The Light of Fog
Jessica Elizabeth heads into mom’s room after breakfast but Budlore Amadeus wants to go out. An odd species of weather sits over Hickory Head, directly above the stars blaze, but water droplets like rain fall from the branches of the trees, and when I turn the flashlight on the beam of light is home for thousands, maybe even millions, of tiny specks of floating water. Bud has disappeared into the wet darkness, and where he had gone, and why is wants to go there, will never be known.
The Big Dipper high in the sky, is clearly visible, but the fog hides the woods, the world quiet except for the sound of water dripping from the trees, and for thousands of years, maybe even millions of years, before humans, this sound was one of the loudest any animal might hear, other than thunderstorms.
This water, these water molecules, hydrogen and oxygen, do these individual molecules last millions of years? Could they have seen the dawning of dinosaurs, the extinction of those dominant beasts, and now watch as humans destroy themselves? Is water eternal? Are the tiny droplets I inhale in the darkness those same particles who have passed through the lungs of a T-Tex? Did a Stegosaurus, whose species died off into extinction long before the T-Rex arrived, breathe this same fog?
Budlore makes no sounds in the woods that can be heard, but he’s been out there for half an hour now, and light begins to seep into the edges of the woods, and the sky is becoming more defined. My clothes feel cooler, heavier, as they absorb the moisture in the air, that which is dry becomes wetter, that which is wet becomes drier, that which is darkness becomes lighter, that which is light becomes darker, somewhere, someone watches the sunset right now.
I hear Budlore now, running at speed, he realizes I’m on the deck, and he leaps onto the wooden boards and heads for the door. Whatever it was is no longer holds his interest, and Bud returns home again. He rubs noses with me, a greeting as older than language, touching faces, exchanging breath and moistures, and then he heads for a morning nap.
My compulsion is just as you see, to write, to put into symbols this dawn, that dogs, the water, the trees, and light of the stars, from which we are all made.
Cottonmouths and Santa Claus
When I got involved in Snake Identification in Facebook groups, I had no idea there was a culture, and subculture, that revolved around snake myths, and snake identification. I should have known, for if you get ten people together in a room for a week, by the end of that seven days, you’ll find narratives that have no basis in fact at all. Three people will believe the narrative, three will accuse the first three of lying, three will be indifferent, and one will have never heard of it.
Even before we are able to fully understand our mother language, as infants, we are fed the myth of Santa Claus. Every year, as we grow up, we see photos, videos, movies, hear songs, listen to adults and other children talk about Santa Claus, so we believe, because why wouldn’t we? Why would all of this be based on a lie?
But it is a lie. It’s not a misunderstanding, or some tightly held religious belief with no evidence, no, it is an outright lie.
Whether you want to admit it or not, whether or not you think it matters or not, parents teaching their children about Santa Claus is teaching those same kids, once they discover the truth, that lying is acceptable, and even more desirable, than the truth. To use a lie to modify someone’s behavior, like parents do when they tell their kids if they misbehave Santa won’t come, is perfect.
Here’s the fallout: Children will so reverently believe this lie they’ll repeat it to other children, and among the kids, will be stories of how one or the other, or some group, stayed up late, or got up early, and actually saw Santa. Others will see something in the sky and know, really know, deep down inside, they truly and honestly saw a red nose, brightly leading the sleigh through the sky. Moreover, as the kids get older and the lie gets harder to defend, and the truth becomes glaringly clear, both parents and children will pretend to believe, as to keep the lie alive, for just a little while longer.
Gee, Mike, that’s certainly a buzz kill, but what’s any of this got to do with Cottonmouths?
Here in The South, as I was growing up, I was told the tale of Hoops Snakes who would grab their tails in their mouths and roll like a hoop to chase you. Then there was the story of how Coachwhip snakes would chase you and whip you with their tails. And rattlesnakes had a poison dust in their rattles that would kill the unwary. Snakes hypnotized birds to catch them. And if you killed a rattlesnake, its mate would hunt you down by the next day. And there was the story of the water skier who fell into a nest of moccasins, and as rescuers tried to drag the lifeless body from the lake, the snakes were still hanging on!
Also, Cottonmouths would chase you.
None of this is true, of course, and most of these myths have slowly evaporated as videos become more and more ubiquitous, and the evidence for such snake activity becomes more and more impossible to prove.
