Silence

Not quiet, but silence, or as I would define it, the absence of unrelated, distracting noise. I can think of only one time where I experienced complete silence. It happened early one morning between the passing of the dusk and the advent of the day.

South Holston Lake sunrise

South Holston Lake sunrise

I had taken my boat out on South Holston Lake and it was still. Still in every sense of the word. There was no wind or even a slight breeze. Consequently the water was as smooth as a mirror and the reflections of the shoreline, forest and mountains in the background were unwarped by water ripples.

The boat rode smoothly, almost like being on one of those mag-lev trains that float above the tracks. Even full-throttle, there was no disturbance on the hull. Because of the speed at which I was able to muster the boat motor, I arrived at my destination in record time.

Smooth water and the fact that I was the only one out that time of morning. No other boats, just me. I did spot a couple of hearty fishermen nestled in a couple of coves, but they, doubtless, had arrived at their destination the previous night and were enjoying their sport by the light of the moon.

My destination, like theirs, was a secluded cove on the southeast side of the lake. This deep cove was situated so far from normal boat traffic that you just about needed to have this spot on your radar from the beginning. You definitely needed to want to come here.

I arrived and to my relief, I noted that I was the only one there. I cut the throttle and coasted into the cove, finally shutting the engine off completely. I drifted quietly into the depths of the cove and after a few minutes the ripples left by my wake disapated and no longer splashed against the shoreline.

That’s when I noticed it. Silence. Complete and utter silence. I don’t think in all of my 35-odd years I had ever been enveloped in such a complete lack of sound. There is always some noise that serves as a backdrop to living. Whether it is passing traffic, the roar of of an airplane passing overhead or just the general hubbub of the living world, there was always something.

But not this morning. Not a cricket, not a bird, not even the sound of a gentle breeze disturbing the leaves. There wasn’t even a fish jumping to make the sound of a splash. I just sat, quite engulfed in the silence and marveled at the lack of ruckus for a good long time. At least it seemed like a good long time. In reality it was only for a few minutes, but it was a few minutes of wonder.

I knew that the world around me would awaken soon, heralded with the cries of birds establishing their territory and searching for food. Insects would follow, rising from their slumber and start their buzzing and flying about in their never-ending effort to survive. Some would invariably end up floating on the surface of the lake and more often that not, end up being breakfast for a fish.

After a while all of hat came to pass. The world woke up and carried on with it’s daily routine. The background hum and buzz increased in volume and soon the sun ascended Holston mountain. The commotion of life rose along with ol’ Sol and I understood that, along with everything else, my life must continue as well.

The warmth of the sun was causing a breeze to stir so the waves appeared, requiring that I return home slower than when I arrived. At least that was the excuse. I suspect it was more the silent beauty of the cove and the overwhelming sense of peace I had experienced that slowed my progress.

I did return home and continued about my day’s business a little more peaceful than usual.

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Some Haiku for You

I dabble a bit in poetry so I thought I’d share a bit. I am particularly fond of haiku, not the modern rag-tag anything goes type, but the traditional Japanese style. Here’s an explanation if you’d like.

 

Bare limb to bare. limb
fly and jump to follow me
stars along my path.

 
Ebony indent
twists between the brown grasses
cat in the fresh snow.

 
Rings around the mass
fade and shrink further from home
bass jumps for supper.

 
Heralds of the dusk
bid the tide to turn anew
tree frogs this fresh spring.

 
Staccato drummer
rhythm of her moment’s whim
green glen’s woodpecker.

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The Pilgrimage Continues

In the summer of 2016 we moved, not away from the Blue Ridges, mind you, but to a different part. The latest stop on the pilgrimage is in upper east Tennessee, Bristol to be exact.

NE Tennessee / South Holston Lake

I grew up in the Bristol / Abingdon area, commonly referred to as the tricities because three towns, Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport, are in close enough proximity to essentially exist as one big town.

We moved to the south of Bristol, at South Holston Lake. South Holston is a TVA-made lake that came into existence in the 1940s and 50s to try and tame the sometimes deadly flooding of the southern rivers and to provide electric power to the region.

