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PUMPKIN TIME

October 19, 2019

Last week, as I walked into our regular grocery store, I was greeted by a large chalkboard sign that read NOW SERVING PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE. This particular store houses a coffee shop inside the building.

I stepped to the counter and was greeted by a young barista who asked, “Would you like to try our pumpkin spice latte?”

“Just a regular coffee with half-and-half cream,” I responded.

This week, I noticed a marquee in front of an auto parts store that read, PUMPKIN SPICE MOTOR OIL. Go, figure! Read more…

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PUTTING IN A GOOD WORD

October 14, 2019

I am frequently asked to serve as a reference for people applying for jobs and to write letters of recommendation for applicants to college or seminary. Often these requests come with a comment such as, “Please put in a good word for me.”

Many famous people have opined upon this. Erma Bombeck said, “Some people think that baseball is our national pastime. I say it is gossip.”

Ellen DeGeneres is reported to have said that gossip keeps the entertainment industry going because people love gossip so much.

It was Aesop who first spoke the well-known adage, “If you can’t think of something good to say about a person, say nothing at all.” It is folk wisdom that bears heeding. However, remaining silent when we could say something positive can be condemning. The practice of affirmation, speaking an uplifting word about others, requires deliberate effort.

Scripture gives us this admonition. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” (Ephesians 4:29) We are so easily tempted to criticize and to yield to gossip. Putting in a good word builds up instead of tearing down another.

Benjamin Franklin put it this way, “I resolve to speak ill of no one, not even if it is the truth, but to speak all the good I know about everybody.”

Eleanor Roosevelt summed the matter up with these words, “Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss other people.”

Twenty-five years ago, I drove to Tennessee with my eighty-year-old great-uncle, Hugh. Uncle Hugh was my grandfather’s brother. His request was simply put, “Kirk, I’d like to see my cousins one more time before I die.”

Uncle Hugh had three living first cousins, all in their eighties, all older than he. I took a tape recorder on the trip and obtained eight hours of recordings of these four octogenarians, talking about their family and remembering their grandfather who was my great-great-grandfather.

Major Hugh Neely, my great-great-grandfather, was a large man with a full reddish-gray beard. When I was young, I fancied him as a hero of the Confederacy, but I learned that Major was not a military rank. It was his given name. He was actually a schoolteacher in Christiana, Tennessee, and the postmaster in Fosterville, Tennessee. He owned a fifty-acre farm along the Shelbyville Pike at the base of Short Mountain.

Major Hugh Neely lived through the Civil War and tried, on two occasions, to enlist in the Confederate Army. Early in the war he was not allowed to join because he was a schoolteacher.  As the war wore on, he tried again to enlist.  This time he was not accepted as a soldier because he could not see.  He was cross-eyed and could have never fired a rifle safely. Though he was unable to shoot straight with a firearm, Major Hugh Neely had the reputation of being a straight shooter in his conversation.

As I listened to his elderly grandchildren share their memories, I also learned that though he would have been a Confederate soldier, Major Hugh Neely opposed slavery. After his father, William, died, his mother, Tabitha, remarried a slaveholder named Moses Swan. In his will, Mr. Swan left a slave woman named Mariah to Hugh Neely. The day the will was probated, my great-great-grandfather freed her. He is reported to have said, “No person can own another person.”

As a free woman, Mariah took the last name Neely.

The grandchildren of Major Hugh Neely agreed that he had the reputation for always finding something good to say about everybody. No matter their character flaws, my great-great-grandfather could find something positive about any person.

One night, Joe Foster, the town drunk of Fosterville, was staggering down the railroad track when he was hit and killed by a train.  Two of the young men in town decided to challenge my great-great-grandfather.  One told the other, “Let’s go to the post office and speak to Mr. Neely. We’ll tell him that old Joe was killed by the train.  Then, let’s see what he says.”

