R.S. Williams

All I want is to get the words right.

Tag: The Natural World (page 2 of 8)

Friday Photo: 3/16/18

“Daffodil Ghost No. 1”
Heard County, Georgia – 4 March 2016

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The Other Vine That Ate the South

In the Deep South, spring smells like grape soda. Not name-brand grape soda, but the cheapest-of-all-cheapo-store-brands grape soda. Or perhaps it smells more like wonky year-old bubble gum, the kind that’s so powdery and bland nobody will even shoplift it off the dollar store clearance rack.

Whatever it smells like, that scent means wisteria, or, as I like to call it, the Other Vine That Ate the South. (The original Vine That Ate the South is kudzu. It blooms much later in the growing season, and is a topic for a different post or twelve.) In March and April, wisteria treats us to two or three weeks of glorious purple clouds in the trees. After that, it finishes leafing out to spend the rest of the season devouring everything in its path—fences, trees, houses, cars, pets.

It’s certainly breathtaking in the garden, but you have to tame it by pruning it hard every year.  Don’t slack off and skip a year. You will regret it. And don’t let its beauty fool you: wisteria sinensis is invasive. Unless someone keeps it in check, it takes over—a simple gardening fact.

But for whatever reason, the majority of people don’t control their wisteria. Or maybe it’s more like can’t control it. I’m not sure. When early spring passes, so do those amazing foot-long purple drupes. By the time summer gets here, its dark green leaves are so plentiful and thick that we can’t even see what it’s smothering 80 feet above the ground.

Other than adding stunning Pointillist color to the landscape and providing food for bees, wisteria doesn’t have much going for it. Oh, wait—it will also hide any place that you mean for people to forget. Don’t believe me? Just follow these two simple steps:

  1.   Plant wisteria.
  2.   Move.

Give it a few years, and voilà! Nobody will know the place ever existed.

People can say what they want about wisteria. I still look forward to its luxurious hues draped over roadside trees every spring. This is probably because I’m lucky enough not to have any on my property. As much as I love the Other Vine That Ate the South, it’s probably best that I leave it where I found it—far away from my own yard.

Photo: “Wisteria No. 471” (LaGrange, Georgia – 21 March 2012)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Advice from Raptors

As I washed this evening’s dishes, I heard them call from the water oaks behind the house: Who-who? Who-who? Who-cooks-for-YOU? Barred owls—the first time I’ve heard them this season.

Some folklore traditions regard owls as harbingers of doom. Others maintain that they signal change of many kinds, not necessarily bad news. Still others hold that owls mean your house and property will soon become rodent-free. For a long time, I discounted the first two. But that was before the hard-partying bunch of barred owls moved into the trees around my house several years ago.

Since then, every new phase of my life—whether painful or pleasant—has arrived in the company of owls. They go quiet for days or weeks, then return, and HOLY SHIT WHAT WAS THAT?!? something new and previously unimaginable shows up along with them. Tonight, when the first hoots reached my ears, I almost dropped a soapy dinner plate into the floor: “Please, universe. I can’t handle any more. Please, please—have mercy on me.”

Fortunately, neither the owls nor the universe heard my plea.

When I stop and listen to the stillness of my soul, I’m sure of several changes heading my way. While I don’t yet know what they’ll look like, what form they’ll take, I know to expect them, to get ready and do what they need for me to do when they finally get here. Others, though, I cannot and will not know until they are upon me. The owls are just the early warning system.

