Saturday, December 22, 2012

Advent at the End of the World

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
- Robert Frost 

Advent has come, and along with it the end of the world. Again.  FF, Dog and I are spending this apocalypse at the Lighthouse, our secret hideaway here on a high bluff overlooking the Big River in Milestone, not far from Bethany Crossroads in inter-coastal, down east North Carolina. 

This is not the famous Outer Banks, where jet-setters go to build million-dollar mansions and pursue the pleasures of yachting, deep water fishing and the perfect tan. These are the Inner Banks, a sheltered system of islands, rivers, creeks, bays, inlets and peninsulas that spread across the North Carolina coast like an irregularly woven fisherman's net. This is where the Appalachian waters filter into into the Sound before finally losing themselves in the Ocean. This is a place that feels as far from the center of things as you can get and still be able to find a hardware store.

Big River, by R. Taylor Monk

The Inner Banks are our new secret spot. Now and going forward, this will be our place for going deeper, for thinking and meditating, for writing, for the solitary thinking work that can't seem to get done  even in quiet Piedmont. Milestone, where our place is, is further away from New York City than the map shows, and if the end of the world is today, I am glad to be here at land's end to greet it.

Quick investigation reveals that the Inner Banks are mostly inhabited by Carolinians, the majority of them farming and fishing people of humble means who are permanent residents. Even the seasonal and sporting folk that come here are mostly from the Carolinas, and they have their pleasure boats docked in marvellous, hidden marinas that are tucked up into the land like watery diverticula on the Big River. Houses and cabins are passed from generation to generation. 

Here people of any sort are blessedly few. Milestone, with its stretches of white sand river beaches, twisty live oaks and wind-tortured pines has a population of only 300 or so souls, and no town center. Just inland, Bethany Crossroads shelters 556 men, women and children in its piney groves and extensive tilled fields, and it lies along a curvy stretch of paved Croatan Indian trail that features five blood-curdling turns and at least as many small, private cemeteries. There is one market in Bethany Crossroads, one restaurant, one charter school, one post office and three churches of different denominations. In these parts, the love of God and guns is great.

Milestone is at land's end, and is part of an extensive and economically poor county that boasts only two traffic lights. All we have here is the ferry launch, a locksmith, a marine engineer's shop, a bait and tackle shop, a brick town hall that looks like somebody's granny's house, and a boarded-up commercial building on our corner that used to be a gas station but more recently was The Sunset Café. There's a country club here that appears to be the preserve mostly of folks from the bigger cities inland. And there are some summer camps in Milestone, too, but they sit silent and empty most of the year. In short, for most of the calendar year, we are among the very few people not from here that can find any reason to come to Milestone at all. Now you know about as much about the place as I do, which isn't much. We're new here. We'll learn.

The Lighthouse is my name for our place because it sits high on a bluff overlooking a sandy beach at a bend in the Big River which has the distinction of being the widest stretch of river in North America. Our place is tower-like, and therefore enough like a real lighthouse to warrant the name, and anyway I always wanted to live in a lighthouse since I was small. I like to turn our balcony light on at night and pretend that passing sailors are comforted and kept safe by the small, yellow lamp. From our high perch we also overlook the Milestone Ferry, and our days pass to the rhythm of its comings and goings and the thrumming of the big diesel engine which starts up at 5:30 in the morning and goes quiet just past midnight.  If it weren't for the activity at the ferry and the occasional private plane buzzing low overhead to the tiny airport across the river at Sandy Point, there would be little noise here at all except the nearly constant blowing of the wind. 
Soldier and Guardian Angel from the art bins at
Lowes, downeast, NC.

Advent is upon us, and today is the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar. The last time FF and I greeted the end of the world it was in a Greek Diner in Virginia Beach, before Dog came to live with us. This time we will greet the apocalypse resting and doing the solitary work of introspection that the season requires. 

The end of the world came early last week for a classroom full of children and their teachers in Sandy Hook, CT, and it made me so sad and tired inside just thinking of the fear and the sorrow and the hot gunfire, and the incomprehensible coldness inside of some people.  The end of the world comes every day for around 150,000 people by various means both natural and unnatural, but another 220,000 are born, too. So in the long, long life of the Big River, perhaps we people seem rather like an itch it can't seem to get rid of, always more of us creeping up on its shores. Are there already too many of us human beings? And has the tipping point been reached at which our sheer numbers, arrogance, evil ways and failure to grasp our correct place in universe has shifted the planet irrevocably in the direction of real apocalypse? If we have no mercy for each other, what mercy can we expect of God and Nature?

Dog has no existential questions that I am aware of. FF and I each ponder our own questions, those matters of identity and purpose that sometimes occupy the minds of people who have passed the half century mark and think perhaps a tad too much. At the Lighthouse we are companionable and unintrusive. He writes over there, I write over here. Dog, sensibly, sleeps.

