The Urge to Work the Soil

Our John Deere Equipment in St. Croix Cove, Nova Scotia, as the morning fog is lifting

Growing up in the rolling hills of North Carolina’s Piedmont in the 1950s meant that you were not far from the land.  Most people had a connection with the land in those days. I can remember hog killings

Two quotes from my book,  “The Road To My County Country,” seem appropriate,

“The land was what gave life to us all, and where we go when life is gone.  The land was at the center of all, and how could understand anything without first being on the land?  You take whatever road you can find to get to the land…”

“If we were not going to be lawyers. What would we be? There could be only one answer. You had to go back to the land to find yourself. It was only there you could sort out what was good and what was bad.  There you could find out what was important and how to live life the way it should be.  That the roads had turned back to dirt was a good thing.”

If it sounds like I had a serious case of sixties disillusionment, it is likely a fair diagnosis.  I grew up in the South, spent four years at a military school, saw a series of political figures I admired assassinated,  and my college years at Harvard took place during the turmoil of the Vietnam war. Part of my college education included getting billy-clubbed while walking to our favorite hamburger place. Until that moment the students occupying University Hall were of little interest to us. That changed instantly and the only things that had much certainty when I graduated was that I did not want to be a lawyer and a charging line of state troopers was to be avoided at all costs.

That  someone who grew up wandering the woods could only survive four years in the city was no surprise.  The strange light of the city was never for me. I loved the deep dark woods and could fish silently with a friend all afternoon and never feel lonely. If camping under the stars as a Boy Scout ignited my love of the outdoors, trips to Alaska and Nova Scotia made life on the edge of wilderness one of the few certainties in my future.

“Our family had no history of lawyers, but we had a long and proud history of farmers.”

After it turned out that I they did not need me for fodder in Vietnam, I went back to the land.  In 1971, I was determined to learn how to farm and how to treat the land well. Helen and Scott Nearing’s “Living the Good Life”, Louis Bromfield’s “Malabar Farm,” and Steward Brand’s “Whole Earth Catalogue” were my bibles along with advice from those who had been farming their whole lives.  Perhaps we were lucky those first couple of years when we had an unlimited supply of composted chicken manure for the garden, but we learned how to grow stuff including hay, pigs, cattle and what seemed like enough broccoli to feed the world.

That the land I found was in Canada on the Nova Scotia shore of the Bay of Fundy was even better. Life in Nova Scotia in the seventies reminded me a lot of life in North Carolina in the fifties when I was growing up. Still other than having long hair until my mother sheared me on one of her visits, I never came close to being a hippy.  I thought electricity, running water, indoor toilets, and especially hot water were good things and worth having.  I had relatives in the fifties who had electricity but no indoor toilets and they still warmed their water with wood.  One of my first family memories is my great grandmother sitting by her wood cook stove while reading the newspaper.

Most of all like Louis Bromfield, I could not see how to farm without a tractor so I ended up with a John Deere diesel tractor, a three furrow plow, disc harrows, a seven foot cutter bar, bush hog, hay rake and a manure spreader. A hay baler came with the farm I bought. All the equipment including a front end loader, rear blade, and post hole auger cost $10,555. The farm was $6,000 and my first few head of cattle were $1,500. I already had a pickup truck and my uncle built us a hay trailer. Fifty years after I started farming for under $20,000, I seriously doubt you could get started for less than $250,000.

For the next eleven years, we had huge gardens and grew much of our own food even butchered our own animals for a time. Our cattle breeding operation which eventually ended up in the hardwood hills north of Fredericton, New Brunswick, grew astronomically. Eventually there were four big tractors, a round baler that could put up sixty tons of hay in a day. It took a hay rake twenty-one feet wide to feed the baler. We put up over 300 tons of hay a year with just one seventy-year old neighbor helping me part time. Our farm produced at least twenty-five 700 to 800 pound yearlings each year for beef and an identical number of yearling heifers as breeding stock along along with our most profitable product a dozen or so performance tested yearling bulls that sold for up to $1,500 each.  Even with a family of five, it was a challenge to eat more than a side of beef each year so we never went hungry.  At our peak we had two hundred head of cattle which is way more than a few cattle.

What was high on the list when we moved off the farm and I went to work for Apple?  As soon as we could afford it, we hired a backhoe to dig out some of Halifax’s rocks so we could have a little garden.  It wasn’t long after we moved to Roanoke, Virginia, in 1989 that we started planting things in the bed pictured above. Tomatoes by the house followed soon after.  When we headed off to the coast in the fall of 2006, we managed to plant tomatoes the next spring.  Eventually we grew unbelievable amounts of vegetables in tiny space. You don’t have a grow an acre of vegetable to get your fingers in dirt. We are about to prove that once more even though we are now in our seventies.

Our Rock Wall Garden in Roanoke, Virginia

In 2021, we moved again, this time we move back to NC’s Piedmont and its challenging red clay soil.  It has taken a while but  we now have a wall lined up and by next spring we should have some plants in the ground once again.

