Wednesday, August 23, 2017

A Glimpse Behind the Veil

I've been debating whether or not I should write about this topic, seeing as how it has been talked about so much in the last few days that it's now like a piece of used chewing gum; it has lost all of its flavor.

I had the day off from work on Monday, August 21, and I had the opportunity to view the eclipse with my family. We rushed around, trying to find the "perfect" location to watch the show. I found myself getting worked up trying to get things together, and getting to where we were going before the crowd gathered.

We did pick an excellent spot ( so did the other hundred people) and I was well pleased with how the whole thing played out. Although I had been preparing mentally for what we were about to witness, I had no idea how intense the experience was in reality.

In that crowd, I saw people who were different, but the same: Hispanic, Arab, Indian, black, white, young, old, fat, thin, liberal, conservative, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and non-affiliated.

In the moments leading up to totality, everyone was buzzing with excitement and expectation. You could literally feel the electricity moving through the crowd in that lake-front park that day. People on their blankets and in chairs and in boats floating on the green water of the lake-- everybody happy and smiling, everybody looking up.

As the moon moved across the face of the sun, ALL OF US watched the world go dark, the streetlights across the lake coming on. We heard the sound of crickets and watched the sky darken to a bruised shade of twilight blue and the stars appeared. Every person standing on the shore of that lake removed their protective glasses, and watched our moon veil the light of a giant ball of fire, some 93 million miles away.

Awe.

The joyful cheers from every tongue fell silent, even if it was only for a moment, and there was a sense of unity and peace. I believe that in that moment there was a moment of reflection happening in every mind of every person out there. In that minute and a half or so, we saw something in the sky-- something that was far more important to us than anything else going on in the world.

Some people will tell you that this event was to prepare us for something much greater, and I'd have to agree with them. But what I can say for sure is that for that short period of time, if your eyes were focused on that object in the sky, you weren't thinking about the political circus all around us, or racism, or whatever cause is being fought for all over our country and the world. At that moment, mankind and the natural world was the cause. The beauty and wonder of this eclipse was the thing that brought us together, not a political party or ideology. We didn't have to have some blowhard expert analyze what we were seeing, or tell us how to think about it. Deep down, we all knew.

For a couple of minutes that day, millions of people looked up and saw the eye of God, staring back at us, and for once, everything was alright. We knew the darkness would fade and the sunlight would return, and all fear was gone. A second chance, a renewal, if you will.

I don't know about you-- you may think it was just a stupid eclipse-- but I want to have that feeling again. I want to be blown away again. I'm fascinated with natural phenomenon, with nature here on this big ball of dirt and out there, also. I want to learn things, know things. I want to be enthralled by the mysteries that are beyond my comprehension. More moments like that. I don't care about your race or religion or creed. The only thing I care about is sharing my world and my words with you.



Monday, July 31, 2017

Joyride

I'm riding down some back road with two sandy-headed girls-- one seven, one four-- in the back seat, bluegrass music turned up loud and the windows down. We're not going anywhere in particular, just driving and jamming. Puffy clouds are drifting in the wild blue skies over hay fields and cow pastures. The girls are watching fence posts and mailboxes flying by, pointing at donkeys and cows and a new house being built in a clearing where a peach orchard used to be. They're laughing and cutting up in the back seat, dancing to the music playing on the radio. They ask if we can stop at the store and get an ice cream, and I tell them we will. Turn here, they say and we cross the river bridge and start around the big curve. They both have their arms hanging out the windows, the wind making their arms flap like the wings of eagles. My girls are having the time of their lives, and so am I. This is about as free as you can get. We pull in the parking lot of the store, and they jump into my arms when I open the back door. Three orange push-up pops and we're back on the road, tires roaring on the asphalt again, headed to wherever they decide to go.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Flight

I saw an eagle today. A helmet of white covered its head, and the wingtips like fingers were stretched out to touch the wind. This is not a rare sight in these parts, not anymore. Up until the last few years, though, the only place you could see a bald eagle was in a zoo somewhere, or if you were lucky, maybe you could catch a glimpse of one in the Smokies. My wife saw one twice in the last year, flying over the swamp near our house.