I invested a lot of my time as a teenager in the Cherokee National Forest that surrounds South Holston, and I do not consider that wasted time. Indeed, the experiences I had in this region helped mold me and in a very real sense, I don’t know that I ever really left the area. My physical address changed many times, but in my heart-of-hearts, I was always at home here.

Here the Blue Ridge is a satisfying mixture of mountains and rolling hills. It is farmland and history flowing all the way back to the founding of America. The area embodies a rich cultural heritage and a wealth of scenery and outdoor activities.

Some of those attractions include The Virginia Creeper Trail, Boone, South Holston and Watauga lakes, the Barter Theater, The Martha Washington Inn, Abingdon in general, The Birthplace of Country Music and the Bristol International Speedway in Bristol.

And fishing! Don’t forget fishing! The area is awash (sorry) in bass fishing and fly fishing in a number of smaller mountain streams and larger rivers as well as in the afore-mentioned lakes.

Heck, there are even Bigfoots in the area. Well, at least according to the “Finding Bigfoot” team from Animal Planet. Now I’ve never seen one, but I’m keeping my eyes open!

But the most endearing quality of the area is something that no amount of money can afford nor can it be bought or bartered for. It is the good, decent quality of it’s people. Just as the history of the region winds it’s way from generation to generation, so too does the quality of it’s inhabitants.

These are a deeply generous people and their respect and acceptance runs that depth. This is a region with deeply held Christiaan beliefs. Please note I did not say “religious.” Everybody is religious, even atheists. No, I meant Christian, and that is where their love, respect and generosity come from. It is passed from successive generations of wise parents to their children, who, in turn, did the same.

Now is everbody perfect? Heavens no! That is, unfortunately, the nature of man. But for the most part, these are “good folks.”

The move was good, the place is beautiful and life is rich, not in cash, but in experience! Oh, and thanks for coming along!

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Life on a Blueridge Farm – Finding the Creeper

 

VaCreeperLink

If you happen to be a resident of or a traveler to Southwest Virginia one of the must-do activities is a trip down the Virginia Creeper Trail either by foot or bike. The Creeper Trail is a 34 mile path from Abingdon to Whitetop Mountain that was fashioned from the remains of the rail line of the same name.

It is a wonderful venture through the forests and rolling hills of the area that crosses streams, pastures, open fields and wooded glens.  Time on the trail any part of the year is a delight, but for me, Spring and Fall are particularly soul-stirring. The vivid post-winter greens are soothing and the bright, multi-colored scenes of the fall inspiring.

I grew up next to the trail, but that has been so long ago that then it was the actual rail line. The frequent runs of the train had slowed because of the declining need to ship the raw materials, mostly lumber, the Creeper hauled. The Creeper made its run only once or twice a week as I recall, and mostly at night.

Our house was about a mile from the track and a view of the railway was obscured by hills and forest between, but I could always here the rumble of the engine and the call of the whistle as the train wound through the “Knobs”.

My curiosity about the Creeper had been awakened at a young age and one of my preteen goals was to explore the rail line. As my age and mobility increased, so did my interest in the line. One day, when I was eight or nine, my cousin and I decided to cast off the bonds of caution and find out just where the Creeper ran through the knobs. Now we didn’t tell anyone of our plan, because, well, it really wasn’t a plan. More of a spur of the moment decision.

The creek that ran through our property and the two pastures took the path of least resistance through the fields and into the Knobs, so we followed the creek. We were into the least resistance thing. We climbed a couple of barbed wire fences designed to restrain cows, not boys, negotiated a few brier bushes and laurel thickets and in less time than it took to milk a cow, we stumbled upon the track.

Now where? To the right was Abingdon, but we didn’t know how far and anyway, we knew Abingdon, but to the left was what? We had no clue, but we did note that it led to the distant mountains. Decision made. Left to the unknown country and high adventure.

We only went a couple of miles that day, we were keenly aware of the time, after all we had to be back in time to “get the cows”. We stayed on the bed, eschewing the rails and ties, except for the two trestles we crossed, then we were obliged to use the ties. We tread carefully crossing the trestles, mindful not to get a foot caught between the ties and ever vigilant for the sound of an approaching locomotive.