Good or bad, sweetness or sorrow, I’m grateful and humbled to hear those feathered harbingers call once again from the walnut tree. Whatever they bring, I brace myself and welcome it with open arms. Which, honestly, is about all any of us can do.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m off to sit in the cool of the back yard for a while. I’m gonna soak up the dark and the quiet and the peace. I’m gonna listen for advice from raptors, whatever they may decide to pass along.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Wednesday Photo: 3/7/18

“Sadness, Part 1”
LaGrange, Georgia – 4 April 2014

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Hillside Monday: 3/5/18

Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.
— Mary Oliver

“For Wes, Part 16”
LaGrange, Georgia – 18 August 2017

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Friday Photo: 3/2/18

“Hope and Rehope”
Chambers County, Alabama – 20 February 2018

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The Daffodils That Always Mean “Home”

Living in a small town often means commuting a long distance to work somewhere else. Before I began working from home, I drove about 90 miles round-trip to my university teaching job. While the commute itself sometimes bored me, the scenery on U.S. Highway 27 between LaGrange and Carrollton never, ever did.

So it’s Spring now—the season that, in the Deep South, gives us an ice storm one day and tornadoes the next. This year has brought out the daffodils a little early. I delight in watching them pop up along U.S. 27’s shoulders.

When you see daffodils, you can safely assume that someone put them there. Unlike seed plants, daffodils and other bulbs have to be dug up and replanted. In order to get them from where they are to where they’re going to be, someone has to move them at the right time of year (late spring, after blooms and foliage have died back), transport them to a suitable location, and plant them.

Most of the daffodils we see along the roadside make their homes in someone’s yard. Sometimes they’re in neat flower beds. Sometimes, as is the case with my own yard, they’re randomly planted in a sunny patch of lawn to surprise everyone, year after year, with unexpected yellows and creams in a sea of brittle brown grass.

But what about those planted in or near a roadside ditch—without a house nearby?

Just because you don’t see a house doesn’t mean one hasn’t ever been there. Daffodils stay underground most of the year. Once they’ve finished blooming, their leaves die back and don’t reappear for another year. So old houses get demolished, their sites fading into and gradually out of memory—yet the bulbs embedded around them come back. They come back every spring thereafter, house or no house.

Plant ghosts, I call them. They don’t know the house and the people are gone. They come back because this is their home. In every sense of the word, they are rooted here.

The daffodils pictured above are very simple, single-cup daffodils, an old variety we often see around old houses. They’re about 12” tall at most, and amazingly hardy. Judging from what’s left of the house, and from the size of the flower clumps, these daffs have been here for about 50 years.

Behind the thick, overgrown privet hedge, nearly 20 feet down the bank from the southbound lanes of U.S. 27 in Carroll County, appears the faint outline of a house—or what used to be a house, anyway. Out in front: these happy yellow bells.

I wonder why the last residents left. I wonder if they left in a hurry. I wonder who decided to let a once-sturdy farmhouse simply fold itself back into the earth.

I wonder if, on leaving, they took one long, last look toward the flower bed. I wonder if they wept for the flowers waiting beneath its surface, for the daffodils that always mean “home.”

Photo: “Daff Nipped by Frost” (Carroll County, Georgia – February 2012)

NOTE: Earlier versions of this post appeared here on 2 March 2015, and at Forgotten Plants & Places on 25 February 2012.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

Friday Photo: 2/16/18

“Morning Dew, Taylor House”
Rabun County, Georgia – 27 September 2017

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Hillside Monday: 2/12/18

“Still Life in Shadows”
LaGrange, Georgia – 14 January 2018

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Friday Photo: 2/9/18

“The Bench Crows Know”
Rabun County, Georgia – 26 September 2017

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The Little Peach Tree That Could

In the mid-1930s, my great-grandfather planted this dwarf peach tree in the side yard of his house in southwestern Heard County, Georgia. By the mid-1950s, when my mother was old enough to remember the family’s yearly trips down from Michigan, the tree bore heavy yields every summer.

Pap would slice up quart after quart of fresh peaches, from which he and Grandma Edith would make ice cream in an old crank-handle freezer. It was the finest she had ever tasted, Mom would say years later. When she first moved south in 1968, Mom lived with Pap and Grandma while she saved up for her own apartment in LaGrange. Entering its fourth decade, the little peach tree was still producing as many peaches as the three of them could eat (read: a lot).