The first time I saw an eagle in the wild, I was bass fishing, just off of a rocky point where giant long-leaf pines stood, casting their reflection on the water. I had just poured my second cup of coffee, and laid my thermos bottle down on the casting deck, when I heard the screech from above. I looked up into the treetops and locked eyes with the biggest winged creature that I had ever seen. I froze. It's eyes were sharp, I could see the talons wrapped around a limb as big around as my leg. It peered down into the water below, leaned forward and dove out of the tree like a missile. For a second there, I thought he was coming after me, but instead, he snatched a bass-- better than the ones that I'd been catching-- and flew back up into the tree.

I sat there and watched until I could tell I had worn out my welcome. I wish that I had had a camera.

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There's a small airfield that I pass on my way home everyday. The other evening, one of the small planes had just taken off, heading toward the mountains to the northwest. All I could think about was a bush plane, headed into a northern wilderness, carrying fly fishermen or big game hunters into the back country. Or a float plane, topping a snow-covered mountain top, descending to land on a hidden high country lake full of cutthroat trout.

I've always wanted to go on a trip like that, but that's quite a stretch for a poor boy like myself. I would watch old films of Fred Bear and Glen St. Charles, hunting the interior of Canada, the Northwest Territories and Alaska. At night, I would dream of boarding a plane to parts unknown with my recurve bow and a quiver full of arrows(and a Ruger Red Hawk!).

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I made five wooden arrows and fletched them with turkey feathers. The shafts were as straight as I can get them. I glued on five razor-sharp steel broadheads. I spun an arrow in my fingers, simulating its flight. I watched the fletching turn in unison with the arrowhead, thinking about the moment I would release it into the air.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Home

We're driving home after dinner this evening, watching the storm clouds build off in the west. As we crest a hill on the highway, in the distance I can see the purple contours of the Blue Ridge Escarpment under the bruised sky of sunset. This view never fails to make my heart beat slower, and it is oddly comforting, knowing that these hills have always been, and always will be. One can't help but feel protected from whatever lies beyond them. When I was a little boy, I thought that was the top of the world, that nothing existed beyond those hills except more hills.

Most of my family are from the Piedmont, the mill villages, the red soil where cotton grew and the rivers were slow and muddy. My father wanted to move up here, closer to the mountains, but not so close that you can't step back a little and enjoy the view. I have been here most of my life, and this is my landscape just as much as the flat farmland is to the south.

When we arrive home, darkness is gradually beginning to overtake our yard. I put my lab on her leash and take her out, despite her protest due to thunder rumbling off in the distance. The mosquitoes are welcoming me home. They are so glad to see me there in the edge of the yard, that they land on my bare legs in coveys while I wait for my dog to do her business.

The storm is getting close now, and the lightning is getting more and more intense by the minute. My dog drags me into the house, and nearly knocks the back out of her kennel to hide.

My daughters are now playing inside games, their ideas of chasing lightning bugs squashed by the inclimate weather.

In my recliner now, I pick up a book of collected nonfiction by Jim Harrison. Though my wife hopes the storm ends soon, I secretly pray that it lingers, at least long enough for me to read a few essays before bed.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Survival: For Real

In my library, I have several books on foraging and survival skills. One of my favorites is Camping and Woodcraft by Horace Kephart. There are many guides of edible and medicinal plants, water purification, and magazine articles on shelter building skills. But having all of this information at my fingertips doesn't do me any good if I don't get my hands dirty from time to time, practicing these skills. Not only does it make me feel more confident in the woods, but it is a lot of fun, too.

I would like to think that if I had to, I could survive and provide for my family from the woods and waters around here. I could probably kill plenty of squirrels or catch enough fish to feed us for a little while, but it would be a full time job, especially with a wife and kids.

On The Fourth of July, though, I witnessed something that gave me a whole new perspective on survival-- actually watching someone having to forage for food on the streets of Greenville. This is what I like to call A Chamber of Commerce Moment. The side of a city that people don't want to see.

A huge crowd was gathering, as Greenville prepared for their annual Red, White and Boom! celebration. Hundreds of people were standing out in front of the Westin Poinsett, awaiting the big fireworks display, and here was this man, a ragged young man, digging through the garbage can, looking for something to eat or drink.

He pulled a styrofoam cup out of the can and removed the lid to check the contents, then he put the straw to his cracked lips and he drank it all.

People with their bottles of water, people standing there sipping their frappes and lattes, people wearing their red, white and blue outfits and Uncle Sam hats, people with their American flag T-shirts and their God Bless America buttons on their clothing, they just looked at him, and looked at him. Some watched in horror, some just looked away.

