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FOLLOWING DIRT ROADS

May 30, 2020

Several months ago, I read Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads by Paul Theroux, well-known travel writer, Theroux explores the section of America I know best, the Deep South. He discovered a paradoxical place, full of incomparable music, unparalleled cuisine, and fascinating characters. He also found some of the nation’s worst schools, substandard housing, and high unemployment rates. Theroux’ hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe,says of the book, “Deep South is an ode to a region, vivid and haunting, full of life and loss alike.”

This week I heard on the radio the song God’s Country by Blake Shelton. The first few lines are:

Right outside of this one church town

There’s a gold dirt road to a whole lot of nothin’

Got a deed to the land, but it ain’t my ground

This is God’s country.

Paul Theroux’ book and Blake Shelton’s song reminded me of the place where I grew up, Spartanburg County, South Carolina.

The street where our family lived when I was a boy was not a street at all. It was a dirt road. It ran east to west from Mr. Taylor’s dairy farm past Mr. Smith’s cornfield to the shanty of a mysterious woman I was pretty sure was a witch. She had a big black cast-iron pot in her yard where she boiled something, maybe curious boys.

The dirt road in front of our home was a trail to adventure. Toward the east, it became a paved road near a natural gas transfer station, a place surrounded by a chain-link fence with ominous signs warning KEEP OUT. East was the direction to Tommy Wilson’s East End Market and Community Cash grocery store. It was the route I took on my bicycle to go to Monday night Boy Scout meetings.

Toward the west, the dirt road led to a path through the woods, over a creek to a deep gully we called Dead Horse Canyon. That red-clay pit was a marvelous playground.    

Beyond the path to Dead Horse Canyon, the dirt road went to the witch’s shack. The old lady who lived there was probably not a witch at all, but she was at least an eccentric recluse. Rarely did I go that far down the road.

I went all the way to the end when Gordon Coley dared me and promised me half of a Hershey Bar if I would. On that occasion, I heard a shotgun blast. Whether I was the target or not, I can’t say. But I ran all the way home. I never ventured that far again.

Dirt roads hold a special charm. I remember the sadness I felt when our road was paved with asphalt. From then on, it was a street, no longer a road.

I once followed a dirt road through the high mountains of North Carolina. I was so far back in the hills that I thought even some Presbyterians might be snake handlers.

I had been leading a retreat for a church group. We had the afternoon free, and I was up for trout fishing in a mountain stream. I stopped at a country store with a Merita Bread advertisement emblazoned on the screen door. I asked about an out-of-state fishing license.

The proprietor told me, “You don’t need no license. Follow that yonder dirt road ‘til it dead-ends at the creek. Take a path through the woods and fish all you want.”

I did as he said. That dirt road led me to a beautiful stream where I caught and released two nice trout.

On a cold, snowy morning just three days after Christmas in 1973, I followed a rutted dirt track outside of Waynesville, North Carolina, to visit a friend, Dr. Carlyle Marney, who made his home in a restored apple barn. I had to ford Wolf Pen Branch before arriving at my destination. My friend and I enjoyed pleasant conversation sitting before a warm fire in the fireplace and sipping steaming hot coffee.

Dirt roads meander across fields and over hills and through meadows.  It is impossible to be in a hurry traveling over unpaved terrain. The pace slows, and the air is refreshing. These rustic byways lead to adventure and to places where our souls can catch up with our bodies.

Several years ago, I asked James Cooley, who grows excellent peaches and strawberries, where I could find a good-looking mule. I needed a picture of a handsome mule for a book I was writing. James said, “Preacher, I got a mule but she ain’t nothing to brag about.”  James told me about some of his neighbors who owned the best-looking team of mules in the Upstate.

On a bright Saturday morning, master photographer Mark Olencki and I traveled to the farm above Highway 11 to visit these good folks. We needed photographs of mules for my book that was published in 2008 by the Hub City Writers Project entitled A Good Mule is Hard to Find and Other Tales from Red Clay Country.

Mark spotted a diamond-shaped Mule Crossing sign. I turned my pickup truck onto a dirt road. We stopped to open a heavy steel gate, carefully locking it behind us. The twin tracks of the lane cut through a cow pasture, followed the curve of a hill down to a soggy bottom, and climbed a slope beyond. Cresting the second rise, we saw the farmhouse in the distance. The dirt road curved to the right, then back to the left, past a stately barn.

As the truck neared the house, three dogs announced our arrival, a German shepherd, a Scottish collie, and an English bulldog. Guinea hens scurried across the yard. A handsome rooster of no distinguishable nationality strutted near an old well.

The mules were soon ready for pictures. Mark took a zillion shots, not just of the mules. Though I have a face for radio, he also made a few of me. Through the lens of his high-tech digital camera, Mark went back in time, taking pictures of the old buildings, of turkeys, of horses, and the charming house.

After the photoshoot, we were invited into the vintage farmhouse. The oldest part of the structure, a log cabin, was built in 1836. The home featured several additions, including a kitchen and a bathroom with indoor plumbing. We sat by a warm fire in the front room, swapping stories.

As we made our departure, the bulldog was on the porch chewing the leg bone of a deer. We said our goodbyes and made our way back up the dirt road. I commented to Mark, “Do you think these people are in danger from burglars?”

“Probably not,” Mark agreed. “Anybody with bad intentions would have to unlock the gate and make their way through the cow pasture with all of its hazards. When they finally got to the house, they would be greeted by an international assortment of barking dogs and probably a shotgun.”