No twisted ankles and the Creeper didn’t chase us off a trestle. In fact what we discovered was pretty much like what we left. A barn or two strategically positioned at the edge of a hay field. Wooded slopes transitioning to pastureland, cattle, heads up as we passed, grinding their cud, and heads back down after the new kids on the block were deemed no threat. We were cautiously aware of a couple of bulls that eyed us, but like their sisters, they eventually returned to their grazing.

Nothing new, nothing different, but at the same time, it wasn’t exactly the same. It wasn’t what we were used to, it was out of the familiar, we didn’t know where the next turn would take us, we didn’t know who or what we would meet along the line. No thrill, no adventure, but a quiet satisfaction of discovery. And, yes, we did make it back in time to “get the cows.”

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Life on a Blue Ridge Farm – The Picture

There was a picture on my bedroom wall, a panorama that was never the same. A visual masterpiece that sometimes filled me with wonder, dread, tranquility and adventure. A vision that portrayed everything from the bright sunrise to the blackest night. Rainbows, snowbanks, the never-static patterns of grass swayed by the wind.  A not-so-still life of the creek I played in and the distant Iron mountain range.

Of course this wasn’t an actual painting or photograph, it was my bedroom window. It was wide, spanning the width of my bed, which was placed beneath this opening to my world.  If the time was right and clouds were scarce, moon-shadows danced across my bedcovers at night and the sun awakened me early summer mornings as it flooded my room with warm light.

To the left of this panorama was one of the farm’s pastures. This was a hilly patch of land and on the crest of the hill stood a barn with it’s attendant silo. This barn served as the storage location for winter feed for the cows. Pasture grass was scarce during the relatively brief winters and healthy, milk producing cows still need a great diet, hence the barn. During the harvest season, part of the gatherings were stored here for easy access. The cows needn’t travel great distances for a good meal and neither did the farmers whose chore was to provide that meal.

From the apex of the hill where the barn stood, the land sloped gently downward to the creek bottom. Along that slope the grass land was interrupted by an outcropping of rocks that refused to surrender to the sweep of green. Apparently the return-on-investment for the cows was too high in this area, sprigs of grass on unsure footing kept the cows on easier-grazing sections. Since the eating machines never frequented this area, tree seedlings had a pretty decent chance of making it, and many did. Over the decades some magnificent trees took root and grew with vigor.

Now this was a whole different country to Mike and I. These rocks and their arboreal canopy could, with mutual agreement, be transformed into a fort, a castle or a last outpost before the treacherous mountains on the distance. Hours were spent in these new lands with discoveries made and battles won and lost. Many a G.I. Joe came to an untimely end or triumphed on these rocks. Often a cool breeze swept up the valley and rustled the leaves above our heads and banished, at least a bit of, the summer heat.

Then there was the creek. We seldom ventured to the creek along this section because the cows got there first, and being cows, made a nasty mess that nothing in the creek could coax us to cross. We were content to simply enjoy the sound it made  as it negotiated rocks and bends.

But then there was this one section of the picture that called to me and drew me to it. Where the hills bowed and the creek ran there was also a “cut” in the Knobs. A place where the local features of the land almost pointed to the mountains in the distance. I wondered endlessly about those mountains. What was there? Did anyone actually live there, or was it too wild? If people did live there, imagine what stories they could tell! I swore that one day, I would venture to those far-away peaks and explore and put to rest those questions. And I did. Years later of course, I discovered that, yes, people did live there and it was not so wild as I had imagined. There were roads that ran through those valleys that I drove and trails that skirted the peaks that I hiked. The wonder and fascination never left, however, and it remains to this day.

The picture on my wall remains in my heart and still draws me, even after half a century.

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Life on a Blue Ridge Farm – Gettin’ The Cows

Part of my cousin’s after school chores included “gettin’ the cows”. An hour or so before milking time started he made his way into the pasture to round up the herd and drive it slowly but deliberately toward the milk house. More often than not I accompanied him in the endeavor.

