The insect sting that launched a frenzy of pill popping

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.

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

One Katahdin ram, two sheep and three really good lessons

Turkeys, I’ve learned, are curious animals. That curiosity was on full display for company this past weekend when Kirk Hardin the goat broker and his wife, Shannon, came over from Canton to pick up three sheep and a billy goat.

My friend and I reluctantly decided to sell our Katahdin sheep because we have too little pastureland. The ram, Leo, his betrothed, Sophie, and the couple’s offspring, Nikolai, represent a farming experiment gone awry.

Lesson: do not get into sheep unless you have pasture, about an acre for every three to five head. Otherwise, you’ll be feeding hay to them all year. And, unless you’ve got your own hayfield — doubtful, if you don’t have enough pasture to begin with — sheep being fed purchased hay is the equivalent of tossing money into a bottomless hole.

Despite this farming failure, I remain a stalwart fan of Katahdin sheep. I hope one day to build a large flock and tend them as a dutiful little shepherdess. I believe Katahdins are wonderfully suited for raising here in Western North Carolina, much more so than other kinds of sheep or meat goats … if, that is, you have adequate pastureland.

Kirk and Shannon showed just after lunch in a pickup truck with a livestock crate in the back. I’d been dubious when Kirk told my friend on the phone that he planned to lift Leo into the pickup. He and what army, I believe was my response to that.

Leo, you see, weighs at least 200 pounds, maybe even 250. He doesn’t like being touched, much less picked up, though I’ve certainly never tried to lift him. Two months ago or so, Leo took me out — lowered his big ram head and sent me rolling down the hill, head over heels — when I wasn’t quick enough delivering his food. (Lesson: never, ever, turn your back on a ram). That experience bruised both my body and ego. I’d become quite cautious in my subsequent dealings with Leo.

Kirk ambled into the barnyard, took one look at the huge ram glowering at him from inside a locked stall, and developed another plan.

He decided to bring the pickup truck around, back it into a bank, and lead Leo up the bank and into the livestock crate. I had my doubts, but Kirk is the professional goat broker, not me. Never mind that we were dealing primarily with sheep, not goats — both have four legs, after all, and Kirk had an air of confidence about him.

We first loaded Sophie, Nikolai and the billy goat, Ghirardelli. Kirk offered to buy Ghirardelli for a friend whose goat lasses need a good buck’s services. This saved the young lad from freezer camp. One requires but a single billy goat in one’s life, and that niche is currently filled here at Haven Hollow Farm in Sylva.

Kirk took the truck around and backed into the bank, which was 25 to 30 feet from the stall where Leo was now pacing agitatedly back and forth. Kirk and I went into the stall — why I went in, don’t ask me, it’s not like I was any actual help — and Kirk dropped a lead over Leo’s head.

I fully anticipated at this point in the story that Leo would destroy Kirk the professional goat broker. I could almost sense the ensuing story writing itself in my head, about how Leo exploded with rage and the broker ran for his life, or something like that.

Instead, the great sissy docilely trotted along with Kirk, who suddenly manifested into some oversized, mountain-twanging Haywood County version of Little Bo Peep leading her gentle lamb.

There was a bit of excitement close to the pickup, but it didn’t amount to much: Leo started launching himself through the air. What Leo thought this would accomplish, I can’t say. He’s never been big on providing explanations.

Kirk didn’t even blink. He just stepped aside so the great leaping beast wouldn’t come down on top of him, pointed him in the general direction of the pickup bed, and let Leo leap inside the crate.

Meanwhile, the turkeys were taking it all in.

We have three turkeys. They are common Broad-breasted whites. We’d ordered a heritage breed, but in a joint order with a friend, she somehow ended up with the heritage birds, and us with the whites. I don’t care — this was my first stab at turkeys, and I’ve been highly entertained, no matter how ubiquitous the breed we have.

I’d always read that turkeys are incredibly stupid. That’s simply not true — at least not these turkeys. Granted, when they were young, they did squish to death one of their brethren, taking the count from four to three. But chickens do that sometimes, too. And Sophie the ewe stepped on Nikolai when he was just a baby, luckily causing no visible lasting harm.

