Living fence


This week, I’ve been working in my backyard garden, nicknamed “The Brickyard” for its dense red clay that I’ve been trying to improve over the last several years. Last year I tried double digging two of the three small beds, and was amazed at how well my vegetables grew. It was if the dead earth had sprouted.

As I was double digging the third bed this year, I suddenly remembered my first backyard garden. I was in graduate school at Clemson, and Joyce and I lived in a married student duplex on the edge of campus. Somehow I had discovered Organic Gardening and Farming magazine, which in those days was a newsprint, no color, no frills monthly. While the format was plain, the content was inspiring, and I soon found myself digging up a small section of our backyard and planting a few vegetables.

My neighbor in the duplex, a doctoral student in animal husbandry, watched me without comment. We got along fine as neighbors, but he seemed to merely tolerate my lack of a proper degree (I was an English major).

A few days later, an area adjoining my garden and about twice its size mysteriously lost the grass that had covered it, and a surprising number of tomato and other plants appeared. When we next saw each other, Scott complimented me on my garden.

“It’s nothing compared to yours,” I said truthfully. He nodded without saying anything.

After a pause, he said, “Have you thought about a fence?”

When I said I hadn’t, he said he worried about leaving the vegetables unprotected from campus lawnmowers and wild animals that might come out of the neighboring woods. He offered to put a fence around both our plots if I would share expenses and help him. I agreed right away.

The fence material, simple chicken wire, cost very little as I recall. He may have had a source through his department. Anyway, a couple of rolls were in our backyard when I got home from class one afternoon. Scott said we’d get the fence posts on Saturday.

When Saturday morning came, I met him in the backyard.

“Where will we get the fence posts?” I asked. I imagined a small stack of metal posts coming from the hardware store or something along those lines.

“Right there,” Scott said patiently, motioning to the woods next to our yard.

“Oh,” I said, as Scott retrieved a saw from inside his apartment.

Soon we had cut down a tulip poplar tree about six inches thick and cut it into fence post lengths.

We carried the posts into the yard, and Scott got out a post hole digger. We took turns digging post holes along the perimeter of the garden, then we set the posts and tamped earth in the holes to make them solid. Finally, we strung two widths of chicken wire, one above the other, around the fence posts. Scott fashioned a gate, and our fence was done.

But nature wasn’t finished with our fence. Within a week, I walked out back to check on my crops. Where dead tulip tree posts had been the day before, sprouts had appeared. The garden was alive, for sure! Worried that the fence posts would starve the vegetables they were supposed to protect, I quickly cut off all the sprouts.

A few days later, more sprouts appeared. As I was cutting them off, Scott came out.

“Will these sprouts hurt our crops?” I asked.

“No, I doubt it. But I’ve never seen dead fence posts sprout this much. If we leave them alone, I think they’ll die pretty soon,” Scott replied.

So we let the fence leaf out and waited for the dead limbs to get the news of their passing. They were still green at the end of the summer, with over-sized tulip poplar leaves waving in the breezes.

The crops did fine, though. It was one of my most successful gardens ever.


The Zen of old technologies

Every now and then, I’m reminded about some sort of old way of doing things. Often I am surprised to realize that the old way was both efficient and elegant. Maybe the elegance is there in the new way, but it will take another, later generation to see it.

Take writing, for instance. Almost everything I write is done on computer, and it has been for years. But a month or so ago I happened across one of my favorite old fountain pens. I cleaned the dried ink out of it and refilled it, after finding an old bottle of ink. Something about the nearly forgotten scratch of the nib moving across paper revived some little spring of creativity that had nearly dried up in me, and I found myself waxing poetic in the pages of my old journal. I thought of things that would never occurred to me sitting in front of my laptop.

The same thing happened with photography. On a whim, I dug out my old 35mm camera and bought batteries and film for it. Something about the feel of that old friend – along with the memory that I had a limited number of pictures on the roll of film, slowed me down and made me think about each picture I took. Even though the camera has automatic exposure controls, I switched to “manual” and took my time setting up and taking each shot. Having no ability to preview and retake the picture forced me to concentrate on how what I saw in the viewfinder would translate to film.

In both cases, the old technologies are not as fast as the new ones, but in retrospect I can see efficiency in how they work. Digital photography lets the photographer click off shot after shot without much thought, especially with automatic exposure control. But the quality of each shot, because each shot is less important, tends to suffer. You can always delete nine of ten photos and fix the tenth in Photoshop.

