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. 

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)

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)

Turkey Tussles

Our perfect 2012 Turkey

The first turkey that I remember being prepared in our house was cooked after we moved to the Mount Airy house with my dad. The first Thanksgiving at college, I did not come home but I got invited out by a college friend, Jack. We had a wonderful dinner and I got my one and only opportunity so far to sample stuffing with oysters.

The next memorable Thanksgiving happened after college. I had purchased an old farmhouse with a barn and 140 acres on the shores of the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. Four of us had spent months remodeling the two-hundred year old house with hand-hewed beams. College friends came up to celebrate that first Thanksgiving on our own in the fall of 1971. We bought the biggest turkey we could find and the ladies in the group figured out how to cook it.

Little did I know I was already on the slippery slope to a smaller turkey and eventually just a turkey breast. I never take exception with the cook but I sure do miss those whole turkeys. (Read more)

Finally a Backyard

Our Backyard in the North Carolina Foothills

It seems since my childhood that I have spent much of my life searching for a backyard. I have had hayfields and marshes as backyard but until this last move none were close to the one where I played ball with friends when I was in elementary school. I could plow up part of it for a huge garden but I have been there and enjoyed that when I was a lot younger. Read more.

Not the Last Farmer’s Market

Mocksville, NC Farmer’s Market, November 3, 2021

We actually started going to farmer’s markets as a couple when we were living north of Fredericton, New Brunswick. We went to see people and to pick up a few things that we did not grow on our own farm. Even more so than most farmer’s markets, there were homemade items interspersed with farm produce. There were no food items that we really needed but I think we went home with baskets to use with our own garden produce. Still we enjoyed the market especially the people.

Maybe it was because we had dirt under our fingernails and a close connection to producing food but for whatever reason, visiting farmer’s market became a life-long passion. Read More

The First Snow

Our former Roanoke, Virginia home after a good snow in 2009

I have seen a lot of first snows. I have also gone through a lot of years when there was never a first snow. Snow is an unusual thing. How it impacts your life depends a lot on where you live. We have lived in lots of places so our snow memories span everything from flurries to blizzards just as you might imagine.

Back in 1960 when I was in elementary school in Lewisville, North Carolina, I had my first serious experience with snow. In March 1960, it started on my birthday and snowed three straight Wednesdays. We hardly went to school that month. Those storms must have created a powerful pull on me. It took me at least twenty-seven years before I had enough snow to move back from Canada and end my sixteen years north of the border. Read more