Now this was not hard labor, the cows knew that when two boys showed up in their field that it was time to bunch up and head toward the barn and so they did their part. On occasion a freshly graduated heifer-to-cow, who hadn’t quite gotten the lay of the land, rebelled and went off in another direction. One of us would spot the rebel and return her to the the herd while it kept trudging on. Really, the only danger in this chore was mis-stepping. A herd this large often left a mine field of manure in it’s path, so you learned to be diligent in checking your course.

When I was nine, I accompanied my father to Bristol where we stopped by a motorcycle dealership, at my urging, I might add. There I saw it! A Honda Minitrail 50, a Honda mini bike. I swung a leg over and it fit me perfectly! My mind started racing! A nine-year-old, a mini bike and a 300 acre farm, a match made in heaven!

Back at the farm I shared my fantastic find with my cousin and the begging, pleading, cajoling and the “I’ll do anythings” started to pile up in the pre-Christmas season. Christmas morning arrived, and it took it’s sweet time I might add, and there under the tree was a bright, shiny red and white Honda mini bike! Turns out there was one under my cousin’s tree as well. Man, we were set! Our mothers bundled us up and we took off, racing over the flat parts of the fields and exploring the far corners of the property that we never summoned our feet to carry us.

Then it happened, innovation struck like a gasoline-fueled lightening bolt. Cows don’t recognize holidays and the milking had to continue, Christmas or not. So my cousin and I mounted our trusty steeds and went to get the cows. We made it to the herd in record time, one of us was able to mind the edge of the bunch as it made its way to head off strays while the other drove from behind. The trip to the milk house took just as long, cows have their own pace and you just have to go with that, so we were riding and pausing, riding and pausing until we got to the barn.  But all-in-all, “gettin’” the cows was much faster and more efficient than ever before.

After about a month my uncle starting noticing this and he noticed a couple of other things as well. First he saw that we could get to just about any place on the farm on just a sip of gas, much less than what it would take a tractor or pickup truck. And second, the ease of passage.

When the cows saw a tractor or pickup truck coming they had learned that, more often than not, the pilot had something good for them. Special feed, a salt block for a good community lick or something equally as valuable. Problem was that when the cows saw you coming they would bunch up at the gate, awaiting your arrival. Which made your arrival almost impossible.

While most of the cattle were genuinely interested in what you had for them, for some it was just a ruse. To them the squeaking of the gate hinges was the clarion call to freedom. Greener pastures, roads less traveled, whatever sparked their bovine imaginations. When the gate swung open to let a large vehicle through, they escaped and basked, at least momentarily, in their new-found freedom. That meant the vehicle’s driver had to stop, round up the escapees, herd them back and continue on with his chore. Terribly time consuming.

My uncle saw that my cousin and I didn’t have to bother with such side shows. We rode up to the gate, unlatched it, opened it just wide enough to let the bike through and latched it back. All without getting off of the bike and with zero escapees. In fact, the cows didn’t even pay much attention to us.

In a few months time, farm equipment included trucks, tractors and now trail bikes. For fence repair, searching for strays or checks on pregnant cows, really a lot of small day-to-day farm chores, they were all now done on motorcycles. Of course pulling a manure spreader or harvesting the corn required the heavy lifters but the light-weight tasks only required two wheels.

See, Dad, that mini bike was the perfect Christmas gift!

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Life on a Blue Ridge Farm – Creeks and Crawdads

Blue_Ridge_Pilgrim_Creek-1

One of the best sources of hours of enjoyment for me was the creek that bisected the south-end of the property. This small stream bubbled out of the ground on our  property and snaked its way through the pastures into the Knobs. The two main pastures were situated so that each had easy bovine access to the creek. It was a trusty creek, even in a drought, the cattle never suffered from thirst.

The water needs of our home were supplied by a spring house located at the spot where the spring emerged from the earth. Good, clean, pure water, tainted by nothing, cold and sweet. My grandparents built a spring house as well, this one by the creek after the first pasture. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “A water source downstream from the cows? Gross!”. Yes and no. There was also a spring birthed from the ground that also fed the main stream as it passed. This was the site of my grandparent’s spring house. They tapped the underground stream before it made it to the cow-enhanced water. It was as pure as the water from our spring.

