LONGLEAF STORIES

full circle in the hundred acre wood

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Labrador retrievers are prized for their good hearts and sense of fun as much as their remarkable athleticism. They have a long adolescence. At two, Lou is still in the borderlands between puppy and adult. She is developing an impressive presence, with a regal head and deep chest. You can see that as she surveys her kingdom in the early morning sun. Dog-loving writers will especially enjoy part 1 (In Dogged Pursuit) and part 2 (Learning to Sit) of Richard Gilbert’s (author of Shepherd: a Memoir) ruminations as he writes an essay about his late, beloved Labrador, Tess.

 

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Here, she shows her sweet and goofy side while I (try to) write and drink coffee out on the patio.

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Anyone who’s ever had a Lab knows they are incorrigible beggars. She wants my walnuts and golden raisins. And as you can clearly see, the poor thing is hungry.

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Daylight Savings Time will be with us until November 6, so Lou and I are in for eating our breakfast in the dark until then. Only a few weeks ago, the light under the bedroom curtains at 6:00 a.m. was my signal that it was time to get up, feed Lou and make coffee. Now I want to linger awhile in the dark. It is the pup’s mezzo soprano clucking that awakens my reluctant conscience and I arise even though Buck’s wandering foot urges me to stay.

But the quality of the light, when it graces us with its presence, is different from summer light. Worth waiting for.

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Yesterday morning Lou and I took our usual walk to the gate, about a third of a mile on a gravel road through the woods. I picked up the newspaper and we stood at the gate for less than a minute, Lou with her nose sticking through with every dog’s conviction that the grass is always greener on the other side of the gate and me, shaking my head as I watched two school buses slow to make the ninety-degree curve safely. I thought about the new elementary school coming less than a mile and a half up Kingsfield Road and wondered what on earth the county was going to do to make this crowded, dangerous road safer. Lou was pushing on the gate, so I called to her. “Lou! Come on, now, let’s take the newspaper to Buck. I’m ready for some more coffee. Let’s go.”

“Help me.” Lou and I both froze. She looked at me. My mind didn’t know how to make sense of what I thought I might have heard. I looked toward where I thought the sound might have come from but didn’t see anything but thick woods. I wasn’t sure it was a human sound, wasn’t sure “help me” is what I heard. My first instinct was to run back to the house and get Buck. So Lou and I ran. I’m not much of a runner, but we ran. Running, I tried to process what I had heard and became convinced that a man pleading for help was indeed the truth of it.

I put Lou in her crate and went in to wake Buck. Fortunately, he was already up and brushing his teeth. He didn’t have his hearing aids on, but it was clear from my body language that something was up and his help was urgently needed. Within minutes we were on our way to the gate. I explained what I thought I heard and hoped our neighbor or a walker hadn’t had a heart attack. I hoped it was a wild goose chase.

At first, we thought the wild goose scenario was right. We walked by the thicket outside our gate around to our neighbor’s yard. Couldn’t see a thing. I called out, “Hello? Hello?”

And there it was: “Help me. I’m in here. Please. Help me.”

So while Buck looked closely to see where the man might have entered the woods, I called 911.

Buck hacked carefully through thick smilax vines studded with wicked thorns following the disembodied voice. “I think my jaw’s broke.”

The 911 dispatcher wanted to know what happened, the man’s age, was he bleeding; then she patched me over to Florida Highway Patrol to give them directions.

I stepped into the tunnel Buck was creating from the nearly solid wall of thorns. There! A flash of chrome. Oh my God, it’s a motorcycle. I relayed this to the dispatcher, who assured me EMS was on the way. I still couldn’t see the man, but he was able to holler out answers to my questions. Motorcycle’s brakes failed. Age 58. Some blood, he didn’t think a whole lot. Prosthetic leg. Not pinned by the cycle, but immobilized by vines. His voice faded.

Then I saw a denim-clad leg and could hear Buck talking to him. “Don’t go to sleep on me, now. Stay awake, okay?” They were roughly 20 feet west between our gate and the main road. A neighbor’s adult daughter brought another pair of clippers and set to work making the tunnel entry bigger.

