Been to the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino? Even if you don’t gamble, I’d encourage a walk through. My bet is you’d be absolutely astounded at what is happening in Cherokee.
I took a media tour a couple of weeks ago and, honestly, couldn’t believe what I saw. The reality that there is something that huge, that glitzy and that busy juxtaposed so near secluded mountains, vast wilderness areas and all of our very quaint, very small downtowns at first take seems a little odd.
What’s not odd, though, is how Harrah’s has changed the fortunes of the tribe — and the region — for the better. In fact, as this recession lingers, it’s painful to imagine how Cherokee, Swain and Jackson counties would be faring without the casino revenue.
The casino, in what is admittedly an understatement, has blossomed. It now employs more than 2,000, and that will go up to 2,400 once the current expansion project is done. It attracts about 3.6 million gamers annually, making it the state’s largest tourist attraction.
And now the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians wants approval, to use a poker term, to go all in: it wants dealers instead of video machines, a move that it estimates would add at least another 400 jobs. Along with those dealers, say gambling industry insiders, would come tens of thousands of more patrons.
The governor and the tribe are both playing hardball in the dealer negotiations, and reportedly the two are not very close to a deal. The state wants an agreement with the tribe for a percentage of casino revenue for its coffers before allowing dealers. While we agree that the state should gets its fair share, we also hope state leaders take into account what Harrah’s provides for a region that has little industry, few large corporations, and traditionally doesn’t get the attention that is lavished on the coast or the urban centers in the Piedmont. I suspect every leader in this part of the state wants the casino to continue to prosper.
Here’s what leaders in Raleigh need to understand: the casino is the right kind of tourist attraction for the mountain region. It doesn’t pollute like a traditional factory (and thereby spoil the attraction of the mountains), doesn’t add to urban sprawl, doesn’t strain infrastructure, and its patrons come for a few days, spend their money and leave.
The state spends millions on tax breaks to attract jobs in other parts of the state, and yet it could shackle the next planned casino expansion because it wants more revenue than the tribe has so far been willing to relinquish.
It’s been more than a decade since the state let the genie out of the bottle when it comes to gambling. Not only did leaders roll out the welcome mat for the casino, it has since set up a lottery. So there’s no moral or ethical argument for delaying approval of the tribe’s attempt to win approval for dealers. It’s all about the money.
The governor, state leaders and the tribe need to get a deal done so Western North Carolina’s lead economic engine can reach its full potential.
I’ve loved rock and roll music all of my life. When I was a teenager, I listened to Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles and Bob Seger and other staples of FM radio that most parents were listening to as well, unless they were hopelessly uncool, but I also sought out more “dangerous” music that didn’t just push the envelope of teen rebellion. It stomped all over the envelope and then burned it into ashes. I listened to bands like AC/DC, the Blue Oyster Cult, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. When I was 17 years old, my favorite album was “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC. Black Sabbath had an album called “We Sold Our Souls For Rock’n’Roll,” and members of Led Zeppelin were said to have been obsessed with occultist Aleister Crowley.
Like a lot of kids, I was attracted to this kind of music for various reasons. It was not music that any parent or teacher would have approved of, which was one big selling point. It offered a place to go for people who didn’t feel they fit in anywhere else, and it gave a sense not only of community but of power to a group that hadn’t had much of either in life. The power was in the power chords, thunderous hooks, music that would rattle the windows in your car, except that your windows were down, because you wanted everybody in your stupid-ass town to know that you were into AC/DC. You were part of that. The normal kids could listen to Peter Frampton and date cheerleaders and go to the prom. You were on “the highway to hell.” Rock on.
I thought of my high school days the first time I saw the documentary “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” in 1996. In this documentary, three teenage boys from West Memphis, Ark., were arrested, tried, and ultimately convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys. The essence of the prosecution’s case against the boys was that they committed the murders as part of some occult ritual. They dressed in black, listened to Metallica, and didn’t really fit in with the “normal” kids. One of the boys, the ringleader, was named “Damien,” like the antichrist character in the movie “The Omen.” In the documentary, much is made of his interest in Aleister Crowley. There is an appalling lack of any real evidence in the movie, and most of the prosecution’s witnesses were discredited on cross-examination, even by court-appointed attorneys who would remind no one of Clarence Darrow.
Still, the boys were convicted, and Damien was given the death sentence.
Once the documentary aired, there was an immediate and strong reaction among the many people who saw it and felt a terrible injustice had been done. Even celebrities such as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, actor Johnny Depp, and “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson — not to mention the members of Metallica — worked to raise money for the boys’ appeals and to raise awareness of the injustice. There were tribute albums, and a web site, and then a sequel to the original documentary.