FF and I are older now, but our species is still so very new. The Big River is old. All that lives and breathes on these shores even since the heydays of the Croatan and Lumbee nations is just a speck of dust in the eye of the Big River. Births, deaths, loves, losses, suffering and joy, all those things that are big to us now are trivial and unimportant to the river. For it, there is only water moving from the mountains to the ocean. For it, there is no search for meaning. And we human creatures who fuss and bother about our houses, boats, families, money, guns, religions and existential questions are as gnats to the Big River which is eternal and imperturbable.

During  Advent I like to face my search for purpose head on, and while I sort through what I have done and what I have left undone, and the Big River is never far from my sight. Even at 52,  I wonder what I should become and while I wonder, the river is there. While I struggle to write these sentences, to make sense, the river is there. And if I were to truly model myself on the Big River, perhaps I would never write another word. What if I were to find my own ocean and pour myself into it again and again? Is it possible for a woman to become like a river? 

Last night there was a storm. The wind blew hard, and the rain pelted the Lighthouse in buckshot sheets.  The river doesn't mind heavy weather and it keeps on rolling along. But FF and I huddled together last night with Dog curled up at the foot of the bed as the temperature dropped and the wind raised its voice to a howl, and we registered with mild trepidation each tremor that passed through the Lighthouse's wooden beams.  We just held each other quietly in the darkness, waiting for the storm to pass, waiting for the sky to clear, waiting for the sun to come out again.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Swept Away

My extended absence from this blog would make it seem as if my breakup with New York were complete. Things have demanded my attention: the election, my business,  the fall planting, and an array of time-consuming personal matters that demand more attention as the years pass. Principally, though, the urge to do write about you, New York, deserted me as FF and I passed our one year anniversary here in Piedmont. After 28 years, New York, you'd think it would take me longer to get over us, wouldn't you?

Am I over us?

Photo by Tenured Radical
I felt keenly vulnerable in my last years as a resident of New York City.  I knew what it was to watch a skyscraper crumble, a subway line flood, a mischief of rats storm up the A Train platform to escape the fire and fumes of downtown. I knew what it was to bend myself double against a winter blast, ten times harsher and colder than normal because of the glass canyons of midtown. I knew the desperation of walking more than 100 blocks in summer heat to get home when the transportation system shut down.  People weren't made to live like that, I thought. I wasn't made to live like that. And what pretty pipe dream of fame and fortune is worth that much trouble, anyway? Why endure it? Just to say I live in New York City?

As Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Northeast last week, here in Piedmont we  were sitting pretty. Cozied up here in the folds of these ancient hills, we were spared and are spared the worst weather most of the time. Hurricanes rarely penetrate deep enough inland to threaten, and the scattering of tornadoes seem to come to a cartoon-ish, screeching halt at RTP. Sometimes it rains a lot, but our abundance of fragrant balsam forests handle the water pretty well, except in those spots where developers have been too imprudent in their love affair with concrete. 

Last week, FF and I noted that we still had our preparations from hurricane Irene pretty much in place: The baker's shelf of canned goods, the lantern, lamp oil, flashlights and batteries, the Coleman stove and bottled gas, and the gallons of bottled water. This time, we added sandbags, filled and stacked neatly against the cellar door, and a backup sump pump and a manual pump just in case of power outage. Seasoned firewood was stacked cozily in the garage, the patio furniture stowed in the crawl space and, thus prepared, we waited. But we didn't have to break into our stores for Sandy and we merely passed several cold, gray days watching the hurricane gather itself, follow the train tracks north, and then punch you, New York City, right in the schnozz.

When FF and I left New York for the last time a year and a half ago, having dropped the key to my Harlem apartment with a clatter into the mailbox, we passed over the George Washington Bridge and I felt a tug at my heart as we made our way to the mainland, the lights of Riverside Drive receding in the rear view mirror. But beyond the nostalgia, I felt an urgent sense that I was getting out just in the nick of time. And when the apartment finally sold and I pulled my last material  assets out of the city, I experienced a breathless feeling as one might if a nightmare magically resolved itself and that dream suitcase you had been trying to pack was finally packed, or the dream person you couldn't find was finally found, or whatever anxiety-charged situation you were facing in your sleeping life suddenly morphed into a nice dream from which you woke up, warm and smiling in your own bed. I felt as if I had cheated fate when I got out of New York City without suffering heavy losses, like a person who had the presence of mind to leave the casino with a few dollars still in his pockets.