I saw the firetruck moving slowly, held my arm up and waved. They picked up speed and eased the big vehicle off the road just past our drive. An ambulance arrived a minute or so later.

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By this time a small group of neighbors and a local online paper reporter had gathered in our driveway, all of whom we were meeting for the first time. They seemed to know us, but we didn’t know them. One said, “My brother, George, trimmed out your house.” I remember George, a fine craftsman. Does great work. We watched as a convoy of school buses and a sanitation truck carefully threaded their way around the dangerous curve on a road that is too narrow for two-way traffic even when it’s not clogged with emergency vehicles and curious onlookers.

The medical techs readied a stretcher while the firemen went in the thorn tunnel to help Buck free the injured man from the vines.  Buck told me later that the vines were so springy and dense, they had acted like a net to keep the vehicle from going even farther into the brush, but also like a prison and had wrapped around the motorcycle so that it stayed upright with the man bound to it like he had been duct-taped. Vines around his shoulders made it impossible for him to move. Buck had to work carefully to cut vines from the man’s legs and arms one at a time to free them, and to move the prosthetic leg to make it less painful. It was clear to him that the man could never have gotten out of there without help, and the really terrible part was the way the vines had closed around the point of violent entry so as to make it very hard to discern that the vegetation had been disturbed.

When Buck and the rider emerged from the vine tunnel, helped by the firemen, it was a dramatic moment. Buck in his NRA hat and old Navy blue shorts with his Beretta stuck in the waistband and clippers in his right hand; and the injured rider, a thin, hard-looking denim-clad man blinking in the sun, looking stunned. The medical folks took control, thank goodness, and got him onto the stretcher. Buck had found the man’s sunglasses that had been knocked off and returned them to him.

As the rider was being wheeled over to the ambulance, the firemen went back into the rough to retrieve the cycle. It was a fireman’s job, for sure, but they eventually got it loose. It still had some vegetation attached, but otherwise looked in good shape.

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The highway patrol officer arrived while this was going on to ask some questions and take control of the cycle until the wrecker could arrive. A good guy, on the force since 1983, he had those wise law enforcement eyes that take in a scene quickly. No one ever said a word about Buck’s pistol. Most folks around here remember the awful incident a few years ago on a Sunday morning less than half a mile from where we were standing when a retired police office simply taking a walk was shot in the head and killed by a schizophrenic young man off his meds. No one around here would go unarmed into a tangle of woods just based on a call of “help me.”

The show was over, so Buck and I returned to our pickup truck and headed back to the house. I could tell he was a little haunted by that scene in the woods, the arresting image of a man on a motorcycle, bound and circumscribed by thorn vines, unable to move. So much in life depends on timing and random luck.

And maybe some credit is due to the little chocolate Lab who hopped up and down yesterday morning until I agreed to write later and take her for a walk to the gate first. Good going, Lou.

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I wanted to step off into the rough to look for more of these fantastical carnivores, but fear of snakes kept me on the road. Buck rescued a 3 1/2 foot brown snake from the swimming pool yesterday. He said it “looked like a moccasin but didn’t act like one,” so he netted it and let it go on the other side of the fence (not that the snake cares about fences). He told me it slithered off toward the woods. The best adventures are off road into the deep woods and all along the stream bed, but after a freeze in the winter, when reptiles are mostly in their holes, is when I like to do that.

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Something happens to a person when they are walking the deep woods alone. It seems natural to take that fallen feather into your Crest/Listerene/water-pik mouth and take a selfie. A celebration of the primitive, I think, and a passage back into an unedited condition of freedom, a state highly prized. I sweated. I didn’t have on any makeup. I wore yellow spiral bands on my wrists in an effort to keep mosquitoes at bay.

Today was the last day of August, and I wanted to make sure I got out into the woods and made some pictures to document the Seasons at Longleaf Preserve for August. Bagged and tagged, y’all.

Walk with me.

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Bird on a wire, a resident dove, watches as I enter the woods. Buck and Lou stayed behind, neither of them very happy about it. Buck understands I need this time, just me and the woods. Lou, no. Just no. She says, “No fair, I want to go.”