They found Major Hugh Neely and posed the question.  They were sure that even he would not be able to say anything good about Joe Foster. “Mr. Neely, I guess you heard that old Joe was killed by the train. He was just a no-good drunk.”

My great-great-grandfather listened and thought before he spoke. “No, I had not heard of his death, but I can’t say that I’m surprised. Old Joe didn’t have much to commend him. Nobody had much good to say about Joe.”

After a pause, Major Hugh Neely added, “Joe could whistle a tune better than anybody I have ever known. Yep, I think he was the best whistler I ever heard.”

Finding something positive about other people makes a difference in our life together. The gift of affirming, building up rather than tearing down, putting in a good word whenever we have the opportunity is the art of being an encourager.

My mother often quoted Edward Wallis Hoch’s brief poem.

There is so much good in the worst of us,

And so much bad in the best of us,

That it hardly behooves any of us

To talk about the rest of us.

The world would be a better place if all of us made a habit of putting in a good word for other folks.

A PRAYER FOR YOM KIPPUR

October 8, 2019

The following is copied from the blog Powerline posted by Scott Johnson.

Jews begin the observance of Yom Kippur at sundown tonight with the Kol Nidre prayer service. A few years ago a Christian friend asked to join us at the service we attend. Since then she has joined my family when we break our fast, as she will again tomorrow night. During the service she pointed in our prayer book to an adaptation of the prayer composed by the reformist German Rabbi Leo Baeck for delivery in German synagogues during the Kol Nidre service on October 10, 1935. The prayer remains timely today. I have previously posted the prayer and am taking the liberty of posting it again today, both for its intrinsic interest and its continuing relevance:

“At this hour the whole House of Israel stands before its God, the God of Justice and the God of Mercy. We shall examine our ways before Him. We shall examine what we have done and what we have failed to do; we shall examine where we have gone and where we have failed to go. Wherever we have sinned we will confess it: We will say “we have sinned” and we will pray with the will to repentance before the Lord and we will pray: “Lord forgive us!”

“We stand before our God and with the same courage with which we have acknowledged our sins, the sins of the individual and the sins of the community, shall we express our abhorrence of the lie directed against us, and the slander of our faith and its expressions: this slander is far below us. We believe in our faith and our future. Who brought the world the secret of the Lord Everlasting, of the Lord Who is One? Who brought the world understanding for a life of purity, for the purity of the family? Who brought the world respect for Man made in the image of God? Who brought the world the commandment of justice, of social thought? In all these the spirit of the Prophets of Israel, the Revelation of God to the Jewish People had a part.

“It sprang from our Judaism, and continues to grow in it. All the slander drops away when it is cast against these facts.
We stand before our God: Our strength is in Him. In Him is the truth and the dignity of our history. In Him is the source of our survival through every change, our firm stand in all our trials. Our history is the history of spiritual greatness, spiritual dignity.

“We turn to it when attack and insult are directed against us, when need and suffering press in upon us. The Lord led our fathers from generation to generation. He will continue to lead us and our children through our days.

“We stand before our God; we draw strength from His Commandments, which we obey. We bow down before Him, and we stand upright before Men. Him we serve, and remain steadfast in all the changes around us. We put our faith in Him in humility and our way ahead is clear, we see our future….”

At the time he wrote and disseminated the prayer, Baeck was president of the Reichsvertretung der Juden in Deutschland, the official representative body of the Jews in Germany. The Gestapo discovered the text of the prayer and arrested Baeck. In Days of Sorrow and Pain, his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Baeck, Leonard Baker writes that Gestapo officials showed up at some Yom Kippur services, especially in Berlin: “No count was ever made of how many rabbis read the prayer at the service; many did, so many that it was almost an act of collective defiance on the part of the German rabbinate.”

SWEET POTATOES

October 4, 2019

Clare and I paid a visit to Strawberry Hill at Cooley Springs in the Upstate of South Carolina. As usual, James Cooley’s place of business was hopping. Pumpkins of every shape, size, and color were on display, along with several varieties of apples, pears, assorted jams and jellies, hot cider, and boiled peanuts.

