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FOLLOWING DIRT ROADS

May 19, 2019

I recently read Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads by Paul Theroux. Well well-known travel writer, Theroux explores the section of America I know best, the Deep South. He finds a paradoxical place, full of incomparable music, unparalleled cuisine, and also some of the nation’s worst schools, housing, and 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 my car 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’s book and Blake Shelton’s song reminded me of the place I grew up, Spartanburg County, South Carolina. Read more…

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BULLFROG LORE

May 13, 2019

Last Wednesday night after a scout meeting, I sat outside on our screened-in back porch. Thunderstorms were approaching, and the critters in our yard were stirred up. A lone male mockingbird sang a courting song from the top of an oak tree. Tree frogs and crickets joined in with their own melodies. Two feral cats darted across our lawn. A big, fat possum ambled out of the bushes and disappeared into the woods. Dogs barked in the background, and two bullfrogs chimed in with bass notes from our pond. All of the activity was a prelude to the storm that followed.

Just a week earlier I heard a program on a local radio station. The talk show featured experts from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Invited to call in questions, listeners kept the telephone lines humming throughout the hour.

Most callers were concerned about fishing regulations. They wanted answers about licensing requirements, size and number limits, and information about stocking ponds and streams.

Finally, near the end of the program, a fellow named Ralph was on the line.

“Ralph, where are you calling from?”

“From my pickup truck.”

“What’s your question?”

“What about frog gigging?”

The Game Warden answered, “The laws of South Carolina are completely silent when it comes to frog gigging.”

“You mean there ain’t no rules?”

“That’s right.”

“Hot diggity-dog!”

“You must like to eat frog legs.”

“Man, yeah! Fried frog legs are the best thing ever with a good vegetable like macaroni and cheese and a cold beer!”

Our garden waterfall spills into a pond lined with creek rocks. The water is recycled back to the top of the hill by a pump, creating a continuous flow.

On a visit to our garden last year, a friend sat by the pond watching the goldfish dart among the plants. “You need a couple of bullfrogs,” he observed.

I recalled the pleasant sound of bullfrogs from my boyhood fishing and camping adventures and agreed that a couple of bullfrogs would make a fine addition to our small pond. A few days later a man from our church gave us six big croakers from the abundant population in his own pond. “I wanted to be sure you had at least one male and one female,” he chuckled.

After our gift of frogs arrived, I learned several interesting bits of information:  bullfrogs can live up to fifteen years, and female bullfrogs can actually lay as many as 20,000 eggs at one time. In a year or so more, I have no doubt that their croaks will be deafening.

I have enjoyed hearing their deep resonant voices singing after dark along with the symphony of tree frogs, crickets, and a persistent whip-poor-will. The cacophony conjures up thoughts of bullfrog tales.

In 1865, the budding journalist Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was living in a cabin near Angels Camp, California.  He frequented the bar at a local hotel, listening to yarns spun by prospectors from the nearby hills. It was there that he heard a tall tale, which he later crafted into a short story.  Twain wrote about a bullfrog named Dan’l Webster, who fails to hop even once during a jumping contest. His dismayed owner, despondent over losing a bet of forty dollars, later discovers an opponent had filled the big frog with lead quail shot.  Twain’s legendary amphibian helped make him famous. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” has become one of the best-known bullfrog stories.

Perhaps the most famous tale about frogs was written by the Brothers Grimm. “The Frog Prince,” which has been told and retold, usually recounts how a princess finds a conversant frog. The frog asks that she kiss him in order to break an evil spell so he can change into the handsome prince he was prior to the curse. Though in the story’s original form the princess does not actually kiss the frog, it is most frequently told so that her kiss transforms the frog into a prince.

This theme has many variations, even one for liberated women.

Once upon a time, a beautiful, independent, self-assured princess happened upon a frog in a pond. The frog explained, “I was once a handsome prince until an evil witch put a spell on me. One kiss from you and I will turn back into a prince. Then we can marry and move into the castle with my parents. You can prepare my meals, clean my clothes, and bear my children. We’ll live happily ever after.”