The turkeys love a good show. And seeing three sheep and a billy goat loaded into a truck by Kirk was what they consider a really good show. They got right up to the back of the pickup, making odd hinking noises at each other, watching his every move like so many biddies in a hair parlor commenting on the people walking past.

I thought the turkeys looked disappointed when Kirk and Shannon drove off. Life was again humdrum everyday fare in the barnyard; boring goats, a bunch of boring chickens, a boring guard dog named Sassy and a barn cat — b-o-r-i-n-g — named Jack. Turkeys, I’ve learned, yen for more entertainment than that.

But not me: I, for one, was thrilled to see Leo disappear down the road. He was a bit too much entertainment for my taste, not to mention the ever-increasing expense associated with feeding a ram his size. That served as a constant, annoying reminder that I hadn’t thought things through very well when it came to the sheep.

Lesson: turkeys are a lot cheaper than sheep to feed. And, if a bird lowers its head and runs into you, it’s doubtful that this turkey attack would hurt nearly as much as having a 200- to 250-pound ram nail you from behind.

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

Living the good life includes the arts

Art is aesthetic; crafts are practical.

That’s the difference between the two, at least in theory. The distinction between arts and crafts becomes blurred, however, when you attend an event as tremendous as the annual Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands in Asheville.

I was smart enough to make the trip over to the big city a couple of weekends ago, despite not particularly relishing the prospects of an hour-long drive there and the ensuing battle that always follows for parking. But I set those drawbacks aside and went with a friend, and came away thrilled. I’ve been thinking about the show ever since.

There were indeed crafts being shown there that are mainly functional. These included a dizzying array of potters with kitchenware, carvers and their walking sticks, and textile artists who had turned out one-of-a-kind articles of clothing.

I enjoyed all of that very much indeed. The craftsmanship, the attention to detail — it was truly wonderful.

But what set me to ruminating were the craftspeople who transcended their crafts and created what undeniably constituted art. I’m not sure where that line shifts, which leaves me feeling a bit like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who, in classifying what constituted obscenity, wrote “I shall not today attempt further to define what kinds of material I understand to be embraced … But I know it when I see it.”

I do remember reading something that impressed me very much when I was younger and that seems pertinent, though I can’t quote it accurately. The sentiment, however, is something like this: work on the basics of your craft, and leave it to others to determine whether it rises to the level of art. Which leads nicely into this perspective, by Pablo Picasso: “Art is the elimination of the unnecessary.”

All that said, I’m still at a loss to define art in comparison to what constitutes craft.

Before returning home that day from Asheville, I plunked down more money than I could comfortably afford for a piece by a ceramic artist who was showing her work at the craft fair. This for a figurine that, once seen, I knew I couldn’t easily live without. It is a piece that I’m totally comfortable describing as an original piece of art, though we all now know that I’m incapable of explaining what, exactly, I mean by that.

Here’s my little personal credo: I believe in living with fine art, great music and literature. I want original paintings on my walls and fine sculptures here and there in my home. I enjoy listening to classical music, I read the classics and I love good food.

(I also hate watermelon, listen to bluegrass, watch and enjoy perfectly wretched true-crime shows on television, and read British mysteries and very bad science-fiction fantasy novels — but that’s a discussion for another day).

This is a tough economy for artists, musicians and writers. There’s not a lot of extra money these days for items that many might think superfluous, such as paintings, sculptures, concerts, plays, books of poems and novels.

Sometimes, frankly, I feel that way, too. Reporters are not among the world’s best-paid people, surprisingly enough, and supporting the arts can be tough on one’s checkbook.

But I have no regrets about supporting the ceramic artist I met at the craft fair in Asheville, and for helping to underwrite her future work by paying a fair exchange for a piece that is truly lovely (in a sort of tortured-artist-kind of lovely way).