I said, “We’d all be better off if there were more dirt roads.”

Too many dirt roads have been paved. Dirt roads slow us down to a more reasonable pace. Dirt roads teach us patience. Walking to the school bus, to the mailbox, or to the store takes more time, but it restores the soul.

Dirt roads bespeak a different set of values, a quality of character that’s worth preserving. Some of my happiest memories of dirt roads are of those that led to a fishing creek or a swimming hole.

Several months before his death, my dad and I were having breakfast together. Over scrambled eggs, bacon, and grits, he told me about the time when Highway 29, also known as the Greenville Highway and W.O. Ezell Boulevard, was a dirt road.

My grandparents had built a brick home where the pavement ended. Down the red-clay road toward Greenville, there was a spot known as the Sugar Bowl. It was a wide circular area on a hill above Fairforest Creek, where cars could turn around. Rumor has it that couples in love parked and sparked in the Sugar Bowl.

Dad remembered that dirt road fondly.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

TWO STORIES FOR MEMORIAL DAY

May 24, 2020

Dr. William Wilson served as President of the Center for Congregational Health until 2014. In January of that year, he founded The Center for Healthy Churches. The following story came from his blog (http://chchurches.org/blog/). It is about an experience Bill had at gate A3 in the Charlotte airport.

“As I approached the gate, I saw that my flight was delayed. Slightly annoyed, I sighed over the coming inconvenience. I noticed a cadre of Transportation Security Administration agents in uniform standing in the gate area, and assumed they were in training, as the senior member of the group was giving instructions about some pressing issue.

“Eventually, I wandered over to the windows to look out at the arriving plane we were to board, and was stunned to see that, as it arrived, it was being surrounded by five fire trucks. A crowd was gathering with me, and someone wondered aloud what was going on. A quiet voice said: “there’s a fallen warrior on board this plane.” In the cargo hold was a casket of a member of the military who had died in Afghanistan.

“Suddenly, the mood in gate A3 shifted dramatically from annoyance to stunned silence. About then, we noticed a small crowd gathering below us on the tarmac. A hearse arrived. The TSA agents formed a cordon through which walked two dozen members of the soldier’s family and friends. Dressed in black, they formed up into a small congregation alongside the plane. It was easy to tell the parents, and if there were any doubt when the cargo door opened and the casket appeared, the mother’s knees buckled, and she crumpled to the tarmac. Everyone in the gate area gasped as she went down. Immediately, her husband and daughter and their pastor all surrounded her and helped her to her feet and embraced her.

“Tears were flowing in a silent gate A3, as this family struggled to get through the hardest day of their life. It was a holy moment as men and women, weeping openly, some reaching out to embrace or take the hands of strangers, murmured words of blessing and encouragement through the glass windows to those gathered below.

 “At that moment, a military honor guard walked up to the plane, surrounded the casket, and lifted it from the aircraft. With majestic precision, they marched to the hearse and placed the fallen warrior there. His parents and family trailed them, touching and kissing the flag-draped coffin.

“Slowly, the hearse pulled away, and the family turned to leave. Their path from the tarmac led them up into our gate area and through those of us who had gathered to watch the events unfold below us. As they walked through the crowd of tear-streaked strangers, many of us reached out to touch and encourage them on their journey into the rest of their life.”

The second story was sent to me several years ago by my cousin, Captain Jim Hudson. I’m not sure where he got it, but it is certainly worth sharing for Memorial Day.

“Kevin and I, volunteers at a national cemetery in Oklahoma, had suffered through a long hot August day.  We wanted to go down to Smokey’s and have a cold one. The time was 16:55, five minutes before the cemetery gates closed. My full dress uniform was hot. The temperature and humidity were both high.

“I saw a 1970 model Cadillac Deville pull into the drive at a snail’s pace. An older woman got out, so slowly, I thought she was disabled. She walked with a cane and carried five bunches of flowers.

“The thought came unwanted to my mind; she’s going to spend an hour or more here! This old soldier was hot! My hip was hurting, I was ready to leave, but my duty was to help any visitor needing assistance.

“I broke post attention. My hip made gritty noises when I took the first step, and the pain went up a notch. I must have made a real military sight: a middle-aged man with a pot gut and half a limp. Though I was in Marine full-dress uniform, it had lost its razor crease about thirty minutes after I began my watch at the cemetery.

“I stopped in front of her, halfway up the walk. She looked up at me with an old woman’s squint.

‘Ma’am, may I assist you in any way?’

‘Yes, son. Can you carry these flowers? I’m moving a tad slow these days.’

‘My pleasure, ma’am,’ I lied.

She looked again. ‘Marine, where did you serve?’

‘Vietnam, ma’am. Ground-pounder. ’69 to ’71.’

She looked at me closer. ‘Wounded in action, I see. Well done, Marine. I’ll be as quick as I can.’

‘No hurry, ma’am.’

“She smiled and winked at me. ‘Son, I’m eighty-five years old, and I can tell a lie from a long way off. Let’s get this done. It might be the last time I can do this. My name’s Joanne Wieserman, and I have a few Marines I’d like to see one more time.’

‘Yes, ma’am.  At your service.’

“In the World War I section, she stopped by a stone, placing one of the flower bunches on the marker. The name on the marble was Donald S. Davidson, USMC, France 1918.