Yet the one myth that seems to be the hardest to dispel is the one of Cottonmouths chasing people. In ID groups, long and irritating threads will stretch on and on, with the person claiming to be chased never relenting, never giving an inch, but yet never producing a photo or a video that their claim is true. They grew up hearing about people being chased, and they feel they are not part of their own culture if they do not produce a story about nearly being killed as they barely escaped the deadly fangs of the moccasin.
Yet there are issues here, and those issues are based in reality. The truth of the matter is while these snakes do strike swiftly, on land they are remarkably slow. The Cottonmouth got its moniker by its eponymous mouth agape position, showing its fangs. But it is impossible to chase anyone from this position as it is a purely defensive posture! Moreover, there have only been four recorded deaths from Cottonmouth bite in the United States. If these animals are so dangerous, and they do chase people, why is it so few people have been killed? Why is it so few people are bitten? Why is it we have no videos, why not hundreds of them, if the myth is not a myth?
The truth is we have “The Santa Claus Effect” here. People have been fed a lie, by people who were fed the lie, and each generation passes it own without thought. It’s true not because it happened but because it’s part of the culture. People lie about it, and find a ready audience for their lies, because they have already told the lie themselves. To argue this point is to find a group of people emotionally invested in what they are telling, and what they have been told.
If you really want to piss people off, tell the truth. Tell a four year old child the truth, Santa doesn’t exist and watch their parents explode in anger. It’s magic, the parents will tell you, it’s wonderful, that is, until the bill comes due after Christmas and all the fake snow and tinsel has really brought is credit card payments and a child who believes no amount of toys is quite enough to keep the magic alive.
The Cottonmouth tale is much like this. People want excitement, and safe fear. They want to feel brave and heroic as they blast away at a creature that will run away if given a chance, and who has harmed no one. They want to feel like they have, once again, conquered the wild by beating to death a snake they have always heard was dangerous, and they have always told people was dangerous, without giving a single thought to the truth.
The Good Dirt
It feels good to work with dirt, with soil, and to see material that might have gone to the landfill now returning to the Earth as all things should. Sweat is my salary now, sore muscles my vacation from sloth, and sitting too much to write. My arms ache with the heat of work, hard work, physical exertion that will provide the garden with its food, so it might provide me with mine, and enough to share, I hope. Years ago, I discover there is very little that will cause as much joy as giving away produce that is home grown.
Rain is supposed to come in later in the day, but clouds scud and drift, blocking the sun, providing shade, and I looked up. The photo up top is what I saw, and the picture was taken, stored in my cell phone camera, and I sat down, looking at the photos taken this very day, of fog, dogs, spider webs, of the sun, and clouds. How many generations of humans had no cameras, no way of sharing the wonders they saw except with joyous outbursts of words and facial expressions, and how many people have listened to these descriptions of wonder, and knew they would never see it, but it was enough that the sight made someone else so happy?
Sixty-one years and a few months slow me down now, and I hesitate before returning to my toil. The earth around this area of the world has been tilled before. This was part of the nation where slavery thrived, and enslaved people were worked for generations, doing very much what I am doing now. I wonder, my mind goes back to the days men and women night have, on the very spot I sit, been forced to work long hours, longer years, with no hope of knowing any other life but hard labor. Were there those among these poor people who would look up at the sky, see some marvelous cloud, and were told to get back to their task? Would an enslaved person hope for such a sight, for some rare treat in the day that might offer some beauty in a world devoid of anything resembling anything but misery?
Look back at the last 400 years, at the music composed, the inventions, the works of art, the poem, the books, the wonders humankind have created, and then see the shadow the light of that creation has cast. Those who were enslaved, and those who were descended from slaves, have lived in this shadow. First as kidnapped workers, and then as second-class citizens; Jim Crow and Red Lines, Peonage and Lynching, the light still withheld, the freedom and justice still denied, and it still goes on this very moment.
Yet given rain, and not too much, given warm weather without scorching heat, given luck and some skill with plants, the earth will provide those who farm a bounty, regardless of the color of their skin. Mother Earth will receive a body, if it is allowed to rest in a natural state in the dirt, and from this life will begin anew, such as it always had, and such as it ought to be. Kings and dogs, slaves and statesmen will all turn into soil, accept seeds, and grow whatever is tended, or not.
