Palmetto Valentine, Crafted by the River




On a snowy Valentine’s week, I’m remembering some sweet bouquets, made by a young man working in a park beside the Cooper River in Charleston. He’s using leaves from the palmetto palm (Sabal palmetto), South Carolina’s state tree. Along the coast, it’s a tradition in some families for children to learn this craft at an early age. Here’s an article and video about one *budding* business, along with directions on how to make your own palmetto rose (in case it’s a skill you’d like to add to your repertory).

Tennessee Homecoming

The leaves are just beginning to color in East Tennessee, soon to burst into those glorious, vibrant shades that make autumn so memorable here. The enduring heat and humidity are a little jarring, though — definitely not the cool, energizing weather I still associate with October in the mountains and foothills.

Despite the heat, it felt like an authentic fall day last week-end in the little town of Clinton, Tennessee as we joined hundreds of other festival-goers, stepping back in time on the grounds of  the Museum of Appalachia. This is the thirty-fourth year the museum has welcomed visitors to its annual homecoming, a beloved celebration of pioneer life and Southern Appalachian culture. Historic buildings, artifacts, animals, and crafts evoke the past and help assure the old folk ways are not lost.


There was lots to appreciate last week-end:  bluegrass music, homemade ice cream, buck dancing, antique farm equipment, women in long dresses, men with long beards and overalls, old-timey mountain crafts, the smell of food on the fire. There was a relaxed, content feeling in the air, as if people were connecting with deep memories, and yearnings for a time long past.


People brought their lawn chairs and set up in the field for a lazy afternoon with bluegrass/gospel band Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. Other bands were playing simultaneously at other places on the museum grounds. Nobody was in a hurry and there was plenty of neighborly conversation between strangers.


It’s hard to believe this dear little face started out as a new, shiny apple. Apple head dolls are classic examples of folk art in Appalachia.


Quilts and other fiber arts were on display or for sale in one of the museum’s many old cabins.


After buck dancing was over, some folks stayed around for the more sedate Tennessee Waltz.


All day,  groups of (mostly) men stood around, reminiscing, and admiring old farm implements and equipment. Tractors are such iconic symbols of working life and culture on mountain farmsteads.


Polkberry and Virginia creeper grow on an old stacked wall.


Young meets old and the circle continues.


Old barns and other buildings dot the landscape throughout the sixty or so acres entrusted to the museum.


It was an all-around good day: meeting people, being outdoors, connecting with my rural, mountain heritage.

Fencerows and Fond Memories


Every time I go back to the Carolina home place, I notice subtle changes outside. The fences have held up well, but after decades of weathering, many of my dad’s well-crafted posts have either tilted or fallen. The barbed wire is loose and not a steady perch for birds. Sometimes a scraggly shrub can serve equally well, though, judging from this artistic, long-sustained, bird posing.



The pond in the background — hidden by the goldenrod and dying foliage — is low this year, even though rain has been plentiful. The crawfish have been busy carving out the dam, I suspect. My dad would not be happy and would be getting his tractor out to repair the bank about now.


A few spindly Russian sages appear every year despite some stiff competition from weeds below.


There are mountain views all around the house, but I often end up looking at quirky combinations on the ground. Old-fashioned obedient plant, iris, and bits and pieces of other plants (including weeds) make an interesting vignette. Mental note: I like this limey-green, maroon, lavender, and grey color palette and want to use it more in designing.


Concord grapes and morning glories grow side-by-side. It’s an iconic look/memory from the past.  (Note: there are multiple containers of Concord grapes in my refrigerator. If I can stop eating grapes, there will be jars of Concord jelly this week).


An un-named yarrow amidst echinacea and other plants, including the very unwelcome Glechoma or ground ivy. It’s everywhere — in the grass and lots of beds. It’s impossible to eradicate.



Every year my mother’s neighbor shares either red or green apples from her trees. They’re the old-fashioned kind that don’t get pruned much or produce big, unblemished fruit. Last year, this red variety was almost bare, so my son missed out on a long-held, annual ritual at his grandmother’s.

This year, the tree was full of apples. All of us, including the woodpeckers that hovered in the upper branches, were grateful. Going to the grocery store and buying apples is just not the same, even if the specimens are big, shiny, and perfect (albeit tasteless).


