight line from the likes of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh to Jared Loughner. On the other hand, when Sarah Palin has a Web site with a map in which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, one of the victims in the shooting, is listed as a “target” — complete with crosshairs — and when Palin tweets inane messages that exhort her followers, “Don’t retreat, instead RELOAD,” it is fair to debate how much of this kind of rhetoric adds to a climate in which violence is perceived as an acceptable solution to political disagreement.
As with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the answer is not censorship. It is taking responsibility for one’s actions — and words. And it is holding those who do not act responsibly accountable for their actions, rather than remaining silent.
“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
So Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1927. True then, and true now. Whether or not Jared Loughner shot a bunch of people because someone told him to reload rather than retreat, we must stand up and speak out when the Sarah Palins of the world use the threat of violence — even if it intended as a lame metaphor — in an effort to incite their followers. The remedy is not censorship. It is telling them their 15minutes are up, and showing them the way off of the American stage.
I’ve never been big on New Year’s resolutions. But this weekend I decided to list five and work seriously toward accomplishing them by year’s end. The only resolution of mine worth sharing (unless you find personal self-improvement goals such as exercising regularly and eating more fruits and vegetables interesting) is the quirky one that made this very short list.
I’m going to write a mystery novel. Never mind I’ve yet to reveal any aptitude for fiction writing — quite the opposite is true, in fact. I’m a nonfiction writer to the very marrow of my bones.
I get nonfiction. After almost two decades of being lucky enough to earn my living as a professional writer, I’ve learned a few gee-whiz, golly-wow writing tricks. I’m not unlike the small-town magician who volunteers for a local library program, and, on a good day, convincingly pulls a rabbit out of her hat.
I enjoy playing with structure, and find it fun sometimes to use unusual, or at least unexpected, narrative voices. I get a kick out of tinkering with pacing. Or, to be truthful, I get a kick out of those things when I’ve devoted the hours needed to writing a really good article. When I’m feeling lazy or haven’t allowed adequate time, I rely on experience to just bang it out, which is what a former colleague and I used to bark at one another as deadlines neared and editors increased demands about getting the story NOW. “Bang it out” was our verbal spur to hurry up and get the work done.
In this case, familiarity has bred comfort. I know how to get the job done, and get an editor off my, well, let’s say case. Fiction, however, is another matter. Here I feel adrift at sea, unsure even how to make a beginning.
Where does one start when a girl’s fancy turns to fiction — with an idea, maybe? But once an idea is settled on (which I haven’t, yet, actually accomplished), how does said writer — me — turn that thought into a convincing story? How does one develop characters from thin air? What narrative voice to use?
This is all so intimidating I feel like going to bed and burying myself in a good mystery, one of my favorite forms of escape. I lean toward classic British mystery writers such as Agatha Christie and Ngaio March (a New Zealander who set most of her work in merry England). But I also admire contemporary writers such as Martha Grimes and Ruth Rendell. And I like the late Dick Francis, who told the same good yarn over and over, just changing the names and plot a bit for each new novel produced. That was a man who found a good formula and milked it to fame and fortune, entertaining thousands along the way.
I read and enjoyed Anne Perry until I stumbled over the fact (widely publicized a few years ago, but missed by me) that she is an actual murderess, having helped bludgeon a friend’s mother to death in 1954. This icky fact intrudes whenever I try now to read one of her books. I like my murders and murderers imaginary, thank you very much. I’ve seen enough of the real stuff as a newspaper reporter to not enjoy actual suffering and pain.
As an aside, I admit to enjoying science-fiction fantasy. This embarrasses me because much of it, if not almost all, is appallingly written. You really have to scrounge to find readable sci-fi. Buying or checking out sci-fi fiction at the library requires true bravery on my part. I have to override the snob who resides inside. One cannot take life too seriously and walk through a bookstore or library carrying books that feature such lurid covers as these. They inevitably feature sword-wielding buxom girls and buff studs posing against a backdrop of dragons and castles. No self-respecting individual over the age of 15 should be seen anywhere near such books.
Which brings me back to trying to write fiction myself. I will certainly be less free with tossing literary criticisms about since I’m getting ready to try my hand at a mystery, that’s for certain. Something about the pot calling the kettle black comes to mind. And, what goes around comes around.
But having honestly faced my limitations, and they are indisputably vast, the truth remains. I have a yen, a yet unscratched itch that cries out for appeasing. So, what the heck — I’ll write a mystery. No matter how bad the finished product might be, I’m by golly planning, as my good friend Jon Ostendorff with the Citizen-Times would tell me if we still worked together (and does, to this day, tell me when I call him because I’m stuck on a story) to just shut up and bang it out.
“… but a belief in hard work and treating others fairly was ingrained from a very early age in my brothers and I.”
See the mistake in the sentence fragment above? Hear it? I bet most people don’t, and I suspect that 10 years from now even fewer still will spot it.
But at least two readers caught my grammatical faux pas from two weeks ago and felt they should let me know about it. Others probably read it and just laughed at my goof. To be honest, I’m embarrassed to have made the mistake.
The rule is that when the object of the preposition is a personal pronoun, it should be “me” and not “I.” So the correct wording should have been “but a belief in hard work and treating others fairly was ingrained from a very early age in my brothers and me … ingrained in … me (not ingrained in … “I.”) Now you hear it? Of course.
No excuse for such a mistake, and I’ll attribute it to deadline writing. I know the rule, but I also sometimes forget it. Like a word whose spelling I can’t commit to memory, and so I know it is wise to look it up when using it. Effective writers, I tell people, know their weaknesses and when to use their crutches. That’s why editors are so important.
This little episode, however, brought to mind several reasons regarding why I think newspapers still have a future.
In many ways, print newspapers have become a bit staid in a digital age when information can soar around the globe in a few hours. However, staid can also mean serious, solid and steady. That also translates into credible, and every single serious newspaper still around guards its credibility like a mother protecting her children.
And our readers expect us to get it right. When we don’t — whether it’s a mistake in grammar or a factual error — they let us know, and we in turn let you know that we got it wrong. Again, every credible newspaper wears its mistakes on its sleeves.
How often do you see that in digital media? Most of the reporters and editors and designers at digital sites certainly care about their integrity, but there is also the constant need to move on, to get the next post up and the next story finished in the never-ending 24-hour news cycle in which they operate.
Right now, most digital media sites are understaffed and poorly financed because the successful business model for them — with a few notable, rare exceptions — has not been developed (especially at the local and regional level). That means they are more than likely under even more pressure to churn out stories and copy.
This is not meant as a criticism of Internet news. To the contrary, every print media company is scrambling to stay abreast of the fast-changing digital news business. As creators of unique content and storehouses of troves of historical information, I’m betting that we will be able to continue to make a successful business of providing information in whatever platform becomes profitable.
But I do tire of hearing that print is dead as a doornail. It’s pretty obvious to me that right now people have learned to get their information —news and advertising — from a variety of sources. That includes print, digital, television, and probably several other new devices that are being developed in some garage or college dorm room right now.
But for some readers, print still holds a kind of integrity that the new media — as exciting and whizbang as it is — can’t touch. We know times will change, and all I can promise is that when it does, we plan to be there.