In 1988, Mom moved back to Heard County and began fixing up the old home place. By that time, the tree was just about dead. Sap ran sticky amber-brown from the peach borer holes along its trunk. Ice storms had broken off about half its branches. The other half, fiercely proud and unwilling to admit defeat, struggled to stay even halfway upright.

The kind thing to do, Mom supposed, would be to cut it down. No sense in letting it suffer. It had served its purpose for many years. Now it was time to plant something new.

But the saw stayed in the shed.  Mom couldn’t stand to cut down the beleaguered little peach tree while it was still half-alive, or even a quarter alive. “When it’s finally dead, I’ll cut it,” she kept saying. “In the meantime, we’ll just mow around it.”

Which she did—very carefully, with a rickety push-mower and a pair of yard shears. Mom mulched it. She sprayed it for insects and fungus. She watered it during droughts, and pruned away the branches split by the weight of snow and ice. For a dying tree, this one sure was getting a lot of care.

Year after year, the little tree hung on. Every spring, the familiar pink blossoms appeared. By early summer, fuzzy green baby peaches the size of jelly beans dotted the branches. By July 4th, the baby peaches would lie rotting on the ground, felled by some fungus or insect predator. At least the fire ants and yellow jackets were eating well.

For almost 20 years, we had hoped for peaches. For almost 20 years, we had none. I began to accept that peaches, as much as I wanted them, were just not going to happen.

Fast forward to 2003: a warm spring day at the old home place. My mother and stepfather had almost finished rebuilding the long-collapsed front porch. Useless with a hammer but still wanting to be part of the action, I stood nearby.

“Uh, Mom?” I said. “It’s about your little tree.”

“I know, I know.” She mopped the sweat from her brow and grabbed another fistful of 16-penny nails. “I’m giving it one more chance. If it doesn’t make fruit this year, it’s coming down.”

So the spring turned into summer, and the blossoms turned into fuzzy green baby peaches. But this time, the baby peaches stayed on the tree. And grew. And grew. And ripened.

For the first time in nearly 40 years, we had peaches.

I felt awful for having hoped we could cut down the elderly peach tree. I had doubted it, and it had come back—perhaps to prove us wrong, but more likely because that’s just what trees do. This lonely, gnarled little tree suddenly bore two bushels of peaches just because it could.

That summer, we had the best homemade peach ice cream and the best homemade peach cobbler I have ever tasted. Since then, the tree has managed to produce at least a few desserts’ worth of fruit every season. It has survived nearly a century of drought, disease, ice storms, and straight-line winds—and, one time, a sweet, hungry, clumsy 2,800-pound Black Angus bull. This beloved little tree refuses to quit.

What will this year bring? We don’t yet know. The peach tree probably doesn’t yet know, either. No matter what happens, though, I will always be grateful to it for showing me what endurance really means.

Photo: “Green Peach, Black Cat” (Heard County, Georgia – 27 May 2014)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Hillside Monday: 1/29/18

“Spider Lily, Early Autumn”
LaGrange, Georgia – 16 September 2017

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Hillside Monday: 1/22/18

People seem surprised at how many species of wild birds make their home in Hillside’s trees. Unlike some neighborhoods, Hillside features relatively large wooded areas full of mature oaks, pines, hickories, and poplars. These areas—a few of which cover entire city blocks—are perfect for owls, hawks, and woodpeckers, to name just a few birds I’ve seen around here.

I spent a delightful hour browsing The Feather Atlas, courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. I’m still not sure about this feather. It could be from a nighthawk. Or a downy woodpecker. Or a red-bellied woodpecker. Or a yellow-bellied sapsucker. I need more coffee.

“This Feather Is Mocking Me”
LaGrange, Georgia – 17 November 2015

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Friday Photo: 1/19/18

“Willow (Barred Owl), in Flight”
Pine Mountain, Georgia – 27 December 2016

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Hillside Monday: 1/15/18

“Crape Myrtle and Winter Sky”
LaGrange, Georgia – 3 January 2015

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Tonight, I dream of Nashville, where a low pressure system wraps the city in a thick wintry blanket. How beautiful it would be to see the oxbows of the Little Harpeth, the girders of the Shelby Street Bridge, and the ear-tufts of the Bat Building swept by wind—swaddled in snow, glazed in sleet and freezing rain.