Because I smiled when I got the figurine home, unpacked it, and realized that it would stay with me. I find that truly amazing, the fact I can actually live with and enjoy something this great, a piece imagined inside someone’s head and transferred in a wondrous, inexplicable way through their hands.

Sculpture, books, music, paintings and other forms of art — truly, this constitutes the good life as I define it, and is what makes me feel rich.

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

A few notes on habits and change

In her teachings, Buddhist nun Pema Chodron often relates a story about a great spiritual teacher, Atisha, who planned a trip from India to Tibet. Atisha was told the people of Tibet were good-natured, pleasant and wonderful to be with. This worried Atisha, who feared he’d have no one to provoke him and show him where he needed to train. So Atisha brought along with him a mean-tempered, unpleasant Bengali tea boy.

Chodron says the Tibetans like to finish out the story by joking that when Atisha actually arrived in Tibet, he found plenty of irritating people to show him his faults — he needn’t have brought the Bengali tea boy at all.

The Bengali tea boy has become my mental symbol for those times I’m dealing with an irritating person. I’m not advanced enough in spiritual ways to embrace the concept that we should, as Chodron goes on to urge, “be grateful to everyone.” But I do feel confident that she is correct in maintaining that we create — and re-create — identical situations involving different people throughout our life until we learn to break our habitual patterns.

In that way, I can understand that we should all give thanks to the jerks in our life. They help us, you see, to find out where we are stuck. And hopefully, to make meaningful changes that increase our own happiness.

Though, honestly, sometimes I can’t help but wonder if I might just be someone else’s Bengali tea boy.


Hands down, giving up cigarette smoking was the most difficult personal change I’ve ever undertaken. I loved smoking, so of course it became outsized in my life, in the way that I overdo anything and everything that I like. And things I dislike, for that matter. I tend to avoid uncomfortable situations with equal vigor.

I didn’t just smoke a little, I smoked a couple packs a day — a cigarette in every orifice, one friend joked as he saw me inhale and exhale my way through smoke after smoke.

A drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other; I sure was a cool chick in my 20s. When I hit my mid-30s, however, I realized that I couldn’t run 100 feet without wheezing and gasping, and I didn’t feel so cool anymore. In fact, I generally felt bad and unhealthy and as if I might not live anywhere near a ripe old age.

So I quit. And I haven’t smoked a cigarette since, because I seriously doubt I could muster up the necessary willpower to go through quitting again. So I don’t play games by taking “just a puff” or anything like that — sometimes it pays to recognize just how weak-willed you are.


So I was covering something for the newspaper this past week when I got into the oddest talk with someone. And that person surprised me with their sudden gentleness and support, because we were discussing drinking and I mentioned I’d quit that, too, and they immediately offered unreserved, unhesitating support (this is not as inappropriate a subject to have gotten into talking about as it sounds — you’ll have to trust me when I say that it fit into that particular conversation at that particular moment).

For much of my life I’ve been skeptical of people’s basic goodness. It’s nice to find myself so continually wrong.


Scientists now believe the brain is amazingly fluid; that it keeps changing no matter our age. They call this neuroplasticity. The brain can remake itself structurally and functionally if only given new information. Findings about neuroplasticity defy earlier beliefs about human development. Until relatively recently, scientists and those concerned with behavior and the human mind believed our brains pretty much quit developing after early childhood.

I find this research on the plasticity of the brain good news indeed, and it probably goes a long way toward explaining how I was able to successfully quit smoking and drinking. Here’s my undoubtedly overly simplistic version of neuroplasticity: new habits create new brain pathways if you just hang in there long enough. This plasticity of the brain, or so I’m fervently hoping, also applies to our relationships — refrain from responding in a habitual fashion, and eventually we create entirely new ways of relating and being. In this way, you see, we all can be somewhat thankful, at least, to our Bengali tea boys — they give us practice in remaking our brains each time they do something irritating and we respond differently than we have before.

I believe it’s important to note that this doesn’t mean I embrace abusive relationships, or endorse passivity — far from it. The truth, however, is that I could afford to be a little more passive and less aggressive in my dealings with those people who push my buttons.