“In the World War II section, she paused at another grave.  With a tear running down her cheek, she laid flowers above the name Stephen X. Davidson, USMC, 1943.

“Just up the row, she placed another bunch on a stone, Stanley J. Wieserman, USMC, 1944.

“She paused, wiping tears from her eyes. ‘Just two more, son.’

‘Yes, ma’am. Take your time.’

“Walking down the path in the Vietnam section, the lady stopped at several stones before she found the ones she wanted. She placed flowers on Larry Wieserman, USMC, 1968. The last bunch was for Darrel Wieserman, USMC, 1970.

“She bowed her head in prayer and wept openly.

“After a few moments, she was ready to leave. ‘Please help me back to my car. Time to go home.’

‘Yes, ma’am. If I may ask, were those your kinfolk?’

“Yes, Donald Davidson was my father, Stephen was my brother, Stanley was my husband, Larry and Darrel were our sons. All killed in action, all Marines.

“Whether she had finished, or couldn’t finish, I don’t know. She slowly made her way to her car. I waited for a polite distance to come between us and then double-timed it over to Kevin, waiting by the car.

‘Get to the gate quickly. I have something I’ve got to do.’

“Kevin drove us to the gate down the service road fast. We beat her there. She hadn’t made it around the rotunda yet.

‘Kevin, stand at attention next to the gatepost. Follow my lead.’

“I hurried across the drive to the other post.

“When the Cadillac came puttering around from the hedges and began the short straight traverse to the gate, I called in my best gunny’s voice: ‘TehenHut! Present Haaaarms!’

“Mrs. Wieserman drove through that gate with two old soldiers giving her a send-off she deserved, for service rendered to her country, and for knowing duty, honor, and sacrifice far beyond most Americans.”

On Memorial Day, we remember, not only those who have given the ultimate sacrifice in military service, but we also remember the families who will always grieve their passing.

                                                ________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. kirkhneely44@gmail.com

STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER

May 16, 2020

Last week I visited one of our favorite South Carolina Certified Roadside Markets. The proprietor had posted a sign that set a limit of fourteen customers in the market at any one time. As far as I could tell, everyone wore a mask covering their nose and mouth. The COVID-19 virus has changed even the way we purchase fruits and vegetables.

The tables and bins were loaded with fresh produce, most of it from Upstate farms. I purchased tomatoes, squash, Vidalia onions, and a few plums.  The main attraction was fresh strawberries. I bought a gallon bucket of the delicious red fruit. We are at the peak of the strawberry season in the Upstate.

The Beatles’ song, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” was released on a 45 rpm vinyl record back in the old days. It was on the flip side of “Penny Lane.” What is the meaning of the seemingly senseless lyrics? An answer can be found at http://www.Songfacts.com. 

            Strawberry Fields was a Salvation Army orphanage in Liverpool, England. Having lost his father and his mother, John Lennon felt a kinship to the homeless boys. He had fond memories of the place, especially the garden that inspired this song.

In an interview, Lennon explained,

Strawberry Fields is a real place. After I stopped living at Penny Lane, I moved in with my auntie, into a nice place with a small garden. Paul, George, and Ringo lived in government-subsidized housing. Near our home was Strawberry Fields, a boys’ reformatory where I used to go to garden parties with my friends.  I used it as an image. Strawberry Fields forever.

John donated money to the orphanage before his death. One of its buildings is named Lennon Hall.

The title of the Beatles’ song reminds me of Strawberry Hill on Highway 11 in northern Spartanburg County. The strawberry fields near Cooley Springs are abuzz with activity this time of year.

I made a telephone call to the folks at Strawberry Hill last week. The delicious red berries should be available through most of June.  James Cooley reports that favorable temperatures, rainfall, and sunshine earlier this year give promise for a plentiful crop of delicious berries. Strawberry season is in full swing! 

 For an all too brief time every year, locally grown strawberries take the produce spotlight.  Imported berries from California or Florida get us through the colder months, but we look forward to the unsurpassed flavor of the Spartanburg County beauties.   From Cross Anchor to Landrum, from Cowpens to Lyman, the succulent red strawberries, grown on the rolling hills of our county, are the fruit of choice from mid-April through late June.

On an early Saturday morning in April several years ago, I brought home a gallon bucket of Spartanburg County’s finest.  When I walked in the front door of our home, Clare exclaimed, “Oh, boy! Strawberries!” Three of our adult children and their families had come for Saturday morning brunch. Those strawberries never made it past the kitchen sink. Clare rinsed them, and the family clustered around to eat their fill. The berries evaporated. Later that day, Clare sent me out to fetch another bucket of the tasty treat.

My mother was a master chef. Strawberry shortcake was among the many rich dessert offerings at Mama’s table. She constructed her masterpiece with either angel food cake or old-fashioned homemade pound cake. The freshly baked delicacy was sliced into thin layers. Each section was saturated in turn with sweetened puréed strawberries and topped with a thick coating of real whipped cream.

There was nothing short about Mama’s reassembled cake!  The towering structure was crowned with more whipped cream and decorated with fresh sliced strawberries. Just writing about Mama’s strawberry shortcake makes my mouth water and raises my cholesterol level. 

I preached a series of sermons at a revival for a country church in the Lowcountry several years ago.  On the final night, we enjoyed a church picnic. At the outdoor supper, an alarmingly large man sat beside me.  His dinner-sized paper plate sagged under a heaping portion of strawberry shortcake. I thought for a moment that the folding chair beneath him would buckle under his weight.  The large serving might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.  The chair held securely.

