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SHIFTING SANDS

September 17, 2017

In the aftermath of hurricanes Harvey and Irma many of us have seen the destruction across much of the south, from Florida to Texas, caused by these massive storms.  We have witnessed interviews with victims who lost all of their earthly possessions. Like many of you, Clare and I have prayed for people we know and those we do not.

After watching the national news I commented to Clare that the emotions of the victims were, on a much larger scale, the same shock and dismay I have seen when our children built sand castles at the beach. If you build a sand castle you do so with the full knowledge that it will not last. Even so, to see it destroyed by the incoming tide evokes a sense of loss.

When our children were young Clare insisted that the toys and books we purchased for them be things that would endure. Over the years many of the items our children enjoyed have remained almost as good as new. Now our grandchildren play with the toys and read the books that have been preserved in good condition by their grandmother.

Two of our six-year-old granddaughters were enchanted by a vintage Fisher-Price toy hourglass. The sturdy toy features yellow plastic endcaps, clear plastic funnels, and an orange handle made to fit a child’s hand. When the toy is flipped hundreds of tiny multicolored plastic beads drain from one funnel to the other. The transfer takes all of five seconds.

The toy could not be used an hourglass. It will not even time a three-minute egg. It certainly can’t be used to time a thorough toothbrushing. I remember miniature hourglasses that served those purposes. The purpose of the toy is to dazzle and fascinate a child. Perfect! Read more…

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THE JEWISH HIGH HOLY DAYS

September 15, 2017

Some years ago, I officiated at a wedding on New Year’s Day. At the rehearsal the evening before, I commented on how the alignment of the days would make it easier for the groom to remember his wedding anniversary. The bride said, “Not only that, but January 1st is also my birthday. We’ll have so much to celebrate on one day!”

My calendar shows that Wednesday, September 20, 2017, is the Jewish New Year. The Festival of Rosh Hashanah begins at sundown and continues through September 22. In a sense, Rosh Hashanah is not only the celebration of New Year’s Day in the Jewish calendar, but it is also a birthday and a wedding anniversary. It is a day to remember the birth of all creation. In scripture that is followed by the marital union of Adam and Eve. It is a day of new beginnings, a day filled with reason to celebrate.

For ten days, our Jewish friends and neighbors will be observing their High Holy Days. The importance of this season to their faith is akin to the importance of Holy Week for Christians and Ramadan for Muslims. While it would be inappropriate for non-Jews to borrow these holidays, we can certainly strive to understand their significance. We may also find in them spiritual values that we all share.

Rosh Hashanah emphasizes the special relationship between God and humanity. We are all dependent upon God as our Creator and Sustainer, and God depends upon us to make his divine presence known and felt in the world. In the Jewish community, it is the day to honor God as sovereign.

Rosh Hashanah observances include eating a slice of apple dipped in honey to symbolize the desire for a sweet new year. It is a time to bestow a blessing on others with the words, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” As with every major religious holiday, candles are lighted, prayers are offered, and thanksgiving is expressed with the symbols of wine and Challah bread.

On Rosh Hashanah the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, calls the congregation to worship and to repentance.  The tones of the horn are similar to the trumpet blast heralding the coronation of a monarch. Rosh Hashanah marks the first of ten days of repentance, or Days of Awe. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, marks the conclusion of this period of repentance. This year Yom Kippur will be Saturday, September 30, 2017.

Yom Kippur is a day of fasting. The high holidays often includes the concept of a book of life, the sefer chayim, in which our destinies for the coming year are recorded by God. Whatever is negative can be avoided through prayer, repentance, and charity.

In the late afternoon on the day before Yom Kippur, honey cake is eaten in acknowledgement that all people are intended to be recipients of God’s goodness.  Gifts are made to charity in the prayerful hope for an abundant year. Jewish families celebrate by enjoying a meal, blessing the children, and lighting memorial candles as well as holiday candles.  Then families attend an atonement service at the synagogue.