I’m finding it very helpful to believe the jerks in my life are, perhaps, actually there for a reason; and that I can use their jerkiness, as it were, to further my own happiness.

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

Sometimes a little wildness is a good thing

Out running early this morning, I was struck by the colors of summer found in the fields along Fairview Road in Sylva. Purple clover, the unique blue of chicory, Queen Anne’s lace providing intermittent touches of white — the fields are lovelier than the most carefully designed perennial garden.

British gardener Mirabel Osler, in her book of essays A Gentle Plea for Chaos, calls on us to intentionally seek wildness in our own gardens. Osler appeals for “controlled disorder,” a pairing of words I like very much indeed.

But controlled disorder can be harder to achieve than one might think.

That’s because it involves risk. And it requires creative ability, and ways of seeing that not all of us have been equally blessed with. All of us, however, can aspire to add touches of wildness to our creations, or let others do so even when we cannot.

It is through failures that much fun comes; or at least, that’s what I’ve experienced in various life roles as gardener, musician and writer. And the occasional, seemingly out-of-the-blue flashes of success can be heady indeed. Those moments provide incentive to keep trying to reach new heights, when the words actually say what you meant, or the music sounds like you hoped it would, or the garden looks like you thought it would look — but better somehow, because there now exists something uncontrived and original. It is your own creation.   

The greatest pieces of music, the finest paintings, the pieces of literature most of us consider works of genius — all are stamped with individuality and wildness.

The critic Harold Bloom described this better than I can. He wrote about “strangeness, a mode of originality that either cannot be assimilated, or that so assimilates us that we cease to see it as strange. … When you read a canonical work for a first time you encounter a stranger, an uncanny startlement rather than a fulfillment of expectation.”

Even in news writing there can be wildness, though we are seeing increasingly diminished willingness among journalists to take risks — failure these days can mean getting booted out of the field altogether, because there aren’t a lot of newspaper jobs out there anymore.

Several people recently have asked me whether I like writing for The Smoky Mountain News better than I liked writing for the Asheville Citizen-Times, where I spent 10 years as a regional reporter, investigative reporter and editor/manager.

The answer is complicated, but it’s directly connected to what I’m trying to write about in this column — there is more freedom with The Smoky Mountain News to experiment, and I love that. I can put a bit of controlled disorder into my writing, take risks and venture beyond my own skill level, even get a little wild. Sometimes I fail; in fact, often I fail — but I believe that failure has value. It is real, you see.

For instance, I never, ever used four-letter words in the Citizen-Times. I quoted someone using the “f” word repeatedly, however, in a recent article for The Smoky Mountain News, and I did so without feeling the least bit apologetic or ashamed. The story was shocking and the word belonged, and I was pleased everyone at the paper seemed to understand that was so.

I never used first person when writing a news article for the Citizen-Times. I don’t a lot even here, but I do if it seems right — playing the omniscient narrator sometimes grows old. Who exactly do we think we are fooling, anyway? Obviously real people write news articles, and sometimes it feels comfortable to acknowledge that truth.

I never was sarcastic, or ironic, in my news stories for the Citizen-Times. Sometimes I’m too sarcastic in articles for The Smoky Mountain News, and there have been occasions when I realize (oops, too late, it’s already been printed) that I went too far.

I’m taking risks because I told myself that this time around, I’d do things differently. It’s not about my having fun at someone’s expense, I promise you that. I decided, the moment I came back to newspapering after a three-year hiatus, that I’d write what really takes place or I’d leave the field again, and for good and forever this time.

What does that mean? Well, it means that if Commissioner Joe Blow says something stupid, I don’t cover for him anymore — he gets to look stupid in the newspaper, too. Or, if people are clearly trying to undermine or sandbag something they’ve agreed to do, I try now to spell that out, and not pretend everything made sense and everyone is getting along when, in fact, it didn’t and they aren’t.