When the last morsel of the dessert was consumed, and the platter was licked clean, the man turned to me and said, “Now, preacher, that’s the way we’re gonna’ eat in heaven.”  

I thought to myself, “Probably sooner than later.”

In my childhood, my dad was, to me, the master strawberry grower.  Dad planted his own strawberry field, a long narrow bed of Ozark Beauties next to a stand of tall yellow pine trees.  The pine needles provided the mulch to protect the plants in the winter.  In the early spring, the pine needles were removed to allow the plant crowns to bud.  Delicate white blossoms gave a pleasing portent of the harvest to come.  When the strawberries were ripe, we took turns picking.  The family rule was, “Put ten in the bucket for every one you eat.” 

Thank goodness! Otherwise, the bucket would never have been filled. 

When I was a boy, fresh berries were on our table three times a day throughout the spring. Now, as then, for eight to ten weeks each spring, strawberries are a daily treat in our home. 

Strawberries brighten the flavor and the appearance of a bowl of cold cereal. The red berries sparkle in a salad of fresh fruit.  Strawberries over vanilla ice cream are an outstanding finale to a summer supper. 

By the way, did I mention Mama’s strawberry shortcake? That must be an all-time favorite for our family and for many other folks as well.  Come to think of it, strawberry shortcake really might be served in heaven!

When Clare and I lived in Louisville, Kentucky, I wanted to plant my own strawberry field, a small patch in our backyard.  In the fall, I tilled several bags of composted cow manure into the garden plot to enrich the clay soil. In the early spring, I set out twenty-five strawberry plants and side dressed them with more composted cow manure. My mom and dad came for a visit at precisely the time the strawberries were ripe.  Though few in number, the berries were plump and delicious.  I proudly put a bowl of strawberries in front of my dad, the master at growing strawberries. 

He admired the bowl of fresh, red berries, “Tell me what you put on your strawberries.” 

“Composted cow manure,” I said. 

He looked at me with a twinkle in his eye and a playful smile on his face.

Then, he quipped, “Have you tried cream and sugar?”

To each his own, I guess.

THE STORY OF A MIGRANT MOTHER

May 9, 2020

On May 10, 1908, Anna Jarvis of Grafton, West Virginia, organized the first Mother’s Day celebration. Neither a wife nor a mother herself, Anna wanted to encourage Americans to honor the women who are the strength of the nation. When the holiday became so quickly commercialized, Jarvis protested. The sale of cards and flowers and the proliferation of Mother’s Day advertising detracted from Anna’s initial vision of a simple day to express gratitude for our mothers and grandmothers.

Arthur Brisbane, one of the best-known American newspaper editors of the 20th century, gave this advice to his fellow journalists, “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

Picture a woman whose face you have seen and probably recognize. She is not a famous celebrity, neither a beauty queen nor a film star. When she gave permission for her most familiar photograph, she was not strutting on a red carpet. She was under a makeshift tent, nursing the youngest of her seven children. Though the photograph became an immediate success, the mother in the picture never received any compensation. For the photographer, the picture brought fame. For the woman pictured and her family, it became a source of shame.

The thirty-two-year-old mother could have been on the cover of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Her story is similar to that of Steinbeck’s Ma Joad. The mother of six, Ma, is a poor but strong woman married to a tenant farmer. Driven from their Oklahoma home by the Dust Bowl drought, the Joads set out for California.

In 1936, three years before Steinbeck published his work of fiction, Dorothea Lange snapped several black-and-white photographs of an impoverished mother with three of her children. Lange worked for the United States Government Resettlement Administration as a photographer. While visiting a migrant workers’ camp near Nipomo, California, she captured the picture that made her famous.

Lange selected one of the pictures to send to the San Francisco News. The newspaper printed the photo immediately, along with the caption that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in Nipomo, California. Within days, the camp received 20,000 pounds of food from the federal government. By the time the shipment arrived, the young mother and her family had moved on to another location.

The iconic portrait of an American mother living on the brink of starvation was entitled “Migrant Mother.” As an illustration of severe poverty, the worried and worn woman in the picture unwittingly became the face of the Great Depression.

Because Lange had been funded by the federal government when she took the picture, the image was always in the public domain. As a collection, the photographs taken for the Resettlement Administration have been widely heralded as the epitome of documentary photography. Ken Burns included many in his 2012 documentary, The Dust Bowl, that aired on the Public Broadcasting System. The film recounts the impact of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This picture appears in the episode entitled “Reaping the Whirlwind,” a phrase taken from the Old Testament book of Job.

The connection to Job’s suffering is appropriate. The Library of Congress entitled the image, “Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California.”

In Lange’s field notes preserved with the photograph in the Library of Congress, she recorded that the young mother and her family were “living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed.” Lange later wrote of the meeting:

“I did not ask her name or her history.”

Who was the mysterious woman in the mythical portrait?

Because Lange failed to get the woman’s name, it was more than forty years later that the woman in the picture told her story. In 1978, acting on a tip, Modesto Bee reporter Emmett Corrigan located Florence Owens Thompson at her mobile home in the Modesto Mobile Village. He recognized her from the forty-year-old photograph.