He put the empty cup back in the can, and stood there, head bobbing to the music playing on the streets. Kids were dancing and playing, eating their ice creams and funnel cakes, adults with wristbands were chatting and drinking their beer and wine in celebration, and there's this guy right there in front of them with a dirty sweatshirt and worn-out jeans and dreadlocks, foraging in the garbage can, right before their very eyes.

The man walked amongst the crowd for a few minutes and then disappeared.

I'm sure that I was not the only one there in that crowd, giving thanks for everything that I had. I couldn't imagine having to survive that way. I know that I would have to be pretty low to drink something I found in the garbage, but I would have to be absolutely on the verge of death to do it in front of people. I guess when it's a matter of life and death, there's no such a thing as pride.

This may sound strange, but in that moment, my hat was off to this guy for being a real survivor. I don't think I could ever be that tough. When you see someone like that, it's human nature to wonder what the person did to end up like that, but I honestly didn't even give that a thought. I just thought about how tough that has to be to live on the streets, or in some back alley, every day, and have to use whatever you can find to stay alive.

I have seen homeless numerous times before, but I think this guy served as a reality check for a lot of us gathered there on that sidewalk that July evening.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

What's That Sound?

That's the name of a game we play here at our house at night. It's usually my wife who first hears something, then calls on me to go check it out. Fortunately for me, she puts a flashlight in my hand before she shoves me out the door and into the unknown. If I'm real lucky, she'll bring me my pistol--as if when I  do run into something out there in the dark, I'll be able to shoot it and not myself.

Usually, it's cats messing around, or deer in the woods causing the dog to bark. That's what I try to tell her, but she doesn't buy it. "Cats don't slam car doors," she tells me. She's got me there.

There were several nights that we'd hear dead limbs snapping and it would sound like something was stripping muscadine vines out of tree tops on the other side of the creek. I'm pretty sure we have a bear hanging around, and whatever something that size wants to do in the dark woods is his or her business. I'll stand out back to listen and shine the light through the woods for a while until she gives me the OK to come back in. Sometimes I'll get spooked and ask her if I can come back in for my own safety. She usually let's me in.

I've found possums and feral cats and a big hornet beating around the back porch light. I've sat out in the driveway to ambush coyotes trying to get to our chickens. I've picked up turned over  garbage by flashlight, looking over my shoulder the whole time.

I know that eventually I'll have to deal with something serious. One night I'll venture out to secure the perimeter and run into a bear, or maybe a cougar that SCDNR says does not exist.

I just hope that when I finally do meet Bigfoot face to face that my flashlight is bright enough to blind him temporarily, till I can either chamber a round, or get my wife to unlock the back door.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Summer Evening Storm

From the west, dark clouds move across the mountains and valleys bringing with them wind and rain and thunder and lightning. Water, running in rivulets down hillsides, filling ditches and indentations, swelling creeks and gutters. Hard rains pelt tin roofs of old barns and corn cribs and houses. Wind shakes these structures, thunder rattles window panes and lightning illuminates the landscape veiled in darkness by the great grey mass above the valley. The storm grows in both size and intensity, and the wind bends trees in all direction. The wind, though invisible, can be seen in the tops of trees, their leaves showing what the wind looks like. In a strong wind, every branch of a tree moves independently, each is effected differently. They sway and shake, some breaking, some only bending, but all of them effected by the wind. Lightning hits the hillside, runs through the earth tunneling, and splits a great pine to mere splinters as it makes its exit. The smell of fire and pitch along with the scent of warm rain fills the valley where the storm rages, pounding the ground with pellets of ice, tearing leaves and bark from trees, paint and glass from windows, and stalks of corn from the fertile soil. Lightning from cloud to cloud, cloud to ground, ground to cloud. Trees break, fall, split from bolts of electricity. Earth flies up, dirt and rocks fall back to the ground, along with balls of ice the size of large marbles. The bark, the shredded leaves, the splintered trees and ripped-off tin from barn and house litters the ground. The smell of pitch and sap, fire and ice and summer rain is blown around in the valley. Blinding light and great darkness from the sky causes all living things to hide in fear. Waiting out the storm is part of living. Just as sure as the storm overtook the valley, it leaves it, and the sun comes out and the sky is the bluest blue you have ever seen. All that is left of the storm is the evidence, the casualties littering the roads, the hillsides  and the fields. In the distance, to the southeast, you hear the thunder, a freight train on the way to its next destination. You know there will be another one soon. There always will be.