All that said, there is much I do miss about working for a larger organization. And probably what I miss most dearly is the opportunity to work with a variety of different writers and editors, all bringing their individual creative abilities to the task at hand. I learned a lot rubbing shoulders with people who saw things differently, or had been trained in doing things another way than I had been trained.

We are a much smaller staff at The Smoky Mountain News, meaning there isn’t a lot of opportunity for being exposed to different methods of presenting, reporting or editing. By now, we all are pretty much familiar with each writer’s gee-whiz writing tricks, personal idiosyncrasies and general ways of doing things.

But there is great opportunity at this small, independently owned newspaper for an individual writer to take risks, to enjoy controlled disorder and even to be a bit strange — and for that, I’m very grateful indeed.

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

It’s time to get going with planting a fall garden

With the weather so hot and sticky, it’s hard to grasp that now is the time to start preparing the fall garden.

I, for one, am glad. I’ve always hated summer gardening, which for organic gardeners poses particular difficulties. Heat and moisture equals blight and disease, and those are exactly the weather conditions summers usually cook up for us here in Western North Carolina. Then, of course, there is the unending war with legions of summer insects bent on destroying whatever might be left.

Additionally, as I’ve written previously, the garden got away from me this year. It is a weedy mess, totally unlike any garden I’ve ever had before. I blame the shock to my system of having to actually work again at a newspaper — I believed those days were long in my past, and yet I awoke to find myself once again a reporter. Laboring under deadlines, attending municipal and county board meetings, conducting endless interviews on an endless number of subjects, it’s no wonder (or so I reassure myself) that I haven’t devoted the time needed to the garden. Why, it’s amazing I even get out of the bed some mornings.

But the changes of seasons can bring rebirth, and I’m now planning a fall garden that will redeem my summer failures. I will be a phoenix rising from the ashes; or something like that, anyway.

• I am slightly behind on the calendar of when I usually start my Brussels sprouts plants for later transplanting, but it’s not too late yet. I’ll start them when I also plant broccoli and cabbage, this week or this weekend at the latest.

• This week or next is also the time to direct seed rutabaga in the garden. This is a slow growing plant, and it needs ample time to reach its full potential before cold weather sets in.

• Beets, too, can go into the garden now, as can additional carrots. The difficulty is germination — if the rains let up, then I’ll need to use shade cloth to keep the soil from drying out too quickly after I seed. Or, you can use a board — seed, water well, lay a board on top, and be sure to check each day for signs of germination. When you see the tiny green sprouts, remove the board, which helps to trap moisture in the ground so that this small miracle can take place.

• I tend to plant my fall greens later than is traditionally done in WNC. Many local gardeners will start seeding turnips, mustard and so on in mid-August. I generally wait until the first week of September, because it seems to help with insect control. Besides, unless you are a market farmer, what’s the rush? You don’t want a cooked mess of greens anyway until you can eat them alongside a bowl of pintos and a slice of cornbread, and that culinary delight is only enjoyable with a bit of frost on the ground.

• In late August I direct seed winter radishes, such as the black Spanish radish and daikons.

• From late August through the first couple of weeks in September is a good time to plant Chinese cabbage and other Asian greens such as mizuna and tatsoi. More on those, and soon — I’m a big fan of Asian plants, and each year I’ve tried a few new ones, and rarely been disappointed.

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

‘Tang-ing’ to the flight of the honey bee

There is much myth and lore connected with beekeeping, such as telling the bees when the master has died so they won’t abscond after his or her death, and a method of swarm control called “tanging.”

Research studies have debunked the virtues of tanging, or beating a stick against something metal to drum down the bees. There is no scientific evidence, zippo, to support people who believe the folk tale that you can bring home a swarm.

I’m a modern girl and all, but I flat-out believe in tanging — and I nearly brought a swarm of bees down on myself this past Saturday doing it. I learned tanging from local guys. They learned to tang from their parents and grandparents, who in turn were taught tanging by their parents and grandparents, and so on — this is an unbelievably old practice, a method of bee husbandry that dates to antiquity.