There were also appeals, but even though the West Memphis Three had become quite literally a cause célèbre and had more resources at their disposal than the boys would have ever been able to imagine, for 17 years it all amounted to nothing in terms of changing their immediate reality. They were in prison, and would remain in prison, year after year after year. Echols spent much of that time in solitary confinement.
Finally, two Thursdays ago in a courtroom in Jonesboro, Ark., the three men — Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley — entered into a plea agreement called an Alford Plea that essentially means that they are maintaining their innocence but believe there is a strong likelihood that a jury would find them guilty in exchange for being released from prison. It is a complicated legal maneuver that basically gets the state of Arkansas off the hook for a literal witch hunt that cost three innocent boys nearly 18 years of their freedom.
In a press conference shortly after their release from prison, Jason Baldwin said this: “This was not justice. In the beginning we told nothing but the truth — that we were innocent and they sent us to prison for the rest of our lives for it. We had to come here and the only thing the state would do for us is to say, ‘Hey, we will let you go only if you admit guilt,’ and that is not justice anyway you look it. They’re not out there trying to find who really murdered those boys, and I did not want to take the deal from the get-go. However, they are trying to kill Damien, and sometimes you just got to bite the gun to save somebody.”
The third documentary on the West Memphis Three is scheduled to be released in November. There may be a happier ending in this one, but Jason Baldwin is right: don’t dare call it justice. Those boys can’t have back 17 years of their lives, the actual killer (or killers) of three 8-year-old boys got away with it, and the Arkansas legal system essentially resorted to legal blackmail to get itself off the hook.
The West Memphis Three are free, but this is no happy ending.
A number of readers have informed me that the agonizing sting I described in last week’s column was the work of a Japanese hornet. That sent me trotting to my computer, where I read a description of being stung by one. He wrote the sting of a Japanese hornet felt like having a hot nail driven into his leg.
I guess one man’s hot nail is another woman’s hot poker. I had written it felt akin to a hot metal poker being jabbed in my foot.
In actuality, a European hornet probably stung me — the Japanese hornet isn’t present in North America. The European hornet is the largest and, technically, the only true hornet found here. It was first reported in 1840 in New York, and the European hornet has since spread to most of the eastern United States. I certainly don’t remember seeing bees this size while growing up in Bryson City, though maybe I simply didn’t pay attention and they’ve been here all along.
Here’s the official description, courtesy of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service: “Adults somewhat resemble yellow jackets, but are much larger (about one-and-a-half inches) and are brown with yellow markings. Queens, which may be seen in the spring, are more reddish than brown, and are larger than the workers. Nests are typically built in hollow trees, but they are often found in barns, sheds, attics, and wall voids of houses. Unlike its cousin, the bald-faced hornet, European hornets rarely build nests that are free hanging or in unprotected areas. Frequently, the nest is built at the cavity opening, rather than deep within. The outside of the exposed nest will be covered with coarse, thick, tan, paper-like material fashioned from decayed wood fibers. Nests built in wall voids may emit a noticeable stench.”
Now that I’ve been stung by one, I’m seeing them everywhere. Including a nest under the porch of a cabin on the property here. I’m suspicious that the hornets are actually in the wall of the cabin, flying down into a crack through the porch, but I hope that I’m wrong. That will mean suiting up in protective clothing and pulling off boards to get to them. Understandably, I’m not eager to be stung again by one of these monster-sized hornets.
I’ve helped with bee removals before at other people’s homes. Usually it’s honeybees that take up residence. Here’s a free tip for those of you who want to do the removal yourself: fill the cavity with fiberglass insulation after you’ve gotten the bees out. Otherwise, it is inevitable that another swarm of honeybees eventually will take up residence in the same place, attracted by the pheromones of their predecessors.
Since the column published last week, I’ve had several people ask me why I fool with honeybees since I react so violently to being stung. There’s a big difference between swelling from the venom — which is what I do — and having an actual life-threatening allergic reaction.
Most people have some sort of reaction — pain, swelling, redness and itching, that kind of thing. I’m in smaller subset, about 10 to 15 percent of people, who experience larger areas of swelling for up to a week. Uncomfortable, yes; unsightly, yes; but not life-threatening.
Over in Macon County, Lewis Penland, who heads up the planning board, falls into the still rarer group (about 3 percent) who have full-blown allergic reactions that cause anaphylaxis. It forced him to give up honeybee keeping.
The same thing happened to my maternal grandfather, if I remember the stories correctly. He had honeybees, but one day he simply couldn’t have them anymore — he’d developed full-blown allergies to the venom. It happens like that sometimes.
Interestingly, the venom of various stinging insects isn’t the same chemically speaking. I hardly swell from yellow jacket stings, or wasps. But let a honeybee pop me and I blow up like a hideous balloon animal.