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, is a day of closeness to God. Scripture defines the purpose of the Day of Atonement:  “For on this day He will forgive you, to purify you, that you be cleansed from all your sins before God” (Leviticus 16:30). Faithful Jews fast from food and drink and abstain from other activities in order to have time for repentance, prayer, and reflection.

For the Jewish community, Yom Kippur is the most solemn day of the year, yet an undertone of thanksgiving is a part of the observance. Joy derives from the confidence that God will accept the repentance of His people and forgive their sins. Hope for a year of life, health, and happiness is an integral part of Yom Kippur.

Many of us learned as children a simple table blessing that begins with the profound affirmation, “God is great, and God is good.”  Perhaps that is an apt summary of the meaning of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the days between.

God is great, and God is good. A great God created and sustains all of life. In greatness, God presides in sovereign majesty over the entire world. A good God has provided for us all things necessary for life compelling us to share with others. In goodness, God, through grace and mercy, accepts our repentance and forgives our sins.

God is great and God is good.

Let us thank God; all of us.

THAT HUMMING SOUND

September 9, 2017

This far into summer I notice that when I take a few minutes to sit quietly, I invariably become aware of a faint humming sound. It might be emanating from my car. The source may be my computer. The sound could come from a home appliance. Humming sounds can be natural occurrences. Whales and dolphins beneath the ocean, many varieties of insects, and even the pulsating of heavenly bodies can produce distinctive hums. Some people hear a constant hum caused by the flow of their own blood in the small vessels of their inner ear.

We might well ask, “What is that humming sound?” This time of year it could be a hummingbird.

The last week of August brought a few days of blessed relief from the oppressive heat and humidity of our dog day afternoons. On Monday of last week, Labor Day, I enjoyed a second cup of coffee with Clare on our screened back porch overlooking the flower garden. Hummingbirds provided the entertainment while we read the newspaper. The tiny, feathered creatures put on quite an aerial display as they competed for the sweet nectar of the flowers and the sugar water in our feeders.

At the end of the day, as the sun was setting, Clare and I again sat on our own back porch.  We were treated to an amazing air show.  As we enjoyed our supper, we witnessed an incredible display of aerobatics.  Agile flying machines were buzzing our yard, staging mid-air combat maneuvers that would impress even Air Force top guns. Late summer is the prime season for hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds are always interesting to watch. Their activity increases as the summer days grow shorter.  Their excited pace and almost perpetual motion are at once fascinating and wearying to the observer.

From late August through much of September, the tiny birds become frantic in their feeding habits and combative toward all competitors.  Earlier in the spring and summer, two or three hummingbirds might share the same feeder, but in early autumn they become territorial and will attack any intruder, even fellow hummers. Like feisty siblings squabbling over dessert, the diminutive birds quarrel with each other over which one will have the next turn at their sugar water treat.

The flight of the humming creatures with tiny wings provides enthralling entertainment. Hovering, darting, and diving, in their heightened frenzy, they put on quite a performance.  These warm days are the most active time for hummingbirds as they prepare for their long migration to Central and South America.

A friend who welcomes hummingbirds to her garden with feeders and blooming plants wanted to put fresh flowers in an arrangement for a dinner party at her home.  She cut several late- blooming red gladioli from her cottage garden.  As she did, what she thought was a large buzzing insect began to bother her.  The pest attacked from the rear, moving up her neck underneath the tresses of her new hairdo.  The well-mannered lady ran, clutching gladioli tightly in one hand, swatting wildly with the other.

She stopped when the buzzing nuisance confronted her at eye level.  It was a hummingbird, clearly annoyed that the lady had cut the flowers from which it had been feeding.  The woman held the red gladioli at arm’s length, as if making a peace offering.  The hummer moved from one blossom to the next in the handheld bouquet, drinking its fill, before flying off without further conflict.

A hummingbird in flight can be easily mistaken for a large stinging insect. The hummingbird’s tiny wings move so rapidly they make a buzzing sound.    This flight pattern, filmed in slow motion, reveals their remarkable ability to speed forward, to hover, and to reverse directions.