My reading has muddled up my memory, and I frankly am unsure if anyone locally uses the word tanging — more likely, they just told me to beat on a washpan with a stick when there was a bee swarm. Lacking something metal at hand, I’ve seen these guys drum on empty wooden hives (called “gums” by oldtimers), and on empty five-gallon buckets. Bees, apparently, aren’t particular in this one respect.

So on Saturday, at about 10 a.m. just when it was starting to get really hot, I was working in the garden when I heard the familiar roar, looked up, and saw the bees taking off from the hive. It surprised me, frankly, because this is sourwood season and they ought to have plenty of work to keep them happy and focused. But bees, as I’ve mentioned before, do whatever they please, others’ wishes and needs and limited time to deal with swarms be damned.

This particular swarm was determinedly headed west, over the house and away from me, seemingly intent on settling high out of reach in a cherry tree. I’ve lost at least four swarms this year, and I wanted at least a shot at putting up this one — tanging was the only thing I knew to do.

A swarm does not move particularly fast. The bees have gorged on honey before leaving the hive, I suppose to help sustain them while they move in to a new home, and they fly heavy in the air. Watching a swarm of bees has a mesmerizing quality that is different from anything else I know, and you can get lost in following the languid flight of individual bees who are caught up in the tornadic motion of the swarm — the swarm seems to form a huge single organism. The noise, too, lulls and draws you in — that hypnotic roar, the noise of thousands of bees sounding together, a chorus like none other.

I broke the spell, however, and looked around for something to beat on. I noticed a metal watering can. After emptying the water, I started hitting it with a stick. I drummed, and the large swarm seemed to hesitate in the air; then it slowly returned in my direction and began revolving more or less just over my head. They dropped down, and I went into a crouch, worried I’d get a drive-by sting or two.

After several minutes, the swarm settled into a nearby, small tree, me still drumming away on my watering can. I wish I could tell you that I went and collected the swarm, but after a short time they simply went back into the hive — a false start, probably indicating the queen wasn’t able, or willing yet, to go.

Still, I’m left as always believing in tanging, research findings to the contrary. Is it the rhythm that brings them down? I don’t know, but it works.

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

Perry’s Water Garden nurtures love of water plants

Most of the business being done at Perry’s Water Garden these days is selling plants through the wholesale market. But if you are interested in aquatic plants even the tiniest bit whatsoever, it’s well worth a trip over the Cowee mountain range and into Macon County to visit this unique Western North Carolina garden attraction.

I went there last week with a friend who was interested in buying aquatic plants for a small home-water feature. We left with water hyacinths, a lotus, a couple of lilies, five water snails (guaranteed to eat the slime off the sides of ponds) and a lot of really useful information from Nikki Gibson, whose step-grandfather, Perry D. Slocum, founded the garden in 1980.

Nikki clearly knows her water plants. And that’s no surprise, given the high stature in the water-garden world once held by Slocum, who died in 2004.

He was an internationally respected hybridizer, winner of the 1986 Water Lily Hall of Fame Award. Slocum also was the president of the International Water Lily Society from 1988-89.

Flip through a book on aquatic water plants, and you’ll likely be both flipping through a book he helped write — Water Gardening: Waterlilies and Lotuses, published in 1996, or Waterlillies and Lotuses: Species, Cultivars and New Hybrids in 2005 — and eyeballing plants he hybridized.

The list of plants bearing the Slocum stamp is stunning: by one accounting I found on the Internet, he hybridized 83 waterlilies, 30 lotuses and two irises.

Slocum was born in New York state in 1913 on a dairy farm that also produced certified seed potatoes. In an April 1996 article for Water Gardening magazine, Helen Nash noted that Slocum’s interest in aquatic plants started at age 13, when he and a brother ordered three water lilies from California and planted them in an iron kettle normally used for scalding hogs.