And, I’ve now learned, from the sting of a Japanese/European hornet.
I recently wrote in the Swain County newspaper about a singularly misguided proposal by Great Smoky Mountains National Park leadership to transfer their archives and artifacts to Townsend, Tenn. A Swain County site makes more sense, and full marks to county commissioners for becoming actively involved in this issue.
Beyond that, any resident in Swain County who gives a fig for the future or cares about our rich role in the Park’s past should speak out as well. The comment period remains open, and I’d strongly encourage readers to make their feelings known to the Park (www.nps.gov/grsm) and Swain native Rep. Heath Shuler (www.shuler.house.gov).
Incidentally, although I have asked specific questions and offered comments on the issue to Park officials, the only response I have had came in a testy conversation with a spokesman, Bob Miller. When I pointed out, repeatedly, inconsistencies between the comments period cited in his press release and what appeared on the Park’s web site (the latter was changed multiple times, with one comment period closing almost as soon as it opened), he said: “We’ll change it on the web site.”
What I could not get him to understand was that saying one thing in a printed press release and subsequently changing the rules of the game was confusing, and in my view disingenuous.
As if that situation wasn’t vexatious enough, close on the heels of the archives/artifacts proposal comes another which is, if anything, more convoluted and ill-conceived. A recent press release proposes changes in regulations governing backcountry camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Park leadership tells us that backcountry “site capacities are frequently exceeded.” In addition, according to their statement, “once backpackers obtain their reservations and arrive at their campsite, they often find the area filled by people without permits.” In the same release they also complain of lack of staff to patrol the backcountry.
Staff issues are matters for Park management, but they are missing in action in the backcountry. Personally I haven’t seen a ranger in the backcountry for decades, and I’ve only been checked while fishing once in the last quarter century.
The release raises questions. “How, other than hearsay, do officials know capacities are exceeded?” “If there are significant problems, why aren’t they addressing the situation with patrols?” “Does hard statistical evidence support changes?” “If problems exist to such a significant degree, hasn’t the Park been guilty of neglect?”
No doubt Park answers will plead budgetary constraints and more urgent frontcountry needs. There is validity to both, notwithstanding troubling examples of Park employee “do nothingness” alongside stellar work by others.
Or to view matters another way, if plans involve demands on Park staff, let’s handle matters proportionally. Look at the ceaseless “circlers” in Cades Cove, asphalt-bound flocks of buzzards filling the air with exhaust fumes.
Closer to home, what about the unending tube brigade parading up Deep Creek? They degrade banks between trail and stream; leave a noxious, never-ending legacy of litter in their wake; and channel the creek with habitat harming “engineering” projects.
Yet it seems such folks, like those breaking dog walking regulations, picking flowers, and much more, are studiously ignored while Park officials focus their fiscal laser beam on the tiny minority — probably less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all Park visitors — who camp in the backcountry. If they are serious about making folks pay as they go or want a fair distribution of what a friend has nicely styled “ranger impact,” let’s bring some balance to the user equation.
Perhaps more to the point, it seems logical to believe that active backcountry patrolling, along with meaningful fines for angling violations, ginseng poaching, illegal camping, and the like, would accomplish two things. It would provide money to justify the manhours involved and would dramatically curtail such activities.
Interestingly, another recent Park press release says that there has been a steady decline in Park visitation over the past several years. Logically, if that is the case, backcountry usage should also be down. The most recent statistics I could find, from a detailed 2008 study out of the University of Tennessee, bear that out and make Park statements seem ludicrous. According to the study, with the notable exception of the shelters along the Appalachian Trail, campsite usage is anything but heavy.
Take Deep Creek as one example. None of the seven streamside campsites had heavy usage. Only Poke Patch and Bumgardner Branch, the most easily reached of the lot, averaged more than one camper a night for the year (375 and 526 campers, respectively).
Indeed, if you look at campsites from Cataloochee to Twentymile Creek, only two other than Appalachian Trail shelters — Lost Cove on Eagle Creek and Proctor on Hazel Creek — totaled more than a thousand camper nights. That scarcely sounds like overcrowding, when most campsites are suitable for anywhere from 8 to 20 campers per night. Some accommodate appreciably larger numbers.
Additional evidence suggesting misrepresentation of the backcountry situation comes from conversations with hikers and campers as well as my personal observations. My brother, who has hiked thousands of Park miles in recent years, says he has encountered precisely one ranger more than a mile from a trailhead. He also notes, in sharp contradiction to what Park management would have us believe, that he seldom sees backpackers and that most of the campsites he walks by are empty or sparsely populated.