I had the opportunity to speak to James, and I complimented him on the festive appearance of the peach shed.

“Yeah,” he said, “Our daughter Brandi does a good job decorating. I turned that part over to her.”

I stepped back to admire the view. Dried corn stalks and bales of hay served as the backdrop.  Clusters of Indian corn and groupings of fall mums were mixed among the produce. The roadside stand was a feast for the eyes.

In the midst of the autumn colors were piles of brown sweet potatoes as dirty as the soil from which they were dug. Nearly all the customers, including Clare, grabbed a bag and selected some of the rough tubers. The piles were marked with large cardboard signs with one word written in rustic red letters – TATERS.

Clare picked out a few of the sweet potatoes. Two days later we had five of our grandchildren in our home. We all enjoyed warm sweet potatoes with butter.

In the world of superfoods, sweet potatoes are rising stars. The orange flesh is rich in beta carotene and vitamin C, both powerful antioxidants. This starchy vegetable can be enjoyed at any time of year. In the South, sweet potatoes are abundant from September through December. At our house, the versatile vegetable makes the perfect companion to a Thanksgiving turkey or a Christmas ham.

Sweet potatoes come in many varieties. The skin color can range from red to purple, yellow, brown, or white. The flesh also ranges in color from white or yellow to dark orange. The peel is thin and edible. It is the orange-fleshed varieties that are most common and most often called yams.

Ask for yams in most any grocery store, and you’re likely to be directed to sweet potatoes. Though yams and sweet potatoes are considered first cousins, they are not related botanically.

True yams are native to Africa and parts of Asia. They may be the size of a small potato or grow to be several feet long. The skin on most varieties of yams is thick, rough, and somewhat like bark. When cooked, they are generally drier, starchier, and less sweet than sweet potatoes. The confusion started in the South. Slaves who had been brought from Africa called sweet potatoes nyami because of their resemblance to the familiar root crop which was a staple in Africa.

At James Cooley’s peach shed last week, I picked up a sweet potato and examined it. This simple vegetable was responsible for my family’s survival.

My grandfather and grandmother, Pappy and Mammy, had eight children when the Great Depression hit.  Pappy was running what he called a one-horse lumberyard on East Henry Street. The family had moved to Spartanburg from Greenville in 1923. My dad was two years old at the time. Pappy started the lumberyard with his life’s savings. Eventually, he was able to build a beautiful brick home out on the Greenville Highway where the pavement ended.

During the Depression “times were hard and things were bad,” to quote Johnny Cash. One of the first areas to suffer at the beginning of an economic downturn is the construction industry.  It is also one of the last to recover.  Building homes and even making home repairs are postponed when the country experiences a depressed economy.

Pappy struggled to make ends meet.  Determined to save the lumberyard, he mortgaged the business and then his home to put more money into the lumberyard.  Politicians kept saying that prosperity was just around the corner.  Finally, Pappy lost both the lumberyard and the family home.

Pappy and Mammy moved to a house that is still standing across the road from the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind at Cedar Springs.  The gray Victorian house features contrasting white gingerbread work around the outside.  Uncle Wesley, their ninth child, was born in that home.

My dad, then eleven years old, raised turkeys. Mammy’s goat and cow provided dairy products for the family. Pappy planted a large garden and farmed the land where Mountainview Nursing Home now stands.

The chain gang mule Pappy bought at an auction near Dutchman’s Fork for fifteen dollars had been used and abused until he was little more than skin and bones. Dick, as the mule was called, had worn a harness so often that trace chains had rubbed open sores on his sides. Pappy applied Bluestone Salve to the mule’s wounds. He fed him oats, corn, and hay to put a little meat on his bones. When Dick was restored to health, he was an excellent plow mule.

