I missed a golden opportunity to see my name emblazoned on a book spine by not writing about Western North Carolina’s very own serial bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph. Many people suggested I turn my experiences into a nonfiction account. I certainly had the material and the background.
I covered that madman and the ensuing years-long manhunt in exhaustive blow-by-blow for the Asheville Citizen-Times, whose motto should have been “no detail too small to print.” (Today, by contrast, the newspaper might well consider using “nothing west of Asheville.”)
But, back to that rascally Rudolph and all his endearing reindeer games. Such as adding nails and tacks to bombs to ensure living victims were torn into as many bits as possible.
I wrote about Rudolph and how he ordered a deluxe Bible at the Christian bookstore in Murphy just before he blew up that policeman and nurse at an Alabama abortion clinic. I interviewed the bookstore owner in-depth and wrote the article in my best breathless, cliché-ridden Brenda Starr-reporter style.
I wrote about a threat Rudolph did not send (though we did not know at the time that someone else was seeking attention) to one of Murphy’s weekly newspapers. It was suggestively signed “the Army of God.” CNN and other national media outlets picked up what proved a non-story, and we at the newspaper were quite proud because this seemed proof of “owning the story” and of setting a torrid pace for everyone else to follow in panting envy.
I wrote about caves Rudolph did not hole up in when he did not hide in the Nantahala Gorge, complete with interviews with geologists who had never heard of Rudolph and extensive timelines and helpful maps about the region’s history of mining, hence the existence of the many caves not used by Rudolph.
I even wrote a piece, which I most fervently hope never again sees the light of day, for the newspaper’s parent company’s newsletter about how other Gannett newspapers around the country could cover big stories in an equally riveting style as mine.
I was, as you can imagine, suffering a full-blown case of Rudolph burnout when he was finally nabbed in 2003 Dumpster diving in Murphy. A book was out of the question.
By then, my interest in the Rudolph story rivaled my current level of passion for covering Macon County’s apparent insatiable appetite for initiating land-planning studies and fighting over them. The first time I wrote on that subject? Try 1992.
Even then, as a rank green cub reporter at The Franklin Press with a big dose of bravado and few skills to back the attitude, I suspected covering planning studies in Macon County might simply prove an exercise in burning newspaper space. Two decades later and I’m suspicious of precisely the same thing.
Hell, even most of the people I’m covering are the same people, often saying exactly the same things I quoted them saying three newspapers and two decades ago.
We — and this would be folks on either side of the issue, I don’t have a particular dog in that fight — often hug hello at meetings before getting down to business. It’s a familiarity that feels perfectly appropriate after our long, strange journey together. Like greeting extended family you never see except at the occasional funeral of some great aunt or great uncle, or hugging hello when everyone gathers to bury a cousin so far removed on your mother’s side that the exact connection isn’t fathomable even by the most ardent family genealogist.
A book about the various planning scrums in Macon County, however, would bore even those involved in the issues — not to mention me, the poor writer.
This leaves me to contemplate a one-year book. There is a sudden proliferation of taking on inspiring goals for one year and then writing best-selling books about these experiences.
One year of living biblically, one year of “test driving” the wisdom of the ages to discover the secret of happiness, one year of cooking every single recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
With this publishing explosion comes one-year improvement plans, too, such as one year of not buying anything new, one year of not eating processed foods, one year spent reading the “Five-foot Shelf” of Harvard Classics.
I understand what these authors are about, what they are “up to,” if you will. The one-year format provides ready-made topics and structures. That is very appealing for would-be writers who are short on good, original ideas.
Perhaps I could spend one year making various potpies, then write about eating potpies. I adore potpies, so that would be very enjoyable — but I shudder to think what I’d pack on in weight eating a potpie a week for a year.
I’m a voracious reader, so perhaps I could do something along that line … One year spent in bed reading whatever I wanted to, probably mainly British mysteries, with my food catered to me. I would, of course, condescend to get up to go to the bathroom as needed. That, in fact, could serve as chapter breaks.