Next Came The Old House And Barn

Our St. Croix Cove, Nova Scotia, House After Remodeling, Summer 1973

The glowing ember of that Nova Scotia trip did not die.  Maybe it was fanned a little by another trip that my college roommate and I took to Alaska in the summer of 1970 in my PowerWagon.  We were gone most of the summer.  When we came back I was even more determined to find a spot away from the big cities of the East.   In the spring of 1971, I wrote to the Longmire Real Estate agency of Bridgetown, Nova Scotia, about a farm and land on the shores of the Bay of Fundy.  The property was advertised in the Sunday Boston Globe.  At the time there was only a print version of the paper and reading the Sunday paper was something I really enjoyed. I was not alone.

Though the details took time to work out, I ended up the owner of 140 acres, a two hundred year old house, barn, and carriage house in Saint Croix Cove. That first piece of land and buildings cost around $7,000. The view of the Bay of Fundy was spectacular.  Soon after with help from my mother, I ended up buying more property across the road.  It actually went down to the shore.

That August after I finished my last class ( I had missed a semester from sickness), I followed in my Land Rover and the adventure really began for me. Two roommates and I had graduated from Harvard and now we were determined to get our hands dirty and let the land tell us what to do. A third adventurer had left Harvard as a sophomore and might have been even more lost than we three college roommates.

Just reworking the old house was a huge undertaking. It needed painting and complete reconstruction inside.  By the time I got there, the plaster, old chimney and lathe had been ripped out. Much of the home was down to its hand-hewn beams. That was only the start of the work. We had to caulk the cracks on the inside of the walls.  Then came wiring and insulation for the exterior walls.  We had made the decision to go with electric baseboard heating because it was easy to install.  We had one very good carpenter, another who loved to tear things apart and to do shingles. A third who was also good with hand tools. I became the electrician and plumber.

There were no beds, we slept in sleeping bags on the floors on four inch thick pieces of foam.  Our few pieces of furniture had come from college dorm rooms.  The decision to relocate the bathroom upstairs delayed having a functional shower for weeks, so we warmed water in a coffee pot for bathing.  Sometimes we took advantage of the showers at a local campground. Eventually one of roommates’ new sweetheart came to stay with us, and she helped with some of the cooking.  Cooking was pretty basic since there was no kitchen.  We ate a lot of tuna fish sandwiches in the midst of our construction and more than a few fried clams at Alice’s Clam shack down in the village of Hampton a few miles away. We did learn how to cook smoked picnic hams and make baked beans.  We also learned to make salt cod and potatoes.  The salty dish was a particularly good excuse for some beer.

We celebrated an amazing first Thanksgiving in Canada with college friends who had decided they needed to see this place that had lured their friends north. There were lots of walks in the brisk Nova Scotia air and the housed now blessed by lots of college friends was soon ready for winter.

By the time winter rolled around, the roommates/helpers started to disappear.

Then there were only two of us left. In the next year, it became clear that I had moved to Canada and beyond working on the old house, I needed to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I bought a few cows and decided to try my hand at cattle and gardening. One of my original helpers had married a local school teacher, he and I began a tenuous partnership with those few cows.

There was a lot to learn and the biggest lesson was that partnerships are hard to sustain. By the next fall, I decided that I needed to move on and find a better place to farm. Between that thought and the reality of accomplishing it there would be a lot that needed to happen. Some things also were hidden in the cards. The decisions were about to get a lot more complicated. Just to keep things interesting, I decided to get my pilot’s license. It would be just a footnote in 1973 which by the time it was done would set me on a course for the next ten years of life.

Sobotta, David. A Taste for the Wild, Canada’s Maritimes

Connections for the Future

Internet Connectivity, August 1998

Things have changed a lot since the original iMac® introduced “simple” Internet connections. Most of us in 1998 ending up using the modem to get to the Internet and not the Ethernet port. Connecting to the Internet was often not as easy or simple as the marketing brochures promised. Fortunately, technology changes and those changes have made it much easier to connect and stay connected to today’s Internet.

WideOpen Blacksburg offers symmetric fiber Internet connectivity to its customers. Almost everyone living in Blacksburg today has a home Internet connection. If you do not have our fiber, maybe you are wondering why our symmetric fiber is such a big deal?

For lots of good reasons, fiber is often called the gold standard for home Internet connections. Technology adoption moves in stages. Most people are familiar with the technology adoption curve. We all know about the innovators and early adopters but just where do fiber to the home users fit in that curve?

We will get that answer but first let’s get some basic understanding of how to evaluate home Internet connections by looking at concepts that are familiar to everyone. When the first Interstate highways were built in the fifties they were a huge technological advance over two lane highways.

The one thing that was quickly discovered about Interstate highways is that the communities that had immediate access prospered. Also businesses and people who quickly figured out how to take advantage of them did exceptionally well. Interstate highways had the capacity to move huge amounts of traffic much more easily than two-lane roads which were often clogged with slow traffic.