Pappy decided to raise sweet potatoes to sell and to serve as a staple food for his large family. He knew the market and knew the tubers could be stored easily. Though he had grown them in a garden, he knew nothing about planting sweet potatoes commercially. As he had always done, Pappy plowed the ground, cut the furrows, and planted the potato slips in the rows.

Neighbors just laughed at Pappy, advising, “You’ll never make any taters planting them in the valleys like that. You’ll have nothing but vines. Taters have to be planted on the hills.”

A long, hot dry summer followed. Most farmers who had planted sweet potatoes had a poor harvest. That fall, however, Pappy turned the furrows where he had planted the potato slips. The valleys had gotten enough water: the hills did not. Pappy and his children harvested a bumper crop. Mammy, who had prayed earnestly for the effort, gave credit to the Lord for the bounty.

Pappy walked across Highway 56 to the School for the Deaf and Blind and struck an agreement with the superintendent, Dr. W. L. Walker. For a set price Pappy would provide all of the sweet potatoes and turkeys the school needed for the coming year. With the annual renewal of the contract, the income helped to sustain the family throughout the Depression.

A Neely family legend holds that Mammy, of necessity, often prepared sweet potatoes three different ways for the same meal. Sweet potato soufflé, candied yams, and baked sweet potatoes were standard fare. Sweet potato biscuits, bread, and rolls were Mammy’s specialties. Sweet potato pie was a common dessert. When the children came home from school and needed a snack, they usually ate a cold, leftover sweet potato. Mammy just didn’t have much else to serve her family.

Even after the Depression, sweet potatoes were usually on Mammy’s table. Uncle Buzz called them Depression taters. He said he had eaten enough to do him a lifetime. He steadfastly declared that he would never eat another sweet potato.

For the rest of his life, Uncle Buzz remained true to his word!

SERENDIPITY

September 29, 2019

Life is full of surprises. I will always remember a trip I took when I was seventeen years old. In 1962, I traveled to the African country of Southern Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe. I spent two months there visiting my Uncle Herbert and Aunt Jackie. I had many exciting adventures in what was then known as the Dark Continent. Africa was a beautiful land. The people were welcoming and friendly.

I had the opportunity to visit many areas of the country. Among those was a wildlife reserve where I saw up close, from the passenger seat of a Volkswagen bus, animals as diverse as elephants and rhinos, giraffe and zebra, lions and baboons. I visited Victoria Falls and traveled by boat up the Zambezi River.

In those days, Rhodesia was a British Commonwealth nation. Many English customs were embedded in the culture. Among those was the tradition of tea time. At four o’clock in the afternoon, in the remote jungle bordering the Zambezi, our boat docked at a picnic shelter with a thatched roof. There we were served high tea. I asked the middle-aged couple sitting across the table from me to please pass the sugar. They gave me the strangest look.

“Where are you from?” the man asked.

“South Carolina,” I replied.

“Where in South Carolina?” the woman askled.

“Spartanburg.” I said.

They laughed. “We’re from Anderson!”

On the other side of the world, I made new friends whose home was sixty miles from my home. It was a moment of serendipity.

The word serendipity was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole in a letter to a friend living in Italy. The British statesman wrote that he created the word after reading a fairytale entitled “The Three Princes of Serendip.” Serendip is the Persian name for an island nation off the southern tip of India, Sri Lanka. Walpole explained that as the princes traveled they made surprising and unexpected discoveries that brought them great delight.

I recently learned that the shelves of almost any grocery store are stocked with several examples of serendipitous products.

On the soft drink aisle, I saw the accidental invention of pharmacist John Pemberton, a Confederate veteran of the Civil War. He intended to make a patent medicine—a brain and nerve tonic—to cure fatigue and headaches. Pemberton’s liquid concoction, brewed in a three-legged brass kettle in his backyard, included coca leaves, which left a small amount of cocaine in the elixir. Added to the mix was caffeine, also a stimulant. When combined with carbonated water the syrupy formula became Coca-Cola.

