August 3, 2011

Pulled out of a haze by a gun-totin', rap music hatin', redneck Son of the Confederacy

A chance encounter with one of the locals during our first morning on Shuddering Squirrel Acres wiped out some preconceptions about hardcore southerners. I, Yankee, was rescued from an embarrassing fix by a Son of the Confederacy.
We had closed on our property late the day before, unlocked our new home, and blew up an air mattress to sleep out the rest of the night. Up early the next day, a rainy November morning, I couldn’t wait to explore our woodlands and take stock of what all we now owned. So I pulled on my boots and headed south into the tree line.
Never mind that I didn’t know even approximately where our property lines are or even the general direction I headed. Or that it was cold and raining steadily. Or that I, an old Eagle Scout, didn’t think to drop a compass in my pocket. I’d wanted to own some land since I was a kid, and here it was, ready to explore. A problem arose almost immediately, but I had no way of knowing. I’d taken only six or eight steps before I was on a neighbor’s property. Truly ignorant, I walked surely and confidently, and was soon in deep.
I was hopelessly lost. No sun to steer by, no landmarks, just many magnificent trees.
A pause here for a word about our adopted milieu.
It’s a place where a person, when particularly exercised, may say in lowered voice, “H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks.” Courtesy – and even gentility – greet us nearly everywhere we go. As our new banker reminded when we remarked on it, “You’re in the South now, honey.”
Roughnecks and shop ladies, passing strangers and new friends, black and white, transplants like us and true sons of the Old South. Manners matter here.
Gen. Robert E. Lee
Certainly we’ve encountered some rudeness, which several times came in the form of blind anti-Yankee words or deeds. Never mind that the South surged north when old Henry Ford cranked up the assembly line and started offering a then-generous $5 a day for workers. Obviously many southerners believe it’s just dandy to take northern jobs, and in a lifetime in Detroit, I never heard anybody complain about it. But there was that war, of course, and there continues to be a level of resentment about the outcome and its effects nearly 150 years after Robert E. Lee signed the Confederacy’s surrender.
Back to the woods. After about an hour, and my arrival at a badly unstrung, rusty barbed wire fence, I knew I didn’t know the way home. Stooped, I climbed through the barbed wire onto a two-track road on the other side, picked a direction and kept on walking. The tall western boots I was wearing had been on my feet only a dozen times before. They start to feel a little silly in the city. They weren’t worn in yet, and I felt raw spots on the inside of each ankle, and blooming on one pinky toe. Dogs ran out of the fallow fields to greet me every 10 minutes or so. About half showed their teeth, making ugly noises in their throats and chests. Making no direct eye contact, and huffing some soothing words, I kept on truckin’. (Yes, I’m a child of the ’60s.)
After another hour, I came to a small residential street of about a dozen working-people’s homes. The rain hadn’t doused some tasty breakfast smells. I chose a door and knocked. An oldish woman with a few missing teeth and a comfy housedress answered, saying, “Can I help you?” I introduced myself, offering a hand, said I was a brand-new neighbor, but had lost track of where I lived. Giving her the name of the lane, I inconveniently forgot to say “North.”
She gave me her name, leaned out of the door and pointed left at a road sign about a half block further. “That’s it there.” And there it was. I thanked her sincerely, apologized for intruding on her morning, and walked on.
Nothing looked familiar.
Where I come from, when walking on an unknown street or road, a vehicle approaching from the rear is cause for caution. When it slows to pace your steps, the atavistic fight-or-flight response is triggered. Your breath quickens unless you pay it good mind, while your senses kick into overdrive. You must be alert, but show no fear – your step purposeful, head up, eyes looking ahead. You must not look like a victim.
So when an ol' boy in well-used pickup rumbled up behind then beside me, it threw a little knot in my colon. I glanced over and he rolled down the window.
“New here?”
Did it really show? “Word gets around fast,” I said, still walking.
“That was my house you was at. My wife told me what you wanted, and I thought, ‘That boy might not know where he’s going.’ So I come out.”
I stopped. He stopped. I told him I just bought property and said where, this time remembering to say the address included “North.” And I had "North" written all over me.
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “You’re on the wrong end. Climb in.”
I did, and counted more than a dozen shotgun shells on the console, saw the NRA sticker on the window, and took special note of the big metal rectangle hanging from his keychain, embossed with “CSA.”
H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks.
I tried some small talk and we agreed, after several other subjects fell flat, that gangsta rap didn’t appeal to either one of us. He “sorta” liked bluegrass. He told me that some ol’ boy who once owned our property, and all around it for several miles, split it up into parcels and sold them off. He'd already bisected our lane into north and south halves because he didn’t like the traffic it was getting. He simply filled in a big patch in the middle, making it a slower road going no place in each direction. We live at one of the dead ends.
As this gun-toting admirer of the Confederacy pulled up the steep drive to our home, I told him I was grateful and asked if he’d like a cup of hot coffee, especially on such a raw morning.
“Thanks,” he said in return, “but I was fixin’ my breakfast when you knocked. I do it ever' morning. Need to get back and finish.” Off he went.
Chastened, I tucked away a few of my Yankee preconceptions and went in to dry off, get some of that coffee, and tell the story to my wife, who wasn’t at all surprised that I had wandered in the rain for most of a morning.