Fiber is an even more capable technological advance than Interstate highways. While you have to build more lanes to increase the capacity of Interstate highways, with fiber you increase capacity by changing the electronics at the ends. It would be like putting a bigger entrance and a larger exit on a stretch of highway and magically more lanes appearing in the road between them. Fiber is technologically advanced because it moves information with light.

Fiber is also proven technology. Fiber has been the Internet backbone for decades. TAT-8, a transatlantic fiber optic cable, was built in 1988 and linked the United Kingdom, France and the US. Fiber is also a well-tested commercial technology which has become a cost effective way to deliver Internet connectivity to homes. WideOpen was involved in the design and construction of the nDanville fiber network in Danville, Virginia. It is the fiber network which has become a cornerstone in Danville’s revitalization. Amazingly, Danville’s fiber network has been in operation since 2008. Since FTTH (fiber to the home) was being offered in 2008, we are well past the early adopter phase.

Fiber is superior technology because it moves information faster. The best way of thinking about the speed of fiber is that commercially available technology already exists for 10 Gbps residential connections and for 100 Gbps business connections. It is unlikely that there are many people who need connections that fast today but it does mean the fiber that we build to your house now will be more than capable of meeting your full connectivity needs today and far in the future.

Looking at the big picture of Internet connectivity from an individual homeowner’s perspective is easy if you have recently gotten a fiber connection like I did. When we moved to Mocksville, North Carolina, eighteen months ago, we evaluated a number of things from the perspective of how will it meet our needs five or even ten years from now? Our Internet connectivity was one of our prime concerns.

I have been working for WideOpen for eleven years, and like my previous years in technology, it has been as a remote worker with a home office and an Internet connection. It did not take a lot of math to figure out that the coax cable technology we had been using was not improving fast enough to meet my business and personal needs. Beyond work, I take thousands of photographs a year and store some big files in the cloud. I am not unusual in today’s world.

Almost nine years ago in 2013, when I wrote an article, “Just How Bad Is Your Internet Connection,” our cable connection delivered 32.24 Mbps down and 5.49 Mbps up. When we moved in Feb. 2021, we were getting 484 down and 24 Mbps up. While it looks fast (and the download speed is), what it really shows is that our download speed was fifteen times what it had been nine years earlier but our upload speed had NOT even gotten to five times what it was.

It is obvious to heavier users of the “Cloud,” that coax speeds have focused on downloads and not successfully pushed ahead with faster upload speeds that we need. In their defense, the technology to increase upload speeds with coax cables is difficult and sometimes requires a lot of tuning. As is often the case with a technology like coax that is pushing its limits, users’ needs are growing faster in different directions (uploads) than coax cable technology can easily deliver today. The recording industry tried a number of things before iTunes® and similar services driven by new more scalable technology won the day.

As many people learned during the pandemic, upload speeds matter and if you are sharing a connection with people in your own household and your household is also on shared bandwidth with your neighborhood instead of using fiber which provides more individual bandwidth, you can get frustrated. Work does not get completed on time, video conferences don’t go as planned and files, including homework ones might not get where they need to as quickly as possible. That is why we went with fiber and the coax cables for our house have never been connected.

When deciding to jump from one technology to another one, the questions are pretty simple. Is the new technology proven technology? Is it better technology? Is it reasonably priced? Will it provide my family with a better experience and will it have the capability to grow with our needs?

I answered all of those questions in the affirmative so I went with fiber. While I am living in rural Davie County, North Carolina, across the road from a twenty acre soybean field, I have Gig fiber from a telephone cooperative now named Zirrus. I could have chosen any of at least three other technologies. From the day the Zirrus technician showed up on time even through getting a new Calix Gigasphere router, every experience with the company and the service has only confirmed that we made the right decision to go with fiber.

On July 31, our power flickered out for a couple of minutes during a thunderstorm. As the Internet and our WiFi came back up a minute or so later, I was reminded of all the similar times that I had spent staring at cable modem lights waiting for all the signals to sync so the Internet could return.

If you decide to not to go with fiber, remember cable companies are still working to commercialize the technology that will allow them to theoretically compete with the fastest upload speeds that we are offering today to our customers in Blacksburg. Are you willing to wait the years that it will take them to get DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications) 4.0 finalized, debugged and deployed in the field? You will also be gambling on the cost that they will eventually charge you.

Fiber is a proven technology, now available at a competitive price. To quote the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Meanwhile, fiber systems have at least a 10,000 (yes ten…thousand) fold advantage over cable systems in terms of raw bandwidth.” What that means for an individual homeowner is that there is plenty of proven technology already in place to make your fiber connection even better next year and five or ten years down the road.

I mentioned fiber is the “gold standard”of Internet connectivity. With ever more photos and videos being produced in your home along with all the other digital services that are rapidly becoming essential to our lives why wouldn’t you go for the gold and snatch some symmetrical fiber upload speeds. Look for fiber from a local company or a community owned fiber company, both are likely committed to providing great service to their neighbors?

The iMac with its USB ports started a revolution. Today none of us connect things to our computers with serial ports. Those of us who can use fiber should not be connecting to the Internet with coax cables. Someday maybe not too far in the future everyone will connect with fiber.

iMac® and iTunes® are registered trademarks of Apple Inc.

