Where the Hoe Meets Rock

“What were you thinkin’?” I propped myself on my hoe and contemplated my folly of thirty years ago.  Who picks a former ravine to make into a garden.  When Highway 11 was originally built, “fill dirt” was used to fill up the creek cut ravine, the newly created creek banks stabilized by what else, kudzu. The scourge of the South…at least one of them.

Who tries to transform a broom straw laden, kudzu encroaching, rocky, and sandy wasteland into a garden?  Easy peasy, I did.  I had no choice if I was going to have a garden.  The flat area flanked on one side by a creek and kudzu and a highway and swamp on the other is the only place that receives the necessary eight hours of sunlight.

It has remained a folly despite the years I’ve spent amending with compost, wood chips, grass clippings, even ground up cardboard.  After thirty years I have about four inches of arable soil…and the rocks continue to do the dirty and multiply.

A whiney voice in my head asks, “Why do you do this to yourself.  The roads around your house are dotted with produce stands.  Walmart has corn for twenty-five cents an ear.”  I hear many voices but this one is irritating.  It is the voice that makes a yearly visit this time of the year.  Outloud, I tell it to shut up.

My grandmother is in my head too, she speaks in a voice I barely remember, “You better clean out those middles.  Look at that crabgrass.  What about the Johnson grass coming up?  While you’re at it do something about the kudzu across the fence.”

“Yes Nannie, I know…and soon the bastard wiregrass will begin its slow crawl.”  Common bermuda grass will grow on hot pavement.

My tiller is down and I’m waiting for a part.  It’s supposed to be here Monday but who knows, it may not get here, and I have the mechanical abilities of a brick.  I should probably use this hoe for something other than a leaning post.

A thick morning cloud rolled in and for a moment I think I will be saved.  There was no rain in the cloud despite the “rain” frogs in the swamp singing.  The crows in the distance cawed their good mornings as my hoe contacted one of the many rocks.  Bending over to pick it up I watched a drop of perspiration from my nose land next to my hand.  I was suddenly a small child sitting under a tree as the sun came out again.

My grandparents farmed lands too far from the river to benefit from the fertile silt deposited by seasonal floods.  Bottomlands were for the rich.  My grandparents weren’t rich…at least not monetarily.  They farmed on the lien until my granddaddy, Paw Paw, went to work in a textile mill.  Their soil was red with clay and filled with rocks too.  Their life was hard…much harder than mine, harder than the rocks they threw out of the field.

Even with steady money, my grandfather couldn’t stay out of the fields.  After eight hours in the mill, he would harness the plow horse and do his farm chores before grabbing a bit of sleep in the afternoon.  Sometimes he would head out in the early evenings too.

Corn was our staple, for both humans and animals.  Somehow the poor soil yielded the needed corn along with beans, squash, okra, and tomatoes.  There was nothing exotic in their garden not even a bell pepper.  They weren’t the exotic kind.  They were the survival kind.

I have a mental vision of a man of medium height with a sweat-stained fedora or cap.  Thinning gray hair cut short, a wide nose, and dark-framed glasses.  A man I can’t remember smiling except when he was in the fields.  A man who watched over my brother and I as we played in a sandy ditch with Tonka toys and green army men.  We didn’t know he was slowly dying from a melanoma found too late.  I was nine when he died.  He was fifty-eight or nine.

I’ve gotten into a rhythm.  Hoe the hard ground toward me for a minute or two before pushing the dirt back.  Bend over and pick up the uncovered rocks and throw the rocks toward the creek.  Rest on the hoe for a minute, stretch my back, and start over.  I don’t have the arm I used to have, or the creek has moved further away.  At least the rocks seem smaller than they used to.

Again my grandmother spoke in my head, “Get back to work, you can think and work at the same time.”  I wish I had asked more questions, “What did you think about Nannie?”

As a small child, most of my mornings were spent under a tree with a book in my hands.  Nannie’s rule was “read or come out and pick up a hoe.”  I developed my love for reading under a cedar tree or in a clump of privet.  I remember the sounds her hoe made when it contacted a rock.  I can’t remember her real voice but I remember that sound.

When I got older, I didn’t have a choice.  Hand-picking bugs, hand watering tomato plants, and hoeing middles.  Putting out chemical fertilizer that made my hands burn.  Later she would invest in a front tine tiller that most days beat me to death.