July 31, 2011

The willies

We had kind of a Stephen King moment a couple of nights ago while lounging in the yard and watching our chickens.
It’s become something of a ritual to spend dusk with our small flock, letting them out of their palace to eat some salad (grass, weeds, surreptitiously attacked vegetable plants), whatever Japanese beetles we’ve hand-picked from our bean plants and tossed in a shallow dish of water, and whatever bugs they peck out of the unseen population below our feet.
The reds, who hang together most of the time, recently discovered that the friable dirt around the trunk of one of our two dwarf peach trees is perfect for scratching out a shallow and settling in for a dirt/dust bath. The others, including Larry, soon caught on and joined in.
Sadie, fiddin' to take a bath
Now four at a time hunker down in there and roll around like pigs, scooping up dry dirt with the tips of their wings, throwing it over themselves and others, and generally having a terrific time ridding themselves of ticks, mites, and more invaders of their sleek feathers. We’ve watched wild turkeys do the same in a patch of sand next to our shed.
I’m going to mix up a custom dust bath for them, blending a lot of sand, a little dirt, and some diatomaceous earth. The latter is an all-natural powder made of finely crushed freshwater fossils. Harmless to larger creatures, such as chickens and humans, its microscopic silica is sharp and fatal to a variety of tiny parasites. It’s safe enough to toss on the chickens, but I’ll just leave it to the dust bath.
The reds take a dip
While we let our chickens range free at least three times a day, dusk is the best. It offers a break of five or 10 degrees from the mid-90s and higher heat that smolders during the day, with humidity in near-equal numbers. Even a little exertion produces torrents of sweat that stings your eyes and soaks your clothes in just a few minutes. There have been afternoons when my shoes were soaking wet from the inside.
Vicki is one of those wondrous creatures who never perspire, whose skin is always cool, and who under unusually harsh temperatures may be develop only a dewy sheen. But this weather makes her sweat almost like me. The humidity has the advantage, however, of turning her gold-and-copper hair into a wild, peasanty corolla.
The light at dusk is also at its best, coming in low just over the roof of our house, without glare, revealing even more of the vivid colors nearly everywhere in our yard and out into the woods. It is very flattering to our chickens.
Until yesterday, we hadn’t had rain in weeks. The sky and distant thunder had threatened the night before, but then moved on, leaving everything still covered in red-brown dust. That was when our chickens freaked, which in turn gave us a mild, but distinct, case of the creeps.
Tor Johnson, Vampira, and Bela Lugosi in Plan 9
The sky was ripe for it, increasingly lowering to the east, into the trees. There was a feeling of utter stillness – until such a condition really happened. I attributed it to the weather, but why this particular combination of factors which seemed identical to many dusks before?
The night before this we had frittered away watching Legion, a 2009 B-movie with a promising cast, including Dennis Quaid and Charles S. Dutton. It did very little business. But I’m a sucker for monster movies of almost any quality, having spent much of my early youth and many quarters going to triple-feature weekend matinees of everything from the original Dracula to Plan 9 from Outer Space, the infamous Ed Wood anti-masterpiece on everybody’s list of all-time worsts. (Incidentally, both films starred Bela Lugosi. He was at his mesmerizing peak in the former, and an ancient, dissipated has-been in the latter. Lugosi died well before Wood was ready to wrap his movie, and was replaced with an actor who was much taller, much younger, and appeared in all of his scenes with a cape-draped arm covering most of his face.)
LegionVicki indulges me, and this one, Legion, had at least camp potential. The monsters are a legion of hideously shape-shifting angels who, under the leadership of the archangel Gabriel, are unleashed on earth to destroy mankind for enraging The Boss. Just before they beset a desert diner in the middle of nowhere, archangel Michael shows up to defend the people trapped there. Not them, precisely, but a world-weary waitress, a chain smoker, who unwittingly carries “the hope for all mankind” within her distended belly. As a nice touch, Michael has split from the legion in a difference of opinion, and had his wings hacked off to express his seriousness, I guess. Mayhem ensues, it was entertaining, and didn’t require too much concentration.
So there we were, lounging in this lowering dusk in what seemed an absolute stillness – no thunder, no chirruping insects or chittering hummingbirds, not a fallen leaf disturbed by a busy squirrel, no gunshots, farm engines, or yapping dogs.
And our chickens froze.
They had been wandering along the paths between our gardens, pecking away, raising the occasional one-on-one challenge, popping into the air in a flurry of wings for no visible reason, the usual. Then all raised their heads, all but one facing east toward the deeper forest, and froze in place, not a feather moving.
We walked in front of them, around them, and among them and they didn’t even blink. It was an undeniably unsettling situation. We seemed to be the only moving things on our farm. A very brief chill breeze came out of the west and washed over us, but didn’t stir a leaf on the trees. Deep in the woods, patches of smaze appeared to be trapped among the trunks.
A lowering sky
Was it our first moment in Armageddon, with some invisible, inexorable force out there, moving toward us? Was there a knot of armed tweakers, jazzed on the latest tainted flake coming out of their shake-and-bake soda-bottle “lab” and creepy-crawling up out of the holler? Was it simply some beast not yet seen around here, looking for something to fill its maw and belly?
Why were we the only ones not to get the memo?
Was it the weather, and if so, what in hell was coming?
Nothing.
After a long couple of minutes, as though a switch had been flipped from off to on, wild birds burst out of the trees and made directly for our feeder. There were blue jays, a pileated woodpecker, an exquisite indigo bunting, robins, cardinals, and a contingent of mourning doves that rarely feed at the feeder, but prefer scavenging on the ground below. Best of all, the hummingbirds resumed their evening aerobatics.
The woods stirred gently, the sun continued toward the horizon, bugs resumed biting, the chickens picked up where they had left off, and all returned to normal on a lowering dusk at Shuddering Squirrel Acres.
There was no doom to follow its portent, no menacing terrestrial beings or vengeful celestial ones. But something unexplainable had pierced the visceral reaches of our minds and bodies, and in its disquiet, may have healed something there.
Maybe our more usual, unanchored intimations of a wet, raven doom could be just as ephemeral, just as conquerable, and equally finite.