The wind blows now, the sky grows dark, and I am inside, clean from a hot shower, and writing the words you see before you. I hope you liked my photograph of a branches and sun, and clouds. I hope the photo stirs in you some sense of wonder and beauty. I wish for you to remember not everyone has ever had this, some were denied it, and some still do not have it. It is luck, chance only, that you and I do.
This morning was one of those Zen dawns with no color, no real light for a while, but a nice cool breeze and very gentle rain. It felt good to be outside, and not have insects buzzing around and without the humidity trying to kill me. I’ve been waiting for this morning to arrive, because the back fenceline desperately needs attention, and so many things have gotten in the way of me getting back there and getting the job done.
I have to cross over the fence into my neighbor’s property to hack down a bunch of stuff because wild grape wines, as well as a few other species of vines, are getting on the electric fence and that will eventually cause a short. The wild grape vines do not produce wild grapes, tame grapes, wine grapes, or any other grape, but their leaves look like the leaves of grape vines, so that’s where they got their name.
The vines have partners in crime. American Beautyberries, a waist high bush with small purple berries, grow in abundance in South Georgia. The vines use these bushes as launching pads towards the top of the fence, so the plan is to clear a section five feet wide and go after any bigger vines if I can get to them, and I have a bush hook, so yeah, I can.
It’s a cool day, I feel good, it’s early in the morning, kinda, and it feels good to swing hard and work muscles again. I had major surgery late last year, and this is the first time I’ve really set out to push, and push hard, my body with this sort of work. The bush hook is a great tool for clearing and the best piece of exercise equipment a human can own.
There’s vines growing up out of the ground that have cut marks on them, where I hacked on them three years ago. The vine will grow from another shoot, not the old one, so I can tell how many times I’ve cut them. None of this stuff is big but it is thick, and it is bushy as hell. I hack, and hack, then push the stuff away from the fence, hack so more, push some more, and slowly, a path is cleared.
Hacking isn’t just hacking away at a clump of vines or bushes, or both. There’s a system here, depending on where the open part is, where I need for it to be, and how close to the ground I can cut the bushes, or the stems of the vines. Position of the target dictates position of my body, how much power I have to use, how well I can aim, and I can cut exactly where I want the blade to be. I use a slight slicing movement when I swing, and again, depending on what I am cutting and where, that will decide which side of the blade I use; the flat side for thicker stuff, the side with the hook for vines, so they cannot slip away uncut. I’ve been using a bush hook for decades now, and it’s a part of my body when I work.
It’s work. It’s hard work. The day wears on and I am wearing down. My breath is quicker and heavier. The handle turns in my hands as my strength ebbs. But fatigue and I are also old friends. I know my limits, or I once did, and this is the first test of my strength and endurance since December of last year. I know better than to push too hard, but where is the point I ought to quit? Isn’t quitting just as bad as going too far, when I have already finished more than half?
The last twenty feet or so aren’t thick but the twenty feet before that is the very thickest. There’s an Oak tree being strangled to death by vines in that mess, so I decide to, at a minimum, rescue the tree. I have to cut wider to get the debris out of the way. Vines stealing the crown of the tree have to be pulled down. The remnants of bushes and the still grabby vines try to bring me down, because they sense my weakness. Stumbling, yet still upright, I swing away, much less able to hit a target, my hands slipping, my breath ragged, yet moving forward, cutting bush and vine, and making progress.
Suddenly, I reach the end. I’m careful now, tired, no, not tired, I am exhausted. Sweat dries quickly because of low humidity and it is still a beautiful day. There’s nothing about how I feel that seems to indicate injury, but oh yeah, I am going to feel this tomorrow and maybe for a few days to come. I climb the fence to get back over to my property and Budlore Amadeus awaits and escorts, his stubby tail wiggling. The walk to the shed to put the bush hook, hat and gloves seems overly long.
My left hand isn’t fully functional at the moment. It’s cramping up and hurts. My knees ache. My back? HAHAHAHA! That’s going to be interesting tomorrow, certainly. I cannot remember the last time I was this tired. Yet this is exhaustion, my paycheck from swinging a bush hook for three hours. I have cleared the entire back fence line on the back side. I feel good, my body responded to my demands for more when there didn’t seem to be any, and the job is done.
It feels good. I feel like me again.