We took the drinking water for granted and never thought about the source. What we valued was the source of play that the creek provided. Hour after hour sloshing around in drenched sneakers and wet pants.  The smell of the wild spearmint that grew by, and in, the creek added to the ambience of my grandparent’s springhouse. Watercress was also in abundance, and both it and the spearmint were occasionally harvested to garnish an evening meal.

Rock dams were constructed to divert a section of the creek and just as quickly demolished. Mud was scooped and fashioned into aquatic pens for the creek wildlife that we could catch. Frogs, small fish, salamanders, water striders and crawfish (or crawdads as we called them) were shepherded into the pens for study. The frogs and salamanders didn’t stay long, with four legs they could exit when they had had enough fun. The fish, handicapped as they were, were forced to stay until the engineers either deconstructed the pens or the creek undermined the walls and sent them tumbling into the current. The fish and crawdads always escaped.

Of all the creek critters, the crawdads were my favorite. They were complex, fascinating, agile and to my amazement had a reverse gear. Forward motion is a seemingly laborious affair for a crawdad, slow and deliberate. When they saw one of our hands approaching they would scoot backwards at a fast pace with several quick flips of their tails.  Gone, hidden in the tangle of watercress and grasses.

They were an interesting study with their beady little eyes, twitching antennae, segmented tails and those menacing claws. We tried to avoid the claws. If they got a whole finger it hurt a bit, but real discomfort came when one found a piece of skin and pinched it together. That’s when you pulled your hand from the water and shook the varmint off . We soon learned to sneak up from behind and grab them just behind their claws. Worked every time, well, most every time. When one was captured we would examine it intently, all the while avoiding those straining, snapping claws.

Crawdads (crawfish, that is. Sorry.) are supposedly a Southern delicacy. Having never tasted one, I can’t say, but it does seem to me to be a lot of trouble for a small portion. We simply caught them, played with them and then let the crawdads go. They went their way and we went ours. On to grandma’s house to let our shoes dry on the porch in the afternoon sun while we ran barefoot in the yard.

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Life On a Blue Ridge Farm – Arrival

I was born in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida and spent my first three years there. My father decided it was time to move back home and so we packed our small-family belongings and headed back to Abingdon, Virginia. My father was born and raised in Abingdon and my mother was from Beckley, West Virginia, only a two hour drive from there. The move worked out well for everyone, especially me.

You see, we moved back to my grandfather’s dairy farm and settled in a refurbished log cabin at the edge of the 300 acre property. Abingdon is located in Southwest Virginia, a place of gently rolling hills buttressed by the mountains of the Blue Ridge. The farm consisted primarily of acreage dedicated to either pastureland or cornfields. There was, however, a sliver of forest where the woods of the Knobs, as the locals called a section of steeper hills, spilled over onto the farm.

I don’t remember too much of my first year there, a three-year-old’s memories stick only briefly , but I do recall an overwhelming sense of wonder. The visual dance of blue and green and white as clouds raced across the blue afternoon sky that was propped up by the gentle green hills. Or the dark grey covering of a stormy afternoon, occasionally ripped open by the slash of a lightening bolt. At night there were the stars. Oh, the stars! A vast array of bright points that defied counting. In Ft. Lauderdale the street lights and humidity veiled all but the brightest stars. Here there was no light pollution and the cloudless nights were stunning! The night sky rippled with bright and dim like the land below rippled with high and low.

The Knobs would spit the moon out and it wandered the bright heights and dark valleys of the night sky, finally finding rest somewhere in the hills of the neighbor’s farm. Back again the next day though, ejected from the Knobs, a bit thinner or fuller, a little earlier or later, but back again.