The trouble with this outstanding idea is that my every-two-week bank deposit from The Smoky Mountain News might not continue in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed. But I’d be happy to dedicate the book “to my friends at The SMN, with many thanks for the literal support” if the newspaper’s owners would subsidize my yearlong break.
Plus, please, pay for an extra few months so that I could actually write what would — as inevitably as night follows day and local television reporters freely and without guilt lift stories from newspapers that are, in their books, too-small-to-count — be a runaway bestseller.
The exquisite, fleeting beauty of autumn is with us now. Cold nights signal changes to come. Soon there will be a killing frost; winter will be upon us then.
“Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all.”
Autumn, this brief window between the heat of summer and the gray skies and frigid mornings of winter, is my favorite time of year. There is a bittersweet quality to the season that I’ve never quite been able to capture in words. I think it’s in autumn, or in my desire to write autumn, that I most wish I had been given the gift of poetry. Only poets, it seems, can come near capturing the … the what?
I lack the words, the skill needed to describe this perfect day in a perfect autumn. Blue skies, the sun, the chill, the leaves in yellows and reds; leaves that the winds blow down to become ground; to become trees with leaves that are first green, then yellow and red; leaves that the winds blow down to become ground — a cyclical pattern writ perfectly, but one written here imperfectly.
John Keats wrote to a friend in September 1819: “How beautiful the season is now — How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather — Dian skies — I never liked stubble-fields so much as now — Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”
Keats’ composition was “To Autumn.” It begins: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run/To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,/And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core …”
As with Shakespeare in the first quote, we find “ripeness” repeated here in Keats. That tickles my thoughts, and the Buddhist phrase, “like licking honey from the razor’s edge,” resonates in my mind. The simultaneous gain of pain and pleasure is one possible interpretation of that saying. Or, the insistence on gaining pleasure, knowing that doing so brings with it the inevitability of pain — that would be another interpretation, perhaps.
“Here be dragons,” one of the world’s oldest maps, the Lenox Globe, warned would-be travelers nearing the east coast of Asia; another way, I think, of saying something of the same thing … explore at your own peril, living on the working edge, licking honey from the razor’s edge, ripeness is all, autumn changes to winter.
“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven/A time to be born, and a time to die/a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted/A time to kill, and a time to heal/ a time to break down, and a time to build up/A time to weep, and a time to laugh/A time to mourn, and a time to dance/A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together/A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing/A time to get, and a time to lose/ a time to keep, and a time to cast away/A time to rend, and a time to sew/ a time to keep silence, and a time to speak/A time to love, and a time to hate/ a time of war, and a time of peace.”
When autumn comes and my thoughts spin into unanswerable questions such as these, about beginnings and endings and the passing of the seasons; when I pick up the Bible and read Ecclesiastes, or search the Norton Anthology of English Literature for Keats; and when I find myself staring for too long into the glass front showcasing the wood fire at night, I like to ground myself by thinking about the ending of a particular book by the fine Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering. He spent time in Japan studying Zen. Van de Wetering, who also wrote a fantastic series of detective novels, recounted his youthful experiences searching for life’s meaning in “The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery.” This quest involved long hours of meditation and endless efforts to solve koans, those puzzle-like questions designed to help one obtain enlightenment.
Ultimately, at the book’s end, van de Wetering leaves the monastery and goes to a bar and has a beer.
That, too, is ripeness of a sort, I suppose. Having already imbibed my life’s allotment of beers, I think I’ll go have a glass of tea.
A box of bulbs arrived Saturday, containing within the cardboard confines all the promises of fall work, winter waiting and spring wonder.
The decision was made last March or April to order then rather than waiting to select and purchase the following season’s bulbs during these autumn days. That way, the reasoning went, the choices would be thoughtful, with awareness of precisely where new daffodils, fritillaria, tulips and crocuses should best go.
