Selfish Me and Harried Woman

“Why didn’t you tell me?” the woman — wild-eyed, disbelieving and somewhat hysterically — called over to where I was standing slightly hidden behind the next set of gas pumps.

Why, indeed? I asked myself before replying truthfully that I’d been afraid she’d resent my interference.

“I was being selfish,” I called back. “I feared you’d say something nasty in return.”

Lessons, when we’re open to them, can come in the strangest places. Even, I learned, at gasoline stations in Hazelwood.

I was making the trek from Sylva to Lake Junaluska one day last week when the light that indicates my car is low on fuel flashed red on the dash. I drove down the exit to Hazelwood and pulled into a gas pump at one of the service stations there.

I noticed the woman pumping gas in front of me almost immediately. She was worthy of notice — thin and harried looking, she was puffing, dragon-like, on a cigarette while fueling up her car.

‘Oh, gosh,’ I thought to myself.

(Actually, I thought ‘Oh, shit,’ but this is a family newspaper, after all. At least some sort of family, if not by any possible stretch of the imagination that traditional nuclear family editors and publishers are referring to when they stifle writers’ creativity and free speech rights with the ‘we’re a family newspaper’ warning. Even so, this publication certainly could be considered a newspaper for some strange dysfunctional family that really should be in therapy working on their weirdo issues … but I digress. And, I need my job, after all. But I do want it noted that I respected newspaper conventionality by writing “gosh” even though I’ve never used such a wimpy word in my life. But I’ve certainly said and thought “shit” on any number of occasions, so dear reader please mentally replace “gosh” with that Great Unmentionable curse word. Or you can mentally do the stupid newspaper bow of conventionality to those fictional sensitive traditional families editors and publishers worry about: ‘shxx.’)

So, I think to myself: ‘Jiminy Cricket, that woman is smoking a cigarette. What should I do? Tell her?’

Then Selfish Me surfaced. I thought, surely Harried Woman realized that she had a cigarette dangling from her lips. Periodically Harried Woman reached up with one hand to whip out said cigarette and wave it about, gesticulating like some mad orchestral conductor, in emphasis to some point or another she was making to an individual seated in the car.

Selfish Me next thought, ‘Holy Cow, Batman. Am I far enough away that if she blows herself up I’ll be safe? Will the ensuing fireball incinerate me in a horrible conflagration? What if I step behind my Mini Cooper — is it big enough to protect me? Why didn’t I buy an SUV, or a Humvee? No, the Cooper is too small. I’ll shelter behind the gasoline pumps.”

Even in the moment I realized that sheltering behind gasoline pumps from a possible fireball was stupid. But Selfish Me felt more protected there than not.

What was interesting, in retrospect, is how quickly I had forgotten the lessons of a parable I’d just read and thought deeply about. It’s Chinese or Japanese in origin, and is very old indeed. It goes something like this: A bunch of vine squashes one day started quarreling and fighting amongst themselves in the field. A priest, hearing them bicker, came out of his hut. He ordered them to quit harassing each other. The priest taught them meditation techniques. After a time, the squash grew calm and quiet. The priest then told them to reach up and feel the top of their heads. The squash did as they were told, and discovered the vine that connected them together. Realizing their interconnectedness, that they were really one, the squash after that got along with each other very well indeed and worked to resolve any differences.

I was contemplating interconnectedness on my way to Lake Junaluska when I stopped to buy gasoline. Somewhere deep inside I believe there was a small kernel of self-satisfaction regarding my obvious spiritual growth and unique ability to grasp ancient parables.

Harried Woman squashed that glow right into the ground.

It turns out that Harried Woman became harried because she had such difficulty getting gasoline. She was irritated by having to go inside the service station to pay first before pumping.

Harried Woman, I believe, learned a lesson that day, too: a bit of mindfulness goes a long way, and walking 30 feet extra doesn’t seem such a big deal when you almost blow yourself up because of mindlessness.

Selfish Me learned something, too: I’ve gotta long way to go.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The time is ripe for garden planning

January is a time for new beginnings; nowhere is that more true than in the garden.

A difficult task for newcomers to Western North Carolina who want to garden, or for first-timers to gardening, is an absence of good information on what vegetables to begin planting when.

The N.C. Cooperative Extension Service has when-to-begin lists on its website and at  local offices. Frankly, though useful as a baseline, the state’s lists aren’t in my experience particularly helpful. That’s because the agency isn’t daring in its recommended growing practices, doesn’t factor in the use of protective covering and compiled the lists with traditional growers in mind.

Nothing wrong with any of those things, but traditional WNC growers were and are more interested in summer produce: corn, tomatoes, okra and squash. There’s much more out there than that. And much more fun to be had during our lengthy growing season than in just planting traditional garden mainstays.

If you have a greenhouse, an indoor growlight setup or a sunny place near the window, you can get started with this year’s garden now. During my stint farming in Bryson City I compiled a seed-starting list. I thought I’d share the first few months of the year in this space, and perhaps the remainder of the list in upcoming columns. I do need to take the time to tweak the list based on later farming journals I kept. Some of the Asian vegetables I became interested in aren’t well represented.