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Not exactly tough duty to hang out indoors, but a joy to wander.

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I don’t know if the red blanket lichen has weakened this grand oak tree, but the fact it has gotten fragile is undeniable. The back of the tree has a hollowed out place that looks very unhealthy. The tree is just at the nexus of the clearing and the woods.

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The forest floor has grown soft with shed pine straw. It invites me to follow the path.

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Fallen pine cones are everywhere. I pick up the prettiest ones and bring them indoors for baskets and window sills.

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Close to the gate there are cascades of scuppernong grape vines. We rarely see mature fruit on the vines; they are eaten quickly by deer and other woodland creatures.

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How I love this grand old oak tree. It’s right by the gate, a sentinel of strength and comfort.

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Glorious.

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American Beautyberry (also known as French Mulberry) come to the fore in late August, their surreal purple berries visually arresting.

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So pretty, bright violet in this leafy glade.

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You can’t really get a good look of this tree with it’s twisty branches, but I can tell you it reminds me of a Disney tree that comes alive and twists little children up in its long arms. It dances in the moonlight, and I love it.

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This is the path I walk every day, lucky me.

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My walk was cut short for a few minutes after I lost my phone. It jumped out of my pocket when I bent to take pictures of a flower and as soon as I realized it was missing I went back to the house. Buck and Lou drove me in the truck to the spot near where I was pretty sure I dropped the phone. Using Buck’s phone, I called my cell number and found the phone quickly. In less than 15 minutes, the bottom of the poor sweet phone was covered in ants (you can see one still on the phone). One of them bit Buck.

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Lots of wildflowers bust out in September. Clearly, some of them are overachievers and have popped out in late August.

Here are some I saw today:

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I saw a couple of pretty pitcher plants today, singled out here for special mention:

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The trees are magnificent. There’s a full mix of old growth, planted pines a decade old, and a continuing batch of enthusiastic volunteers.

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It was a thrill to be out in the woods today. There’s something that happens when you get out in the woods alone. All your senses kick into gear. It reinvigorates me, mainlines me with nature and shoots pure energy up through the soles of my feet walking the path all the way out the top of my head, shooting beautiful sparks. P1050280

The cloud looks like a big blog of White-Out, but no, it’s just pure cloud.

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Fellow travelers, kind enough to share the road with me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A gently undulating road, or even a boring, straight interstate highway can be beautiful, especially when you are finding your way home.

Sometimes when a terrible event happens, the fresh child part of our mind thinks if only we could go back to the same place and retrace our steps, maybe the outcome would be different.

The adult that acts from the ancient, reptilian sector of our complicated brain knows better.

And yet.

For the first time in several years, Buck and I left our home near Pensacola, Florida for a week in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. Driving through Atlanta, neither of us spoke our thoughts as we approached the city, but the anxiety was palpable. The last time we traversed this route, rain was pouring down like it was end times when my cell phone rang and the shaky voice of our son-in-law told us Buck’s flaxen-haired youngest son, only 45, was dead. I think it was a minor miracle that Buck didn’t wreck the car. Darryl, a building contractor, had eaten a sandwich while sitting in a lawn chair on a concrete patio, smoked a cigarette and fallen over with a heart attack, dead before he hit the ground, insofar as the med techs were able to tell. It was an otherwise perfect day in early October of 2005. We turned the car around and returned home. It had been exactly sixty days since Buck’s first wife and Darryl’s natural mother died of a stroke at 66. We were literally in the middle of building our new home. Buck later said, “I can’t live long enough to get over this.”

On this trip, a beautiful day in June, our breathing eased and the atmosphere in the car lightened once we were on the mountain side of Atlanta and headed to our beloved Western North Carolina, where we  lived 7 months out of 12 between 1997 and 2004.

We immersed ourselves in the luxuriant mountains. Full immersion, not a sprinkle. We communed in the cool air with owls and dear friends who shared the velvet night shot through with fireflies and shooting stars.

