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.

The Company of Cats

Jester, Relaxing After First Post

I have invited Jessie, one our four marsh cats to be the guest writer for post number fifteen hundred. I think she has a talent for writing. She certainly campaigned hard for the opportunity during the last seven days. Each morning I have awakened to Jessie curled up on my chest and looking down on me.  As you can see from the picture above, Jessie is exhausted from all the typing. I did help her with the editing, but the thoughts are hers. This is Jessie’s first effort at writing, but I am sure it will not be her last. She is always first to the office and last to leave. Here are her words.

I am one of four kittens that were born under a shed by Raymond’s Gut on the North Carolina coast. My name is Jessie, but I am sometimes called Jester by our friend, David. I spend most days curled up near his desks which are covered in computers. That is how I learned how to type.

I have three siblings, my two sisters, Merlin and Maverick and one big brother, Goose. Our mother, Elsie, has lived by Raymond’s Gut since before Hurricane Florence. We were very lucky. Our mother brought us to David’s garage to eat. It was there that his wife, Glenda, saw us. We didn’t understand but one night our mom told us to stay in the garage after we finished eating.

When the big door went down, we were stuck inside the garage. The next thing we knew it was dark but we could smell something delicious. Merlin crawled out from behind the cabinet where we were hiding but she did not come back. Then Goose went looking for her and he did not come back. Next I went out and I found the food that smelled so good. Then before I knew what was happening a door shut behind me and I was trapped in a wire box.

It wasn’t long before the human that I now know as David came and carried the wire box inside. Next I was put in a bigger wire box with my brother and sister. It was really scary at first but there was a soft towel. We did a lot of hissing and spitting but none of it kept the humans away. We kept waiting for Maverick to show up, but it was seven days before she let herself get caught. She was really mad that she was caught. She tried biting and scratching, but David had these great big gloves that he would use to catch her. She was so mean that she got thrown into solitary confinement for a week.

Eventually we figured out that they were feeding us and making sure that we were okay. It was much better than living on the dirt under the shed or behind the cabinets in the garage. The first strange thing that happened was when they gave us a bath. We got all wet but then they dried us with a towel and cuddled us until we got warm. It wasn’t too bad after we had a chance to work on our fur ourselves.

It wasn’t long before we got to go live in our bedroom. It was much nicer than living in a cage. It had a big queen-sized bed. It was perfect for hiding under. For a long time we spent all of our time in our bedroom and the adjoining bathroom. David would come play with us. He taught us how to play a game he called kitten fishing. He took one of his fishing rods and tied a string to it and some feathers to the end of the string. We would chase it and jump on it. Sometimes the only way we could get it was to jump high in the air. For a long time Goose was the best at jumping, then he got so big it was hard for him to jump as high. Maverick, who is a little bit of a loner, eventually could jump better than any us. For a long time we played kitten fishing at least once a day.

Then came the big day when we got the run of most of the house. It was really exciting. There were so many things to smell and places to explore. We found out pretty quickly that there were places that we were not allowed to visit but it is so hard if something needs investigating. Our favorite place is David’s office. Not much is off limits there and he pretty well lets us do as we please. It is also the place that we started learning about the real world. Learning about the real world made us realize how lucky we are.

A few months ago things got really exciting at our house. Some people from California bought our home and we had to move. It was really scary and we spent a lot of time in our big cage as David, Glenda, and their son Michael got everything ready to be moved. We did not understand what moving meant at first, then we learned that we would no longer get to see our mom, Elsie outside the glass door of our play room. We were sad, but knew that we had become house kittens and should go with our humans.

The move was actually scary. We had to ride in our cage in the back of a car for four hours. Then we ended up in a hotel for two days. We were allowed out of our cage, but the second day somehow Maverick got inside one of the beds. It took a long time to find her, but finally we took another ride and ended up at our new house. After a really busy day, lots of the furniture from our old house ended up in our new home. The next day we finally got to explore the new house and found that it has a screened porch where we are allowed to go smell the fresh air.

We really love our new house. The new house has our favorite shreds cat food and from the upstairs we can no longer see water, but we can see woods and fields. Most important our humans are still with us. We have even met their grandchildren and we were so excited that Michael has come back to pet us. He doesn’t like us to get on counters but he is really nice to us. He even rescued Goose once when he fell through the ceiling of the attic onto the porch.

We hope everyone has as nice a Thanksgiving as we are going to have.  We have lots to be thankful for this year and we don’t have to go up to the office for a few days. Maybe we will get to play some games.

THE TRAILS OF OUR LIVES

My Nova Scotia Trail

By the time I found the first trail that really meant something to my life, I had graduated from college and was living in an old farm house on the shore of the Bay of Fundy. Behind the house was a large field which sloped upwards to a spruce forest. At the top of the field there was a trail that wound through the woods. As much as I loved the rocky shore that was part of the property, the trail at the head of the field seemed to be more personal.

My two Labrador Retrievers, Tok and Fundy, often accompanied me on my hikes. There was nothing spectacular about much of the trail but it finally opened into a clearing that actually was on my neighbor Joe’s property. The view from the clearing was spectacular. I was living in the Village of St. Croix Cove and you could see the actual St. Croix Cove. I loved the view so much that I eventually traded some land for it.