Hummingbirds are attracted to a variety of blooms.  Fiery red salvias, cup-shaped hibiscus, and even the common trumpet vine provide nourishment to these tiny creatures that are constantly in search of a meal.  Their frenetic activity demands a continual supply of sugary food.  They sip nectar and can be enticed into view with feeders filled with fresh sugar water.  A mixture of one part sugar and four parts of water meets the dietary requirements of these small birds.  It is best for the health of hummers if we do not add red food coloring.

Accounts of close encounters between human and hummers abound.  The tiny birds are frequently trapped in garages and on screened porches, usually drawn into these unfriendly confines by something bright red in color.  A red toolbox or a red fire extinguisher can lure a hummingbird into an open garage.  One was even seen attempting to extract nectar from a red plastic bicycle horn.

Several years ago, a ruby-throated hummingbird, attracted by a cut flower arrangement, entered a large sunroom in a nursing facility.  The patients all suffered from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.  Most of the patients were in the final stage of the illness, sometimes known as the living death.  The nursing staff was unaware of the hummingbird’s presence until they noticed something they rarely saw.  Several of the patients were smiling, some for the first time in months.  With the aid of a towel, a nurse was able to capture the tiny bird and release it outdoors.  The bird flew away but not before bestowing a gentle blessing on a room full of people who needed tender mercy.

If you pay attention, you may hear a humming sound.

It may be a hummingbird bringing a special blessing just for you.

WISDOM FROM A KENTUCKY FARMER

September 3, 2017

Stud Goings was a tobacco farmer in Monticello, Kentucky, in the mountains near Lake Cumberland. He had a small tobacco allotment and raised Kentucky Burley.  His beagle dog, Luther, was constantly by his side. Stud’s backyard featured an old Ford pickup truck propped on concrete blocks. A bare dirt path meandered to his dilapidated barn. Along the way, a small vegetable garden flourished in the sunshine. Two dozen or so free-range chickens and a covey of Guinea hens skittered to and fro.  Under a white pine tree oozing sap were two oak nail kegs, turned upside down, intended for sitting.

“When things become too burdensome,” he explained, “I just sit here in the shade.  I call this white pine the tree of life.”

It was in that shady spot that Stud rested after he had worked his garden or stripped tobacco. There he swapped stories with his neighbors.

The only time I ever worked with a tobacco crop was when Stud was short of help. I happened by his place one Saturday afternoon. A thunderstorm threatened. He was in a big hurry to strip burley leaves and get them on racks in his tobacco barn. I rolled up my sleeves and gave him a hand.

When we finished the work and the storm passed, we sat on the nail kegs beneath the tree of life. We drank refreshment from Mason jars. My jar was filled with cool well water. I suspect Stud’s jar contained something stiffer. Stud smoked a cigar. “This is where my tired body and my weary soul catch up with each other,” he said.

Stud consulted The Old Farmer’s Almanac every day.  His single-occupant privy had a copy of the yellow magazine hanging by a string from a well placed nail. Not only was the Almanac good reading material, but the pages provided an emergency supply of toilet paper.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a popular reference guide for country folks. It is the oldest continuously published periodical in America, initially printed in 1792 during George Washington’s first term as President of the United States.

The magazine is best known for its weather predictions. The first editor, Robert B. Thomas, closely observed nature. He used a complex series of natural cycles to devise a climate forecasting formula. It produced uncannily accurate results, said to be 80 percent correct. His secret formula is still kept safely tucked away in a black tin box at the Almanac offices in Dublin, New Hampshire.

In 1942, a German spy was arrested in New York City by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Landing in a U-boat, the spy had come ashore on Long Island the night before his capture. When he was apprehended a current copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac was found in his coat pocket. The United States government speculated that the Germans were using the Almanac for weather forecasts, which meant that the magazine was supplying information to the enemy.  The editor of the Almanac decided that from then on the publication would feature climate indications rather than predictions.