Slocum went to Cornell University for his undergraduate work, and spent two years in medical school at Syracuse University before devoting himself to plant hybridizing. He first built a 10-acre water garden near Binghamton, N.Y.; then went on to build Slocum Water Garden in Winter Haven, Fla. After “retiring” to the Cowee Valley area in Macon County, Slocum promptly built Perry’s Water Garden, 13 acres of aquatic ponds. This, I theorize based on the evidence, must have been a man who liked to stay busy.

Ben Gibson bought the water garden in 1986 from his stepfather, and the two worked side by side until Slocum’s death. Hybridizing still continues at Perry’s Water Garden — when the family sees a particularly lovely or interesting volunteer, they carefully cultivate it.

Nikki clearly loves the family business, which to survive has meant everyone now works outside jobs to help make ends meet and keep the garden going, she said.

This means you’ve got to get to Perry’s Water Garden in a window from about 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. You can find Perry’s Water Garden on the Internet at, and there is contact information there as well. Good directions to this out-of-the-way place can be found on the home page.

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

Life lessons from the world of beekeeping

The blossoms on the sourwood trees are opening. This is exciting for mountain beekeepers, though in their enthusiasm for the light, fine honey that bees produce from this flower, they sometimes dismiss as paltry and unacceptable to their delicate palates the earlier dark wildflower honey.

I have even known beekeepers in the area — usually small, wizened grumpy ones who are old enough to still be angry that the park moved their family and others to make way for a national playground — who refuse to even harvest the spring honey. Instead, they either don’t collect it at all; or they do, but they feed it back to the bees come winter.

Each to their own, of course, but I say phooey — this prejudice must be, I believe, a hangover from poorer days here in the mountains of Western North Carolina. A belief, hard won through poverty, that things white are more genteel and more refined; which, of course, they are  — in every sense of that word. People with a bit of cash in their hands could choose white bread instead of heavy brown, white sugar instead of sorghum or molasses, store-bought clothing instead of rough hand-me-downs. These days, they instinctively reach for light sourwood instead of dark wildflower honey, according it virtues that are more related to childhood training than taste.

Having grown up myself using an outhouse and without electricity or hot water unless you fired up the woodstove (my family were 1970s back-to-the-land folks, but poor is poor, whether you are born to it or come to it), I’m not unsympathetic with that line of reasoning. Once I could afford to do so, I found it quite exciting to buy clothes full price from a real store rather than for a few quarters from a thrift store, as crazy as that might sound. Though now that I’m older and so amazingly cool, I’m back in thrift stores by choice instead of need. Which somehow makes it just peachy, a free choice you understand instead of one forced upon me by necessity, or in my case, through others’ choices.

As it happens, I most enjoy the robust notes of the spring wildflower honey. In it you find a roll call of the early bloom: dandelion, blackberry, privet (“hedge” to you older locals), holly and more — most importantly the tulip poplar, which this year to me at least appeared heavy but brief lived.

I’m not selling honey these days to make my living, so the mad rush to remove supers and extract the wildflower honey before the sourwood emerges is no longer part of my life. I don’t particularly care if the two varieties mix, though I’d still like to have some supers (boxes the bees pack honey in so that beekeepers can rob them easily) with pure sourwood. Or, as pure as one can ensure, knowing that bees  will damn well work what they want. But at sourwood time, there is so little other bloom, and the sourwood nectar is so enticing, bees tend to focus on it almost exclusively.

That focus can be problematic for migratory beekeepers, who make their living helping farmers pollinate fields of crops. I understand, by way of example, that good orchardists mow their apple orchards before the bees are brought in. Otherwise, the bees of the migratory beekeepers might just choose to focus on dandelions, say, to the exclusion of the apple trees. This focus is very intense, and very much part of the honeybee makeup — their obsessive-compulsive disorder is one big reason they are such excellent pollinators for us, because once you can get them focused on your flower of choice, they stay with it.

They don’t, like the independent bumblebee, visit an apple bloom on one outing and a dandelion on another, willy-nilly with no consideration at all for the poor farmer needing a field full of trees pollinated. Bumblebees just bumble mindlessly about, heedless to others’ desires and wishes, landing here one moment, there the next — how infuriating for us humans not to be able to control their movements and selections.