Even easily accessible sites seldom have more than a couple of tents except on weekends and perhaps during peak months (May and October). Take the storied Bryson Place, for example, where you might think crowded conditions often exist. Not so. The 2008 study showed 158 camper nights for the entire year.
A key part of the proposal is that Park management wants to charge a user fee. Putting aside all the considerations addressed above for a moment, I would simply remind Park officials, from Superintendent Dale Ditmanson down, that charging a backcountry fee would break a solemn pledge made at the Park’s founding. Namely, that there would be no access fees for the Smokies. Also, I suspect this is a “foot in the door” kind of thing that could lead to other user and even entrance fees.
As the poet of the Yukon, Robert Service, once wrote, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” Sadly, Park officials have often broken promises, and here we seem to have a case of where a promise made bids fair to turn into a situation where the Park must be paid. That’s how I see this proposal – as a money grab.
If I believed that there was overcrowding, if I believed that the current reservation system didn’t work, if I believed the fees collected would be used exclusively for backcountry-related matters such as maintenance and a meaningful ranger presence, and if I believed it would stop here, I would tolerate a modest fee. Alas, I think the likelihood of such monies being used exclusively for their proclaimed purposes about the same as thistle seeds being unaffected by dust devils dancing across fields in August.
Even as I urge readers to be heard, I’ll close by confessing cynicism. Past experience suggests that these comment periods and informational sessions are often mere façades, not serious factors in ultimate decisions. Nonetheless, I think anyone who cares should make their voice heard. Sufficient, strident opposition just might have an impact.
(Jim Casada is a writer, an editor and a retired professor from Bryson City. His most recent book is Fly Fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: An Insiders Guide to a Pursuit of Passion.)
If I overdose and you have to take me to the emergency room, I told a friend Friday night, please tell the doctor I took three ibuprofen, two Benadryl and a Hydrocodone. Then, mercifully, I passed out. And, awoke to tell what happened.
That afternoon, unaware of the great agony that loomed before me, I’d gaily tripped barefoot into the garden to water my parched looking turnip and collard beds. While rendering this vital aid (my garden shoes were downstairs and I was too lazy to fetch them), I inadvertently stepped on and smashed a large, yellow thing under my left foot, an overgrown version of a yellow jacket with slightly heavier striping, and it stung me — hard.
It hurt like no other sting I’ve ever experienced. I really don’t know what to compare it to, except to say it was akin to what I imagine it would feel like if someone took a hot metal poker and rammed it into my foot.
As a beekeeper, I have great practice in and attunement to the varying pain levels of stings — there are the drive-by stings that, well, sting. Then there are the I-really-should-have-lit-the-smoker-before-getting-in-this-hive stings, when the honeybees bury in as deeply as they possibly can, and you actually bleed a bit after scraping the stingers out. That hurts, a lot, but they are weak nothings compared to Friday’s sting.
I’ve been stung in the hands, the arms, the legs, the butt, and three different times on my face — I swell like nobody’s business, and my eyes puffed shut each time. The face stings curtailed my social outings for the three days or so required for my eyes to reopen. But even being stung in the face didn’t hurt like this latest sting.
In addition to honeybees, during my life I’ve been stung by wasps and by countless yellow jackets. I’ve squished sweatbees by accident into my armpits, and been stung in retaliation. As a child, I once endured 14 stings on my back after blundering into a hornets’ nest out in the woods. That really did hurt, and I seem to remember the shock sent me screaming out of the woods, but again it doesn’t even come close to the pain levels reached after this unidentified yellow thing stung me.
It stung, and once I reacted to what had happened, I started hopping about on my right foot, cursing. I got cold chills, and briefly considered throwing up.
I remember an elderly beekeeper in Bryson City who told me he’d never truly known how badly a sting could hurt until a bumblebee nailed him. I hope I never get the opportunity to compare pain levels with his experience, but I can’t imagine bumblebee stings could hurt more than the yellow thing sting. The very thought makes me shiver and cringe.
I hopped, one footed, back into the house and found a version of Sting Ease. It eased the pain nary a bit. The top of my foot quickly turned an angry red, and then my entire foot started swelling. I took two ibuprofen, thought about it a minute, and took another. I might as well have swallowed sugar pills for all the good they did.
I started in on Benadryl. First I took one pill, waited for a bit and when nothing happened, took another. Still my foot throbbed. Eventually, seeing my agony (loudly and frequently expressed, I wasn’t suffering in silence), my friend dug out some Hydrocodone left over from a previous broken-bone experience that I’m sure paled next to my foot-sting pain.
At that point, I’d have taken arsenic if someone had simply assured me it would dampen the throbbing.