On the cereal aisle, I found Will Kellogg’s surprise. He was helping his brother cook meals for patients at a tuberculosis sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, when he mistakenly left bread dough sitting out for several hours. Upon discovering the flaky mess he decided to avoid waste by baking it anyway. The resulting flakes provided a tasty treat for the patients. The surprising spin-off was corn flakes.

In 1853 George Crum, a chef in New York, became frustrated with an irritable patron in his restaurant. The customer repeatedly returned French fries to the kitchen, complaining that they were too soggy. In an attempt to satisfy the disagreeable fellow, Crum sliced the potatoes extra thin, fried them to a crisp, and covered them in salt. The difficult customer was delighted with what became known as potato chips. Many brands and varieties of chips are available on the snack aisle.

I discovered that the frozen foods display contains two serendipitous desserts. In 1905 eleven-year-old Frank Epperson wanted to save money by making his own soda pop. The mixture of flavored powder and sugar water was too sweet. He mistakenly left his concoction outside on the porch when temperatures dropped below freezing. The next morning young Frank found his frozen experiment with the stirring stick still in it. Popsicles were born.

An ice cream vendor at the 1904 World’s Fair ran out of serving dishes. In the neighboring booth the sale of Persian waffles was slow. The two proprietors rolled up the waffles, plopped ice cream on top, and created the ice cream cone.

In the housewares section, you will find a product developed by a company that manufactures firearms.  While working on a rust-resistant gun barrel, a metallurgist realized that stainless steel would be perfect for cooking utensils.

If you’ve ever cooked an omelet you can thank a chemist with the DuPont Corporation who accidentally stumbled upon Teflon while experimenting with refrigerants.

Looking for an alternative to shellac, a chemist came up with a material that could be heated to extremely high temperatures and molded into various shapes for multiple purposes. Plastic was inadvertently invented.

The research department at Kodak Laboratories made an accidental development. Super Glue, first rejected as being too sticky, was later successfully marketed.

Post-it Notes were an inadvertent discovery of the 3M Corporation.

During a hunting trip, a Swiss engineer noticed how burrs clung to his dog’s fur. He replicated the effect in his laboratory. The National Air and Space Administration, NASA, adopted the technology, and Velcro was popularized.

NASA has given us many other serendipitous products. Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite and Charles Goodyear’s process for the vulcanization of rubber are exceptional examples.

Even in the world of toys, the Slinky and Play-Doh were developed quite by accident.

The field of medicine has offered many surprises.

Before leaving for a vacation Alexander Fleming failed to disinfect some petri dishes containing active bacteria. When he returned to his lab, mold had killed the bacteria cultures. His forgetfulness aided in the discovery of penicillin.

X-rays, anesthesia, and the pacemaker were all unintended discoveries.

A medicine developed to treat hypertension proved an unsatisfactory remedy for high blood pressure. However, researchers found during the clinical trials that the formula was good for something else. The discovery of Viagra—the details of which I’ll leave to your imagination—was also serendipitous.

In my garden, early on a September Sunday morning, I found a Dutch iris in full bloom. They usually bloom in the early spring. I had yet another moment of serendipity.

Life is full of joyful surprises. Serendipity is reason to celebrate.

SINGING THE BLUES

September 23, 2019

On a late summer evening several years ago, Freddie Vanderford, David Ezell, and I enjoyed supper together at a Mexican restaurant in Union, South Carolina. David and I have known each other for years. Since our boyhood days, we have coaxed tunes from our acoustic guitars. Back in the dim ages we each had the privilege of making music with Walter Hyatt. As a teenager, I strummed hillbilly chords with Walt on Monday nights at a small Presbyterian Church after Boy Scout meetings. David and Uncle Walt continued to practice and play, becoming professional certified guitar players.  I went off on a different tangent to become God knows what.

David and Freddie are members of the inner circle of Piedmont Blues musicians in the Upstate. They play gigs together with other artists like Fayssoux McLean, who is a Southern songbird, and Brandon Turner, who can coax a mournful twang from any guitar – acoustic, electric, or steel.