A few caveats are in order. Bear in mind that I was growing for farmers markets, and that I was farming for a financial living. This meant I was aggressive with my start dates. I wanted to be the first into market, if possible, with various vegetables. Factor in that I was farming at about 2,000 feet in elevation on a southerly slope. The average last frost date in that location is May 10. If you live in higher elevations, adjust my starting dates by roughly two (or more) weeks.


Mid January

• First round cabbage, broccoli to plant later under row cover.


Last week January

• Second round cabbage, broccoli (can continue planting in greenhouse through February as needed).

• Peppers (can continue into February as needed, helps germination to start on a heating mat. Must be transplanted into continually bigger containers).

• Artichokes (you can “trick” artichokes into growing in WNC by introducing the plants to various temperatures in their first weeks of life. Perhaps I’ll write on that topic more fully at a later date).


First week February

• Leeks.

• Head lettuces.

• Chives, thyme, other herbs (continue planting through February, March as needed).


Second or third week February

• Parsley.

In garden toward end of February, first week of March weather permitting, (be prepared to cover transplants when temperatures threaten to drop lower than 20 degrees):

• Transplant lettuce, broccoli and cabbage into garden.

• Direct seed leaf lettuce, snow peas, English peas, carrots, boc choi, onion sets, spinach, radishes, beets (keep succession growing through late winter into spring).


First week March

• Start tomatoes in greenhouse (Must be transplanted into continually bigger containers in greenhouse).

• Start eggplant.


Second week March

• Plant potatoes in garden.

• Direct seed kohlrabi in the garden.

• In greenhouse, marigolds, zinnias, ageratum, if you enjoy cutting flowers.


Continue transplanting in greenhouse. Direct seed in garden:

• Beets, onion sets (for green onions), radishes.

• Direct seed cilantro, pole or bush beans, first planting of soybeans, and sweet corn when the soil warm (old-timers here in the mountains planted early corn when the dogwood blooms).


Early to mid May

• Plant leek transplants into garden.

• Direct seed okra into garden.

• Direct seed basil, can plant later, too, to have with ripe tomatoes.

Succession soybeans, beets, onion sets, radishes.

• Direct seed summer squash, cucumbers, cantaloupe, watermelon, pumpkin.

• Transplant tomatoes, eggplants and peppers as weather permits.

• Direct seed red noodle bean (an Asia bean I’m particularly fond of).


Mid to late May

• Direct seed winter squash, spaghetti and butternut squashes.

• Under row cover, grow succession plantings of summer ‘lettuce’ mix: mizuna, kale, collards, tatsoi, red giant mustard, arugula. Use as cut-and-come again, harvest immature for raw salads. Replant short row every two weeks or so for summer use.

• Plant sweet potato slips.

• Plant chard, if haven’t already, also Malabar spinach, dill.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Unexpected pleasures from a trip across the state

Sometimes what we expect to happen doesn’t:

On vacation this week, I stopped in Raleigh and viewed the “Rembrandt in America” exhibit currently showing at the N.C. Museum of Art. I enjoyed the exhibit very much indeed. But what honestly carried far greater emotional impact for me was a secondary exhibit by North Carolina artist Beverly McIver.

McIver is an African-American woman born in Greensboro; she lives now in Durham. McIver’s work to date has focused on her mother, Ethel, who died in 2004. And on Beverly McIver’s mentally disabled sister, Renee, who is in her 50s but has the “mental mindset” of a second-grader.

McIver’s paintings are bold. They are raw and honest. Her rendering of her mother in “Mom Died” literally and unexpectedly brought me to tears. Her mother’s mouth is open, a hole in a white, unfilled-in face. Ethel is lying flat in her hospital bed; the perspective is incredibly pain-filled and heartfelt, unmistakably real.

I have cried listening to certain music performances. I have cried while reading particular books. Never have I been forced to leave an art exhibit because of overwhelming emotion and tears. This was a new, welcome if painful, experience, and Beverly McIver’s powerful paintings are an exciting addition to my life. I look forward to seeing what she will produce in the coming years, and have every intention of tracking her work in various galleries. What a tremendous gift this woman has, and the labor she has clearly invested into mastering her craft is sobering but inspiring.

McIver’s work hangs at the state museum through June 24. Rembrandt’s, by the way, can be viewed through Jan. 22.


Learning dreams really can come true:

I stayed as a guest in a 15-year-old community in Carrboro, Arcadia Co-housing, which residents tout as “a progressive, intentional community governed by consensus.” Amazingly enough, that proud claim rings true — there are 33 families here, each living in their own individual houses. Residents work together to create an interconnected community. Arcadia consists of 16.5 acres of land, but development is limited to five of those acres. The remainder is kept in woods, a field, a pond, a community garden and meadows.

All households are represented on Arcadia’s board of directors. Business meetings are held monthly, there are work signup parties quarterly, steering committee meetings are scheduled monthly, and other meetings (stonings? banishments? The group’s website doesn’t specify) are held “as needed.”