Needs were plain to see, as absences that begged filling. I also developed an itch that required scratching: a heated passion for tulips. With this newly awakened appreciation I marvel at how I could have wasted more than four decades failing to enjoy the beauty of these flowers. Hoity-toity me, I sniffed and condemned tulips as too artificial for the likes of my cultured self.
My ignorance, now that I’ve discovered the vast array and endless beauty of the tulip, staggers me; my condescension toward those who enjoy them shames me. Before this past spring, I suspected tulip aficionados to be of a type who most likely enjoyed ‘tulip tires,’ too, and who whitewashed tree trunks. And who were capable of positioning an abandoned metal bed frame beside the road, planted with flowers, bearing a helpful hand-painted sign for passer-byes cleverly noting that here is a “flowerbed.”
Gentled this past year, tulip tires, white-washed trees and metal flowerbeds seem poignant — a Southern phenomenon like our Easter-egg trees, when mountain families festoon winter-bare trees with colorful plastic eggs, a cultural practice I can’t, frankly, quite fathom. But we’ll be poorer for it when that day comes in the South when no one in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina decorate their yards for motorists’ enjoyment, and if trees in Western North Carolina each April don’t inexplicably spawn plastic Easter eggs.
To return to bulbs: I’m very happy, now that bulb-planting time is here, with the decision to order early. It was so unlike me to do something in anticipation, rather than in mere Pavlovian-conditioned response. To actually plan nearly 12 months in advance for future pleasures — how thrilling now that the box has arrived in the mail, how satisfying the expectations of spring beauty to come.
The word “spring” is used in the loosest sense. For the flower gardener, at least this particular flower gardener, the beginning of spring is the onset of bloom following snows. That can be early February some years in Western North Carolina, though sometimes we must wait almost for March to arrive.
After months of hot weather and crazed growth, I can no longer easily picture what the landscape looks like during the comparative bareness of spring. Not with the flower garden bursting with fall bloom. I can’t see beyond the now of lilac-colored asters, gold- and maroon- and salmon-colored chrysanthemums, bright zinnias and light, delicate pink cosmos flanked by the husky, darker pinks of autumn sedum. A huge patch of grasses, as tall as I am, has declined to remain within its allotted space but towers resplendent in the gold and fading greens of fall, dominating the front bed. Sea oats bounce in response to the slightest breath of air, a quivering living edge for the back bed nearest the dining-room windows.
My breakfast, as usual a bowl of cereal drowning in goat’s milk, was spent this morning watching birds visit the feeders and surveying the flowerbeds. This breakfast inspection wasn’t encouraging.
The flowerbeds do not seem to allow for adding even a single blade of grass. Much less the 100 or so bulbs ordered, with more to come in another shipment.
Though I congratulate myself on the ordering early aspect, my failure to map where I intended to actually plant these new bulbs haunts me now. Were the crocuses destined for the empty space I seem to remember near the front of the hellebores, or were they to go along the side of the house entrance? The poppy collection — where in the world did I think they could be planted? Ten minnow daffodil, five tulip, 10 Grecian windflowers, 12 hyacinths; what was I thinking? I’m surprised that in my spring enthusiasm I didn’t order a partridge in a pear tree, because if there’s room for all of these bulbs, there’s certainly room to squeeze that in, too.
If I follow my usual planting patterns, I’ll remain in frozen indecision until the last possible moment. One bleak, cold December day with snow threatening will find me hunched in the flower beds, digging holes with a trowel, dropping bulbs hither and thither in a willy-nilly frenzy, telling myself that come spring the flowers will look good wherever they grow.
And, that’s actually true. Our finest Southern garden writer, Elizabeth Lawrence, once noted that of the myriad flowers found in our seasonal gardens, none are so important as those first few we discover blooming. I find this particularly insightful following a long, drab winter, when the barnyard is a disagreeable mucky mess and the landscape a dull, lifeless brown for months on end. Those first blooms bring such joy and excitement. Totally out of proportion, perhaps, with the actual discreetness of the white, yellow or purple flowers. As one often discovers in a general way about almost anything in life, context is everything.