The quiet of the place was also astounding. Of course there was the occasional droning of a tractor doing farm business, but most often there was only the call of a bird or a dog barking punctuating the soft whisper of a breeze.  The night was almost completely silent. If you happened to be down by the creek you could easily discern the various small critters of the marshy banks by their noise, but silence overspread the creek rukus as you moved away. The only exception to the quiet came at milking time. As the “girls” were herded into the small lot preparing to do their part to contribute to the calcium needs of children, they would sometimes vocalize their joy or displeasure.

Then there was the wonder of freedom! Not just a small patch of yard bounded by pavement and concrete, no, there were fields and forests and creeks and barns to explore. Yes, there were fences, but those were there only to keep cows in, they were no obstacle to boys. I quickly learned to navigate barbed wire with speed and blood-free agility. Our play time consumed the hours like the land we roamed drank in the rain. The time was not lost though, it was invested, invested in memories and beauty and peace.

The best thing about our move to the farm was that I gained a friend and companion. My cousin, Mike, was my age and lived “just up the holler” and so we became best of friends. Seldom were my farm excursions solitary ones, Mike was usually with me. If Mike’s travel plans were constrained by farm chores, I would stay in my own yard and engage in battle and conquest with G.I. Joes and plastic tanks. Mike was a son of he farm. He knew more of the ins and outs of dairy farming at the age of 7 than I know now. I lived on the periphery of the farm, Mike lived in the center. Yet we both knew the lay of the land and how to squeeze the most from each farm day.

Our family’s move to the Blue Ridge farm opened to me a world of wonder and joy.

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Home Before the Storm

_MG_3987-Edit

When a storm comes to the Blue Ridge its approach is heralded long before it arrives. The peals of thunder reverberate off of the mountain slopes in a maestoso performance.

If the storm is close and of moderate intensity not only does the ground shake at the first clap, but also with each round off the mountain sides. The rumble and frequency of the vibration dissipates with each slope bounce. It is not unusual for a second thunder roll to begin before the first one ends. The interplay of peal and echo is a performance that demands the opening of doors and windows, at least until the rain comes, to experience the full auditory majesty of mountain weather.

The nature of the Blue geography is such that there are often pockets of weather. It could literally be raining on the neighbor’s house and my roof will still be dry. It’s a tough area for weather forecasters to get a handle on. A local professor of meteorology has taken student volunteers on summer treks to mount small weather stations on a number of mountain peaks in the region. The goal is to try to develop a more accurate computer model for regional forecasting. His project is still too new to measure the results, but he and NOAA are anticipating a more accurate model for us mountain folk.

It may not seem like that big a deal, however, localized downpours can be quite severe. Landslides and bank erosion are particular problems. I have lost a fair amount of my yard as my small creek struggles and ultimately fails to contain the water from a flash flood. That doesn’t bother me too much, less to mow.

It is an issue for the DOT. We have had several instances of slope sides deciding to head to the valley floor and as a result, taken sections of mountain road with them. A hard rain often means road closures, detours and the clank and clamor of determined earth movers.

Although more accurate forecasting won’t help the DOT, it might help keep us mountain folk drier. The best place to be in a hard rain is indoors with a good book or enjoying a good nap, thunder permitting. In a sense, the approaching storm clouds herd us into our houses like cattle into a barn. Priorities are reorganized with the echo of thunder and a few drops of moisture. All of a sudden the main goal is to get home before the rain.

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A Balanced Life

Blue_Ridge_Pilgrim_Butterfly-1

Doesn’t exist. Just ask the guy above.

Now don’t get me wrong, often our good and bad experiences sometimes average out, but balance is a rare thing. Adapting to limitations and using those adaptations as stepping stones is more of the nature of life.

Take Good King Three Wing. His life will always be a downward spiral to the left. Gravity, aerodynamics and a frustrated bird dictate that the King will never have balance, but he survives and thrives. Barring another meal attempt, his reign will continue until his season is complete. Long live the king!

So do we adapt and progress or do we spiral down to a wasted life? I watched the King for a time and noticed that even though he could no longer rise with his past strength and grace, he learned how to judge the breeze and small updrafts and always ended up where he wanted to go. In our summer yard in the Blue Ridge there is always a meal stop for a Monarch, even one short a wing.

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