At the Beaverdam Methodist Church on Sunday morning we were wrapped in a virtual handmade shawl knitted from the sterling character of the souls there, our old Beaverdam and Rice Cove friends. Our Episcopalian reserve melted. Raised as Baptists, it was thin anyway. Our three years gone were erased, and we picked up as though conversations had been interrupted instead by mere seconds.

Buck and I visited with the folks who sold us the land on which we built our home in Rice Cove and who became the best kind of friends to us. I can’t say exactly why we needed to be in their presence. But we did. Jack and Aileen are gentle, wise, caring and Good (capital “G” fully intended). We spent time at their home twice and also saw them at church on Sunday.

During our second visit, which took place on Thursday afternoon, Jack and Aileen drove us over to The Rice Home Place in the Cove. It was built in 1926 and is the home Jack knew as a child. Jack’s late brother, Howard, lived alone in the home until his death about two years ago. He bequeathed the old home place to Jack and Aileen’s grown daughters. The daughters, all of whom have families, jobs and homes in other states, have taken the gift to heart. They and the rest of the clan had scrubbed, torn out walls, put on a new roof, added a deck, planted flowers, installed new appliances, polished wood, hung pictures and essentially done a heart transplant to breathe new life into the tired old cottage.

When Jack turned the key in the lock and opened the door, Buck, Aileen and I stepped in first. There was a clean, sunshine smell. A multi-layered patina of love reflected off polished surfaces in every space and weakened my knees. I couldn’t stop touching things: the big blue rooster on the dining table, the comfortable window seat, the carefully placed paintings and photographs. It sang to me, all of it. These women know something about being sisters. They and their families had hit just the right notes to preserve the integrity of this space and yet infuse it with new warmth, energy, style, grace and promise.

Howard’s gift set in motion a sequence of events whose ripples will be far-reaching in their effect upon the family and the Cove. The loving action of this childless man has created a generational legacy. And the families are migrating now, like flocks of birds, longing to return to Rice Cove from wherever in the world they may have gotten off to. The Rice Home Place will provide a touchstone not only for these sisters, but for generations as well as spin-off friends and fellow travelers. It has already begun. A group of boy scouts camped on the property this week on their way to hike part of the Appalachian Trail. A gathering of fiddlers may be coming for a retreat. The natural generosity of the Rice family spills onto others like spring water.

Quite naturally, my thoughts turned to Longleaf, to our new piney woods home where we have built upon our own alluring spot. I began to realize that we, too, and the children and grandchildren, are drawn to this place which has so much mysterious sustenance for us all, bound up in tragedy and joy.

Suddenly it hit me. That’s what we came for; what we needed to see and to learn. From the Rices of Rice Cove to the Westmarks of Longleaf: this vision of yet another way Home, a gathering up, a healing, a renewal of the dream.

And just like that, I knew it was time to go to our home, our own special sanctuary in this world, and build upon what had been started there.

Early Friday morning we descended through the clouds, temperatures rising with the miles. The road uncoiled its humps and dropped us gently near the lap of the Gulf of Mexico some nine hours later.

Back home, phone calls were hastily made to let the kids know we returned two days early. Before going to bed, we put photos of Darryl back out with the rest of the family. It hurt to look at him and know he would never be among us again. We held hands for a long moment, just taking it in.

And Sunday night, everyone shared in bringing a meal to Longleaf. We gathered around the old mahogany trestle table. We kicked back and told stories. We let go and laughed out loud, rested in this feeling and gathered our strength.

Then son Richard and his wife Sharon, daughter Adele and her husband Richard, and Buck and I walked upstairs together, out onto the second floor deck. The six of us drifted as one to the wrought iron railing overlooking the swimming pool, where the young kids were laughing, splashing and playing games. Darkness was all around them, but there, in the iridescent colored pool lights, they looked like silvery mythical versions of themselves. We caught our collective breaths at the beauty of their essence.

Home. How sweet it is. Home.

 

Note: This is Part 2 of my edited notes from a road trip in June of 2007 that never made it into the blog archives. Part 1, Beautiful is the Crooked, was the previous post. 

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