I am a great admirer of efficient people. In my enthusiasm for them I sometimes mistake myself for one of those types. I wrongly imagine I’m a getting-it-done kind of person who never goes upstairs or downstairs with empty hands; I like to believe that I’m always carrying an item in one direction or another, returning said items to their proper, pre-assigned places. The items remain until needed and always — without exception — are put back after use.
That’s a very nice goal, and sometimes I am quite diligent, for a time, at putting tools away. During those neat periods I’m prone to walk about muttering, for others’ edification: “A place for everything and everything in its place.” I get very indignant when Someone Else leaves tools Like They Always Do carelessly strewn in the yard, and they get rained on — as happened a month or so ago to the Dutch hoe. Then I generally remember it was actually me who last used the tool in question. That time I forgot the hoe after trying, unsuccessfully, to hack to death the Jerusalem artichokes along the back of the garden (an aside: they are in the sunflower family, which means they are allopathic. And that means Jerusalem artichokes inhibit other nearby plants from growing, as has occurred along the entire end of the vegetable plot).
Returning to efficiency, or lack there of: let me get busy at work, or interested in a book, or fascinated by pigs or geese or ducks or a new vegetable or anything new at all, and I’m virtually useless at accomplishing anything else. I’m instantly paralyzed by my new interest, this sudden grand passion, from attending to mundane tasks such as putting away tools, or listening when I’m spoken to, or getting tasks done that need doing.
A one-track mind really doesn’t cover it.
A friend with a background in psychology recently informed me, I hope jokingly, that I suffer not at all from attention deficit disorder; but rather, from a previously undiscovered-to-medical-science syndrome: attention rigidity disorder.
If I’m interested in pigs, then I read about and talk about and dream about pigs. The same thing if it’s geese, or ducks, or I don’t know — pick something preposterous, like working a fulltime job and having 87 farm animals to care for … Oh, heck, that’s not preposterous, that was the actual count last winter before some were sold.
Another illustrative example: Boo the billy goat earlier this week got his fat head stuck through a fence trying to lick and nibble one of the does. He’s in full and stinky rut, but the does aren’t yet interested in his Don Juan self. They do seem to enjoy passing by his pen out of reach but near enough to drive him bonkers.
So here was Boo at morning feeding time, his head through the fence, trapped.
“Can you please get him out?” I asked my friend, my being dressed for work and not wanting a repeat of a recent experience in which I thoroughly offended the delicate sensibilities of my coworkers by getting his odor all over my clothes and hands.
Yes, I was told, don’t worry about Boo.
But to make a long, uninteresting story simply short and uninteresting, Boo’s head stayed wedged through the fence, despite vigorous efforts to free him. At moments like these, one must reach for the bolt cutters to cut the idiot billy free.
The bolt cutters are kept on a shelf in the barn. The bolt cutters have a place, just like the efficiency experts urge — but they were not, of course, in their correct place when actually needed.
This sent me into a full-blown snit. I was already late for work.
There are two pairs of bolt cutters on the farm, one assigned to stay at the top of the mountain, the other down below at the barn.
“Where,” I asked angrily, “are the bolt cutters this time?”
They couldn’t be found.
I slammed into the pickup truck to drive back to the house and find a pair. Meanwhile, Boo jerked his head back through to the correct side of the fence, shortcutting my trip. (See, I told you it was an uninteresting story. I have a lot like that, because my life is not nearly as fascinating on a weekly basis as it might appear from this column, culled as it is for the exciting highlights only).
How much easier, how wonderful it would be, if tools could be found where you expect to find them, when you most need them.