This feeling of having escaped in the nick is not something I've talk about with almost anyone. It's not a conversation I imagine that my old friends, who still see the City as the center of the worthwhile universe, would want to have with me. I lived through 9/11 there, and I experienced first-hand what it's like when things go very, very wrong in that  huge Rube Goldberg device called Manhattan, and I know how hard it is to make it work again.  I was there in hurricane Gloria in 1985 which, though it didn't hit the city head on, caused the evacuation of all the high rises. I'll never forget fighting my way in to work that day because I was new on the job, and finding no one on the darkened 32nd floor of the Time and Life Building except my obsessive compulsive boss, reading the Times in the yellow glow of a desk lamp,  and the big plate glass windows shimmying so fast in the wind that they rang like bells. I've been in floods, snowstorms, blackouts and pretty much everything that could go wrong in a big city except invasion by zombies, and when the chance presented itself to opt for a less disaster-prone environment, I leaped at it and into the waiting arms of my beloved FF, who never trusted the place, anyway.

Sandy with and her peak 80 mph sustained winds doesn't come close to matching The Long Island Express of 1938. Sandy was a big fat, wet storm, but she wasn't nearly as powerful as the storm of '38 that killed nearly 700 people in the New York City area and changed the topography of Long Island forever. But it's possible that when all the numbers are added up that Sandy will be the more expensive date, not only in terms of dollars but also for the cultural losses. Coney Island is a muddy memory now, and Staten Island a place of  homelessness and death.  Out in the Rockaways, fire and water consumed communities that had already suffered airplane crashes in the last decade, and had lost nearly 300 people in 9/11. The word "apocalypse" has been used a lot for Sandy, and such low-lying places as these cannot help but continue to be victimized as changing climate, urban congestion and global political unrest heighten indefinitely. 

Idiots and heroes were in abundance on TV this week, making me hoot and weep as I watched you take it in the teeth, New York City. I fumed angrily at the story of the man who refused to open his door to a woman in distress with two little boys who later drowned. My heart swelled in admiration for a man who rescued his 81 year old mother from her flooded house with only waders and a surf board as equipment. And yesterday, somebody put up a YouTube featuring the whole Lower East Side cheering for about 15 minutes all up and down First Avenue and beyond because the electricity was finally back on. And at that moment I had a pang of missing you, New York. I actually missed being part of that cheering crowd that had spent the last five days dealing together with the miserable cold, the food rotting in the refrigerator and no hot showers. Briefly, I felt as if I were missing the main event. Will I ever know such difficulties again? Will I ever know such triumph? Are the highs you offer worth the insane lows you inflict?

25 years in New York and I was never convinced that I was a real New Yorker. I felt most like a New Yorker when I was somewhere else, on a stage singing in Germany, or working a cruise ship. "You're from New York? Wow!" the Europeans would say, a glimmer of admiration in their eyes.  But it felt good to bask in your reflected glory, good to accept that prize of specialness that being from New York (undeservedly) gave me.  Back home, though, I lived in Harlem where I was nicknamed Snowflake and where I was never really an accepted member of the Harlem club. Neither in the other neighborhoods where I lived did I ever feel like a New Yorker truly, nor did I understand what truly linked New Yorkers to each except the capacity to endure insult after insult, and a tireless belief that maybe one day they would "make it". Or at least know someone who did.

Here in Piedmont, life is smooth. The mountains are old and round, the rivers are many, the forests are big and the coast is long.  I know already that I'll never really belong to this place any more than I did in New York City. But I have adopted Piedmont wholeheartedly as the place I will likely spend the rest of my life, and I hope I can offer it something while I'm here. Carolinians are not, in the main, interested in far-fetched ideas of glory, power or drama. They like to be outdoors, enjoy the back porch, watch the seasons pass, and they are known for making things with their hands that take patience, like guitars and quilts. Carolina smells good, and the beauty outweighs the ugly by a long shot. These old mountains don't care about roller-coaster highs and lows: they are the face of eternity and the glory of nature, and are unconcerned with the self-glorification of mankind.

As they say here, there may be something better somewhere, but this is as good a place as any to wait for better to come along.  So  I can't imagine a true Carolinian ever feeling, as I did for a brief moment this week, that I should have been in New York City, not in this peaceful place, when a bunch of cold, dirty, tired New Yorkers cheered in the streets just because the lights came on.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Invasive Species

The terms "alien", "exotic", and "introduced" have slightly different meanings but generally are used interchangeably to refer to plants which are not native. Some exotic species are vigorous growers which are displacing our native plant and animal species, hence the term "invasive". (North Carolina Native Plant Society)
I am eliminating English ivy from my yard. Honeysuckle and wisteria, too. The poison ivy is dismissed with prejudice, though not without guerrilla counterattacks from its side. My all-out war on invasive plants has raised some eyebrows, especially among my Northern friends who are used to being grateful that anything survives the winter in their yards. 
The North Carolina state flower and bird. 
"Ruth has a beautiful wisteria," sniffed Ann when I told her.  "She prunes it carefully, of course. You have to take care of them," she added with emphasis, as if I were simply remiss, as if it were my personal failure that had caused these thigh-sized vines to wind around the oaks until they screamed for help.  The wisteria alone had pretty near overwhelmed every native variety in our small forest, including the noble pines, some boxwood, native hollies and azalea and an established stand of Camellia sasanqua. What the wisteria hadn't gotten, the ivy and honeysuckle were in the process of finishing off.  I could hear their low munching sounds. It horrified me.