Writing is much the same. It takes more effort to drag a pen across the paper, and changes are more difficult, at least if you want a perfect draft. And the self-correcting pen was a concept that never really caught on.

Our “more efficient” technologies allow us to make mistakes faster than we could before, and they make the mistakes less bothersome. As a result, we tend to click away with barely a thought about the results. We easily become promiscuous writers and photographers, rather than dedicated, thoughtful ones.

It’s always been so, I guess. Recall that when Samuel Morse first connected Baltimore and Washington with telegraph wires, a wag wondered whether the ability to send instantaneous messages at long distances would yield anything worth communicating.

Now I certainly don’t advocate rejecting new technologies, nor do I expect to return full time to pen and film myself. For one thing, digital media are much easier and cheaper to communicate to others. If I want to share a photo I shot on my 35 mm camera, for instance, I have to scan it to create a digital file. It’s another step and an additional level of complexity. Not to mention that film and development costs can mount up quickly.

But it is valuable to remind yourself once in awhile that the old technologies had–and still have–merits of their own. I, for one, have discovered my digital photography has improved since I dug out my old equipment and relearned to slow down and think before clicking the shutter.

On Bowls and Biscuits

A few weeks ago, I took my mother, wife, and granddaughter to visit my Uncle Danny. He and Aunt Natine have both been in poor health lately, and they haven’t been able to come to the last few family get-togethers. We spent a very pleasant afternoon with them, talking about family and remembering the many relatives who have gone on to their rewards. It’s odd, but even talking about the tough times is enjoyable with Danny and Natine.

With increasing age and declining health, both of them talked frequently about clearing out some of their “stuff.”

The end result was that we all left with a memento: Mom with a small, detailed shoe Danny had carved from a single piece of wood, Joyce with an equally detailed hand-carved spoon, Emily with a collectible doll of Natine’s.

I didn’t expect to take anything home with me. We were winding down the visit when Danny mentioned that he had Grandma Iva’s dough bowl. It had been passed to her from her mother, and Danny said he had no idea how old it is.

“I’d love to see it, if it’s not too much trouble to find,” I said.

“Oh, it’s right there on top of the refrigerator,” he answered, walking over and pulling it down. He dumped the fast-food catsup and soy sauce onto the kitchen table and handed me the bowl.

It looked old, but I couldn’t tell how old. It also looked pretty well-used. Although the wood was quite dried out, a rich patina coated it inside and out. (Patina, as you probably know, is an antique dealer’s term for dirt old enough to be charged for.)

I turned the bowl over and over, looking carefully at each mark on its well-aged surface. It had been made on a lathe, we could tell, but there were no indications whether it was homemade or store-bought. The wood has shrunk unevenly over the years, so the bowl is slightly wider in one direction than the other.

Danny pointed to a rough spot on the outside of the bowl, just below the rim.

“That looks like where the bark was,” he said. If so, that might indicate the bowl was made at home by one of the woodworkers in the family. Or Great-grandma might have bought a “second” to save money.

“You can have it if you want it,” Danny said.

After protesting a couple of times that the gift was too important to his family, I realized that Danny was entrusting me with the heirloom because he knew I would appreciate and care for it.

After getting it home, I sanded and cleaned the bowl, removing some of the patina in an effort to restore it to usefulness. Joyce has promised to make some biscuits when it’s ready.

Seeing the old bowl reminded me about biscuits. We seldom make them anymore, except to accompany specific dishes (like homemade vegetable soup), but biscuits were literally the daily bread eaten by most people in these parts when I was growing up.

Those who know biscuits only from the greasy, flat hockey pucks sold in fast food restaurants will have to take my word that the Southern biscuits of my youth were as good as any baguette I ever ate in Paris—or anywhere else, for that matter.

For most cooks, a wooden or pottery bowl would hold a supply of flour, into which the biscuit-maker would add baking powder or baking soda, salt, butter or lard, and some milk or buttermilk. The daily repetition of the biscuit-making usually meant that no one measured anything. There was no recipe—Grandma, or Mama, or Sister knew by instinct how much of each ingredient to mix in. The day’s biscuits were formed in the middle of the flour, with the remaining supply left in the bowl awaiting the next day.