I stayed in a room located in Arcadia’s common house. The group built this common facility, in part, to provide housing for guests. This keeps residents’ houses smaller and absent of guest rooms that would only experience occasional use. There’s a laundry in the common house so that residents don’t have these appliances in their homes, a multipurpose sitting area, rooms geared toward kid activities, extra storage room and a large kitchen with a dining area. Monthly community meals are scheduled, with volunteers doing the cooking.

I’m a raging liberal by almost any definition you choose. But I admit to harboring a certain skepticism when it comes to intentional housing. I would never have believed it could work, much less for 15 years, and furthermore seem really cool and fun.

My friend Kevin Corbin, who is as far to the right as I am to the left, happened to call while I was visiting in Arcadia. He wanted to chat about a particular article I’d written about the commission board in Macon County, which he chairs. Kevin’s son attends UNC-Chapel Hill’s dental school, an odd choice for the scion of such a proud GOP-oriented family. Kevin assures me that UNC’s dental school is different from regular UNC. It is suitably conservative, he said, even for a Corbin.

Kevin laughed when I told him I was in Carrboro. “You know that even the people who live in Chapel Hill think Carrboro is too liberal. Don’t you?” he asked me, clearly amused but also not speaking in jest.

Maybe indeed Arcadia could exist only in a bastion of liberals, but it’s neat indeed that it does work, regardless of where. We could use more Arcadias in our world.


And, finally, the loveliness of our state:

When it comes time for my occasional trips to the beach, I’ve consistently chosen South Carolina because of its relative nearness to Western North Carolina. This vacation, however, I struck out on Interstate 40 and then to the Outer Banks. What a delight this place has proven.

The ocean here is strikingly rough, churning and chopping in unceasing, un-rhythmic, mesmerizing motion. The shells deposited on beaches bear the branding of this unforgiving ocean — they are rarely whole, usually just bits and pieces. There’s a natural beauty to this region that seems unique from other coastal areas I’ve visited. There’s something about being surrounded by so much water that is stunning, and even a bit overwhelming and frightening.

Damage from last year’s hurricane is clearly visible. Driving north down the coast, you come to a heavily hit, abandoned-appearing vacation or second-home community. Porches of houses were sheared, hanging desolate and broken in the sky; house pilings exposed, in places collapsed. Water was everywhere, in areas where water was not wanted or welcome. The place was a disaster.

The sign on the development was unintentionally prescient of what occurred: “Dare to Dream the Impossible Dream,” it read cheerily, a slogan written to entice potential buyers pre-Hurricane Irene.

It seems to me that building in the Outer Banks is a crapshoot. More hurricanes will come; continued erosion is a given, not a guess. Sort of like building in defiance of a mountain’s grain; at least, that’s what this visitor from WNC couldn’t help but think.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Warm weather brings unseasonable activity

Cutting collards this past weekend, I was surprised to find colonies of purplish-colored aphids under many of the leaves.

That discovery spurred me into a more extensive garden inventory. I discovered several of the more tender greens, such as the Asian introductions Tokyo Bekana and Vitamin Green, bore evidence of feeding insects. There were shotgun patterns of holes marring these tasty plants’ leaves.

When later I jerked a length of row cover from a shelf in the garden storage shed, the abrupt movement disturbed a small village of Asian beetles. The honeybees, too, were actively in search of something to feed upon. But because they fly from the hive at temperatures roughly 50 degrees or warmer, this wasn’t as profound a marker of the unseasonable-ness of our recent weather as other insect types.

This is the first time I can remember such vigorous insect activity this late (or should that be early) in the year. I’m certain we’ve had similar warm, early winter weather in past years; until I became a gardener there was little reason to note such events in my memory bank. Which is an excellent reason, among many excellent reasons, to garden. One immediately becomes an acute, if amateur, observer of nature; and a historian of sorts regarding previous garden seasons and anomalies accompanying them.

The surge of insect activity hadn’t been isolated to the garden. I’d noticed, but not attended to the why, our hens were ranging farther and farther from where their laying pellets are kept. The insect populations clearly must have rebounded elsewhere, too. The hens this past week could be viewed happily tossing the leaf litter on the forest floor like so many industrious chicken leafblowers. They must have been uncovering and devouring newly emerging or reemerging bugs and worms.

The weather forecasters, however, warned of an impending deep freeze while I snacked in front of the local news broadcast hours after devouring a requisite helping of hoppin’ john. The winds indeed were gusting by nightfall of the new year’s first day. A burst of Arctic air, as the television weather woman ominously and breathlessly termed the incoming assault, accompanied most likely by accumulating snow. That sounded brutal, but such cold certainly would prove much more painful for the insects than me, given my ability to hole up, sheltered, by a warm fire. An “Arctic blast” would end not only their unseasonable romps through the garden, but indeed through life.

A New Year’s Day visitor noticed the honeybees flying from the hives perched on the hill above the house and asked how well they winter. Perfectly, I responded, unless they get wet, diseased or starve to death.

Honeybees in cold weather form a cluster, a huddle, to protect themselves and most importantly, to shelter the brood and queen. Honeybees during cold spells will disconnect their wing muscles from their wings. This allows them to more easily vibrate and, in this manner, generate lifesaving and life-giving warmth. The temperature inside of the cluster containing the precious queen and brood has been measured at a consistent, and balmy, 92 degrees.  