I stayed in my righteous snit for about 10 minutes. Then it dawned on me that I might have used the bolt cutters one day not long ago when one of the kids got her head stuck. I perhaps tossed them carelessly in the back of my car when done, taking them up to the house with intentions of bringing them back the next trip down the mountain to put them on the shelf in the barn where they belong.
Oops, again — so much for efficiency.
I cut my first fall salad this weekend: baby kale, tatsoi, mizuna, baby mustards and more. Following a summer of garden failure, this fall garden has restored my good humor and gardening confidence.
As weedy as my summer garden proved, this one is clean and weed-free. The beds are brimming with luscious greens planted over the last couple of months. The cabbage is heading, and perhaps the broccoli will soon, too. Carrot tops stand about seven-inches tall, giving hints of the bounty growing beneath the ground; winter radishes — daikons and the appealingly named beauty hearts — are doing the same. Who could resist growing a radish called a beauty heart? Certainly not I; only, perhaps, a gardener without poetry in their soul could turn away from such a promising name, if indeed such a contrary being exists.
There are two large turnip beds. The turnips, too, look promising, though insects have been chomping the leaves of some. I soon must intervene or risk losing this staple winter root vegetable. To spray or not to spray? One can be friendlier to the earth by handpicking the creatures off, but that takes more time and considerably more effort than splashes of organic, but still deadly, sprays.
There were fall gardening failures, as there always must be. And, perhaps, even should be: Success tempered with small disasters keeps gardeners humble and properly thankful for what does grow and prosper.
My beets and chard never germinated. Or, rather, one beet plant can be seen where a row was intended; four or five chard plants where 20 to 25 plants were planned. The spinach didn’t germinate, nor did the rape.
But taken overall, and standing back to admire the big picture instead of focusing narrowly on those few sparsely germinated beds, this fall garden looks to produce wonderfully. I can anticipate harvesting now until at least late December. And longer, on into spring, if I’m willing to work as necessary — gardening needn’t cease after the killing frosts arrive unless gardeners choose cold-weather respites.
I’ll leave the beds uncovered until frost. Then I’ll haul out metal hoops and yards of row cover from the shed and cover the beds.
Wind is more difficult for plants than cold — in fact, any of the plants I’ve mentioned easily endure temperatures around and below freezing, and can withstand even several degrees below that once acclimated. Somewhere below about 23 degrees, though, and you start losing the battle with the less hardy greens if you don’t intervene.
The odds for plant survival increase mightily with row cover. I generally use a product that provides 4 degrees or so of frost protection. But, as mentioned, the greater benefit of row cover is the protection from moisture-sucking winds.
Until the last couple of winters, I usually added a plastic barrier overtop the row cover when really cold weather set in. I’ve stopped doing that, however, for the most part. In my experience, the bigger issue for winter gardeners in Western North Carolina is dealing with the extreme variation in temperatures. Extreme cold followed by a week or two of balmy weather wreaks havoc in the winter garden. The plants adjust to the warmth, and then a sudden descent back into single digits is more than they can withstand, particularly within a double-protected bed of row cover and plastic.
I’ve found the plants actually withstand temperature fluctuations better when simply given protection of row cover, without the plastic. I could speculate on why, but I’ll spare you my intuition-based musings. The truth is I have no real idea how this single barrier does the trick, but it often does.
I double or triple, the row cover protection on some beds, and turnips and carrots covered in this manner can be harvested all winter.
My best-producing winter gardens have come in years when we’ve had unremitting cold and the insulation of heavy snow. My worst when we get mild weather followed by cold; and repeats of mild weather followed by cold.
This leaves me torn between desiring warm winters so that it will be easier to get outside and work; or cold, hard winters, which virtually ensure good garden production, but means that on some days you can’t harvest because the row cover is actually frozen to the ground.