The PowerWagon Changed Me

The Beast

This is part of a series on life and careers that that started with this post, An Unconventional Journey – Life, Learning and Work.

It had been a rough semester at Harvard. Getting away from the city seemed like a really good idea. It was a short trip from Cambridge to Newton’s Silver Lake Dodge in the spring of 1970 to take delivery of a shiny Dodge PowerWagon.

I have described it as a beast and like other trucks of the day, it rode like a truck. It had a four speed manual transmission. Of course the shifter and the transfer case that allowed you to switch into four wheel low were both on the floor and far from silky smooth. For the day, the standard tires were pretty big. The big 3/4 ton truck had manual locking hubs, two gas tanks, and an eight thousand pound mechanical winch behind its extended front bumper. On a good day, it would get ten or eleven miles to the gallon. The plan that I hatched with one of my roommates was to drive to Alaska with it.

School at Harvard in that spring was cancelled because of all a few riots and lots of demonstrations. I headed home as soon as I got the truck. I had ordered a cover the same height as the cab for the back from a place just south of my home in Mount Airy, North Carolina. It would allow us to build a platform for our four inch foam mattresses and store our gear underneath it.

We outfitted it with my faithful Coleman Stove and lantern, my favorite camping cooler, and a large Igloo water cooler. In addition we had our sleeping bags, climbing ropes, my fishing gear, first aid gear, cooking equipment, a couple of big bumper jacks, medical supplies and a good selection of tools that might save the day.

There was also a five-shot Remington 30-06 semi-automatic and a 30-30 Winchester lever action plus a 44 magnum pistol. I had talked to a bush pilot in Anchorage. He told me that they would not fly us into the back country unless we were armed. The only gun I had to buy was the 44 magnum pistol. Neither rifle had ever been used for anything beyond target shooting. I had given up hunting four or five years earlier.

Around the third week of June, we packed up and headed off from Mt. Airy. The goal was to get to Alaska or at least the western US mountains as quickly as possible. Somewhere on a country road in the Midwest, we pulled down a short slope into the edge of a farmer’s field. We were going to catch a few hours sleep. It rained a little and we decided to move on but the top few inches of the field had turned to mud. We locked the hubs, engaged the four wheel drive, and nothing happened.

I ended up taking the locking hubs apart and adjusting them in order to get us out of the field. It would not be the last time I would be reminded that four wheel drive just lets you get stuck in worse places and that whenever something can break, it will break.

Somehow we managed to make our way out to Colorado where we started climbing. We had been doing some practice climbing in Maine and rappelling down anywhere we could find a place to tie off. I had even rappelled down from the fourth floor attic of our Mount Airy home.

The first few climbs went fine but one day about seventy-five feet up with my boot clinched to a ledge of rock barely an inch wide, I decided that I would rather fish than climb. I rappelled down and that was it for me and climbing. My roommate seemed fine with my decision, we figured that we could find someone for him to climb with when we got to the climbers’ camp in the Grand Tetons. I would fish by myself while he climbed.

After driving across some high passes where snow still partially covered the picnic tables in the highest campgrounds, we finally made it the Tetons. It didn’t take long before a climbing trip to the Grand Teton was arranged. I dropped my partner off and agreed to pick him up three days later.

Over the next few days, I tried a number of trout streams without any luck and enjoyed a few meals at Moran’s Chuck Wagon. When I went back to pick up my traveling partner, I was told that he was not there. He had slipped on an ice slope on the descent from the Grand Teton. He had been unable to stop his slide and ended up falling one hundred fifty feet to a ledge barely a foot or two wide.

After they got him off the ledge, he managed to walk out five miles with a broken collarbone. They had taken him to the Jackson hospital which is where I headed. After talking to the doctor, I called his parents and soon afterwards, I loaded him into the back of the truck and headed off to the larger hospital in Idaho Falls. They were fine with me handling his “care.”

I spent a week in the Idaho Falls KOA campground while my partner got well enough to travel. Of course he was in no shape to drive and would not be for a long time, but he was determined to make it to Alaska. After the hospital stay we headed up to Montana’s Hungry Horse Lake by way of Yellowstone Park. We finally got to a camping spot near the lake, I found a stream full of cutthroat trout. It was my first success fishing on the trip and I loved it. The fresh fish were great fried up on the Coleman stove.

The trip would get more exciting as we headed north through Alberta.

It Started With Nova Scotia

The view from the top of the hay field at the back of my new home in St. Croix Cove, NS

Thanksgiving during my junior year in college, three college friends and I decided to take an extra long break and go camping on Cape Breton Island. This was long before the days of the Internet and Google maps. We had little idea of what was ahead of us when we choose to drive up Route 1 through Maine and then into New Brunswick and finally Nova Scotia where we could finally cross the Canso Causeway to Cape Breton Island. Even today with more bypasses, Google maps says the drive is thirteen hours. It probably took us sixteen hours.