I guess there is something meditative about hoeing…except for this blister between my thumb and pointer finger that interrupts my rumination.  My grand parent’s hands were much tougher.  Hands like tanned shoe leather with thick calluses.  I remember my grandmother’s deeply lined and sun-baked face too.

I don’t know if I could call my grandmother pretty.  She had a broad face and wide-set eyes.  A thick, strong body built for farm work.  Her face was cut with deep crevasses but I remember when she laughed.  Her whole face lit up.  She didn’t laugh enough.

The frogs have grown silent as have the crows.  The voices in my head are still there and I try to shush them with the sound of the hoe.  It is humid and the weather liars say it will reach near-ninety today.  As I watched the sweat fly from my arms I realized the liars might be right.

My garden is late.  Mother Nature has been an unwholesome witch for most of March, April, and May.  If June follows suit, it will make a hard, left turn into hell.  Too cold, too wet, thunderstorms and hail in March, snow in April.  Near record rains in May and a tropical storm kickin’ up a ruckus in the Gulf and it is just the first week of June.

In between tropical systems, I finally planted tomato plants on May the fifteenth…exactly one month past our last frost date.  The two-foot-tall plants are standing proudly and filling out in their cages, but it will be a while before my first tomato sandwich.  I have one small tomato, it reminds me of a green marble.  My guess is summer will be as harsh as the spring, but hope does spring eternal.  Sure hope there is no Duke Mayonaise or white bread shortage.

It does not matter.  For what I spend in plants, seeds, and fertilizer I could buy from the produce stands cheaper.  It is not about the tomatoes, squash, and beans.

My gardening is about connections.  Connections to the past, connections to past generations.  I see my grandfather in his overalls leaning against his hoe, fedora on his head.  My grandmother is in her feed sack dress, perspiration dripping off her nose, a huge straw hat on her head.

It is about connections to the land, even lands filled with rocks.  I welcome the clank made the hoe making contact with a rock.  I smile when it happens.

Don Miller’s author’s page  https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR3YVEkI2WW4ZAZbqiYKWyhVQdkGDO6zt6QzExlP8lFCl6FVitonudcbAPQ

The image used is  a watercolor, “Hoeing Turnips”, by Sir George Clausen http://www.artnet.com/artists/sir-george-clausen/hoeing-turnips-m85xrTGVVoEQTDt3k_TMhg2

 

A Young Toad-Frog’s Fancy

 

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I am happier, and usually saner, with the advent of spring and the end of winter than I am with the death of summer and fall.  Certain birds finding their way to my feeders that weren’t there a few weeks ago, the finches and mourning doves, the return of my Redtail Hawks. They came early this year.  The deer eating my privet, not eating enough privet, certain flowers blooming at certain times and my toad.

I first wrote about “The Toad in the Corner” a year or two ago, a huge American toad that has appeared outside my back door for years.  I found it comforting to see her having backed herself into a shady spot at the corner of my foundation and rock wall during the heat of the day.  Coming out to wreak havoc on the insect population at night, sitting on a flat rock, all fat and sassy.  Unconcerned about my entrance into her realm.

Despite her ambivalence toward me, I worry about her.  The average lifespan for a toad in the wild is about a year.  She’s been extremely lucky for some five seasons now, somehow avoiding Mr. Herbert No-Shoulders, the huge black rat snake that resides in the same area along with Mrs. No-shoulders and her brood…maybe Toady has just gotten too big to eat.  She is uuuuuuuge!

I found her waiting for me early this morning while I waited for my fifteen-year-old puppy dog to find her spot.  Toady was sitting on her flat rock, but she wasn’t alone.  She had a friend, a friend with benefits I might guess.

At first glance, I thought something was wrong.  She looked deformed.  Was it that bad a winter?  I looked closer and saw what I thought was a deformity was a much smaller toad riding high on her back.  I was reminded of a baby riding on one of his parent’s backs.

I don’t think she was his momma…or maybe she was his “Hot Momma.”  I’ve seen her several times during the day and her suiter is still riding on her back.  She walks, he rides.  Mentally I make a note to look up the range of an American toad…as far as a mile from their breeding sites.  Now I’m Googling their breeding habits.

You can tell this quarantine thing is getting to me.  Combined with sciatica, rainy weather and a sick tractor, I’ve got too much time on my hands…and there is laziness too.