The neighbor’s cat is watching something in the grass, not giving us the evil eye for being near the apple tree.  His pal, Stella, disappeared several months ago, possibly the victim of one of the many hawks we’d seen flying over the house.

The rituals of nature play out and the fenceposts keep holding on.

Oak Tree Down

Stressed but still standing

Stressed but still standing

One night last week I went to sleep in my old bedroom at the Asheville home place. I woke up around four a.m. to the sound of a great energy in the air. There was a heart-stopping splitting and cracking sound, followed by the resounding sensation of a tree hitting an immovable surface. In my groggy state, I thought the house might be splintering outside my window. (Sensory signals go haywire in the middle of the night; one imagines a lot of things).

The morning light revealed the full extent of the night’s disruption. A very large tree — scarlet oak, I’m 90 % certain — had succumbed to the cumulative effect of a range of insults and maladies over the years. The oak has been struck by lightening several times, its shape was not balanced — most likely due to some tree-topping decades ago — and there was rot, both on the interior of the tree and where two limbs crossed and merged, very early on.

Now, there’s really no way to save the tree, Quercus coccinea.  There is so much damage, structurally and aesthetically, that it will have to be cut down. It’s really heartbreaking, especially since all the oaks surrounding the house are declining and under a lot of stress. They all seemed to get worse after the last and previous years’ heat and drought.

View from the window

View from the window

One of the limbs on the tree was hanging in a very precarious position. It was twisted and barely attached to the main trunk. It had a circumference of nearly six feet at it’s largest point. We were greatly concerned that the limb could twist loose and fall after a big gust of wind.



My husband and my brother had dueling chainsaws as they cleaned up the hanging limbs and the logs on the ground.


Hanging on

I would’ve been a nervous wreck, if I didn’t trust my husband’s chainsaw skills, but even so…… it was worrisome to watch the process. They had to take a section down at a time and watch for even the tiniest movement. It was definitely one of those Do not try this at home! situations.


They tied a heavy-duty nylon sling or towing strap around a limb adjacent to the main one. Then they hooked the other end to the towing bar of an SUV. The nylon strap is rated 8,600 pounds vertical capacity. In the above photo, the limb has been dislodged by pulling the strap; it’s on its way to the ground.


Finally, the limb was safely down. We all breathed easier, especially my mom.

Gingko : collateral damage

Gingko : collateral damage

Unfortunately, the Gingko biloba I gave my dad in the late 1990s was destroyed by the falling oak limbs. Nearly dormant for years, the gingko had a big growth spurt last year. It had a funky shape, but I’m sorry to see it go, partly because of the memories involved.

The only other damage was to a nearby shumard oak (Quercus shumardi) that I got from a University of Tennessee Arboretum plant sale. A few of its branches got clipped.

Next time I’m at the home place there will be a huge void in the backyard, just outside my old bedroom window. But, other trees are growing, ready to fill the oak’s spot someday. I guess the little shumard can use the extra sun.



Veterans Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee

Old Trees

Old trees, old trees! in your mystic gloom

There’s many a warrior laid,

And many a nameless and lonely tomb

Is sheltered beneath your shade  . . .

Old trees, old trees! we shall pass away

Like the leaves you yearly shed,

But ye, lone sentinels, still must stay,

Old trees, to guard our dead.


Selected verses, Old Tree, by Abram Joseph Ryan, 1838 – 1886



Thanksgiving: Leave the Light On

The light is always on for family and friends. It’s on for you, too, dear reader, with a big thank you for stopping by.

If you were here last year, you might remember Mary Chapin Carpenter’s sweet “Thanksgiving Song”. It’s definitely worth a re-visit — a chance to hum along and recall the meaning of this old-fashioned (in a good way) day of celebration.

Thanksgiving is one of the last holidays to succumb to pressures of the advertising and shopping machine. But now, even Thanksgiving is up for grabs. I, for one, am holding out — steadfast in my resolve to stay away from the mall. I’m staying home. Preserving life and limb. Eating pumpkin pie and listening to nice music (on soon-to-be-obsolete equipment).

Does Thanksgiving have to change? I hope not. May yours be a happy one, however you choose to spend it.