In recent years I have developed a particular interest in the blues, a musical genre with a Southern heritage.

“I want you to meet Freddie,” David had said. “He plays the blues harp like you have never heard. He learned from Peg Leg Sam.”

The meeting over Mexican cuisine in Union was my first encounter with Freddie. We chose the location because David and I call Spartanburg home while Freddie hails from Buffalo, South Carolina. David was right. The man from Buffalo can make a harmonica sing.

We enjoyed our supper and talked about the music indigenous to the South and to the Upstate.

As nearly as I can tell the blues all started at a railroad crossing in the upper Mississippi Delta where “the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog.”  The junction of the Southern Railroad and the Yazoo Delta Railroad was established in 1897. For decades it was the central Delta’s major rail link making Moorhead, Mississippi, the region’s most active freight connections. In 1914 the railroad crossing gained national fame with W.C. Handy’s blues song “The Yellow Dog Rag.”

The Delta Blues developed from African roots cultivated in the cotton rows of the South. During their backbreaking work in the fields of the Southern plantations, slaves developed a call and response way of singing to give rhythm to the drudgery of their day. These field calls served as a basis of all blues music.

Following the Civil War, the traditional slave music was influenced by ballads, spirituals, and rhythmic dance tunes known as jump-ups. The music adopted call and response patterns also common in African-American churches. A blues singer carried on a musical dialogue with his guitar. He would sing a line, and the guitar would answer. This is a persistent pattern in the blues. The famous artist B.B. King named his guitar Lucille, and the two have been singing together ever since.

Blues songs are usually sung in the first person. This style of music has an unvarnished honesty conveyed through powerful, rhythm. The lyrics are soulful and melancholy, reflecting themes of daily life. Nothing is off-limits. Love, marriage, and unfaithfulness all find a voice. Drinking, gambling, stealing, and murder are grist for the mill. Jail time, hard labor, and poverty find expression in the good blues songs, as do mules, railroads, and trucks.

Some of the best known Delta Blues singers were discovered in prison.

Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was an iconic blues musician. He played several instruments but was best known for his virtuosity on the twelve-string guitar. A propensity for a violent temper and knife fights led to his incarceration in prisons from Texas, to Louisiana, to New York on at least four occasions. Fellow prisoners gave him the name Lead Belly after another inmate shot Ledbetter in the stomach with a shotgun. Alan Lomax discovered and recorded Ledbetter in 1930 during a visit to the Angola Prison Farm in Louisiana.

Freddie Vanderford sings “The Parchman Farm Blues,” named for the Mississippi State Penitentiary, a hard-time prison. Several musicians were imprisoned there, including Bukka White who wrote the song.

During the Great Depression, many Southern blacks migrated north along the route of the Illinois Central Railroad. The earthy music became firmly established in Memphis and St. Louis and then in Chicago and Detroit.

The blues filled rowdy urban nightclubs. The loud crowds and bigger venues led some of the more inventive performers such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to switch to electric guitars and to add drums to their bands.

Muddy Waters was born at Jug’s Corner, Mississippi, in 1913. He is considered the father of modern Chicago blues. This new electric Chicago music was more powerful than its predecessor and became a major inspiration for the British blues explosion in the 1960s. Eric Clapton was major contributor.

Here in the Upstate, blues also found a home in the hilly area between the Coastal Plain and the Appalachian Mountains, from Georgia to Virginia. Piedmont Blues is characterized by a syncopated guitar technique that is comparable in sound to ragtime piano. The style features a fingerpicking method in which an alternating-thumb-bass pattern supports a melody on treble strings.  Generally, Piedmont Blues is a little more light-hearted than its Delta cousins. Doc Watson is a prime example.

Freddie Vanderford explained that Piedmont blues musicians discovered that more upbeat music garnered larger tips than mournful songs.