The outermost honeybees periodically move into the center of the huddle to stay warm, leaving other honeybees for a time to endure the cold’s brunt on the cluster’s parameter. There is a constant in and out flow to a winter cluster, a cycle as perpetual as the movement of waves on an ocean, ever coming and going. I find this enjoyable to ponder when having an insomniac moment on a cold night.

I have sugar water prepared to go on the hives into hive-top feeders. This should have been fed to the honeybees already, but an attack of a plague-like illness sent me to bed, to weakened even to care for the bees. I had hoped to send them into this cold weather as prepared as possible. Fat and sassy, scoffing even at the promised Arctic blast and accumulating snowfall.

There’s little doubt that honeybees will be starving this winter across Western North Carolina if beekeepers neglect feeding them. The warm weather means they’ve likely been eating their stores at a torrid pace.

Starvation, even in colder winters than this one, is the most common method of death for honeybee colonies.

The beekeeper can know she’s starved her charges quite easily — you raise the cover and inner lid of a hive to discover the honeybees’ butts in the air, dead facedown into the comb cells. They starved there while searching in vain for something to eat. This is a sad, discouraging sight indeed for any beekeeper, maybe the worst one I know when it comes to honeybees. Because it’s so clearly the result of preventable neglect; akin to the act of leaving a dog in a car with rolled up windows on a hot summer day. Or tethering a goat unwatched to feed on weeds, like so much bait on a fishing line for marauding neighborhood dogs.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Staring down a blank computer on deadline

It happens to writers much better than me. I know this, because I need only to open a book and find a sentence like this one to be instantly reassured: “I was sitting at my typewriter one afternoon several weeks ago, staring at a piece of blank white paper …”

That brilliant start is by James Thurber in The Thurber Carnival at the beginning of his essay, “What do you mean it was Brillig?”

Let us break down that sentence by the master, shall we?

Thurber, like me, was clearly stuck. He was as stuck as any writer can be. “I am sitting” is writer’s code that he’d been at his desk for hours, perhaps days and weeks, waiting for inspiration. “Inspiration” is the oft-spoken-about muse fiction writers apparently visit on whim. Nonfiction writers like myself and — if I dare even write his name in such close proximity to my own presence —  Thurber, tend to find their muses on deadline. And what a wicked witch she is, the old bag.

Thurber confirms he’d been moldering at his desk for some time with his very next words: “one afternoon several weeks ago.” See? He’d been there several weeks, poor man, unable to find a topic. Think about the wedding scene in Dickens’ Great Expectations and you’ll have a nice mental picture of a columnists’ or essayists’ life when writer’s block strikes: A tortured Miss Havisham, as seen by Pip, dressed in her tattered, yellowing wedding dress and hovering near the cobweb-festooned bride cake feasted on by mice. That’s what the world of Thurber on that day looked like, waiting like Miss Havisham for something that never comes. And my writer’s torture chamber looks like that, too. The greatest or the least of us, it matters not, we suffer the same.

I know the feeling well that Thurber described in his simple sentence of being chained to the writer’s desk (I repeat it here, in case you’ve forgotten his golden words: “I was sitting at my typewriter one afternoon several weeks ago, staring at a piece of blank white paper …”)

I myself sat Sunday for at least 10 minutes staring at a blank computer screen trying to hit on something to write about before I noticed how lovely a day it was for mid December. You remember the sun shone so bright and warmly. So I went about my merry way with the mental justification, “I’ll just get up a bit early in the morning and write.”

Now, of course, it’s early in the morning and I still don’t have a topic, and I’m doing something that I swore on the sacred writer’s Bible I’d never do: I’m writing my column about not having a topic for my column.

Some of the very worst writing abuses ever found in newspapers — and that’s saying a lot given the writing abuses that are found in newspapers — have been wrought by columnists bereft of reasons to write. Columnists who have no topic of interest yet insist nevertheless on being columnists regardless of their total absence of anything meaningful to write upon.

Why, I have railed many a time against these sham writers, usually with a bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other hand because, my dears, one needs props when railing, though I’ve noticed that since I’ve become so amazingly humble and bourbon- and cigarette-less I tend not to rail at all … funny how it works like that.  

Thurber concludes our shining example by noting that he was “staring at a piece of blank white paper.” I’m here to note there is nothing more stimulating about staring at a blank white Microsoft word document than a blank sheet of actual paper. The key words in that sentence are the double repetition of “blank.” Nothing else matters — blank is blank, believe you me, whether it is on a computer screen or at a typewriter.

An aside: Unlike many here in this kiddy romper room that poses as The Smoky Mountain News — I jest not, the newspaper’s owners raid the state’s juvenile detention center for wayward 11- and 12-year-olds when in need of staff, they come cheaper by the dozen that way — I’m old enough to have stared mindlessly at real paper. Real, crinkly paper, children; the stuff you can hold in your hands.