We went in my old 1966 Bronco which had a can of stop leak as an item in emergency equipment. Fortunately, we were young and driving that far and crossing an international border was not nearly as hard as it would be today. By the time we got to Cape Breton, it was sleeting and snowing. All the provincial campgrounds had shut down months earlier. We managed to pitch a tent in an abandoned field one night. We almost froze. Everything was soaked. By the time we got back to Halifax, I pulled out my emergency credit card and we booked a single room for the four of us in a Holiday Inn. Hot showers never felt so good.

We drove back down Nova Scotia’s south shore stopping only to grill a steak over a fire and eat a barely thawed bag of Nova Scotia shrimp. Our trip back was on the Bluenose Ferry which in those days traveled from Yarmouth to Bar Harbor, Maine. The seas were rough but there were few people on the ferry besides us. We stretched out and slept on the long bench seats. I have vague memory of a weighted ash tray sliding by me in the rough seas.

The trip has no moments that suggest that Nova Scotia is a place to visit again but as my wife has always said, “If you can tolerate a place during miserable weather, you are likely to live it when the sunshines. Somehow what I saw of Nova Scotia planted a seed. I started watching the Sunday Boston Globe for Nova Scotia properties for sale.

The spring after the trip to Nova Scotia, the anti-war protests hit Cambridge. In a classic case of taking to the woods after all the debates and marches, a roommate and I decided to take a road trip to Alaska in the Dodge Powerwagon that I convinced my parents that would keep me out of trouble for a summer. It was a beast, a 3/4 ton 4X4 with a mechanically driven (PTO) 8,000 pound winch on the front. It had two gas tanks since it barely got ten miles to the gallon with its 383 cubic inch V8 and four speed transmission. The Powerwagon would come back to school senior year, haul me to Nova Scotia and even have a place on the farm in New Brunswick.

Sleeping in the back of a truck while traveling thousands of miles seemed like a good idea. I was in love with wilderness. There were great adventures on the trip including my roommate almost getting killed while climbing. It was to be an epic trip and one that would give me a life long love of wild places. It would make Nova Scotia the place that I wanted to live.

An Unconventional Journey – Life, Learning and Work

My wife, Glenda, in Newfoundland, October 1973

I recently started reading Disrupted, My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons. Dan and I have crossed paths a few times. The first time was when he was in full Fake Steve persona. He offered me sanctuary when it appeared Apple might be coming after my Applepeels blog.

In Dan’s book which starts with losing his job at Newsweek and finding a new job as an editor at ReadWrite. The description of his first new job made me smile.

“Suddenly I am the editor-in-chief of a struggling technology news website called RedWrite a tiny blog with three full-time employees and a half-dozen, woefully underpaid freelancers”

Disrupted, My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble

I was one of those “woefully underpaid freelancers.” Dan was actually my first real editor. I had already written my first book, The Pomme Company, by then but the editor of that book had been my very patient but comma-obsessed wife with some help from two former colleagues.

I wrote for ReadWrite for a few months at end of the five years it took me to find my four or fifth career. After nearly twenty years at Apple that was a tall order. During the years after Apple, I worked at a couple of VP jobs in technology, including one at a startup which fortunately unlike Dan’s misadventure was actually generating revenue and went on to a successful acquisition. However, there were enough similarities in my experience to Dan’s to bring back some interesting memories.

Though writing is one of the things that I love to do, I have never thought of it as a possible career. I also love photography and fishing but I have never understood how to make a career out of any of my favorite things. I have supplemented our income through writing and photography. Perhaps having been “a woefully underpaid freelancer,” I learned how hard it is to make good money doing something you love. Good money is required to send three young adults off to college and help them get off on the right foot. I also figured out that what you do doesn’t matter nearly as much as doing it with someone you love at your side in a place that you both learn to love.

How you end up in your career is an interesting topic that Dan talks about in his book. My experience has some similarities but is very different. I hope to write about it through a number of blog posts here.

Only a couple people in my youth even mentioned a career to me. Things were very different in the fifties especially if you were the only child of a single mother and no one in your family had even gone to college.

Mother worked long hours as a beautician in the beauty shop that was attached to our house. We lived in the small community of Lewisville, just west of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. My elementary school and church were just a short walk from home. There were deep woods around our homes. As we were growing up, we thought more about building forts in the woods than we did about building careers. There is no question that I enjoyed my childhood in spite of its share of challenges.

A big turn in my life came in 1963 when I got sent off to a military school that was a six-hours drive from home. Being a boarding student in a dorm was not how I envisioned my teenage high school years. At some point after I got over the worst of being homesick, I decided to make the best of it. Getting good grades had never been a problem for me so I focused on that first. Next I figured out how to do well in the military, stick to the rules, shine your shoes, and do what you are told.

McCallie, where I went to military school did have an important impact on my future. It was assumed that every student would be headed to college. I was part of the pack there so college was clearly now part of my future as well.