That night, while the princess dined on frog legs, she laughed, “I don’t think so.”

A variation for senior adults places an old man – wearing a tattered long-sleeve shirt, khaki pants, and a straw hat – on a log.  Fishing with a cane pole from the riverbank was slow. As the late summer sun began to set, a bullfrog hopped up on the log next to the elderly gentleman and asked, “Are you married?”

“No, my wife died five years ago,” the man answered, surprised to be speaking with a frog.

After a pause, the frog offered, “I am really a beautiful princess. If you kiss me, I will become a young woman and marry you.”

The old gentleman considered the offer. Without a word, he gathered his fishing equipment, put the frog into his straw hat, and walked through the dark woods back to his pickup truck.

“Are you hard of hearing?” the frog demanded.

“No, not at all.”

Annoyed at the man, the frog repeated, “I really am a beautiful princess. Kiss me, and I will become a gorgeous woman. I will marry you.”

“I understand,” the man answered.

The frustrated frog shrieked again, “I really am a beautiful woman! I’m offering to become your wife. Why won’t you kiss me?”

The old man paused a moment, then explained, “At my age, I can have a whole lot more fun with a talking frog than I can with a second wife.”

THE STORY OF A MIGRANT MOTHER

May 10, 2019

Here is a Mothers’ Day story that captures the essence of motherhood.

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, a famous newspaper editor, 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 a destitute 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 picture 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 camp.

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 recent The Dust Bowl, a documentary film which 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 February 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 and cooking vegetables that had been frozen in the field for her children 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 farm workers 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 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 1930s 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 September 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

LEGACY POUND CAKE

April 27, 2019

On a chilly, rainy Tuesday afternoon five years ago, I officiated at the funeral service for Mrs. Sina Green. Had she lived another six months she would have been 100 years old. Mrs. Green was born when Woodrow Wilson was in the second year of his first term as President of the United States. The Boston Braves – later to become the Milwaukee Braves, now the Atlanta Braves – won the National League pennant in 1914. That year marked the beginning of World War I.

Though rain was pouring on the day of the funeral, Floyd’s Pacolet Chapel was at near capacity. Usually, when a person lives to a ripe old age, attendance is limited.

Some years ago a ninety-five-year-old matron asked to meet with me to plan her funeral.  She said, “There’ll be a lot of surprised people when I get to heaven.”

“Why will they be surprised?” I asked.

She explained. “My family and friends have been in heaven so long that by the time I arrive, they will have all assumed that I went to the other place.”

I doubt that anyone would think such a thing about Mrs. Green.

Many in the crowd that gathered in the chapel for her service were relatives and close friends. As they came into the chapel from the inclement weather, I asked, “What do you remember most about this lady?”

Without hesitation, many answered, “Her old-fashioned pound cake.”

My picture appeared in the very first Stroller cookbook. Inside the front cover of that fifty-seven-year-old publication was one of those family pictures that you wish you could avoid when you are almost thirteen and the oldest of eight children. In that photograph, taken by B and B Studio, I was standing behind six of my seven younger siblings. My right hand was resting on my mother’s shoulder, and my left hand was on the shoulder of my younger brother Bill.

As I recall, my mother had submitted a recipe for caramel cake to the Stroller just a few days before my youngest sister, Kitty, was born. Seymour Rosenberg called Mama several weeks later to arrange a time for Harry White to take the picture. By then Kitty was six weeks old, and my dad had been hospitalized with a serious infection following knee surgery. Mama agreed to the photo but said up front that she had no time to bake a cake.

I rode my bicycle to Community Cash grocery store, located at the corner of Lucerne Drive and Union Road, to purchase the out-of-date angel food cake pictured in the photograph.  Though Mama was pretending to cover that cake with caramel icing, she was actually spreading Peter Pan peanut butter on top. After the photographer left, we all tasted the cake but fed most of it to the dog.