Despite the uncanny similarity of us both being writers, you will be surprised to know there are a few distinct differences between Thurber and myself. First of all, he’s dead and I’m not; he was male and I’m female; we have different names; he was a Yankee and I’m a Southerner.

The End.

(Quintine Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The sage gardener won’t put off these chores

If you haven’t covered your greens yet — and I’m among those who have not — it’s time. We’ve been favored by a long, relatively warm fall, but these 20 degrees nights cause wear and tear on our mustard, collards, turnips and whatever else currently survives outside. A telephone call this past weekend from a friend in search of row cover (I had some extra to spare) served as a reminder. Cover those greens, and you’ll get a lot more out of them than you would otherwise. A few nights below 20 degrees without protection, and they’ll disappear on us.


The last time I wrote about using row cover I received an email from a nice fellow, I think from up in the Cashiers area, who thanked me for my suggestion to use it liberally and often in the winter garden. “But what, exactly, is row cover?” he asked ever so politely after delivering several effusive compliments about my writing style intended as balm to remove any possible sting from the question. I felt more than a little embarrassed by my failure to actually define what I was writing about. As my new friend Harold is prone to ask, don’t they teach that in Journalism 101?

Harold, I’m discovering, likes to read my articles and columns and, in a jolly way, note any little journalistic errors I’ve committed that week. Everybody needs a Harold in their life; I’m glad I found mine. Harold keeps me humble and amused. But anyway, back to row cover.

So this is for the email writer and Harold: Row cover, my friends, is a type of material placed over crops to provide protection from either insects or, in the winter, cold. Or, to be more precise, to protect plants from the damaging and drying of winds — the chill and thaw and chill and thaw cycles destroy garden greens and other vegetables much more quickly than low temperatures ever will. I use a product called Agribon 19, which in theory provides a mere 4 degrees of frost protection. But in reality, that thin barrier also breaks the wind — and that’s where the vegetables get the truly needed protection. Agribon is readily available through almost any garden supply company.


I also haven’t planted either my garlic or flower bulbs. It isn’t too late, so if your neglected bulbs are in the corner of the garage as mine still are, pick a day soon and go ahead and plant them. I’ve heard of people actually not getting their garlic in until January. Now that is pushing the garlic growing season a bit far, but those farmers say the crop is usually productive even with the planting so amazingly delayed. But if the ground freezes and stays frozen, which can happen anytime now, we’ll all be out of luck, period. So get those garlic and bulbs in — I plan to.


I’ve planted carrots the week before Christmas in previous years with success. Those sown then will germinate one warm day and simply sit there, seemingly without much growth, until daylight hours lengthen. Then the carrots rapidly grow, giving the early bird gardener an early bed of carrots, indeed. The trick is to double cover the carrots after planting the seed. You can plant this bed anytime from now through whenever — to me, this early carrot planting marks the beginning of the new garden season.


And speaking of new garden seasons, this is a fine time to get your garden soil tested through the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. The lab folks can get to it much faster right now than will be the case in the spring, giving you the jump on amending it as necessary. I have not actually ever followed this advice and tested my soil early, but it’s good advice nonetheless, and I’ve enjoyed intoning it for others’ benefit in an ever-so-wise gardener’s voice.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Read it here – the truth about how the world will end

I normally veer from airing my opinion as a columnist in the editorial pages on issues that I cover as a news writer in the news pages for The Smoky Mountain News.

In my world, and in the worlds of most respectable reporters and editors, news is news and opinion — well, the less said about that the better. It’s easier to pretend that we were born into this world devoid of any such thing (opinion? what’s that? never heard of it) than to try and explain the more accurate, but deeply complex, truth. That yes, of course, we news gatherers do have opinions about the stories we cover.

We are human; humans have opinions.

But, as the wise judge instructs the jury, our job isn’t to be devoid of opinions: that’s impossible. Our job, whether jury or news gatherer, is to set those opinions aside. For the jury, the goal is to render a verdict in accordance with law; for reporters, the goal is to report stories based on facts.

All that said, and I now want to comment in this column on two recent news topics I’ve covered as a reporter for The Smoky Mountain News.

One is Swain County High School’s successful capture of its eighth state football championship. As a 1984 graduate of that fine institution, and as a former Maroon Devils marching band member who sat in the stands and froze her rear end off year after year during numerous championship runs, I can’t help but give a shout-out to the school. Go Maroon Devils!

(And for the record, I’d like everyone to note that I do know how to use an apostrophe correctly. My headline to the contrary last week, a single Devil most certainly did not play all those football games this season.

In an “oh, oops” moment, the apostrophe wondered away from its rightful place in the headline — Devils’ — to inside the “s,” hence the embarrassing, and suddenly singular, “Devil’s.” Hey, there’s no doubt the football team is amazing, but it is made up of many devils, not simply one devil.)

Winning a state championship is a big deal. And I’ll tell you what’s an even bigger deal in my book — that Swain County did it with Coach Sam Pattillo placing such a decided emphasis on academics.

Earlier this year, former staff writer Colby Dunn (who, in a moment of insanity, accepted a job in Holland as an au pair. I kid you not, she’s in that fine country at this moment learning to speak Dutch and shepherding about two towheaded Dutch children) wrote a terrific story about the Swain football team’s reading program.