While the years at McCallie rolled by, I did get to meet a number of adults with careers that were new to me. Whether they were at McCallie or in Mount Airy where I moved after my mom and dad decided to get back together, meeting new adults did give me an opportunity to think about my future. One of the most interesting people who came into my life was RJ Berrier, who was at the time was the editor of the Mount Airy Times, one of two small local newspapers. RJ was something of a local legend and he loved what he did which was getting the paper out the door onto people’s doorsteps in time for them to enjoy it with their morning coffee. The Times was still using lead type and bourbon to make deadlines. People looked forward to RJ’s Mount Airy After Midnight column as much as I look forward to the comics and the morning paper today.

Though I was already showing some talent for writing, RJ gave me no encouragement to go into the newspaper business. He often explained the pay was poor, the hours long, and job security non-existent. Getting a liberal arts degree at Harvard was not much of a push in that direction either especially since it was during the turmoil of the late sixties and early seventies. I did really hit my stride with writing at Harvard. I am not sure whether it was the expository writing class or all the long papers. However, something clicked and I could churn papers that got stellar marks even at Harvard. I also got paid to do some research work, but there were other things on my agenda that created a hard turn away from writing.

Perhaps, the best description of what was pulling at me was the necessity to get away from the cities that threatened to smother me. Like many others, getting my hands dirty seemed more important than a law degree.

In my case, Nova Scotia appeared to be the locus for a cure. My wife, Glenda, seen contemplating Newfoundland at the top of the post also became a big part of the equation. That we spent ten years building a herd of two hundred head of Angus before I went to Apple is just part of the magic that has touched our lives. I will get around to our lives in Atlantic Canada and how Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and New Brunswick became part of the magic.

A Life On The Edge

Tree Canopy, Rich Park, Mocksville, NC

The small town about twenty-five minutes from where we live today was in my young mind on the edge of a wilderness. The area was very different over six decades ago. When I was a small boy, the land there was very rural and not just a bedroom community for Winston-Salem.

The books I read in those days about Daniel Boone and eventually the television shows I saw about Davy Crockett only reinforced that view of wilderness at our doorstep. Daniel Boone was something of a local legend. His parents had a cabin about five minutes from where we live today. We also have a Boonville in the area.

My great grandfather ran Styers ferry that crossed the Yadkin River back in the early part of the last century. There was ground behind the homes along Styers Street and Shallowford Road where we lived. Mostly the vacant land grew up in broom straw since no one farmed it regularly. Once in a while a homeowner would carve out a garden for a few years. Farming in Forsyth County was on the decline even back then. It would remain strong just across the river in Yadkin and Davie Counties.

I guess those were my hunter-gatherer years because I was uninterested in gardening or farming, but I loved to wander the deep, dark woods with rock outcroppings and small brooks at the base of the hills. It was a paradise for little boys who had yet to be seduced by TV, video games or smartphones . In the summer we would stop by home only long enough to eat. The idea of staying inside on a beautiful day was as foreign as the idea that the Yankees might lose a World Series.

In the evenings, we did come out of the woods and often played capture the flag in the string of yards that we called our home turf. When we got older some of us started going to a Boy Scout Troop several miles away. Eventually, adults and a few of us with our recent scouting experience brought Troop 752 back to life. Being a Boy Scout was a great experience and camping out in the woods and cooking over an open fire made it even more special. In the summer going to Camp Raven Knob was like going to another world in what appeared to a real wilderness.

The last thing that I did with my old troop and by then I was senior patrol leader was to hike Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road. It was a little over twenty miles and it is still the most that I have ever hiked in a day. It made me appreciate how hard it was to be a pioneer.

After the hike I went away to military school. It was not Boy Scouts, and there was no camping in the woods. There was a lot of marching. As a boarding student I got an early introduction to dorm life. I was very happy to go off to college, but I promised myself that I would never let dorm life again take me away from the out of doors. I was pleased when our freshman Geology class went camping and loved that a roommate’s father had a cabin on some wild land near Plymouth, Massachusetts. Maine and its rocks and coast became a favorite refuge.

The pull of the outdoors was so strong, that four of us managed to wander off to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island during an extended Thanksgiving break. I felt like I had found home. The wildness of the place, the water and rocks seem to be just what a soul battered by college during the sixties in a big city needed. I had been trending towards wilderness for a while. An overland trip through Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana and eventually into the Canadian Rockies and up the Alcan Highway to Alaska had shown me real wilderness. I loved the taste and the challenge of being on the edge of civilization.

Sometime during my last months in college, a plan germinated. Nova Scotia became my goal. After a couple more trips to the Annapolis Valley, I bought an old farmhouse and 140 acres on the North Mountain along the Bay of Fundy coast of Nova Scotia. It was my first adventure as an adult living beyond just beyond civilization. It was not the last.

Some friends helped me partially renovate the two-hundred-year-old house framed with hand hewn beams. In the end as all but one drifted back to civilization, the house became my project and along the way I learned to do practically everything a good homesteader might need to know from butchering a steer and hogs to gardening, wiring, plumbing, welding and making hay. Two Labrador Retrievers, one named after an Alaskan town, Tok, and the other named Fundy, after the Bay of Fundy became my constant companions.