I’ve taken Hydrocodone before, after having my wisdom teeth taken out, in my mid 30s. It had a very strange effect on me — I’d started talking, and couldn’t shut up. Usually, of course, it knocks people out. But I got totally wired, and talked for hours and hours despite the gauze crammed into my cheeks.
I didn’t give my prior Hydrocodone experience a thought, however. The idea of babbling mindlessly, but free of pain, was infinitely more desirable than dealing a second longer than necessary with my throbbing foot. As it happened, the Benadryl tipped the scales in favor of sleep, and I conked out.
The next day, the pain was gone, but my foot looked foreign to my body; hugely fat, grossly sausage-like. I cancelled my planned run, and settled in for a supine day indoors. But by lunchtime Saturday the swelling had all but disappeared. And, as I write this on Sunday morning, I can’t even tell where I was stung. Amazing.
There is no moral to this story, no lesson to be learned. Except, perhaps, that I need to set a pair of garden-designated shoes upstairs to slip on when I go out to water; I should keep a close eye out for unidentified yellow stinging things; and, as my friend sometimes says, there are times when the living is better through chemistry. Hooray for drugs, that’s what I say.
I have some good news. But first the bad news. The world is ending. Evangelist Harold Camping has predicted it. Others point to the Mayan calendar and confirm that our remaining days are few. Meanwhile, a surprising number of people believe that a planet called Nibiru will collide with Earth and do us in.
Most conservationists I encounter may not pay attention to these particular predictors of doom, but they tend to be equally pessimistic about our future. When I traveled to Indiana a few weeks ago to speak at a conference on literature and the environment, I heard countless examples of people wiping out nature, nature killing people, and nature sometimes destroying itself.
Session titles included such uplifting topics as “Dead and Dying Animals in Literature, Film, Art, and Culture,” and “Imagining Environmental Apocalypse.” More than once, professors at the conference lamented that their students find environmental issues extremely depressing. Really? I can’t imagine why.
Sure, we have plenty of reasons to be concerned about the outside world: loss of habitat, polluted waters, global climate change, invasive species, oil spills, funding cuts for conservation programs, species extinctions, and more.
But depressing news is, well, depressing. It repels people — and their donations, too. Very few people want to take on apparently losing causes, and so the challenges continue.
I know we have to be realistic about these conservation issues, but rather than focusing on what’s gone wrong, maybe we should spend more time tallying what’s gone right. Then, the next time we think we’re approaching an environmental Armageddon, we can share these encouraging stories with friends, family, struggling students, discouraged conservation leaders and potential donors — or just read them to ourselves to remember that good things have happened before and can happen again.
Fortunately, we can find plenty of recent conservation successes right here in Western North Carolina. Thanks to various groups and agencies, we again have elk in the Smokies, peregrine falcons in the skies, and river otters and various fish species back in the Pigeon River watershed.
Meanwhile, air quality is improving, and Haywood Waterways and its partners have cleaned up Hyatt Creek enough that it has been removed from the EPA’s list of polluted waters. Also, the 12 land trusts of the Blue Ridge Forever partnership have protected more than 50,000 acres of important farmland, forests, and natural areas in the last five years.
I don’t think we should worry that some favorable results will eliminate humanity’s interest in the environment. Instead, these success stories can inspire all of us to create more good news.
Speaking of which, Harold Camping has updated his timeline for the end of the world — previously scheduled for May 21. We now have until October 21 to create some new conservation successes. Who knows? Maybe we’ll do enough good between now and then to earn the world another short reprieve.
George Ivey is a Haywood County-based consultant and author of the novel Up River. Contact him at www.georgeivey.com.
Turkeys, I’ve learned, are curious animals. That curiosity was on full display for company this past weekend when Kirk Hardin the goat broker and his wife, Shannon, came over from Canton to pick up three sheep and a billy goat.
My friend and I reluctantly decided to sell our Katahdin sheep because we have too little pastureland. The ram, Leo, his betrothed, Sophie, and the couple’s offspring, Nikolai, represent a farming experiment gone awry.
Lesson: do not get into sheep unless you have pasture, about an acre for every three to five head. Otherwise, you’ll be feeding hay to them all year. And, unless you’ve got your own hayfield — doubtful, if you don’t have enough pasture to begin with — sheep being fed purchased hay is the equivalent of tossing money into a bottomless hole.
Despite this farming failure, I remain a stalwart fan of Katahdin sheep. I hope one day to build a large flock and tend them as a dutiful little shepherdess. I believe Katahdins are wonderfully suited for raising here in Western North Carolina, much more so than other kinds of sheep or meat goats … if, that is, you have adequate pastureland.
Kirk and Shannon showed just after lunch in a pickup truck with a livestock crate in the back. I’d been dubious when Kirk told my friend on the phone that he planned to lift Leo into the pickup. He and what army, I believe was my response to that.