Pattillo teamed with English department head Dawn Gilchrist-Young, both fine products of Swain County High School — I’m certain neither of them would put an apostrophe on the wrong side of the “s” — in developing the program. Each summer, team members read books intended to both capture football players’ interests and enhance these student athletes’ reading skills.

Pretty cool, that’s my opinion; and even cooler now that the Devils up and won a state championship. Perhaps other area schools could institute the same reading program.

Story No. 2: I wrote this week about “preppers,” or people getting ready for they don’t know what — the Rapture or the next blizzard, they’re not sure, but by golly they aren’t going to be caught unawares and unprepared.

This is a hard subject to strike the correct tone on.

It’s difficult frankly to write about preparedness without making the people involved sound like a bunch of nuts. But also to write an article that does not stray into the nutty side that does permeate this topic.

Anyone reading this column on an even occasional basis must realize that I’m a true believer in sustainable living. I like being able to do for myself, to know how to raise vegetables and animals, and to have adequate knowledge and skills to take care of me and mine. I’m currently living in an all-solar powered house, I have a garden, I take care of livestock, and I preserve food. Does this make me a nut? Well, OK, I may be a nut, but not because I believe in sustainability. That’s perhaps the sanest part of my personality.

Sustainability is fun, sustainability is friendly to this planet, and sustainability is smart.

A small, and to me at this point in my life, an amusing confession: Before I abstained from drinking, one of my biggest concerns when it comes to sustainability was being absolutely sure I would have an adequate supply of drinks even if the world as we know it ended. I learned to brew a variety of alcoholic beverages, from moonshine to wine. I, at least, wasn’t going to go without a drink even if the world’s supply lines of booze suddenly went dry.

I noticed brewing books being sold in Carolina Readiness Supply in Waynesville. This makes me suspect that I wasn’t the only person paddling that particular sustainability boat. I’ve also noticed in recent years that some seed catalogues have taken to offering tobacco seed (often amazingly touted as “organic,” as if that mattered when you smoke cigarettes) for the home grower.

I guess in the event of apocalypse the human race will go out with a smoke in one hand and a drink in the other. Even in these days as a committed nondrinker and nonsmoker, I admit that sounds like a pretty damn fine way to say goodbye.

Bottoms up, a puff of smoke and The End.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Serving up a heaping helping of internal turmoil

I helped raise three turkeys this year. They were named Thanksgiving, Christmas and Extras. These turkeys were intended as the centerpieces for dinners on those festive occasions, plus one was targeted to fill a particular corner of the freezer.

There was trouble with this plan from the beginning.

Turkeys, I discovered to my dismay, are very personable. They took to greeting me happily with great joyful noises whenever I appeared in the barnyard. These shouts of delight were irrespective of whether I had food for them or not — they seemed to recognize me as an actual individual. And an amazingly wonderful, perfect individual at that, perhaps the most wonderful, perfect individual in the whole world, or maybe even the entire universe.

The turkeys’ effusive hellos, no matter how bad the day, always cheered me and provided nice boosts to my self-esteem.

Made a mistake in a newspaper article and wrote a correction that day? The turkeys didn’t care — I was AMAZING in their eyes. Got in a quarrel with a coworker and showed my … well, you know. In turkey land, all was forgiven — I was that WONDERFUL human being they loved beyond all others. Forgot an important appointment? No problem, the turkeys still shouted undying love when I, that PERFECT person they ADORED, came into eyesight.

This in total contrast to the chickens: Despite having helped raise them from tiny chicks to large hens or roosters, these ungrateful creatures still eye me untrustingly, like I’m a potential predator. They stay well out of reach and squawk hysterically when I draw near. I’m merely a food-dispensing machine, and a scary one at that, to the chickens.

And, as much as I enjoy the goats, sometimes I’m suspicious that is all I am to them, too — the person put on this earth to bring them food and water and to scratch places they can’t reach.

Not the turkeys: they visibly enjoyed having their heads petted. They would squat in front of me, making conversational noises while I rubbed their great ugly crowns, almost purring in happiness. I never knew that birds could enjoy affection and seek it out — but these three turkeys did just that.

I believe the turkeys came, via mail order, in April. Until Thanksgiving was almost upon us I successfully pretended to myself that I would be able to harvest them. (Harvest, you understand, means to chop the turkeys’ heads off, and pluck them or skin them, and generally ready them for the dinner table. “Harvest” is a nice euphemism for the word “murder.” Or for clear-cutting trees, for that matter — the word harvest has a sustainable sound that softens the actual deeds for the doers.)

At some point, just before Thanksgiving, I faced up to the fact that I wasn’t going to harvest these turkeys. That left three problems to solve:

One, we wouldn’t have a turkey for Thanksgiving. But that wasn’t too big a deal — we bought a turkey instead, and will probably do the same for Christmas.

Secondly, I don’t need and can’t afford turkey “pets” in the barnyard. Frankly, I wanted to keep them very badly, which leads directly into problem three — and this was a problem that couldn’t be solved without significant distress.