Florence Owens Thompson was born Florence Leona Christie on Sept. 1, 1903, in Indian Territory, Oklahoma. She was a member of the Cherokee Nation. Her father had abandoned her mother before Florence was born. Her mother remarried Charles Akman, who was of Choctaw descent. The family lived on a small farm outside of Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

At age seventeen, Florence married Cleo Owens on Feb. 14, 1921. They soon had their first daughter, Violet, followed by a second daughter, Viola, and a son, Leroy. The family migrated west with relatives to California. Cleo worked at a sawmill and on the farms of the Sacramento Valley.

By 1931, Florence was pregnant with her sixth child when Cleo died of tuberculosis. Florence worked in the fields and in restaurants to support her six children. In 1933 Florence had another child. She became the common-law wife of Jim Hill.

In March 1936, after picking beets in the Imperial Valley, Florence and her family were traveling on U.S. Highway 101 towards Watsonville, where they hoped to find work in the lettuce fields.  On the road, their automobile broke down, and they coasted to a stop at the crowded migrant camp on Nipomo Mesa.  The crops had been destroyed by freezing rain.

Florence remembered setting up a temporary camp. For her family, she cooked vegetables that had been frozen in the field while her husband and two of her sons worked to repair the car. It was then that Dorothea Lange drove up and started taking photos, including the one that bears witness to the deprivation and suffering of the Great Depression.

During the 1930s, the family labored as migrant farmworkers following the crops in California. Florence would later recall picking cotton from first daylight until after it was too dark to see. She added, “I worked in hospitals. I tended bar. I cooked. I worked in the fields. I done a little bit of everything to make a living for my kids.”

Florence and Jim Hill had three more children.

The family settled in Modesto, California, in 1945. After World War II, Florence met and married hospital administrator George Thompson.

In a television interview with Cable News Network (CNN), daughter Katherine McIntosh remembered her mother as a strong lady who was the backbone of the family.  She said, “We never had a lot, but she always made sure we had something. She didn’t eat sometimes, but she made sure us children ate. When I look at that photo of my mother, it saddens me. That’s not how I like to remember her. She loved music, and she loved to dance.”

In 1998, the photo of “Migrant Mother” became a 32-cent postage stamp in the Celebrate the Century series. In the same month the stamp was issued, a print of the photograph with Lange’s handwritten notes and signature sold at auction for $244,500 at Sotheby’s New York. Florence, the woman in the picture, never got one red cent.

Florence died on Sept. 16, 1983. She was buried in Hughson, California.

Her epitaph reads:

FLORENCE LEONA THOMPSON

Migrant Mother

A Legend of the Strength of American Motherhood

Anna Jarvis had the right idea. On Mother’s Day, we celebrate with gratitude the women who, like Florence, have been the strength of our nation.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

THE MOCKINGBIRD’S SONG

May 2, 2020

On a cool Saturday morning last month, I ate breakfast on our back porch with two of our granddaughters. The sun was shining brightly.  Our redbud tree was in full bloom, branches decorated like a purplish-pink curtain. The yellow jasmine was just beginning to show color. A Delaware azalea was all aglow. A brilliant red cardinal, having a breakfast of black sunflower seeds, chirped at the feeder. A mother wren was busy constructing her nest in the eave of our barn, pausing briefly now and then to sing her clear-throated melody.

In the distance, I heard a pair of blue jays squawking, a sure sign that something was threatening their nest. I looked around for Stormy, the feline who usually patrols our garden. She was taking a catnap in the shade.

The Carolina wren and the cardinal fell silent. I searched the sky above for an alien bird of prey. I saw nothing in flight.  But I spied a red-tailed hawk in an oak tree high above the ruckus.  I pointed out the large bird to the girls. Just as they looked up, suddenly, the flash of white chevrons on gray wings took aim at the hawk. The fearless mockingbird made several hostile passes as the intruder took to the air, winging its way across our back fence, over the railroad track, to another tree far, far away.

When order was restored, the cardinal returned to the feeder. The wren continued her domestic duties. And, the mockingbird found a perch high in a wild cherry tree. The birds blended their songs into a Saturday morning backyard concert.

The scientific name for the mockingbird is Mimus polyglottos, which comes from the Greek mimus, to mimic, and polyglottos, for many-tongued. The mockingbird’s song is a medley of the calls of other birds. The mockingbird imitates short units of sound, which it repeats several times before moving on to a new song.

Species with repetitive songs, such as the Carolina wren or the cardinal, are easily copied by the mockingbird. A mockingbird usually has 30 to 40 songs in its repertoire. These include other bird songs, insect or amphibian sounds, and even the noise of a squeaky gate or a car alarm.

A lady in our acquaintance takes her newspaper and a cup of freshly brewed coffee to her back porch every morning. “I always have my cell phone with me,” she explained. “I never know when one of my children might call.”

Early one sunny day as she enjoyed her coffee, she heard the familiar ringtone of her cell phone. She took the phone from her pocket. “I thought that the call had been lost. Then I heard the sound again,” she said. “It wasn’t my phone at all! It was a mockingbird ringing from high up in a sweet gum tree. That bird had heard my ringtone so often that he memorized it!”

The mockingbird is not only an excellent mimic, but it is also a loud, raucous bird. Unmated males often sing through the night, especially when the moon is full. These bachelors are singing to woo any available female.