Leo, you see, weighs at least 200 pounds, maybe even 250. He doesn’t like being touched, much less picked up, though I’ve certainly never tried to lift him. Two months ago or so, Leo took me out — lowered his big ram head and sent me rolling down the hill, head over heels — when I wasn’t quick enough delivering his food. (Lesson: never, ever, turn your back on a ram). That experience bruised both my body and ego. I’d become quite cautious in my subsequent dealings with Leo.
Kirk ambled into the barnyard, took one look at the huge ram glowering at him from inside a locked stall, and developed another plan.
He decided to bring the pickup truck around, back it into a bank, and lead Leo up the bank and into the livestock crate. I had my doubts, but Kirk is the professional goat broker, not me. Never mind that we were dealing primarily with sheep, not goats — both have four legs, after all, and Kirk had an air of confidence about him.
We first loaded Sophie, Nikolai and the billy goat, Ghirardelli. Kirk offered to buy Ghirardelli for a friend whose goat lasses need a good buck’s services. This saved the young lad from freezer camp. One requires but a single billy goat in one’s life, and that niche is currently filled here at Haven Hollow Farm in Sylva.
Kirk took the truck around and backed into the bank, which was 25 to 30 feet from the stall where Leo was now pacing agitatedly back and forth. Kirk and I went into the stall — why I went in, don’t ask me, it’s not like I was any actual help — and Kirk dropped a lead over Leo’s head.
I fully anticipated at this point in the story that Leo would destroy Kirk the professional goat broker. I could almost sense the ensuing story writing itself in my head, about how Leo exploded with rage and the broker ran for his life, or something like that.
Instead, the great sissy docilely trotted along with Kirk, who suddenly manifested into some oversized, mountain-twanging Haywood County version of Little Bo Peep leading her gentle lamb.
There was a bit of excitement close to the pickup, but it didn’t amount to much: Leo started launching himself through the air. What Leo thought this would accomplish, I can’t say. He’s never been big on providing explanations.
Kirk didn’t even blink. He just stepped aside so the great leaping beast wouldn’t come down on top of him, pointed him in the general direction of the pickup bed, and let Leo leap inside the crate.
Meanwhile, the turkeys were taking it all in.
We have three turkeys. They are common Broad-breasted whites. We’d ordered a heritage breed, but in a joint order with a friend, she somehow ended up with the heritage birds, and us with the whites. I don’t care — this was my first stab at turkeys, and I’ve been highly entertained, no matter how ubiquitous the breed we have.
I’d always read that turkeys are incredibly stupid. That’s simply not true — at least not these turkeys. Granted, when they were young, they did squish to death one of their brethren, taking the count from four to three. But chickens do that sometimes, too. And Sophie the ewe stepped on Nikolai when he was just a baby, luckily causing no visible lasting harm.
The turkeys love a good show. And seeing three sheep and a billy goat loaded into a truck by Kirk was what they consider a really good show. They got right up to the back of the pickup, making odd hinking noises at each other, watching his every move like so many biddies in a hair parlor commenting on the people walking past.
I thought the turkeys looked disappointed when Kirk and Shannon drove off. Life was again humdrum everyday fare in the barnyard; boring goats, a bunch of boring chickens, a boring guard dog named Sassy and a barn cat — b-o-r-i-n-g — named Jack. Turkeys, I’ve learned, yen for more entertainment than that.
But not me: I, for one, was thrilled to see Leo disappear down the road. He was a bit too much entertainment for my taste, not to mention the ever-increasing expense associated with feeding a ram his size. That served as a constant, annoying reminder that I hadn’t thought things through very well when it came to the sheep.
Lesson: turkeys are a lot cheaper than sheep to feed. And, if a bird lowers its head and runs into you, it’s doubtful that this turkey attack would hurt nearly as much as having a 200- to 250-pound ram nail you from behind.
“It’s like floating on a cloud,” that’s what the man in the booth said about his nifty adjustable hammocks. We took turns trying one out, first my wife — the most frugal among us and therefore the hardest sell — and then the two kids. Finally, I climbed in, skeptical that the hammock, which hangs from one hook and collapses into an unobtrusive bundle of netting when unoccupied, could accommodate my 6’4” 235 pound frame.
It did, and within a few seconds, I was floating on that cloud, as bemused festival goers floated past in small, talkative clumps, now just other clouds drifting by me. I had to have one. Uh, I mean WE had to have one. Minutes later, we were choosing a color and writing a check.
The very next Saturday, I was out on the deck floating in my new hammock, enjoying a cup of coffee and the last few chapters of a good novel. But more than that, I was enjoying the stillness of a perfect Crabtree afternoon.