This particular breed of turkey was specifically selected, genetically, to gain weight quickly. This means the turkeys convert their feed to meat in a hyper-efficient manner. When you farm or homestead, heritage breeds are a nice concept, but the reality is the longer you feed an animal intended for the table, the more money you spend and the less you make. It is easy to end up on the losing end unless you opt for these newer, fast weight-gaining breeds.

Ironically enough, we hadn’t actually intended to get meat-specific bred turkeys. But the order was mixed up and our heritage turkeys went to someone else, a friend we’d placed an order with to save on shipping. By the time the situation was sorted out we were too attached to our individual turkeys to consider switching them.

Our turkeys, the meat-specific bred ones, were by Thanksgiving having increasing difficulties walking. Their bodies were too large for their legs. This meant I could keep them as pets, yes, but only at a great price to the turkeys. They would suffer, and one day soon, they likely wouldn’t be able to walk at all.

This left me with one single, unhappy solution. Since I couldn’t kill them myself, someone else would have to kill them. The three turkeys were given to friends in Balsam who raise and slaughter chickens and turkeys for a living. We carted them over there and said our goodbyes to the trio — Thanksgiving, Christmas and Extras — this past Saturday.

I know they planned to kill the turkeys the next day. I’ve not been able to block the realization that my turkeys are, by now, very dead.

There’s absolutely no doubt that the turkeys were killed in a humane and quick fashion. But dead is dead, and my hands are no freer of their blood than if I’d killed them and cooked one up for Thanksgiving — I just ate a turkey that I didn’t know on an individual basis, that’s all.

And by choosing to skirt the actual deed I took the cowardly way out.

So here’s what I got out of keeping turkeys — a whole heaping on my Thanksgiving plate of internal turmoil. Here’s hoping your experience this year was less dramatic than mine.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

The mad, mad world of Scroto Baggins

Newspaper people are a special breed. As a type, these are individuals who tend toward the eccentric and are decidedly off-kilter; perhaps, dare I say it, are even slightly mad. They are ill suited for employment anywhere except at newspapers, or perhaps in a pinch, on a prison work crew.

Take The Smoky Mountain News gang in Waynesville. Now this is an odd bunch. The Smoky Mountain News people are odder even than Peggy, a woman I remember with great fondness from my years at The Franklin Press. Peggy had a take-no-prisoners outlook on life.

Peggy worked in layout for The Franklin Press. These were pre-computer days when newspapers were physically laid out by a now antique method known as “cut and paste.”

This was my first on-staff newspaper job. I wrote feature articles part-time and held a newly created position at the newspaper, optimistically dubbed “Quality Control,” to work out my remaining 20 hours a week.

Ken Hudgins, the publisher of The Franklin Press, was quite the wordsmith and something of a perfectionist. Ken’s manners were so gentle and kind it was difficult to recognize that he was a man ruled by a deep inner need for facts to be correct and words to be used properly. That’s a difficult need to have in the newspaper business, and one that resulted in this wonderful man suffering excruciating pain when our inevitably flawed, twice-a-week newspaper published.

I believe Ken dreamt of publishing the perfect newspaper. Just once, The Franklin Press would roll off the printing press and land on his desk free of blemishes. This dream newspaper would be absent embarrassing typos and factual errors, and no one would call and complain (or even worse, write a letter we were subsequently forced to print) about “pubic” instead of “public” meetings, or how we’d misidentified their loathsome children — again — in photo captions.

Ken searched high, low and in vain for an employee who would join him in this noble quest to create the perfect publication. Unable to find an actual individual, he instead settled on creating this new position of “Quality Control.” I suspect Ken hoped that by simply designating someone Quality Control they might rise to the grand title and fulfill his expectations.

Quality Control would equate to never printing corrections or letters critical of the paper, because nothing henceforth ever would be wrong. Ken, I believe, was convinced that Quality Control was the answer to life’s many woes.

Why I was hired as Quality Control I can’t imagine. My qualifications consisted of six months freelancing and of a couple decades of sleeping soundly through elementary, high school and university-level grammar courses.

My duties, Ken explained chippily during those first days when his glasses gleamed pink in color, were to place a pica stick across pages to ensure headlines were perfectly straight; and, when I spotted a misspelled word in an article, to use an X-Acto knife to cut out the offending letters and replace said letters with the correct ones.

It must have been evident early on that I was ill suited for a job so meticulous and grinding in nature. Ken endured six months or so of my ineptitude before, saddened but resigned, he moved me fulltime to writing. Ken eliminated Quality Control altogether, in sheer frustration, I suspect, at my total inability to come anywhere near his vision of what that person (something along the lines of the famous fact checkers with The New Yorker magazine) would do for The Franklin Press.

But, I mustn’t wander. Back to Peggy, who helped in layout. Peggy, I remember, became incensed at the editor. I’ve forgotten now the exact cause, but I’m fairly certain that Scott was being a smart aleck, as Scott — may he rest in peace — so often was.