The results varied remarkably among cooks, considering how little the ingredients varied. A French chef might ask an apprentice to make an omelet to test his cooking abilities. Around here, I don’t know any better gauge of a cook’s skill than a bite or two of a biscuit fresh from the oven.

Grandma Iva, the owner of the wooden bowl I now hold in trust, made what I always considered an elegant, precise style of biscuit. Hers were relatively small, and remained remarkably consistent in size, appearance, and taste. I can’t remember ever watching her make them, but I remember how good they were when we sat down to dinner or supper. I can’t be sure, but I think she may have made a batch for every meal. Because he was a farmer, Grandpa Charlie was often at home at lunch time (that’s why it remained “dinner”), so I’m sure she made them at midday. But I also seem to remember hot biscuits at supper as well.

As much as I loved Iva’s biscuits, I have to say that within our family, my mother’s mother, Grandma Estie Shelton, made the best biscuits. Hers were also the ones that depended most on “magic.” Not only did she never measure anything, but she also used no rolling pin or biscuit cutter. You could watch her make biscuits, day after day, and still have no idea how she did it.

Grandma Estie mixed the dough quickly with an odd pinching movement of her fingers, kneading the dough lightly, then shaping each large biscuit in the air as she moved it from the bowl to her biscuit pan, a nondescript bit of tinware blackened from years of daily use. She crowded the biscuits against each other in her biscuit pan, so that they rose into a single loaf that was over three inches high. We served ourselves by breaking off a light, fluffy, incredibly tasty and surprisingly hearty serving of bread. It was great on its own, or as a complement to a bowl of pinto beans, or to a helping of one of her specialties, green beans cooked with “spuds.” It also made the best ham or sausage biscuits you ever tasted, enhancing the flavor of the meat without losing any of its own tender robustness.

Mom says Grandma converted to self-rising flour after that became available, but the biscuits turned out the same. And while she grew up watching and trying to follow her mother’s technique, she never managed to make biscuits that were even similar.

Not that hers were bad. When I was a boy, we had them every night for supper, unless she made cornbread instead. After an optional second biscuit spread with butter and dragged through a pool of molasses or sorghum syrup drizzled onto our plates, leftover biscuits stayed in a basket on the table to be eaten with our eggs and grits for breakfast. I remember liking them just as much in the mornings, when they cooled and became a bit crisp. But Mom was always a little lacking in confidence in her biscuits. They never rose as high as Grandma Estie’s, and they never had the extra, intangible flavors that both Grandmas managed to produce in every batch. Maybe the bowl really was the secret, where the magic lived.

What goes around comes around

I remember smiling indulgently, if a little condescendingly, at the old guys who used to say that if you lived long enough you’d see everything come around again. How could that be possible, I thought, with all the technological change we’ve seen in the past 150 years or so?

Well, is it possible to smile condescendingly at yourself? I don’t think I’m all that old, but things sure do have a cyclical feel lately.

In my childhood, almost everyone grew at least some of his own food. Even if you didn’t have any space for a garden, you would grow a few tomatoes in buckets.

Then we decided we were too busy, and started buying our food at the supermarket. Technology, along with cheap transportation, saved us from fresh food.

Now, we’re all trying to grow at least some of the food we eat, even if it’s just a few tomatoes in buckets.

Only now, we buy growing kits that cost a lot more than those buckets used to.

Technology is again saving us, this time from that supermarket food that once saved us… well, you get the idea.

When I was a kid, science was busily trying to wean us from all that dangerous food that was killing us—kryptonite, I came to call it.

Eggs? Kryptonite. You can’t eat ’em if you want to live past 50. Well, maybe one or two a week, but you’re pressing your luck.

Bacon? Kryptonite.

Butter? Double kryptonite. That stuff’ll kill you. Use margarine instead or your arteries will plug up like rusty iron pipes. Or you can use any vegetable oil—except coconut, the only vegetable-derived kryptonite.

Alcohol? Liquid kryptonite.

Then along came the Food Network, backed up here and there by selected medical research.

Eggs? Dr. Oz says eat ’em and don’t worry.

Bacon? Dr. Atkins says eat all you want. Just stay away from those nasty vegetables and fruits, and you’ll lose weight and live forever.

Butter? Ditto. Paula Dean is now a national hero.

Margarine? Don’t you know about trans fats? Use butter, or your arteries will plug up like – is this sounding familiar?