And that reminds me of the wonderful “Gardener’s Prayer” by Czech writer Karel Capek, who clearly understood the vacillation that afflicts all gardeners:
O Lord, grant that in some way
it may rain every day,
Say from about midnight until three o’clock
in the morning,
But, You see, it must be gentle and warm
so that it can soak in;
Grant that at the same time it would not
rain on campion, alyssum, helianthus, lavendar,
and others which
You in Your infinite wisdom know
are drought-loving plants-
I will write their names on a bit of paper if you like-
And grant that the sun may shine
the whole day long,
But not everywhere (not, for instance, on the
gentian, plantain lily, and rhododendron)
and not too much;
That there may be plenty of dew and little wind,
enough worms, no lice and snails, or mildew,
and that once a week thin liquid manure
may fall from heaven.
I have learned, yet again, the virtues of doing something right the first time. My sloppiness was a bloody and painful lesson for two young goats this past weekend. It was an experience I could have spared them — and me — by giving proper and prompt attention to their horns just after they were born late last winter.
Ideally, within a few days of a kid’s birth, if you plan to burn off horn buds you do so then. These are dairy goats; horns on dairy goats are dangerous for everyone involved. Brenda, an experienced goat keeper who is kind enough to come help me with horn burning and on horn-removal days, learned this lesson the hard way. Just last week she had a horned kid on her farm pop its head up unexpectedly, catching her with its stubby weapon just below the left eye. Half an inch higher, and this might have been a different, more serious, story.
Goats not properly disbudded grow scurs, or abnormal-looking horns. This is particularly difficult to prevent in male goats even when proper disbudding occurs. In female kids, however, you can generally hinder scurs by early and thorough disbudding.
This helps protect them from each other during the inevitable challenges for dominance in the barnyard. Chickens, I’ve discovered, have nothing on goats when it comes to establishing pecking orders. Someone gets to be queen, and everyone else tries not to be the actual bottom goat on the goat-yard totem pole. Last to get food, first to get butted out of the way when treats are being handed out — it plainly sucks to be bottom goat.
We’ve also had goats with long scurs somehow manage to get their heads through the pig-wire fence enclosure, and of course be absolutely unable to pull their heads back out once they’ve discovered that no, the grass truly isn’t greener on the other side. In fact, it’s much browner and all-around less juicy and tasty. That makes for a long, frightening day for the goat involved, and it lasts until someone driving on the road by the barn spots and frees the unfortunate victim, by then traumatized and deeply resentful over the day’s entrapment.
With several of the kids born last March and April, I was a week or so late getting to disbudding. This is an unpleasant task. It’s easily forgotten and postponed in the joy of watching new kids find their legs and a new world. It simply isn’t fun to take them, screaming in unhappiness, from their bawling mothers and apply a hot piece of metal — several times — to the tops of their tiny, precious heads. The smell of burning horn combined with the cries of pain is excruciating.
The experience, when I finally did get around to disbudding, reminded me of a few years spent living on a cattle ranch in Mississippi when I was a young child, not long before my family moved to Bryson City. I vaguely remember screaming calves on the ranch being castrated, to my four- or five-year-old self’s vast unhappiness (I’m sure it was more terrible for them, but it was bad enough for me). At the time, of course, I lacked the adult ability and understanding to justify such horrors. It left me with bad memories, and I had my own little post-traumatic stress disorder memory attack when disbudding kids.
These past few months, despite my best efforts not to notice, scurs emerged on little Coreopsis and her half sister, Dandelion. Both their mothers were sold earlier this year, and now provide ample milk and goat entertainment to a family in the Balsam community.
Coreopsis is the hardy sort, and recovered quickly from her sudden plunge into orphan-hood. Dandelion has had a more difficult time.
Coreopsis likes to be petted and loved upon, given treats and talked to, and pushes her way through the goat crowd for attention; shyer Dandelion, just in the past few weeks, would finally accept an alfalfa cube from someone’s hand. If, that is, the presenter stood on the other side of the fence and extended their arm as far out as possible — Dandelion, extending her long neck in turn as far as possible from her trembling body, would snatch the yummy green cube … if you didn’t suddenly blink or make similar threatening moves and scare her away first.