Through research, I found out it is not unusual for the female to carry her suitor to her breeding grounds…the breeding pool of water which I assume is the stream below my home.  For some reason, I thought about frog gigolos, “Hey baby, goin’ my way?  How ‘bout a lift.  What’s your sign?  Can I buy you a drink?”  Louis Prima is singing “Just a Gigolo” in my head.  I guess it could be the David Lee Roth version.  I’m thinking of disco, glitter balls and lime-green leisure suits, colorful, long collared “catch me, f@#$ me” shirts and gold bling.

I found out if females are scarce it is not unusual for many waiting males to climb on board creating a “toad ball.”  The orgy scene from Caligula flashed briefly before my eyes…I only read about it…maybe.  I really wanted to laugh but as I read on, I found it is usually fatal for the female.  “I love you to death” takes on a new meaning.

Image result for Toad ball

I obviously need more humor injected into my life and something productive to do.  Something is very wrong contemplating the sex life of toads and frogs or as we say here, toad frogs.  Well, it is spring when a “young man’s fancy turns to love” or a young toad’s fancy is to ride around on a big ole’ momma toad waiting for her to make the trek to her egg-laying site.  I just hope she survives her “La danse de l’amour.”  French is such a sexy language…even when describing toads.

 

Don Miller writes about whatever strikes his fancy.  His author’ page is https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR0Tk_BUmCRpeCR63Kr59dyLywOMUia36e7djQlIDqefkK6aKUYyW9svuK4

The featured and last images are from https://www.ephotozine.com/photo/toad–mating–ball–53338916

The first image is of Toady and her suitor.

 

Hot Spells

 

“Ah, summer, what power you have to make us suffer and like it.”

–Russell Baker

We appear to be suffering a hot spell here in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.  Marilyn Monroe dances in my mind, a song echos in my head, “We’re having a heatwave…a tropical heat wave….”  Seeing her costume in my mind, I wonder what was causing the heat wave.

The humidity is not quite high enough to be tropical but it is as if a heavy weight has descended from the mountains, pressing the air down around us, compressing it and turning it more liquid than gaseous.  This high-pressure weather system has added to my misery in the same way collard greens wilt in a pot of boiling water.  As I mow the grass this morning it is as if the oxygen has been squeezed out of the air.

The weather is July-August hot.  F. Scott Fitzgerald would probably describe the weather as “sultry.”  Sounds real nice.  Maybe like a 1920s flapper dancing the Charleston or Lindy Hop. Sultry.  I wouldn’t describe the weather that way unless the flapper had been dancing for hours in the unairconditioned Cotton Club in August wearing a fur coat.  The problem with our “sultry” July-August hot spell is…it is just now late May.  Doesn’t bode well for July and August.

Humid enough to be uncomfortable but not so humid to give us any rain.  The sky is a brilliant blue with no clouds to block the sun.  The weather pundits say our air is too stable and will remain so for at least another week.  If you say so.

We were flooding in the cold a month ago.  Now we are drier than camel bones in the Sahara.  We water something every day which adds to the muggy misery…and seems to attract the mosquitos and gnats.  God, I love it.

The people living in the mid-west would love to have the mosquitos and gnats.  Theirs have drowned or blown away.  I am not attempting to make light of their disastrous weather.  Major thunderstorms, tornadoes, and floods should not be made light of…nor should the results of global warming.

Several years ago I suffered through an early season baseball practice featuring near-freezing temperatures and snow flurries.  I swore never to gripe about the heat of summer again.  My resolve is eroding…and we haven’t made it to June yet.

My weather conditions trigger memories.  I grew up without air conditioning and wonder how I survived. We spent our days outdoors working or playing in brutal heat and humidity, or if indoors, where it seemed even hotter.  You’ve never been hot like in the middle of a cotton or hayfield hot or inside of a cotton mill hot.  How did we survive?

I would attempt to sleep, fitfully at best, my head at the foot of my bed trying to catch what little bit of breeze might find its way into my small bedroom from the one window.  Laying spread eagle making sure body parts never touched, adding to the heat, humidity, and discomfort if they did.  I wish I had been smart enough to invest in the talcum powder industry.   Later when my parents bought a small window air-conditioning unit for their bedroom, I found heaven when I inherited their window fan.  Blow baby blow.

The same was true of the old school building I attended.  Tall, wide, screenless windows allowed everything to enter…except a cool breeze in the late spring and early fall.  Taking notes while trying to keep the college ruled paper dry was almost impossible.