I enjoy sitting in my backyard at night. It is my favorite time to meditate.  Eighteen-wheel petroleum trucks groan by on the four-lane in front of our home. Long freight trains rumble along the railroad tracks in the back. Dogs bark in the distance. An occasional siren pierces the night, prompting the dogs to howl. I breathe a prayer for whatever family is involved in the emergency.

When these sounds fade away, I am treated to the symphony of nature. Bullfrogs in the pond and tree frogs in the woods are joined in a chorus by crickets and cicadas. In the spring, whip-poor-wills sing from the meadow at the back of our property.  Last week, beneath a bright moon, a mockingbird sang for hours perched in the top of a pecan tree.

The mockingbird is closely identified with the South, where it is a year-round resident.  It is the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. My grandfather, a Tennessee native, told me it was his favorite bird. From him, I learned to identify the mockingbird by the distinctive white chevron markings on the wings and the long tail that continually moves up and down.

Mockingbirds enjoy an adaptable diet. They eat insects in summer but switch to a menu of berries and seeds in winter.

Mockingbird males establish a nesting territory in early February. They tend to be monogamous.  Both mates are involved in the nest building. The male does most of the work while the female perches nearby to watch for predators. The nest is built four to ten feet above the ground. The mother bird lays and incubates three to five eggs. Once the fledglings hatch, both the male and female feed them.

Mockingbirds aggressively defend their nest. I have frequently seen a pair harass a black crow until the encroacher left the territory.  They have been known to peck bald spots on the rear end of a cat and inflict a wound on a dog that required stitches from a vet. Mockingbirds will even target humans, as my dear wife can attest. Clare walked through a gate into our backyard. Unbeknownst to her, she was too close to a nest. A mockingbird, diving like a kamikaze, struck her on the shoulder.

2010 marked the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee. In the story, Atticus Finch gives his children air rifles for Christmas, warning, “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”  A neighbor, Miss Maudie, explains to the children, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”

Many know the song “Listen to the Mockingbird.” The lyrics were written in 1855 by Septimus Winner under the pseudonym Alice Hawthorne. Richard Milburn composed the music. It was one of the favorite ballads of the nineteenth century and sold more than twenty million copies of sheet music.  It was popular during the American Civil War and was used as marching music. Abraham Lincoln was said to be especially fond of the song, saying, “It is as sincere as the laughter of a little girl at play.”

My favorite rendition is an instrumental guitar arrangement by Chet Atkins entitled “Hot Mockingbird.” In his recording, Chet makes his Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar sing like the gray and white bird.

Most parents have sung the “Mockingbird Lullaby” to their children. Carly Simon and James Taylor recorded a version that was a success in 1974.

One of the joys of being a grandfather is singing to our grandchildren. They provide the only audience that will listen to my warbles without complaining.

Several years ago, Clare and I were babysitting for one of our young granddaughters. After she had supper and a bath and clean pajamas, I took her upstairs to bed. We followed the usual routine, a sip of water, a favorite book, a little rocking chair time, a prayer, and a song.

I started the lullaby.

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.

Papa’s going to buy you a mockingbird.

Outside of the bedroom window, from the top of a sassafras tree, we heard the sweet music of a mockingbird. We listened together for a few minutes. I put our granddaughter in her bed. Without a whimper, she closed her eyes and went to sleep, serenaded by the mockingbird’s song.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

FOR THE LIVING OF THESE DAYS

April 26, 2020

The current pandemic has required that many of us revise our habits. My brother-in-law said that he had no problem remembering to wash his hands. But, he found it much more difficult to remember not to touch his face. Then, with his typical dry sense of humor, he commented, “I figured out that I can’t touch my face if I hold a glass of wine in each hand.” That is Clare’s brother, and he is definitely not a Southern Baptist.

When I was studying for the ministry, my professor of preaching, Dr. John Claypool, taught a valuable lesson. “To be effective in the pulpit, we must listen to our inner tremors. If a sermon speaks to our own soul, it is more likely to resonate with the people in our congregation.”

Ernest Hemingway offered similar advice to writers. “Write hard and clear about what hurts.”  It is not always easy to be in touch with what is stirring within our hearts. At times it is difficult to discern what and where the hurt is. Such intimate empathy often eludes us. Not so in these days of a global pandemic.

 The outbreak of the coronavirus has made a global impact. This week the number of confirmed cases worldwide surpassed 2.5 million, with more than 170 thousand deaths. In this country, life has changed for almost all of us.

Sheltering in place and social distancing have become the new normal. Many have been quarantined. Many more have experienced uncomfortable isolation.

Boredom has become pervasive.  The French call it ennui, a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. In our English language, there are numerous synonyms – tedium, lethargy, restlessness, weariness, sluggishness, malaise, uneasiness, despair, dejection. Apart from the disease itself, these symptoms may be considered side effects of the coronavirus.

Another common reaction to these confining circumstances is increased anxiety. Anxiety is a natural response to stress. It’s a feeling of fear or apprehension about what lies ahead. With the pandemic comes much uncertainty. Will I or a loved one contract the virus? Will I lose my job or have a reduction in income? Will I be able to protect and care for the people I love? The level of uncertainty raises our anxiety exponentially. People who typically have a low anxiety threshold are especially vulnerable during these times.

Grief is normal when we face any loss. Our spiritual and social customs for facing bereavement include human contact, touches, and embraces that are precluded by our protective need for distance.  

A young mother, quarantined and wearing a mask, said to me, “I just wish I could hug and kiss my children. They don’t understand why I have to keep my distance.”