In the early twentieth century, influential artists such as Blind Boy Fuller, Blind Blake, and Blind Willie McTell made Piedmont blues popular. Freddie said that the blind musicians had made a significant contribution in shaping the style. Women were also masters of Piedmont guitar style, including Etta Baker from Morganton, North Carolina, and Elizabeth Cotton, whose “Freight Train” is one of the best-recognized fingerpicking blues tunes.

A good-natured fingerpicking guitarist, Pink Anderson was born in Laurens but raised in Greenville and Spartanburg. He played for thirty years as part of a medicine show, Dr. Kerr’s Indian Remedy Company. Pink entertained crowds with an old Gibson J-50 guitar and a harmonica while Kerr tried to sell a concoction purported to have medicinal qualities. Pink Anderson is buried in the Lincoln Memorial Gardens in Spartanburg.

Pink also played with Peg Leg Sam, a blues harmonica player from the West Springs area of Union County. Peg Leg Sam got his nickname, following an accident while traveling as a hobo in 1930. He mentored Freddie Vanderford, who played a few gigs with Pink Anderson’s son, Little Pink.

The Piedmont Blues influenced other popular musicians such as Ray Charles and Paul Simon. Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt also adopted the style as their own.

Meeting Freddie Vanderford opened a door into a part of the rich musical heritage of our part of the country. He recalled stories about Reverend Gary Davis from Grey Court, Baby Tate who lived behind the Varsity Drive-in, and Josh White from Greenville.  Freddie told me that Brownie McGhee got his start playing at tobacco barn auctions and that Sonny Terry played the harmonica upside down.

I often listen to my copy of Freddie’s album entitled “Greasy Greens.” My greater gift is that now I know Freddie. He is one more reason to love the Upstate.

THE CAROLINA SKIPPER

September 15, 2019

Among the visitors to our garden in the early fall is a small winged creature that I have always called a Carolina skipper. I have recently learned that the correct name is the common checkered skipper. This butterfly is easy to identify by the distinctive white spots on her dark gray wings. True to its name the diminutive insect skips from one flower to another. While others of her kin will linger for a longer sip of nectar, the checkered skipper moves quickly to the next bloom.

Residents of South Carolina might assume the checkered skipper would be the state butterfly, but that honor goes to the eastern tiger swallowtail. This is among the largest of the butterflies common to the Palmetto State. The eastern tiger swallowtail was adopted in 1994 with the approval of the South Carolina General Assembly. Interestingly, it is also the state butterfly of North Carolina and Georgia.

Swallowtails are named for the long portion of their hind wings which resemble a swallow’s tail feathers. Each of the forewings of the eastern tiger swallowtail has four black stripes resembling a tiger. Males are yellow with black stripes. Females can be either yellow or dark gray with the same striped pattern.

Adult butterflies do not eat solid foods as they did in their larval stage. Instead, they sip nectar using a proboscis, a long, tube-shaped tongue.

As I worked in my yard last weekend, a spicebush butterfly was my constant companion.   While I stooped to pull weeds, time and again the tiny creature fluttered past.  When I stood to stretch, my beautiful visitor danced in circles close by.  I felt unusually blessed by its presence.

Pausing from my labors, I marveled at the delicate, black butterfly, marked with iridescent blue.  Most gardeners in these parts know that by early fall there are precious few blooms on our tired summer plants. I stopped for a moment to admire the graceful visitor to our garden.

As I continued working, I mopped perspiration from my face with an old, faded bandana. I tossed it aside.  Moments later I noticed the spicebush butterfly perched on the flowered rag as if sipping nectar.  I realized that my own salty sweat had attracted the butterfly.

During spring break several years ago, two of our sons and I hiked a portion of the Foothills Trail together.  On the second day of our backpacking trip, the pedestrian trail crossed an equestrian trail.  The pungent aroma of horses filled the air.  A hundred or more bright yellow tiger swallowtails flittered about.  As we passed among the swirling swarm, we noticed the main attraction just off the trail.  It was a pile of fresh horse manure.