I grew up on Ivy Lane. I went to an Ivy League college. I have warm associations with the vigorous, glossy leafed hedera helixNow I am its worst enemy.

The Federal Government declares Feb. 26 to March 3 (contemporaneous with my birthday) Invasive Species Awareness Week, and I am celebrating by learning all I can about how to restore my little piece of Paradise here in Piedmont to its native glory. But I am doing some thinking about how far I am willing go with this restoration project. For instance, I recently found out that periwinkle (vinca, both major and minor) is an invasive species, too, so if I were a purist I would be ripping it up by the roots along with the ivy. I am not. I like its tiny lavender-blue blossoms, the first to bring color to the spring. 

And what to do about the well-established Japanese holly, the big-hipped English holly, the arms-akimbo Syrian fig and the delicate Japanese laurel? What about the marvelous crape myrtle, emigrant from the India that seems to do so well here? All are clearly illegals in a native garden. But we love the smooth, fleshy trunk of the myrtle and its long-lasting raspberry colored blooms which stay from spring to the end of fall.  Indeed, I recently and gleefully accepted a specimen of the latter from a neighbor and plopped it into a space which I had cleaned of....wisteria.

So you see, the business of eschewing the non-native in favor of the native is not so simple. Favorites are played, rules are stretched. And while it's easy enough to muster an attack on poison ivy, nobody can get hot and bothered about a pretty little crape myrtle that offers a nice puddle of shade by the patio and blooms for half the year. Can they?

So what to do. After pondering the matter for a while, I decided that my policy would be as follows: True invasives, the murderers of the plant world, will be destroyed, though it may take years to do so; exotics may stay; and from now on, only natives will be brought into our near acre of Paradise. The only exception to the latter will be food plants in the vegetable garden and the few fruit trees. Not growing tomatoes, that sweet Aztec jewel, would be just plain self-denying. Anyway, Central America is still America, right? Right?

But last week, I was smitten by an anise tree: It's long, dark green leaves smelling faintly of licorice, it's dark red buds...I could not help myself, I bought it. It is from Japan. And the big, broad-shouldered Delaware Valley azalea in 10 gallon pots I bought (too good a deal to pass up!)? The same genus but not the same clan as our lacier, fuzzier-leaved native azalea. And what of that coral pink quince that I covet? Japanese, Japanese, all Japanese!

Again, I ask you: What to do? It sounds great to say native garden, as George Washington did way back when he planned the gardens at Mount Vernon keeping them 100% American, or so they say. It's another thing to confine oneself to the indigenous in the 21st century, when so many lovely foreign varieties are perfectly naturalized,  inoffensive and oh-so available, and the selection of true natives is so very slim.

So --  My revised immigration policy for my tiny kingdom is currently as follows: 
  • True invasives, the assassins of the plant world, will be eliminated with prejudice.
  • Foreign plants who are naturalized, well-established and do not harm other plants may stay.
  • Plants that are annual and produce food may come on a seasonal basis, though they are to be confined to specific areas (for their own good) and they are not invited to seed themselves here. 
  • Plants that are native receive priority for land resources, and those natives who have lost their footing due to the depredations of the invasives will be given subsidies to re-establish themselves. 
  • Specific funding will be targeted to reclaiming land for the fern, ginger, phlox tribes and other blooming ephemerals, and I will help them to establish small communities in forested areas. I consider such horticultural affirmative action to be both necessary and desirable for the overall health of the land.
So what have I learned so far? For one thing, carefully planned plant immigration is not only possible but also desirable. After all, while our native dogwood is lovely and graceful in its short blooming time, only the Asian myrtle offers that wash of lipstick pink that lasts and lasts like the Energizer Bunny. Also, as I slowly clear and pick encrusted bits of plastic, glass, mop heads, broken bathroom tiles and even a metal file cabinet from my soil, I've learned that it's a lot easier and cheaper to destroy an environment than it is to build it back right.  But there's enormous satisfaction in taking on the job.

Now I feel that little tickle in my mind, that familiar Utopian wiggle in my step as I stride out to the forest, putting my back, time and money into the reconstruction of this earthly little slice of Piedmont Paradise.