A grandmother confined to her home said, “I thought having to miss my hair appointment was difficult, but celebrating a grandchild’s birthday over ZOOM was much harder. We wished that we could all be together.”

A friend told me about a person in another state who lost both their mother and their father within twelve hours. Both were elderly, and both died from the virus apparently transmitted to them at a funeral for a church member. Imagine the grief within that family!

Anger is a secondary emotion, a normal defense against a perceived threat. Clearly, COVID-19 presents a danger to us all. When anger flares, it may be directed against a group of people whom we hold responsible for the outbreak. Anger may be leveled against medical professionals or politicians, against pharmaceutical companies or employers. I recently witnessed a rant against people who hoard toilet paper.

Boredom, anxiety, grief, and anger are all normal reactions to our limited interaction with family and friends. I recall the soliloquy spoken by Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s tragic drama by the same name. 

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

            The bard, speaking through the Scottish King, summarizes many of the negative emotions that accompany the pandemic. What is the alternative to this cluster of disquieting feelings?

When I was in seminary, I read Man’s Search for Meaning by Dr. Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a Viennese psychiatrist in the tradition of Sigmund Freud. As a Jew, he faced the same antiSemitism and persecution experienced by other members of the European Jewish community. He was arrested, imprisoned, and transported to the Auschwitz death camp in occupied Poland.

When an inmate in a concentration camp, Frankl took his imprisonment as an opportunity to observe human behavior under the most severe conditions. He concluded that humans are motivated in one of three ways. Some seek pleasure. Some are driven by the need to be productive. A third group are those who search for meaning in life.

In the harsh environment of the concentration camp, the pleasure-seekers quickly discover that there is no pleasure to be had. They are the first to fall into despair and die. Those who find their value in what they can produce soon learn that in the oppressive life in the death camp, their life has no value. They are among the next to give up and die. The people who can find meaning even in suffering are the most likely to survive.

As a physician, Frankl himself felt compelled to offer comfort to his fellow inmates. Without medicine or medical supplies, he would sit by the beds of those who were dying, cooling their fevered brow with wet cloths. For others, Frankl would pick the lice from their bodies. He found meaning in watching a tree outside the fence go through the seasons with the realization that the same God who created and sustained the tree could do the same for him. All the while, he made his observations, recording them on scraps of paper.

After his release, Frankl wrote his book. There he concluded, “Everything can be taken from a (person) but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”    

Did you get that? Attitude is ours to control. We can view tomorrow with despair, as Macbeth did or we can adopt the attitude of Little Orphan Annie,

The sun will come out tomorrow

So ya gotta hang on ‘till tomorrow

Come what may

Tomorrow! Tomorrow!

I love you tomorrow!

You’re always a day away

Better, still, is the attitude of the Psalmist. “This is the day the Lord has made;

We will rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm, 118:24)

Even though so much about our routine has changed, we still can find ways to rejoice. Try to make these a part of your new routine each day.

  1. Do something that makes you laugh. Read a book, watch a television program or a movie, or talk to a friend by telephone. Hebrew wisdom affirms that laughter is the best medicine. Humor has no harmful side effects.
  2. Sing, whistle, or make music, even if you can’t carry a tune in a bucket. The goal is to make your heart sing. Take time to listen to your favorite music.
  3. Do something that refreshes your soul. Take a walk, do yoga, cook something delicious, paint a picture, snap a photograph, write a poem, work in the garden, or anything that prompts your creativity.
  4. Do something that encourages another person. Write a note, send an e-mail, make a phone call. Encouraging others has a boomerang effect. It will come back to you as encouragement.
  5. Pray. This is the single most important thing we can do, especially if our prayers are inclusive and offered with thanksgiving.

This week I spent an afternoon on our backporch with our granddaughters. We enjoyed a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. Then we watched a pair of bluebirds feeding their new fledglings.  We played a simple game identifying birds by their colors, and then by their songs. We listened to the breeze blowing our windchimes.  

When the girls went down from the porch to play, I stayed alone to pray. With a heart filled with gratitude, I interceded for our family, for medical professionals, for decision-makers, and for leaders at all levels of government. I prayed those who are unemployed, those who are sick, and those who are bereaved. I prayed for all you who read these words. I concluded my prayer with words from a favorite hymn written by Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick.

God of grace and God of glory

On Thy people pour Thy power.

                        ….

Fears and doubts too long have bound us

Free our hearts to work and praise

Grant us wisdom

Grant us courage

For the living of these days.

Amen

THE LEGEND OF THE FAIRY CROSS

April 18, 2020

Having only recently experienced the last half of Lent and Holy Week sheltering in place, I have had time to meditate on the principal symbol of the Christian faith, the cross. It is an odd symbol when you think about it. Most of the world’s great religions use an object of beauty to identify their faith – the Star of David, the crescent moon, the lotus flower. Christians have chosen the cross, a cruel instrument of execution. A firing squad or lethal injection might just as well represent the faith. Instead of wearing a cross on a chain, we might wear the replica of a guillotine or an electric chair! Through death by crucifixion, the Romans devised a way to inflict severe pain and suffering upon the accused, falsely or not.  