That being the case, it was of course almost no trouble to remove Coreopsis’ scur, but Dandelion’s was a doozy. One snip and Coreopsis was done; 50 snips and an escape, chase and tackle later, and Dandelion had been done, too.
“That went well,” Brenda said to me when Dandelion was finally released. “Next spring, we disbud within three days of their being born — three days. I mean it.”
I mean it, too. Coreopsis recovered her nerves within a couple hours. Two days later, and Dandelion is still shattered, shivering and hiding under a picnic-table-turned-goat-jungle-gym, reluctant to approach within 50 feet of me. And I don’t blame her a bit — I bet those calves in Mississippi never forgave the ranch’s owners, either.
Tammara Talley, while gracious in her acknowledgments during the shower of verbal high-fives raining down upon her at Saturday’s farmers market, couldn’t help but beam proudly. No different, really, than any mother just delivered of perfect babies bearing precisely the correct number of eyes, hooves and tails.
“Congratulations on your new litter!” Penny O’Neill, a pediatrician in real life at Sylva Pediatric Associates when not farming, came up and told her as I stood nearby. Tammara had mentioned the litter to one, maybe two, fellow vendors. The information spread in a couple of hours across the market; everyone, it seemed, was rejoicing in this gift of new life.
One of Tammara and husband Darryl’s sows delivered the litter at their home in Whittier. Tammara works for the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service in Cherokee. Two or three years ago she and Darryl started Trillium Farms. The couple specializes in natural pork.
This column easily could be about pigs. That’s because I’m thinking about buying two of them, which is why I was at the market picking Tammara’s brains on the subject this past weekend. And if I dwell long enough mentally on how much I like pigs, how very exciting it’s going to be when I get them, and contemplate how I’m cleverly intending to put them in an area for a future vegetable garden, this column will indeed write itself in that direction.
But, that’s not my intention today, as feverish as I am at this moment for all-things pigs. I’ve been wanting to write something about the sorts of people who raise pigs. Or, rather, who raise virtually any kind of farm animal, who keep bees, or who till the good earth and raise vegetables.
I like people who farm. There are, of course, a few unlikable ones mixed in there. But as a rule, people who connect themselves to the land are humble, generous and fun to be around. Good folks who find plenty of joy in the lives they’ve built. And these are lives built on hard work and determination; lives that are very often short on dollars but long on authenticity.
That same spirit was on display Sunday, too, at the Mountain State Fair in Asheville. A friend and I headed an hour east to watch the goat shows and talk goats with a group of experts on the subject.
I’m fairly new to goats, and still struggle to grasp the nomenclature veteran goat owners’ use. I’m doing somewhat better these days than at my first goat show, when I struggled mightily to fathom what on earth the judges meant when they discussed such bewildering points as “good udder attachment” or “poor udder attachment.”
After attending a few shows I started grasping what they might be referring to, though I’m certainly no expert and remain baffled as to why certain goats emerge blue-ribbon winners. I have learned that biggest isn’t everything, though it’s part of the winning formula. The ideal dairy goat has a huge udder, yes, but that huge udder somehow looks exactly right on her body — good udder attachment.
Really, though, you don’t particularly have to grasp udder attachment to get a kick out of goat shows. The animals are beautiful and charming, and their owners are laid back, pleasant, helpful and eager to talk goats. They are some of the most unpretentious people I’ve ever had the pleasure of hanging around.
Want to understand milk-fat content? Just ask. Considering a certain breed? Ask and learn every conceivable virtue and fault associated with that particular breed of goat. Dying to understand the complexities of udder attachment? If I’d asked, trust me, I’m sure someone would have been eager to explain.
I’m not sure if farming brings out the best in people, or if the best people are attracted to farming. At the risk of sounding overly sentimental, I do know that living closely with the cycles of life — birth and death; spring, summer, fall and winter; planting, tending and harvesting — help gentle a person. It has me, anyway.