Tammy had taken the kids into town to brave the “no tax weekend” madness. They’d be a few hours picking out new backpacks and notebooks and pencils and markers for school, not to mention trying on these jeans and that shirt.
The dog was curled up on a cushion next to me, the cat stretched out near the railing of the deck, surveying the yard below. A cardinal pecked at the last few seeds in the birdfeeder, retreated to a nearby branch, and then came back again for another look.
A storm seemed to be moving in…or not. The sky was almost perfectly bifurcated, gray and ominous in the south, but blue with just a few wispy clouds in the northern half. Every few seconds, I could hear the distant rumble of thunder — somebody was getting pounded a ways off — but it didn’t seem to be getting any closer, and the animals were not disturbed from their respective spots of repose.
I kept floating, kept reading. Like my novel, summer was drawing to a close. I would be going back to work in a few days, the kids back to school in another week. The days, though still scorching, are already perceptibly shorter and will soon be growing even shorter, as we approach the beginning of football season, the arrival of the county and state fairs, the first chill, the turning of the leaves.
I imagined myself in the hammock on a crisp autumn day, drinking cider and reading a book of poems by Robert Frost, or maybe Yeats, trying to fight off the inevitable and ineffable melancholy that seems to find its way into my heart at unexpected moments this time of year.
Autumn is actually my favorite season, the richest and most lustrous of all the seasons. I prefer weather cool enough to require the wearing of flannel or a sweater to the searing, oppressive heat of July and August. I sleep better when it’s cold outside, and I always look forward to the day each year when we can finally replace the chenille bedspread with our goose down comforter and turn off the air conditioning once and for all.
But this isn’t just another fall. The kids are beginning to get older, especially our daughter, who has suddenly stopped clinging to her mother like another layer of skin and has, without warning, entered into a kind of pre-teen, semi-rebellious, mood-fluctuating, completely unpredictable funk. Sometimes, she’s her old self — giggling, ebullient, playing with dolls — while at others, even the task of eating dinner is simply too horrific to contemplate, as if her fork suddenly weighed 80 pounds and the act of lifting it from her plate to her mouth is very nearly an impossibility.
Questions, no matter how innocuous, are met with a theatrical rolling of the eyes and audible sighs. The very idea of asking about her day! Can you comprehend the absurdity of it?
In the meantime, our son is busy perfecting mischief, or discovering new ways to whine about eating squash or creamed corn, the very same foods he ate with relish as a babbling toddler. Now he finds ways to “hide” food by carving it into tiny morsels, and then reconstructing it on his plate, an elaborate project that could almost pass for modern art. Or he stalls, waiting for us to finish so that he can scrape his plate without being noticed while we are preoccupied with some part of the post-dinner routine.
He has become the family’s ace negotiator. Yes, he’ll eat one more bite of chicken IF he can play one more game of Mario Kart before bed. Yes, he’ll brush his teeth IF Charlie can come over this weekend.
The kids are changing fast, just like everybody warned they would when they were born. They’re crashing through childhood like bears through the forest, wild and lumbering and scary. Before we know it, they’ll be out of the woods, enrolling in college, holding up placards at televised games that read, “Send money.”
I do love this new hammock, but I guess I’d better be careful how much time I spend in it, huh?
Art is aesthetic; crafts are practical.
That’s the difference between the two, at least in theory. The distinction between arts and crafts becomes blurred, however, when you attend an event as tremendous as the annual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands in Asheville.
I was smart enough to make the trip over to the big city a couple of weekends ago, despite not particularly relishing the prospects of an hour-long drive there and the ensuing battle that always follows for parking. But I set those drawbacks aside and went with a friend, and came away thrilled. I’ve been thinking about the show ever since.
There were indeed crafts being shown there that are mainly functional. These included a dizzying array of potters with kitchenware, carvers and their walking sticks, and textile artists who had turned out one-of-a-kind articles of clothing.
I enjoyed all of that very much indeed. The craftsmanship, the attention to detail — it was truly wonderful.
But what set me to ruminating were the craftspeople who transcended their crafts and created what undeniably constituted art. I’m not sure where that line shifts, which leaves me feeling a bit like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, in classifying what constituted obscenity, wrote “I shall not today attempt further to define what kinds of material I understand to be embraced … But I know it when I see it.”
I do remember reading something that impressed me very much when I was younger and that seems pertinent, though I can’t quote it accurately. The sentiment, however, is something like this: work on the basics of your craft, and leave it to others to determine whether it rises to the level of art. Which leads nicely into this perspective, by Pablo Picasso: “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.”
All that said, I’m still at a loss to define art in comparison to what constitutes craft.