Peggy was a woman of few words, so on this day when her temper quickened, she didn’t think twice — she twirled about and threw her layout knife straight toward Scott. I remember his eyes growing large and round as he looked at the knife, now stuck quivering into the wood of the layout table perhaps an inch at most from his leg, and mere inches from some even more tender parts that I am sincerely convinced Peggy was aiming for.

But I wander within a digression. We were chatting about The Smoky Mountain News crew, which in their latest demonstration of eccentricity, last week pooled pennies together to buy a rat-like thing for the office. This is a hamster, or a gerbil, or something equally small that my cats would enjoy killing.

This rat, or gerbil or hamster or whatever, has been christened Scroto Baggins. It resides in a cage in the Waynesville office. Except for 20 minutes or so at a time, when Amanda the bookkeeper or Margaret the graphic designer places Scroto into a clear plastic round thing, and he runs about in it, rolling this ball onto one’s feet and over computer cords, and generally making a nuisance of himself or herself while Lila, who is supposed to be selling advertising to help support my writing habit, squeals how cute he or she is.

(No one’s quite sure of the little creature’s sexual identity, hence the gender bending. This confusion, frankly, isn’t that unusual in the newspaper business, either.)

Is it any wonder that the newspaper you hold in your hands is flawed and imperfect? In what other industry besides news, pray tell me, could this happen? Office rats aren’t found in doctors’ offices, restaurants or in finer retail stores; at least not rats that are loved on and named.

Picture this: Here we poor writers are, trying to create Great Literature for the masses while being attacked by a rat named Scroto. It’s enough to send one scurrying in search of Quality Control.

Or, short of that, a good rat trap.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

To dream the impossible garden dream

As I have written previously, in my dreams I am a tidy gardener. One of those saints who uses a tool and trots dutifully into the garage, cleans said tool in a bucket of sand and oil, and hangs up this now pristine work implement in an orderly fashion; exactly, of course, where it is supposed to go, and where it will be easily found for use as expected when next required.

But order is boring, chaos exciting.

In real life I am a garden slob. Abandoned buckets strewn about, hoes left forgotten for two or three days at a time until a deluge of rain reminds me of my garden duties. Then, after of course the rain is finished (I wouldn’t want to actually get wet), I trot about retrieving my tools; and if I have time, clean them and hang them where they are supposed to go. And if busy I simply cram them willy-nilly into the garage where they threaten to scratch the car and decapitate passers-by. Or I discover some hitherto never-before used or conceived-of place for garden tools so that nobody, most of all me, could ever find them in the future. I get angry that someone put them there, until I remember that someone was actually yours truly. It’s a good thing I’m also working these days on self-forgiveness. So I let my anger dissolve into nothingness.

I have similar tidy habits in the house.

You should understand that I was an unruly child, at least mentally, and tuned out during those early lessons about how like shapes go with like shapes. Or, the truth is I tuned out of this lesson when it comes to certain objects but not all; but anyway, that’s a different column and probably a different publication.

In a kitchen where I’m residing spoons somehow end up with forks; spatulas in the drawer near the refrigerator where whisks go rather than in the drawer near the stove where spatulas go.

The other night, after mindfully measuring out a cup of rice virtually grain by grain and two cups of water laboriously drop by sonorous drop (I’m working hard on mindfulness these days, in fact I recently attended an entire workshop devoted to nothing but paying reverent attention to the moment), I dropped the rice bag into the pot-lid drawer instead of taking it back to the pantry. This gave me a small start when I later opened the drawer to fish out a lid,and reached down and instead pulled out a bag of rice. A bag of rice, I share now with the world, works poorly as a lid substitute.

But I mustn’t wander.

In theory, I was this past weekend on my way to a goat-themed workshop in northern Virginia. I stopped instead in Winston-Salem, exhausted with the thought of driving another eight hours or so, and spent two very enjoyable days in that city’s art district and in old Salem.

There was a much-ballyhooed exhibit of modern art at Reynolda House, the “bungalow” built by the Reynolds family of tobacco fame (their bungalow is my mansion; their rustic campsite would, I suspect, be a grand estate to me). I enjoyed the exhibit, but frankly lacked the language and framework to enjoy the abstracts as much as I suspect they deserved.

After touring the art exhibit and house, I gravitated to the easily deciphered kitchen gardens. I later toured the kitchen gardens in old Salem, too. I have much in common with Moravians and tobacco barons, I learned. They love tidy gardens.

Unlike me, however, Moravians and tobacco barons achieved them.

I am left in envy. Nary a piece of grass dared cross the edging of the garden beds; every bed was exact in geometric perfection; all were weed- and bug-damage free. Perfect, absolutely perfect.

After getting back home, I glanced into my kitchen garden and wished I hadn’t. Weeds, bug damage, beds with lines drawn as if by a drunken snake, a hoe carelessly left out and five or six repurposed Ingles icing buckets serving as fine decorative elements.

Begin anew, I reminded myself. Everything changes, I muttered insightfully. Tomorrow dawns as a new day, a start to my future immaculate kitchen garden; one in which tools are never strewn carelessly about, weeds dare not grow and bugs don’t bite unsightly holes in the vegetables.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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