Eventually, I married a talented southern lady who was not afraid of gardening and canning, living on a farm, or driving a tractor. We moved to better cattle country in the hardwood hills north of Fredericton, New Brunswick. There we built a cattle herd and the barns to handle calving and our fast-growing yearlings.

Tay Cree, New Brunswick at the time was a wonderfully wild place. We had no fences at the back of the farm. There was no place for the cattle to go. We cleared old hay fields and eventually were baling close to 600 big round bales for our herd of 200 Red and Black Angus. Our three children was born while we were living on the farm and we buried our two Labs there in the apple orchard during our last years of farming.

After ten years of farming and the heavy hit of 20% interest rates, we dispersed our cattle and I took a city job. Eventually, when I went to work for Apple, we moved off the farm to Halifax, Nova Scotia and then to Columbia, Maryland, but those were the last cities to grasp at us and they only had us for five years,

In 1989, we moved to the side of a mountain overlooking Roanoke, Virginia. Lots of wild country was to the west of it. Our next Lab, Chester, and I cleared miles of trails on the mountains that gone back to wilderness after being farmed when my grandfather was running Styers Ferry. In 2006, we headed to the North Carolina coast and I know my son felt we lived beyond the edge of civilization there on the coast. There were places along the far stretches of the beach that felt as wild as any spot on our farm in New Brunswick. Maybe it was a different kind of wild but it was still wild.

In 2021, we came back to North Carolina’s Piedmont but we remain on the edge of civilization tucked away just down the road in farm country. There’s a huge field across the road from us and you don’t have to travel far to find cows and farms. I think this rural area is where I belong at this stage of life, but given the chance, I might head to wilderness once again if it gets too crowded here. We managed to get away from the coast just before they cut all the trees down turned much of it into a huge housing development. For that I am grateful.

We might travel a long way in life but usually we come back to what made us comfortable. Big trees and a touch of wildness will always make me happy.

Mowing Your Way Through Life

Our Backyard In Davie County, North Carolina, March 2022

How did people manage in the first half of the twentieth century before there were yards to connect them to the soil around their homes? I suspect that they were working in their gardens and fields. By the time I was growing up in the fifties in Lewisville, North Carolina, yards had become important. The condition of our grassy yard often stood between me and a trip to my uncle Henry’s fishing ponds. My mother who claimed the only yard she had as a child was packed dirt swept with broom straw wanted our yard neatly clipped. In driving by our old home, I am little disappointed the town did not put in sidewalks in front of our house during my youth. It would have eliminated the slope on the front yard. It was by far the hardest part of the yard to mow as a youngster.

Going away to military school (high school) and then college got me out of mowing yards for almost a decade. My first home after graduation was a two-hundred year old farm house located in a sheep pasture on the Fundy coast of Nova Scotia. No sheep came with the old farm house but long grass did not bother me as a young farmstead owner. When I first moved there in the summer of 1971, the yard was the least of my worries. Getting hot water plumbed in and running so we could stop taking showers at the local campground was close to the top of the list. The second summer I had a tractor with a nine-foot-wide bush hog which I used to mow around the house a couple of times a summer. That was all it needed in my days of being single. After all, I mowed plenty of mature grass or hay, starting with the twenty acre field behind the house which served as one of the few backyards in my life away from home.

Then came the summer of 1973, and I married Glenda, the love of my life from the world of well-manicure yards in North Carolina. Her mother often mowed their yard twice, the second time against the grain, just to catch any grass that might pop up after the first mowing. Sometime during the summer of 1974, Glenda and my neat-lawn-loving mother who was visiting us formed a conspiracy. They drove down the mountain to Bridgetown ten miles away and came home with a Toro push mower. I spent much of the next forty-forty years sharing the task of mowing whatever yard happened to be attached to our personal home.

For the ten years or so when we lived on our farm in Tay Creek, we had a nice riding lawn mower which was adequate for much of the yard. Even Glenda did some mowing. When we lived in Halifax, our yard was postage-stamp sized. By the time we arrived on the mountain in Roanoke, Virginia, I had come to somewhat enjoy mowing. There are those times in your life when something as simple as mowing a yard can be very satisfying because you can actually see what you have done.

One of the immutable laws of mowing is that the farther south you live, the more miserable the task of mowing can be. Sometimes, even the most careful home yard person can end mowing in the oppressive heat of the day like I did more times than I want to admit after we moved to the North Carolina coast. As I wrote then, there is a true brotherhood of Southerners (both men, women, and teenagers) who have mowed yards when they never should have.

Mowing is one of those circular things in life. In your early years, you are too young to push a mower, so it seems fitting that in the later years of life, it is also okay to be too old to push a mower. You come to a point when you are faced with either hiring someone to mow the yard or buying a riding mower. Since I spent many years straddling a John Deere farm tractor, we chose not to revisit those days after a back problem slowed me somewhat. For a couple of years, I shared the task with our mower of choice, choosing the spots that required a push mower for myself. However, it was an easy transition to giving it all up. When we made our 2021 move from the land of coastal centipede grass back to the fescue grasses of the Piedmont, we left our third Toro mower with the father and son team that was doing our mowing. I even gave them my gas-powered trimmer.