There were times that I thought that Nova Scotia was the greenest place that I had ever seen. We sometimes were able to find baskets of chanterelle mushrooms just off the trail. No mushrooms since then have ever tasted like those.

It being Nova Scotia, the trail had a winter look and often stayed that way for a month or two. While it was hard to walk up the hill, getting up it on cross country skis was even more challenging.

With each move, we managed to find new trails, some of them memorable. (Read More)

Not Enough Wilderness To Save Us

Sunset on White Oak River Near Swansboro, NC

Towns are magnets and they suck people from the countryside, especially the young and talented. We noticed this happening when we returned to New Brunswick in 2012.We farmed there in the seventies and early eighties. Since our trip, what remained of the three churches in our old town disappeared. The community store closed. Yet the provincial capital, Fredericton, is thriving as the small towns wither.  It is a story repeated time and again in Canada and the United States.

I still worry that some of those wild places like the North Carolina coast will become too populated. I sometimes think that what we call the Northern Outer Banks from Corolla to Cape Hatteras will sink into the seas just from the weight of all those beach castles. I offer up my profound thanks for those who created the National Seashores. Beyond nourishing our souls places like coastal Carteret County and hilly Davie County where we now live grow a lot of food that North Carolina cities need.

(Read More)

Empty Promises

No Paper in the Driveway and An Empty Newspaper Box

I don’t want to be the old guy complaining about other people trying to earn a living. I would like to provide some constructive criticism that might make all of our lives easier.

I spent nearly twenty years at Apple and anyone who knows me will quickly tell you that I am no Steve Jobs fan. I saw him do things that were nothing but mean and contributed nothing to the great products that came out of the company.

However, the one thing that I learned of value from time within the Steve Job’s orbit is that the hardest thing is to say no to things that you might like to do but aren’t in your sweet spot. I would add that if you cannot do something with passion and precision, find something else to do.

Obviously sometimes you really need money and I understand those pressures because I have had my back to the wall with a payment or bill due.  I have been lucky that I have always found ways, one time I sold our bulldozer, to keep going until better times. Those better times have always taken me to opportunities where I was proud to work and more importantly eager to do my best.

So here is the problem today. People take jobs and commit to doing the work, then they don’t do the job. Some never master what it takes to do the job. Some pretend to do the job. Others do not even bother to show up. We have been amazed when trying to hire students to do data entry as part time jobs. It is not hard work, yet continually people commit to working x-number of hours but only work half that. Then there are those who promise but never show.

The problem is widespread. (Read More)

The Five Shirt Day

My Work Shirt

An overlooked challenge of the pandemic is that it has been very hard on clothing, specifically shirts. I have never been easy on clothing. I have a long history of getting dirty.  When we lived on the farm, my wife, Glenda, was known to sometimes hose me down and make me take my dirty clothes off in the woodshed before I could come into the house. Back in my lawn mowing days on the North Carolina coast, not only did I come in encrusted in dirt from a yard that was more dust than grass at times but I also ended up fishing, walking on the beach, gardening and working at my desk. It all required a lot of different clothes, but I am not sure that I ever had a five shirt day.

The pandemic has made it more challenging to do almost everything except work from home. The statement that clothes make the man or woman has changed to shirts make the man or woman.  With Zoom and Team conference calls, how you look on video is what matters these days and our video cameras only show us from us from the face down to our desks.  So we pay attention to the shirts that we wear.

(Read More)

The Shade Trees Are Still There, We Aren’t

Shade Tree, Mount Airy, NC

I remember well the Sunday afternoons under the shade trees enjoying watermelon or homemade peach ice cream. As children, we played like there was no tomorrow.  It was a simpler time when people could actually talk politics without getting angry.  There was nothing like an old fashioned chicken stew to bring families together in North Carolina’s rolling hills. 

There were no chicken stews that I got to attend during my college years. Those were the especially turbulent late sixties and early seventies and I was far away from North Carolina in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  As I finished my degree in the summer of 1971, I needed to get away from those strange-hued city-night skies where it was impossible to see the stars.

Just as people used to gather under shade trees in North Carolina, friends used to just drop by on Sunday afternoons at our farm for visit. It was a great excuse to stop working and spend some time catching up on the neighborhood news. It was the way people built relationships, established trust and found common ground.  I cannot ever remember discussing politics.

Beyond the impromptu visits, there were community picnics, shared meals, church services (even burials) and work done for the good of the community. All these things made for richer shared lives. When we were on the farm, I never doubted that the community and friends helped us be successful. The support of their communities was essential to success of farming when we had our farm.

That was back in the seventies. The fifty years since then have not been kind to under the shade tree gatherings or any of the other ways that we connected and established relationships.

(Read More)

The Ghost I Knew

The Pine Street House

You cannot have a ghost story without a spooky, somewhat mysterious house and where I grew up in rural Forsyth County was nothing like that but things change.

A little mystery also helps with ghosts and there was plenty of mystery in my life in the fifties. The house also had a lot of history, some of it gruesome which is certainly helpfully when looking for ghosts. Many of stories that the house’s four walls could tell never got fully explained to me before everyone who could explain died. Some the questions that I wanted answered never got addressed because no one wanted to talk about them.

Upstairs above the floor with the bedrooms was a full stick-framed attic complete with walnut banisters. If ever there was an area that could house ghosts along with mysterious steamer trunks, this attic was it

(Read more)