Before returning home that day from Asheville, I plunked down more money than I could comfortably afford for a piece by a ceramic artist who was showing her work at the craft fair. This for a figurine that, once seen, I knew I couldn’t easily live without. It is a piece that I’m totally comfortable describing as an original piece of art, though we all now know that I’m incapable of explaining what, exactly, I mean by that.
Here’s my little personal credo: I believe in living with fine art, great music and literature. I want original paintings on my walls and fine sculptures here and there in my home. I enjoy listening to classical music, I read the classics and I love good food.
(I also hate watermelon, listen to bluegrass, watch and enjoy perfectly wretched true-crime shows on television, and read British mysteries and very bad science-fiction fantasy novels — but that’s a discussion for another day).
This is a tough economy for artists, musicians and writers. There’s not a lot of extra money these days for items that many might think superfluous, such as paintings, sculptures, concerts, plays, books of poems and novels.
Sometimes, frankly, I feel that way, too. Reporters are not among the world’s best-paid people, surprisingly enough, and supporting the arts can be tough on one’s checkbook.
But I have no regrets about supporting the ceramic artist I met at the craft fair in Asheville, and for helping to underwrite her future work by paying a fair exchange for a piece that is truly lovely (in a sort of tortured-artist-kind of lovely way).
Because I smiled when I got the figurine home, unpacked it, and realized that it would stay with me. I find that truly amazing, the fact I can actually live with and enjoy something this great, a piece imagined inside someone’s head and transferred in a wondrous, inexplicable way through their hands.
Sculpture, books, music, paintings and other forms of art — truly, this constitutes the good life as I define it, and is what makes me feel rich.
From the hotel window in Durban, South Africa, I can see the Indian Ocean. Freighters line the horizon like parapets on a castle wall, waiting their turn to berth at the busiest container port in the entire continent of Africa. The ocean breeze makes the water warm enough to swim even as winter here turns to spring, and we did just that today, splashing in the ocean after a run along the sand.
And we weren’t alone. The beach was packed with vacationers and locals, all enjoying a gorgeous Sunday after a rare cold, rainy spell late last week. One of the locals I was talking to said getting the sun back was a welcome occurrence. “Cape Town is supposed to get the rain in winter, we’re not supposed to get rain. Now things are right.”
It’s easy to get lulled into a sort of stupor in a place like this. I am removed from South Africa’s many problems as we work on press releases high atop the Durban Hilton. But even in this tourist district, I move from place to place among a mix of humanity so diverse it is staggering.
I’ve done a bit of traveling, and nowhere is there a mix of humans so colorful in skin color and dress. It’s a human bazaar, and as we strolled along the promenade along the beach I was as wide-eyed as a kid.
Even here, I am reminded of the politicians in Washington and the last few weeks of debate on the debt ceiling and the country’s future. CNN’s worldwide news service is here to remind me. As this is published on Wednesday, Aug. 3, I expect a deal will have been struck to meet a deadline that, if missed, could have sent our country into the first stages of default.
We should all be frustrated at the way this has played out, as politics has trumped the nation’s best interests. “Like spoiled children,” was the phrase that kept coming to mind as I watched and listened and then moaned and groaned. Each day one side or the other sounded more petulant and immature.
I’m in Durban with Ken Howle, a friend who works at Lake Junaluska who asked me if I’d accompany him to the World Methodist Conference to help with media. Ken was asked by the WMC General Secretary George Freeman to handle all the communications at the conference, and so here we are with a couple of thousand Methodists from all over the world. Ken and I are trying to mix fun and work, taking in the local flavor — including the great beach, a brutal rugby match, and some of the local seafood — while we also prepare for the work of communicating what happens here to Methodists around the world.
I was talking to a woman here from the U.S., one who has traveled the world extensively with her husband, and the debt ceiling debate came up. She seemed frustrated, and reminded us: “Yes, they say when we hiccup, the rest of the world gets a cold; when we get the flu, the rest of the world dies.”
The South African paper today (Sunday, July 31), bemoaned the potential fallout to this troubled country if the U.S. does not get its act together. This is a place that suffers from 25 percent official unemployment, where young and old alike beg on the streets to gather enough money to feed themselves and family members.
Ken spoke with a woman waiting in line with us at a restaurant. She had just returned from America, nine months as a CNA at a Mississippi rest home. She told him she would have never come back but her visa expired. Bongie, a local newspaper editor who’s helping us, said the problems in her native Zimbabwe are much worse than here, and that she came to South Africa to find opportunity.
While our own country and the rest of the world suffers, we can’t find leaders who really care. The problem with America isn’t that we’re prosperous. We should be proud of our successes, developing an economy and a standard of living much of the world still envies.
The problem is that we seem to have forgotten how to lead, how to use our great wealth to fix problems in our country or anywhere else.