Alcohol? Drink that red wine. Everyday. Did you ever see a sick Italian or Frenchman?

I must be getting really old, because some of these things are cycling through again. The latest research suggests that bacon may really be killing us after all. We had put nitrates and nitrites out of our minds, but not out of our bacon.

I don’t expect to last long enough to hear that bacon has become the latest health food, but at least I can eat my scrambled eggs, cooked in olive oil—or is it coconut oil this month?—with a clear conscience.

Winter gardening

This is my first year to attempt full-on winter gardening. I’ve planted a few greens in past years, but never a lot and never with much success.

This year I re-read my old copy of Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest (since reprinted with a different title) and decided to try a more serious, larger effort.

It’s been a learning experience, and a productive one. Here are a few of the things I have learned so far:

  1. Even though it’s called winter gardening, planting needs to happen in late summer or early fall. Many of the things I planted in mid- to late fall are languishing in the limited sunlight. We have yet to enjoy any spinach or collards. The plants are just too small to harvest.
  2. You can’t plant too much broccoli, or at least I haven’t found the upper limit. The plants I managed to set out early enough have yielded us the most delicious broccoli we’ve ever eaten.
  3. Most crops should be harvested before they reach the size you are used to buying in the grocery store. Some of our broccoli started blooming because I kept waiting for it to grow a little bigger. Fortunately, the pretty yellow blossoms didn’t seem to hurt the taste much, although the texture was a little odd. Our cabbages are smaller than the ones I grew last spring, but it became obvious they wouldn’t benefit from longer in the garden. The smaller heads are as tightly compacted as last season’s whoppers, but the taste is just as good—a little sweeter, in fact.
  4. Beets are a new favorite. We seldom ate them before growing our own, but we’ve been amazed at how good an oven-baked beet can be. The tops are also good, especially sautéed with a little onion and mustard.
  5. It probably pays to over-plant root crops, or to start them in flats and transplant once they get going. Only a small fraction of the carrots and beets I planted directly in the garden came up.

I’ve been either lucky or unlucky with the weather this winter, depending on the point of view. Following Coleman’s suggestions, I was expecting to have to cover lots of my winter crops to keep them from freezing. But he lives in Maine; my garden is in North Carolina, and this year has been quite mild. The cold hardy crops I’ve got growing have not needed any cover so far. That’s lucky of course. But I have no idea how to apply the row covers to protect the plants when the weather is somewhere between Coleman’s Maine and this year’s mild temperatures.

One of the benefits of winter gardening is that there are fewer pest problems. But in this mild weather, a few cabbage worms have decided to try over-wintering. I’ve learned to check things carefully for hitchhikers before eating them, even on relatively cold days.

Scion of Charlemagne

Our families have had an on-again, off-again interest in genealogy over the years. Lately it’s been on-again in the Sheltons, my mother’s side of the extended family tree. From what I’ve learned lately, it might be time to stop shaking that tree. Dad always said if you shake your family tree hard enough, a horse thief is likely to fall out.

We’ve known little about our ancestry on the Shelton side, except for the direct line that included people my mother could remember. We were told Grandma Estie’s people were Shipmans from the mountains, having come over from Ireland with the other Scotch-Irish settlers. Mom’s brother Ray says we are descended from the Indians who sold Manhattan for a handful of beads. On Grandpa Nelson’s side, we knew even less. We thought that the Sheltons had been in this part of North Carolina for a long time, but that’s about all we knew.

A few years ago we were given copies of an unpublished book written by Z.F. Shelton, a distant relative from Montgomery, Alabama. The book is in the form of a typewritten manuscript, dated 1962, and traces the Sheltons back more or less to Adam.

Now, to get our lineage back that far, brother Z.F. takes a few liberties, including skipping lightly over several chasms of Biblical “begets,” as well as several undocumented generations since the Fall of Rome. He pretty well assumes that we are of noble birth, having been descended from Charlemagne, at least, and a number of nobles since then who carried the name “de Shelton.”

It was from Z.F. that we learned of the family story that our North Carolina progenitor, Spencer Shelton, was carried on horseback as an infant from Virginia to Lincoln County to be raised by “relatives already living in the area.”

From Spencer Shelton, Z.F. draws a straight line back to the pioneer Sheltons of the late 1600s and thence across the Atlantic to the old country and Shelton manor. It seems the traditional first names of the family were historical vestiges of our family’s relations. My grandfather, Nelson Shelton, was named, indirectly, for our old cousin, Admiral Nelson. All the Spencer Sheltons were so named because we are related to the noble Spencers (yes, Princess Diana’s family).