If there’s a larger message here, then I guess that it’s this: If you want to farm, whether for a living or as a hobby, reach out for help — you’ll find it waiting in the form of a bunch of really nice people. I believe you’ll find this true, too, whether you’re at a local farmers market or at a regional goat show. I sure have.
I was pleased to see quite a few people selling meat this past Saturday at the local farmers market in Sylva. That’s a noticeable change from just a year or so ago, when naturally grown meats were hard to come by unless you were willing to raise the animals and slaughter them yourself. These days, however, you can stroll through the farmers market and select from free-range chicken, pasture pork, goat, rabbit, quail and more.
I’ve always struggled with whether to eat meat or not. To date I have accepted I’m a carnivore, except for a brief, six-month period in college when I tried on vegetarianism like another person might try on a shirt. I welcomed the opportunity to be a bit radical and cool, or so I imagined myself, and in a casual, offhand manner made frequent mention to friends about my newfound conversion to tofu and vegetable protein. Not knowing how to cook these items in an appetizing manner, my ardor for protein substitutes lumped on a plate in an unappetizing pile of mush soon subsided, though I soldiered on for a few more weeks out of sheer stubbornness and pride. I without comment one day returned to eating meat, and my friends were kind enough not to notice, or at least not to say anything in front of me about it, anyway.
These days I eat meat on a regular basis. Three or four times a week, sometimes more. I do try to remember Thomas Jefferson’s admonishment to consider meat a condiment, not a main course.
Accepting that I’m a meat eater, my second, more serious struggle has involved killing animals I’ve raised myself — I’ve done that, too, but frankly it leaves me uneasy. I wholeheartedly believe there is a fundamental honesty to eating meat you’ve raised from egg to chicken, kid to goat and lamb to pork chops; but I just hate dropping the hatchet on some poor chicken’s neck or hauling animals down the road to the slaughterhouse.
Cowardly, perhaps; but it’s a hard thing to cut the head off a young rooster that you’ve fed as a chick twice each day, routinely cleaning his little bottom when poopy-butt strikes. It’s also hard to handover for slaughter a goat or lamb you helped birth on a cold March night, remembering all the time how you picked him up and wiped his squirming body down, made sure all his little legs worked, and stayed in the stall long enough to ensure mom gave the tiny, wee thing a good suckle.
These experiences make me very grateful to the farmers market vendors who are willing to raise and kill animals for the rest of us. I know the farmers personally, and I can buy from them confident that the animals they’ve raised have been reared in clean, healthy conditions, with good husbandry and kindness — even love.
Because the truth is, unless your farm gets so large that the numbers overwhelm compassion, or become so hardened that the act of killing leaves one cold, there is indeed love between farmers and their animals.
So how does one kill something they love? That, as I’ve been reflecting on, is very hard indeed. And I know that it’s just as difficult for the farmers involved as it was for me when I was farming for a living. I’m no more sensitive or less squeamish than they, perhaps even less so than some. I’ve just returned to the regular work world and can afford for now to make different decisions. I can skip the struggle of slaughtering and cleaning and simply buy my meat.
I don’t know if I’ll return one day to raising animals for slaughter, either for home use or for the market. If I do not, I’m still thankful that I have experienced exactly what that means, and understand the difficulties of what these farmers are doing for the rest of us. It makes me very grateful for what I receive, and very appreciative of what they do.
And one day soon, I’ll perhaps use this space to explain why it costs so much more to buy a pound of meat that is naturally raised rather than conventionally raised. Just take it on faith for a while, if you will, that these folks aren’t making much profit at what they’re doing. Not once you back out purchase of stock, shelter and feed costs, time and labor, medical care and emotional and mental anguish. In fact, once you’ve experienced these things firsthand, it makes you feel embarrassed that such meat can be bought locally at almost any price at all. Pearls before swine, in a manner of speaking — such bounty should, I think sometimes, actually be priceless.
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.
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.