On Not Discussing the Government

Display, Davy Crockett Homeplace

The thought of having to make a speech made my knees feel mighty weak, and set my heart to fluttering almost as bad as my first love scrape with the Quaker’s niece. But as good luck would have it, these big candidates spoke nearly all day, and when they quit, the people were worn out with fatigue, which afforded me a good apology for not discussing the government.  — David Crockett, 1786 -1836.

Growing up in western North Carolina, I heard a lot about Davy Crockett. He was an icon in southern Appalachia — frontiersman, soldier, congressman, advocate for the poor. He was a complex man, but became almost a caricature when Disney Corporation did a series of television programs about him in the 1950’s. By the end of the series, every child in the southern mountains knew about coonskin caps and buckskin and could sing every lyric about the man who was “born on a mountain top in Tennessee” and “killed him a bear when he was only three.”

I visited Davy’s homeplace in Limestone, Tennessee last fall. It’s not on a mountain top. And I don’t know how a three-year old could possibly kill a bear. The truth about Mr. Crockett lies somewhere beyond the image created by television producers, storytellers, and his fellow politicians. I guess that’s the case for anyone who ever became famous or ran for office.

If Davy was around today, I hope he’d use his humor and clout to remind political candidates, “You’re wearing out the people. Don’t talk about the  government all day!” And with the holidays coming up, maybe Davy could tell the people, in turn“Best not to bring up politics at family gatherings. It can set the heart to fluttering.”

Wordless Wednesday


Doc Watson: Gentle Soul of the Mountains

Arthel ‘Doc’ Watson (b.1927, d.2012)

A human treasure is gone now, and with it, a deep reservoir of wisdom, talent, and experience.

Arthel ‘Doc’ Watson was the kind of person some of us strive to become: kindhearted, honest, witty, unassuming, and persevering in the face of loss and adversity. Doc lived a rich, full life, despite his lifelong blindness and the challenge of losing his son and road companion Merle after twenty years of touring together.

Doc’s genius as a musician and teacher is legendary. He was adept in bluegrass, folk, rockabilly, gospel, and jazz, innately understanding and interpreting these styles to scores of his followers. His resonant, expressive voice was a calming complement to his dazzling, unrivaled skills on the acoustic guitar.

The news of Doc’s death was deeply saddening to me, more than I could have expected. I didn’t know him — in fact, I’d spoken with him only once and seen just a half-dozen of his performances over the years. Still, I feel a connection to him, in part because I grew up in the region of Doc’s home in Deep Gap, North Carolina. Also, I’ve followed his journey for a long time, ever since he became known as a musician in the 1960s.

In my mind, Doc Watson embodied the spirit of the southern mountains. He represented my North Carolina heritage and the things I care about: Appalachia and old-timey music; farms, and nature, and a sense of connection to the land; the ethic of hard labor and looking out for your neighbor — all in peril as older folks like Doc Watson leave us, one-by-one. But while we have them, we celebrate, and are thankful for their lives.

We’re thankful to you, Doc. You’re one of the good ones, and we’ll miss you very much.

The Emotional Appeal of Barns

Keeper of the Past

Old barns are disappearing from the fields and mountains of Appalachia and from rural landscapes across the country. Sometimes these venerable structures collapse from the unintentional neglect of their caretakers, who become physically or financially unable to maintain them. In other cases, the boards and rafters just give out after decades of adapting to weather extremes. Sometimes, barns are torn down; developers, businesses, or new landowners believe they no longer serve a purpose.

I can’t imagine a more functional category of buildings, yet barns are more than utilitarian. They proudly reflect the identity and architecture, as well as the agriculture, of their region. A cross-country drive through any state will tell you that. Some barns are round, some cantilevered; some are for curing tobacco, while others serve as cribs for housing livestock. Barns are different colors, and construction can be of stone, wood, or metal.

Whatever the material, I’m always touched by the eloquence of old barns. I wonder who worked there and what kind of animals were sheltered from the wind and rain. I try to imagine the farm equipment and the tools that are rusting inside. Most of all, I think about how important barns have been to farm families over the past century. Will a new generation of communities and landowners commit to preserving this cultural asset? I hope so.