Mama died in 2001. A part of her legacy is old-fashioned, down-home Southern cooking. In fact, with a good bit of motherly cajoling and masterful delegating, she compiled and published her own Neely Family Cookbook in 1991. Her goal was to preserve many of the favorite family recipes and stories. She wanted all of us to be able to do some cooking.

“People just do better when they’ve been fed,” was her wise advice.

My culinary repertoire is limited to outdoor grilling, boiled shrimp, made-to-order omelets, bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches with mozzarella cheese, and my world-famous peanut butter and banana sandwich.

If the old saying “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach” is true, the men in my family may be the best examples. Good cooking has always had a special place in my heart.

My mama, a graduate of Winthrop College, was a home economics major. With eight children and forty-five grandchildren, it was good that she was an excellent cook. Mama could prepare almost any food, but she always depended on Dad to make the best grits I have ever tasted.

My grandfather, though not much of a cook himself, had some of the best culinary advice: “Don’t get married and hire a cook; just marry the cook.” Pappy did exactly that. In fact, he met my grandmother during a cakewalk at a Methodist church. Pappy won her pound cake. It was so delicious that he decided to court her.

I understand from Mrs. Green’s family that she never gave out the entire recipe for her legendary pound cake. My grandmother was the same way with her recipes. Over time I believe my aunts and sisters figured out exactly what ingredients went into the treasured cakewalk recipe that I inherited from Mammy. Her melt-in-your-mouth pound cake was beyond compare.

 

Mammy’s Pound Cake

1 pound sugar                                                                          3 tablespoons cream

1 pound butter                                                                         3 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 pound flour                                                                          1 teaspoon lemon extract

1 pound eggs

All ingredients must be at room temperature. Cream the butter, and gradually add the sugar. Then mix alternately small portions of flour and eggs. Add cream, vanilla, and lemon. Beat mixture hard for 10-30 minutes, including mixing time.

Grease and flour a tube cake pan. One inherited from your grandmother works best. Pour batter into the pan. Pound the pan on a hard surface 20 to 30 times to remove all bubbles from the batter. This explains all the dents in the antique cake pan.

Put the pan containing the batter into a cold oven. Set the oven to bake at 200 degrees for one hour. Then, increase the heat to 300 degrees and bake for about two hours more or until done. (Check the old-fashioned way, with a broom straw. Pull a straw out of a real straw broom. A plastic broom will not work. When you think the cake is done, stick the straw into the cake. Quickly take the straw out of the cake. If the straw has batter on it, the cake needs more time to bake. If it comes out clean, the cake is done.) Turn the cake onto a cooling rack.

Mammy’s pound cake is delicious! It can be served warm. Thin toasted slices make a tasty breakfast treat. For special occasions, top it with homemade ice cream.

As a child, I thought the name, pound cake, came because Mammy pounded the pan filled with cake batter on a wooden cutting board before putting it into the oven. The name actually comes from the exact weighing of the principal ingredients on kitchen scales. That includes weighing the eggs – out of the shell.

Try Mammy’s pound cake. You’ll love it!

It might even bring romance into your life as it did for my grandparents.

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

A DEAD MULE

April 21, 2019

In 2010, my book A Good Mule Is Hard to Find was selected as a finalist for the best in Southern literature by the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance.  My book finished second in the non-fiction division. Rick Bragg’s book The Prince of Frogtown finished first.

I don’t mind one bit coming in second to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg. He speaks my language. I have enjoyed reading his “Southern Journal” column published each month in Southern Living magazine.

Bragg wrote in the April 2011 issue, “Scholars have long debated the defining element of great Southern literature. Is it a sense of place? Fealty to lost causes? A struggle to transcend the boundaries of class and race?  No. According to the experts, it’s all about a mule. And not just any old mule – only the dead ones count. Ask the experts.”