When our current mowing team shows up, I know the noise will be over with in a few minutes as opposed to the hours that it would have taken me with a push mower. I still enjoy our green space especially the backyard which is the nicest we have had since that twenty-acre field that came with our first home. 

No Frozen Millponds Today in NC

North Deep Creek at Site of Styers-Shore Mill

January 2022 with its snow and cold temperatures was a shock to Yadkin Valley residents. All the snow had most of us in the area looking for snow shovels or mittens. Depending on where you live it has been two, or three years since your last significant snow. In this throwback year, some have seen four snows in January 2022.

In spite of four January snows, I heard of no millponds freezing over. Our area in North Carolina’s Piedmont used to be dotted with grist mills which usually required a millpond to run. My ancestors, including my Uncle Joe Styers once ran a mill at the Yadkin Valley site pictured above.

All this cold weather feels unusual because winters are changing in North Carolina.  I was in elementary school in Lewisville just west of Winston-Salem during the locally famous March of 1960 cold snap. It snowed for three straight Wednesdays.  Since so many roads were dirt back then, we hardly went school that month. Even during what still is the coldest March on record, I don’t remember any ponds freezing over.  I was a dedicated fisherman even at the age of eleven, and I paid attention to the condition of ponds.

Frozen ponds are part of North Carolina’s history even here in foothills. My stories of iced-over waters came from my mother.  She was born in 1910 on a millpond in Yadkin County where her dad, Walter Styers, had a water-powered gristmill that ground grain between two big millstones.  His millpond was just a little over five miles further north from the site above on a tributary of North Deep Creek. Their homestead and pond were just off Union Cross Church Road. Mother’s vivid stories of men driving wagons onto the frozen mill pond and sawing out blocks of ice have stayed with me.  The blocks of ice she remembered were hauled back to the shore and stored in a sawdust filled underground ice house. According to mother they enjoyed iced lemonade and homemade ice cream  from their treasure trove of stored mill pond ice.

The recent cold got me wondering if I could look back at state climate records and find something to lend scientific  credibility to mother’s stories.  I checked the NC State Climate Records, and I found the winters when my mother was  young were much colder. All in that era were colder, but two winters, 1912-13 and 1913-14, when she was a toddler were strikingly colder.  The two winters had 107 and 106 days respectively when the low temperature was below freezing according to Winston-Salem records which are the closest ones that go back that far.  To put that in perspective, the same station only had 39 days with lows below freezing in 2019-20, and back in 2013-14 there were only 11 days with lows below freezing.

Another interesting piece of data is that in the winter of 2013-14, the first day with a low temperature below 32F was October 22.  The last day was an amazing May 5.

While the records are far from complete, logic indicates that there was a great drop in the number of days with lows below freezing by the time we get to the fifties when I was in grade school.  It looks like it is quite possible that my mother did see or at least was reminded by oral history that men did take teams on the ice and cut ice from her dad’s millpond.

If you are wondering about  the winter 1960 with all its March snows, it was a little old-fashioned with 90 days with lows below freezing.  It makes you wonder if our grandchildren will some day be talking about snow on the ground like we are talking about iced-over ponds.

How To Be A Sensible Streamer

Streaming Channel Portal on Amazon

Streaming your choice of video channels is what the future holds. I spend a good chunk of my day job looking at the prices of Internet services across the county.

I studied cable, DSL, and fiber services in dozens of counties and communities last year.  That along with my personal experience with prices and as an early streamer starting several years ago has helped our family to continue to save money after switching from cable and its expensive packages to fiber and streaming services.

However, it is easy to go overboard with streaming.  The grandchildren show up and their favorite shows are on Disney+, so you subscribe. An older child comes home and wants some Apple TV channels.  It only takes three or four spur of moment decisions added to your regular streaming services and you will be paying more than you would be for a cable package.

The way we handle our streaming services is to keep them on a budget.  We budget $40 monthly for streaming services.  We are Amazon Prime members so I am not sure we would allocate the full $8.99 (stand-alone cost) for Prime video but as you will see, even when we do that, we are still well under budget.

Our four current services for a fee are Prime Video at $8.99 monthly, Paramount+ $5.99 monthly, Britbox $6.99 monthly, and PBS Masterpiece $5.99 monthly for a total of $32.96 for all our streaming services.  We also subscribe to the free version of Peacock.  I recently canceled Netflix and Acorn  while adding Masterpiece and Britbox.

We stream so much that it is easy to run out of new, watchable programs in two to three months.  I manage all but one of our channels on Amazon prime so it is easy to see them and the costs  all in one place. You also have the advantage of being able to snare some Amazon specials like HBO Maxx or Starx for $1.99 a month for two months.  You just have to remember to cancel them.  The picture at the top of the post is what you see in Amazon’s Video channels management console.

My studies across the country along the current Hulu and YouTube pricing I see tell me that about $70 a month will get you full range of video services.  So if you are paying $70 or more for your streaming services, you are not saving money and it is time to go on  a streaming budget.