The night shift project, actually two of them, lasted about a year or so, and then I retired. Then came surgery that flattened me out for a couple of months, and god dammit it, then a plague hit, and I started working again. There really wasn’t for a garden two years ago, or last year, or this year, and I didn’t worry about it. The compost pile, subject of many an essay on life, death, decay and rebirth, fell into disuse. I maintained the fenceline, and that was all I had time or energy to do, and for a while, that was enough.
A month or so ago, I finally bought a riding mower, and I told myself if I ever bought one of those things, I could go into composting in a big way. Today was the day I went big. The last couple of mowings produced a lot of clippings, and I did dump all of it on the old compost pile, which is now the new compost pile.
It took five rounds, at six bushels apiece to mow the lawn today, and now I have to expand. But I also needed new logs, rotting logs, to use to delineate the compost pile. Rotting logs are one of the keys to a great pile. They already have all the bacteria and bugs a compost pile needs. Old logs retain moisture and they’re good starter stuff for decay. I dragged a few out of the woods, and I’ll add a few more next weekend. I also started the process of turning old compost in with the new stuff, and making sure there’s enough moisture in it all.
I realized that I miss that sort of work, and I miss the process.
The clippings from two weeks ago, which didn’t amount to very much, were already dried out and powdery. The grass catcher’s chute clogged up many time during the first mowing because the grass was so high. There’s a couple of cardboard boxes, no colored ink, underneath the powder so it all gets some time with the water hose. I spread it out, mix it in, water it, and repeat.
Soon, in a matter of days, the grass and leaves will begin to decay. The bacteria and bugs in the logs will move out and begin to feed. Other insects will move in to feed on the bugs that are feeding on the decay. Frogs and toads will move in to feed on those. Termites will make a home here, and the toads love that. Birds will drop in to check out the buffet, and the dogs will slip in to dig up any rodents that show.
Eventually, not any time soon, and certainly not even this year, a layer of organic matter will begin to form at the bottom of the pile. Decayed vegetation, the waste of a billion microbes, the dead bodies of countless insects, and much more, will begin to accumulate. That’s soil. It’s what makes vegetables grow. It’s the purpose of composting, other than repurposing the stuff usually discarded. For not only grass clippings and leaves, but the remains of any organic matter from the kitchen, from orange peels to eggshells, to the ends of peppers unused, will be tossed into the pile, and be turned into dirt.
It’s been a while since I did any work in the woods. The paths need help. I broke my bush hook today, cutting the branches of a downed tree. I got worn out by hacking on the tree, and almost overheated.
There’s honest sweat here. There’s hard work and I’ve always said yardwork was the best gym in the world. The bush hook busted on a tree I should have moved six months ago, but now that I started on it, the realization returns of why I miss doing this so much. Skill, determination, muscle, and sweat will turn part of the tree into a bonfire, and the rest into compost pile boundaries. But it’s a damn good workout. Back muscles, arms and shoulders, and all the body is used to pull a heavy branch towards the burn pit.
I miss this work. I miss turning waste into soil, and therefore food. I miss being outside in the woods, even with the insects getting their fair share of blood, and I miss making my heart pump hard to get things done in the yard.
It’s time to return.
The Bent Tree
I have eighty percent of a hectare out here at Hickory Head, and even though it’s a tiny thing, I try to do as much good, and as little harm, as I can. Twenty years ago or so, when I moved out here, the deer ate most of the young saplings in the woods, and the wild grape vines had taken over most of the back acre. I fenced it all in, introduced two dogs with some size to them, and nature gave me trees. I had to keep the wild vines cut back every year and that’s some work, but at the same time, it is trees.
Last year, I found a downed branch that had landed on a Live Oak sapling, and bent it down to the ground. I picked the branch up but the Live Oak stayed bent, and it seemed impossible to help it. But if it died it died, and if it lived it lived, so I tried to help. I took a piece of an old water hose and tied it back kinda straight. Over the space of a few months, I kept pulling it up straighter and straighter, wondering all the while if it would recover.
It’s been a busy year, and I haven’t had time to check on it in a few months now. So this is what I found: Not only is the Live Oak standing tall and looking good, but there was a bird’s nest in it, from this spring, likely. I knew the Cardinals had a next somewhere out in this part of the woods, but I had no idea it might be this tree.
If you save it, they will come.
Rescue a tree today, and for years to come, you’ll be thanked for it, in ways that you might not have ever imagined.