But I digress. The sourwood trees are blooming, and this is exciting, as I mentioned previously. Sourwoods, if my memory serves correctly (the Internet has been out, and so I can’t easily check, unless of course I were willing to get up and walk three feet to the bookshelf, which I’m not) are only found in the Appalachians. Or, that’s not quite true — they can be found outside that narrow band, but they don’t produce enough nectar, or aren’t found in enough numbers if they do, to be of use to the beekeeper.

This is swell for savvy beekeepers, because they often market the sourwood honey as a varietal. That’s a fancy word for you-pay-more-for-it, though I didn’t fall in with that line of reasoning when I was peddling jars of honey. I love wildflower and I figured the bees worked just as hard to produce it, so I asked and received the same amount for both. Folks didn’t object, or insist on paying more for sourwood or less for wildflower. They instead seemed quite happy to accord dark and light honeys equal respect, based on taste preference only, a nice lesson from the apiary for us all about not making judgments based on something as arbitrary and meaningless as color.

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

Despite my neglect, summer greens are coming on strong

I have not put the time into my garden this year that I usually do. Between a lack of rain early on and a failure to attend to weed pulling, the beds aren’t looking particularly attractive.

Even given my unusual neglect, however, there are still many vegetables to harvest and eat. Evidence, perhaps, of the undeniable will of living beings to produce, though perhaps not thrive, in the worst of situations.

Lettuce, the summer variety at least, is coming on strong, though it will probably bolt in the next week or two. There’s chard, beets, carrots and onions. The soybeans look good, too.

And busy I might be, but now is the time to plant a mix of greens to serve when the summer lettuce bolts and turns bitter. Sometime this week I hope to broadcast patches of kale, chard, collards, mustard, beets and arugula. I usually add whichever Asian greens I happen to have on hand, and this year that would be mizuna and kommatsuna.

Some people grow these green mixes on top of hay bales, crowning the bales with prepared soil mixtures or mushroom compost. This removes the possibility of weeds, and is a very nice idea, except that most of us would have to buy hay. At about $6 a pop right now through the local feed and seed stores, that route seems a bit pricey. You would, of course, get a desirable return on the cost of the bales because they would be turned to rich organic material for the garden. But still — there are less expensive ways to have your salad and eat it, too.

The other option is to pay great attention and care to the area being planted. Eradicate every weed possible, knowing that despite these great efforts, weeds will still compete and ultimately emerge victorious against the greens. All we can do is the best that we can, taking satisfaction in the effort, I suppose, if not always the results. Though in this situation, I believe the results will be surprisingly pleasing if you’ve not grown hot-weather greens before.

Prepare the planting areas. Broadcast the seed (this means to scatter it liberally about by hand), rake the seed in lightly, and be prepared to water frequently if there isn’t adequate rain. In this case, adequate means enough rain to keep the beds continuously moist.

Germination occurs quickly this time of the year, almost as if by spontaneous combustion — within two or three days, generally.

These greens are to be cut with scissors, or handpicked, when they are still quite small: three to 4 inches tall is about right. You are not growing cooking greens, but young succulent baby greens to eat raw in the place of salad.  

I like to cover my greens patch with an insect barrier so that I don’t have to use sprays. The problem with that method is the possibility of trapping moisture, and a corresponding risk of rot, if we are experiencing a humid weather pattern.

Every two to three weeks, plant the mix again. This ensures a constant supply of greens for the table. And when you lose the race against weeds, you switch to the other beds that are now ready for cutting.

One other note: do not mix the greens. That is fine in the fall when you are allowing them to mature before cutting. With baby greens, however, there are extreme variations in rates of growth — one variety of green will grow wildly with great joyful abandon, others will pick their way into the world slowly, with apprehension and fear. It is imperative — if one is to sustain the greens beds for salad production — to keep them cut back. The new growth is what we are seeking for our salad bowls, and it helps if the rates of production are identical, or nearly so, when you go to cutting.

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

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