Tonight, I long to wake to the great roaring silence of snow. Through the perforated Bakelite cube at my bedside, a half-human, half-computer voice consoles me with a NOAA lullaby. “Currently in Nashville: snow, 28 degrees. A Winter Weather Advisory is in effect. Elsewhere in Tennessee…”

Tonight, indeed, my mind is elsewhere—in Tennessee. I imagine the crisis-comfort of winter weather: the deafening hush of heavy, wet snowflakes, the flik-flik-flik of ice on plant and ground, the muffled grrrrddddtttt of tires against slush in the parking lot of a tiny apartment on White Bridge Road. Just beyond my window, the splash of cold black-white-clear lacquer soothes me to sleep, to work, to live.

Tonight, in west central Georgia, I stock up on bread, milk, and bottled water. I surrender my hopes. I play along at home.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Every Place Is a Sacred Place

Oak, hickory, dogwood, mountain laurel, sassafras, tulip poplar, elm, sweet gum, locust—I wished I’d brought along my tree book. Frothy green ferns carpeted the ground, but not so thickly that I couldn’t see the dark, glossy poison ivy leaning into the trail. Leaves of three, stay away from me.

Hundreds of young saplings reach skyward for light. Sheltered by the mature trees, they will stay relatively small and grow slowly until those larger trees die and fall. As the saplings become larger trees, new saplings will sprout from the nuts, seeds, and cones nestled in the leaf litter. The new trees will mature, die, and fall back. More new saplings will take their places—and on, and on.

How long has this scene existed? It was here long before the trail; it will be here long after the trail. What did this hollow look like when the only people here were Native Americans? How about before the Native Americans? What plants were here then that aren’t here now—and vice versa?

Thousands of years before we were born, this hillside was home to plants, insects, animals, and people. Hunter and hunted lived and died close to one another. Over thousands of years, something or someone has breathed a final breath and lay down forever on every patch of ground we see here. Every spot is important, hallowed, sacred.

What if we were to bring this presence of mind, to everything we do, everything we say, everywhere we travel? How different would the world be? How different would we be?

Every place is sacred—even if we choose not to think about it.

Photo: “North Georgia Woods” (Blue Ridge, Georgia –19 May 2010)

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

NOTE: This piece has been revised from its previous version, which I first posted here on  23 July 2012.

Wednesday Photo: 1/10/18

“Pink, Orange, Gold, Gray”
Carroll County, Georgia – 4 December 2014

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In the Turn Lane

For a week, the oily-matte black carcass lay undisturbed in the middle of the turn lane. On either side, three more lanes of car and critter hurried past the spiky scramble of feathers. Hard freeze, hard thaw, hard rain—nothing would touch it.

In rural west Georgia, where I grew up, dead animals in the road are a fact of life. With these dead animals comes nature’s clean-up crew. They make quick work of most everything: flattened and ruptured squirrels, opossums, armadillos. Dogs, cats, coyotes, cattle. Unfortunate copperheads, errant guinea hens, eerily headless eight-point bucks, and even the occasional feral hog.

Every creature eats. Every creature is eaten. In the circle of life, flesh never goes to waste.

But all that happens outside of town, in the country. Here, a hundred yards inside the city limits, was not where I expected to see broken, crumpled wings. Here, in the turn lane, was not where I expected to see frozen talons devastated against asphalt.

Like many of us, it sought the company of others, working best in groups. Like many of us, it flew into fate unaccompanied, at a time and in a place it neither expected nor desired.

Only death will eat a vulture.

© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)

 

Friday Photo: 1/5/18

“Virginia Creeper with Late Autumn Drought”
LaGrange, Georgia – 11 November 2016

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