As much as I enjoy butterflies, I much prefer to think of them as being attracted by flowers rather than by human sweat or by horse manure.

In our garden, I have included plants known to attract butterflies.  We have several butterfly bushes.  The summer garden is graced with zinnias and cosmos.  In the fall, milkweed, bronze fennel, sedum, and Joe Pye weed are favorite items on the butterfly buffet.

The plant that anchors one corner of our garden is a lantana.  Throughout October, pink, yellow, and orange composite flowers cover the spreading lantana.  The vibrant colors provide an eye-catching display in the autumn garden.  One of the beauties of the lantana is that it is a congregating place for butterflies. The flowers of the plant are enhanced by the fluttering flowers that are attracted to the bush.

Butterflies are difficult to count because they are constantly on the move.  One sunny afternoon last month, I drove into our driveway and paused to look at the lantana.  My estimate is that there were no fewer than thirty on, above, and around the bush. There were several varieties including majestic monarchs, deep-orange fritillaries, and an American painted lady.  The lantana, accompanied by a bevy of fluttering guests, made quite a display.

In our neck of the woods, September and October are peak months for butterflies. As they prepare to migrate, these winged insects drink deeply from the flowers.  The nectar provides the energy some of them will need as they fly south for the winter.  Some of the ones that dance around the flowers in our gardens, or, for that matter, around a sweaty bandana or a pile of horse manure, will spend the winter in Central America. Many of the monarchs will migrate; many of the others will not.

Butterflies begin life as caterpillars.  After a time of chewing on leaves, they hang upside down and spin a silken case in which they are enfolded.  In this chrysalis stage, they resemble a dead leaf until the moment comes when they emerge from their cocoon.  Spreading their newly formed wings they fly away, transformed creatures.  This metamorphosis has made butterflies a symbol for new life.  Sometimes butterflies are been released at weddings just as the groom and bride are pronounced husband and wife to mark the beginning of their new life together.

Early Christians saw in the butterfly an apt symbol for the resurrection.  I vividly remember the funeral service for a woman who loved butterflies.  She had decorated her home with a butterfly theme.  She tended a special butterfly garden in her backyard designed to attract her flying flowers, as she called them.

After her death following an extended illness, it was only natural at her memorial service to emphasize her enjoyment of butterflies.  Some of the flower arrangements sent by friends and family members included silk butterflies.  At the cemetery on a mountainside in Western North Carolina, the crowning touch to her service came as a complete surprise.  As I finished reading the scripture, a monarch butterfly danced into the funeral tent and descended upon the Bible I held in my hands.  The tiny orange and black creature perched like a bookmark between the opened pages.  For a few silent seconds we marveled in amazement.

There is no telling what will attract a butterfly.

By late summer, my garden is arrayed with butterflies of all varieties. Once they take wing, these beautiful insects are drawn to flowering plants that provide an enticing feast.

Creating a butterfly garden requires a little planning. Among butterfly favorites are ageratum, aster, butterfly bush, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, catmint, coneflower, coreopsis, cosmos, goldenrods, honeysuckle, hyssop, lantana, mallow, marigold, phlox, salvia, sedum, verbena, yarrow, and zinnia. The work of creating a garden spot that attracts these gorgeous flying insects is well worth the effort.

I sat in the backyard of an older man who for several years had cultivated an active butterfly garden. The man had just learned that he was dying of cancer.

The autumn afternoon offered a gentle breeze and warm sunshine. We sat in lawn chairs next to his butterfly garden. The place was alive with flying flowers. Checkered skippers, spicebush, swallowtails, monarchs, buckeyes, a red admiral, and a mourning cloak all sipped nectar from the array of blooms.

We sat in silence for a time before he spoke.

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

“Yes,” I agreed.

After a long pause I added, “You know the Church has long regarded the butterfly as a symbol of resurrection.”

After a few thoughtful moments, he said, “No wonder I enjoy them so much.”