For many Christians, there is a compelling beauty in the cross. It is a reminder of divine love. It is important to remember that the cross of Christ was not a brass decoration in the chancel of a church.   It was made of rough-hewn lumber adorned with thorns, splinters, nails, and bloodstains. George Bernard described it well in his hymn from 1912 as “an old rugged cross, the emblem of suffering and shame.” Many people of faith can say, in the words of Bernard, “So I’ll cherish the old rugged Cross.”

A few weeks before Easter, before the coronavirus required social distancing, Clare and I were going over our calendars together.

I mentioned the Holy Week services scheduled for the church where I now work. For Christians, the days of Holy Week commemorate the events of that pivotal week in the life of Jesus. On Palm Sunday, the children enter the Sanctuary waving palm fronds as the congregation sings a joyful hymn. On Maundy Thursday evening, we share communion remembering the last Passover meal Jesus observed with his disciples. On Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion of Jesus, we gather for a devotional time in the Sanctuary. Easter Sunday is the most important day of the Christian year as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

Of course, these events did not happen as usual this year. COVID-19 required most churches to live-stream these times of worship.

Ever conscious of appropriate attire and accessories, Clare said, “I need to sort out my cross necklaces.”

She has several. One she received from her parents when as a child, she was confirmed in the Methodist Church. She has a Jerusalem cross that I purchased for her when we traveled to the Holy Land. She also has a small reddish-brown cross on a simple ribbon given to her by family friends when she was a child. It is a fairy cross.

Not long after the birth of our first grandchild, Clare and I were at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, North Carolina. Clare found a simple fairy cross on a gold chain for sale. We bought the cross for our new granddaughter.

No one knows how the mysterious fairy crosses came to be.  Even scientists cannot agree on their origin.  One theory estimates that the cross-shaped rocks are as much as 500 million years old and were formed when a meteorite broke apart upon entering the earth’s atmosphere.  Another theory suggests that the reddish-brown crystals came from deep within the earth and were gradually forced to the surface by seismic activity over thousands of years. 

As fascinating as these scientific theories are, I find the legend of the fairy crosses much more interesting. 

One version told by the first European settlers in the Appalachian Mountains is that at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, the angels shed tears. Their tears crystallized and fell to earth in the form of crosses.  They were called faith crosses.  

Another variation is that the tiny crosses were formed by the tears of the Cherokee Indians who wept over the loss of their homeland when they were forcibly evacuated on the infamous Trail of Tears.

The Native Americans had a much older legend about the crosses that was popular long before their removal to Oklahoma. This oldest myth concerns an ancient race of mountain fairies known by the Cherokees as the little people.   It is said that long ago, the fairies were dancing around a stream of water celebrating the arrival of spring in the Smokey Mountains.  An elfin messenger brought sad news from the Land of the Dawn, reporting the crucifixion of Christ.  Gladness was turned to sorrow, and the fairies wept.  As they cried, their tears fell to the ground, forming the little crosses of stone.

So, with the joy gone from their hearts, they wandered away into the forest. But around the spot where they had been dancing and singing, where they had wept, the ground was covered with small crosses.

What happened to the little people? No one knows for sure. The elders of the tribe said that after that day, the little people were never seen again. But they say on spring nights when the moon is full, you can hear them whispering along the river. When there is a gentle spring breeze, the sighing of the little people can be heard in the forest.

Found embedded in rocks that have been subjected to high heat and pressure, fairy stones are staurolite, a combination of silica, iron, and aluminum. Together, these minerals sometimes crystallize and appear in the rocks as a cross-like structure.

The word staurolite derives from the Greek stauros, which means cross. The crystalline forms are most commonly shaped like St. Andrew’s and Roman crosses.

In the southeastern United States, fairy crosses are found in only a few places. The town of Blue Ridge in Fannin County, Georgia, is often called the southern gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The tiny crosses have been found nearby. Staurolite is the official state mineral of Georgia.

The Cherokee County Historical Museum in Murphy, North Carolina, features a large display of fairy crosses. Many of the small stone crosses have been found in neighboring Brasstown, North Carolina. 

Near the town of Stuart in Patrick County, Virginia, Fairy Stone State Park is a short drive from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Known as the home of the fairy stones, the park is the most popular location to search for the tiny crosses. The fairy cross Clare received as a child came from this area of southern Virginia.

Fairy crosses are thought to bring good luck.  Because their average size is about an inch, they are comfortable to wear as jewelry.  Traditionally, mountain folk believed that the cross protected the wearer against witchcraft, diseases, and accidents. The Cherokees associated the stones with the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water.  When worn or carried, the crosses were thought to restore the balance of life.

Legend has it that upon their first meeting, Pocahontas gave Captain John Smith a fairy cross as a token of friendship.  Other famous people known to have owned these cross-shaped rocks were Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Fairy crosses have found their way into rare collections of gems.  Some have been polished and ground to beautiful symmetry and mounted in gold.

The staurolite crystals shaped like crosses are supposed to have powers of protection against harm. They are said to have miraculous power to ensure health and wealth.

Clare has had her fairy cross since she was a child. The fairy cross is like other cross-shaped jewelry. It is a reminder of an old rugged cross, the one at a place called Golgotha, the place of the skull.

For Christians, the cross itself is a beautiful emblem, an outward sign of an inward grace. Be it a brass cross on an altar between two candlesticks, or a cross perched high on a steeple, be it a silver or gold pendant worn on a chain, or a fairy cross on a ribbon, it is far more than a good luck charm. During these weeks following Easter, the cross is a reminder of divine love.

That is precisely the point of the legend of the fairy cross.