Sundays were no better.  Church windows wide open, hellfire and brimstone could be no hotter than those pews.  Funeral home fans fluttered in the breeze doing nothing more than moving the heat around.  Shirt sticking to the pew heat and humidity.  On a particularly brutal Sunday morning, the minister shouted to the heavens, “If you think it’s hot now just wait.  Hell is a lot hotter.”  I don’t know.  Heat seems relative.

Yesterday evening I ventured into my garden.  I waited until the shade had found my tomato and squash plants but found them wilted in the oppressive humidity and heat.  The beans didn’t look too much better.  The one crop that should be loving it, okra, refuses to peek above the hot ground.

Despite having watered the day before, dust swirled wherever my hoe contacted the ground.  A clink rang out as my hoe struck rock…seems I have a bumper crop of rocks this year…like every year, no matter how many I throw into the creek behind my garden.  Rocks and weeds…my bumper crops.  Along with squash bugs and bean beetles.

The metallic clink took me back to my grandmother’s garden as did the sweat running off my nose.  It never was too brutal to keep her out of her garden and the old sack dress she wore would run with sweat.  My grandmother was a Southern woman but unlike the heroines of a Faulkner or Wolfe novel, she did not glisten with perspiration, she sweated like a horse.

I paused, leaning on my hoe.  It was her pose I saw in my mind’s eye.  An old woman, with a face browned by the sun, wearing a big straw hat leaning on her hoe.  She was framed in bright summer sunlight, sweat running down her face.  She always defied the hot spells and I shall too.

I have memories of ice cold sweet tea and a watermelon cooling in the nearby stream.  Somehow the heat has made the memories a bit more sweeter…despite my sweating.

Don Miller has published several books.  To access them click on the following link.  https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

The image came from worldatlas.com

Spring….

 

Spring is finally here in the Foothills of the Blue Ridge.  A high of seventy-one today if the weather liars are to be believed…and a high of forty-eight tomorrow.  Thunderstorms with copious lightning and rainfall moved through the area on the last night of winter.  Three to five inches of snow is expected in the mountains above us on the first night of Spring.  Come on Mother Nature…I have a therapist I can suggest who might help you with your dysfunction.

I awoke this morning with a tremendous pressure…on my bladder.  Five a.m. and like every morning I had to go drain the lizard.  I stepped out my back door…I live in the country, if I want to relieve myself out my backdoor it’s okay and I am conserving water.

The light from my hallway displayed scraps of fog, torn and driven by the light morning breeze.  It had been almost tropical the night before, before the storms.  This morning it was just a pea soup fog being rendered by the wind.  The fog was ghostly as it slid by in the reflected light.  The specter didn’t scare me, nor did it scare the big doe staring at me from across the fence.  I must not have been too terrifying either as I hosed the ground between us.

She stood facing me as if thinking, “Son…please cover yourself.”  Slowly I did, and she still didn’t move.  “No, not very impressed, are we?”  She just stood there showing me those beautiful brown eyes and “big ole ears” standing at attention.  She was as beautiful as anything I had seen since first seeing my granddaughter.

I decided to take a step toward her and she held her ground.  She let me move within a yard before her tail stood up and she leaped into the darkness.  A deer’s tail disappearing into the darkness may be one of the most delightful sights I’ve ever seen.  How in the world can you shoot one of these animals for sport?

I walk, daily, for exercise since my knees and feet have worn out.  As soon as it was light enough I went out for my five-mile commune with nature.  There she was again, this time across the road on my walking path.  Again, she stood as if to say, “What took you so long, come on, just follow me.”  I did.  I followed her beautiful tail until it disappeared.

The doe started me thinking about Native American “spirit guides.”  I know I run a chance of being called “Pocahontas” or rather “Walking Bear” by our Name Caller in Chief, but according to family lore, Native Americans blood courses in my veins…no, I haven’t had a DNA test, but Pocahontas may be a distant relative.  My thoughts caused me to wonder.  If I rate a “spirit guide,” I think I want it to be that doe.  Somehow, we seemed to connect.  We’ll see if she returns and if she does, where she might lead me.

Happy Spring Days and Nights.

Image from https://tsfphotoscartoons.com/2016/06/07/woods-in-the-fog/

Please stop by and visit Don Miller’s writer’s page at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM  or his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/cigarman501/