Rick Bragg goes on to explain that the demise of mules has permeated Southern literature.  “They have been worked to death, bludgeoned, asphyxiated, bitten by rabid dogs, stabbed, starved, frozen, perished of thirst, murdered on the blind curve of a train track, and in Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, hung from a chandelier.”

Bragg offers an impressive list of authors who have told stories about a dead mule. Richard Wright, Reynolds Price, Larry Brown, Robert Morgan, Jack Farris, and Clyde Edgerton made the list. While my name was not on the list, and I didn’t expect it to be, I somehow felt included because I, too, have written a dead mule story.

Not all Southern storytellers have a tale about a dead mule. In Run with the Horsemen, Ferrol Sams told a marvelous mule story, and though some might have thought of killing the animal, that didn’t happen.

I read the Larry McMurtry novel Telegraph Days. A stout woman, Hroswitha Jubb, rides a white mule across the open prairie.   Aunt Ros, as she is known by Nellie Courtright, the main character in the novel, is the most popular travel writer in the West. Though we are not told of the four-legged albino’s demise, the unusual mule and his ample rider mysteriously disappear.

I recall William Faulkner’s account of the Bundren family’s difficulty at a river crossing. Strong currents wash away the coffin of a deceased relative they are transporting for burial.  Furthermore, their entire team of mules is drowned in the swirling Yoknapatawpha River.

Rick Bragg is a Southern writer who also tells a dead mule story. Uncle Jimbo wins a bet by eating a sandwich while sitting astride a mule. The mule was already dead when Uncle Jimbo climbed aboard.

Since the publication of A Good Mule is Hard to Find, I have discovered that a surprising number of people don’t know the difference between a donkey and a mule.

Mules are crossbred between a donkey and a horse and may be male or female. Both genders are sterile and cannot reproduce.

Though they have a reputation for being stubborn, they are generally smarter than a horse. They also have more stamina and are better able to adapt to the climate of the South than are horses.

Many a poor dirt farmer tilling the Southern landscape found a hard-working mule an indispensable commodity. My grandfather, K. E. Neely, was no exception. Pappy, as I called him, his wife, and their nine children would not have survived the Great Depression without a mule. Here is the story I have heard since I was a boy.

Pappy bought old Dick at auction down near Dutchman’s Creek for a mere fifteen dollars. Having spent most of his life working on the chain gang, old Dick had been used and abused until he was little more than skin and bones. He had been harnessed so many times that the trace chains had rubbed open sores on his sides.

Pappy got a jar of Bluestone Salve to put on the mule’s sores. 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 working mule.

Though good at plowing, Dick never liked to be ridden. If a person tried to mount him like a horse, the mule would kick and bite.

As boys, my dad and his brothers would lead old Dick underneath a Chinaberry tree. They’d drop a pillow on his back to get him used to carrying a little weight. Then, from a limb above, they would ease onto the mule’s back. If they rode him down to the highway, Dick would balk, refusing to go out into the road. All those years on the chain gang made him leery.

Pappy used to tell the story about a farmer who found himself in dire straits. He was having trouble making ends meet.  He tried to cut corners every way that he could.  He owned no farm equipment other than a mule and a plow.  The mule, Humphrey, was a fine, strong animal, essential to the making and harvesting of crops.

One of the farmer’s cost-saving measures was to mix a little sawdust into the oats that he fed Humphrey.  At first, it seemed to be a workable plan.  When he told his neighbors about it, they thought it an odd way to take care of a good mule, but Humphrey seemed to hold up.

The months passed and times got worse. The farmer mixed more sawdust with the oats he fed Humphrey.  The mule grew weaker but still worked as hard as he could.

One day a neighbor asked, “How are things going?”

“Not good.  Not good at all.  Just about the time I got Humphrey on all sawdust and no oats, that mule up and died.”