Having grown up assuming we are of far humbler stock, we found these revelations striking. But, as they say, that knowledge and $4 will buy you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. So we congratulated ourselves and put the information aside.

A few weeks ago, Joyce and I visited the Henry Houser house, just outside the Kings Mountain National Battleground Park. It was built in the early 1800s and is open only twice a year, so we went down to take a look. A table set up in the yard featured a team of local genealogists with some notebooks of information they had compiled. I struck up a conversation with one of the women, who knows a lot of the old families in the area. She frequently helps families establish histories to support applications for membership in the DAR.

I mentioned the Sheltons. Yes, she knew the family, having recently helped a DAR applicant who had roots in that family.

“Did you know,” she asked, “that DNA tests done on the Sheltons in Virginia show no relationship whatsoever to the Sheltons in England?”

I did not know. But it makes sense. I’ve always wondered why so many people of noble birth came to the New World, while almost nobody I know was descended from a peasant. If we take things at face value, the noble class reproduced like bunnies, while the peasant class died out generations ago through attrition.

But think about it. It’s 1750 or so. You’re across the world from anyone who knows you, there’s almost no communication with the old country, and your prospects suddenly depend on your own ability to impress a new community with your worth. Now, are you an escaped peasant hoping for a fresh start, or a nobleman’s son whose valuables were somehow lost in transit?

I thought so. Me, too.

One more cruise with Melville

I’m currently re-reading Moby-Dick. Yes, I said re-reading. While Moby-Dick may be the most famous book no one has ever read, I confess to having read it at least twice. But it has been awhile, and I recently decided it was time for another whaling adventure.

Like most high schoolers, I read excerpts of Melville’s masterpiece–just enough to pass the quizzes. If I remember correctly, our curriculum avoided assigning the whole book to adolescents. A few years later, I, like most college students, used Cliff’s Notes to get through an American literature class that assigned the entire novel, although the summaries intrigued me enough that I did read the first hundred pages or so.

Later I took an upper level English course in American literature, and this time I read Moby-Dick all the way through. Being an English major, I felt guilty at having gone this far through my literature career without reading what many consider the best American novel. I loved parts of the novel, but remember finding other parts less interesting.  All that meglomanical stuff, for instance, didn’t make much sense to me. Wouldn’t Ahab at some point just get over it, I wondered? But (buzz kill alert, in case you haven’t read the book) he didn’t.

Finally, I took a course in graduate school on Hawthorne and Melville, and I not only re-read Moby-Dick, but I also read almost all of Melville’s published prose, including Mardi, Typee, and Pierre. Although most of them were more successful in their day than Moby-Dick, to the modern mind Moby-Dick stands head and shoulders above the other novels, which is why most people have never heard of them.

I have always remembered vividly a passage that struck my imagination from one of those early readings. It forever changed my appreciation of contrasts–not just of temperature, as the scene describes, but of all the contrasts life brings us.

Here is that passage describing Ishmael’s night in a tavern bed shared with a stranger, Queequeg, who later becomes his shipmate. (Note: It was common practice in those days for strangers to share lodging and bed):

We felt very nice and snug, the more so since it was so chilly out of doors; indeed out of bedclothes too, seeing that there was no fire in the room. The more so, I say, because truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more. But if, like Queequeg and me in the bed, the tip of your nose or the crown of your head be slightly chilled, why then, indeed, in the general consciousness you feel most delightfully and unmistakably warm. For this reason a sleeping apartment should never be furnished with a fire, which is one of the luxurious discomforts of the rich. For the height of this sort of deliciousness is to have nothing but the blanket between you and your snugness and the cold of the outer air. Then there you lie like the one warm spark in the heart of an arctic crystal.

Strange, but as I read this passage this trip through the novel, the scene that seemed to define the entire universe for me so effectively when I was barely 20 almost flew right by me. Apparently the lesson was so well absorbed that I hardly noticed it years later.

This time I was struck by a later passage that I barely noticed and clearly did not understand in my youth:

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke.

That sort of idea was obviously beyond my imagination as a young man, who had barely known tribulation and could not imagine viewing death so calmly. Years later, I can’t help nodding as I read it.