Humphrey died just before spring planting. The farmer had to buy another mule. He scraped together thirty dollars and went to the closest mule sale.  He couldn’t buy a mule as good as Humphrey had been, but he found one that met his budget. The farmer was satisfied with the animal, so he paid the thirty dollars to take the mule as is.  He made arrangements to return the next day with a borrowed truck to pick up the mule. The dealer agreed to keep the animal overnight.

When the farmer returned, he was greeted with more bad news.

The mule dealer said, “I’m real sorry to have to tell you this. I know you were countin’ on that mule for your spring plantin’, but he died last night.”

“I want my money back,” demanded the farmer.

“Nope. You agreed to buy the mule as is, and there he is. A deal is a deal”

After the dealer refused to refund the money, the frustrated farmer loaded the dead mule on the truck and left.

A couple of months later, the mule dealer happened to drive by the farmer’s place. He was astonished to see him working his land on a Ford tractor. He called the farmer over to ask how in the world he had managed to buy a tractor when, not too long ago, all he had was thirty dollars to spend on the dead mule.

“Well,” the farmer explained, “after leaving with the dead mule, I stopped off at the local print shop. I had some $2 raffle tickets printed up to say, ‘Grand prize: Used Gardening Equipment.’ I sold the raffle tickets to people around town.”

“Okay, but where did you get the gardening equipment?”

“From you.”

“But all you got from me was a dead mule.”

“I know. That’s what I raffled off.”

“You raffled off a dead mule? I’ll bet it really ticked ’em off when they realized the mule was dead.”

“Nope. Not really. The only fellow that got mad was the winner, and I gave him his $2 back.”

THE LEGEND OF THE FAIRY CROSS

April 13, 2019

A few weeks before Easter 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.

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 in 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. We bought the cross for our new granddaughter.

No one really 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 Appalachian 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 little 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 great heat and pressure, fairy stones are staurolite, a combination of silica, iron, and aluminum. Together, these minerals sometimes crystallize and appear in the stones 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.

Fairy crosses are found only a few places in the southeastern United States. 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 nearby 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 easy 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 insure 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.

Most of the world’s religions have as their central symbol an object of beauty – the lotus flower, the crescent moon, the Star of David. The Christian Church has as its emblem an instrument of execution.  I cannot imagine giving Clare a miniature electric chair to wear around her neck. And yet, I have given her a cross. Odd, if you think about it.

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 exactly the point of the legend of the fairy cross.

A TALE OF TWO TREES

April 5, 2019

Clare and I were enjoying a second cup of coffee and reading shared newspapers, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal and the New York Times when we both noticed a large bird on the suet feeder just outside our parlor window.

“There’s a red-headed woodpecker,” she said.

“Looks like a flicker,” I replied.

When the bird departed it perched upright on the trunk of a nearby sassafras tree. Then Clare and I both noticed that the sassafras just beyond the feeder was beginning to display chartreuse buds.

Later that same afternoon, I was sitting outside when I heard a disturbance coming from the Confederate jasmine growing on the arbor. The ruckus came from a smallish grey hawk attempting to snag a purple finch for lunch. He paused on a nearby branch before sailing away to better pickings.

With the help of the Cornell University Ornithology Web site, I was able to identify both birds.  The one on the feeder was a red-bellied woodpecker. The bird on the arbor was a Cooper’s hawk.

In our backyard, a weeping cherry tree given to us by my brother and sister-in-law has been in full bloom. Bill and Wanda gave us the sapling tree after the death of our son Erik. Now standing more than twenty feet tall, the hanging branches were covered with the delicate pink blossoms of early spring. A slight breeze moves the slender limbs in a gentle sway, scattering a few of the petals on the green lawn below.

The redbuds are bursting into their pinkish-purple glory. Dogwood flowers are opening. Our side yard features the largest of our redbuds and the oldest of our dogwoods. The trees moved with us from our previous home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Spartanburg, South Carolina, back in 1980. I moved them because they were young trees that I thought would transplant well. They have established deep roots in this place just as our family has. Read more…