Stud relied on the weather indications. He also used the astronomical calendar as a guide for planting his crops and for other farm chores.

Not long ago I received from a friend a clipping from The Old Farmer’s Almanac. As I read it, I immediately thought of Stud Goings. These were things he might have said.

  • Your fences need to be horse-high, pig-tight, and bull-strong.
  • Keep skunks and bankers at a distance.
  • Life is simpler when you plow around the stumps.
  • A bumblebee is considerably faster than any tractor.
  • Words that soak into your ears are whispered not yelled.
  • Meanness doesn’t just happen overnight.
  • Don’t corner something that you know is meaner than you.
  • It doesn’t take a very strong person to carry a grudge.
  • You can’t unsay a cruel word.
  • Every path has a few puddles.
  • When you wallow with pigs, expect to get   dirty.
  • Most of the things people worry about aren’t ever going to happen.
  • Silence is sometimes the best answer.
  • Don’t interfere with something that isn’t bothering you.
  • Timing has got a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.
  • If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.
  • The biggest troublemaker you’ll ever have to deal with watches you from the mirror.
  • Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.
  • Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in.
  • If you think you’re a person of influence, try ordering somebody else’s dog around.
  • Live simply. Speak kindly. Leave the rest to God.
  • When you quit laughing, you quit living.

As far as I know, Stud Goings didn’t attend church with any regularity. He did know the Bible, and he did pray on occasion. For the most part, he kept his faith to himself. I realized early on that he didn’t want a preacher prying into his private religion.

Stud and I were fishing for white bass back in a cove on Lake Cumberland late one afternoon.  Out of the silence between us, he spoke, “I need some time like this every now and then, some time when my soul can be restored.”

He reeled in his line and lit a new cigar. After a couple of puffs, he put a fresh minnow on his hook, spit on the wriggling bait, and cast into deeper water. “Yep,” he repeated. “This restores my soul.”

KUDZU FOREVER

August 26, 2017

Clare and I received an invitation to an engagement party. When I called for directions to the home where the party was to be held, the host said, “We live three houses this side of the kudzu.” The truth is, in the South, we all live pretty close to the kudzu. As summer continues, kudzu, apparently unaffected by heat, stretches its sinister tendrils across the Southern landscape.

The television documentary, “The Amazing Story of Kudzu,” was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Television as a part of the weekly series, “The Alabama Experience.” It was then distributed to other Public TV stations nationwide. The documentary tells the tale of the kudzu vine and the relationship Southerners have with the insidious green invader.

At the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1876, exhibitors from around the world were invited to celebrate the 100th birthday of the United States. The Japanese government constructed a beautiful garden filled with plants from their country. The large leaves and sweet-smelling blooms of kudzu captured the attention of American gardeners. Among them was a nurseryman from Chipley, Florida. He took a cutting, propagated the plant, and sold it to mail order customers as an ornamental vine.  A historical marker near Chipley proudly proclaims “Kudzu Developed Here.”

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Soil Conservation Service promoted kudzu for erosion control. The Civilian Conservation Corps gave thousands of the unemployed jobs planting kudzu throughout the South. In the 1940s farmers were paid as much as eight dollars an acre as an incentive to plant fields of the vines.

Channing Cope of Covington, Georgia, kudzu’s most vocal advocate, proclaimed, “Cotton is no longer king of the South. The new king is the miracle vine kudzu.” Cope wrote about kudzu in articles for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and talked about its virtues on his daily radio program.

The problem is that kudzu grows too well! The climate of the South is perfect for the prolific plant. Kudzu can grow as much as a foot per day during the hottest summer months, climbing trees, powers poles, and anything else in its path. The invasive vines can grow up to sixty feet each year. Kudzu can also destroy valuable forests since it prevents trees from getting sunlight. The Forestry Service in Alabama has researched methods for killing kudzu. They have found that many herbicides have little effect. One actually makes kudzu grow faster. Even the most effective herbicides take as long as ten years to kill kudzu.

I see places in our county that are identified as Kudzu Control Sites. Kudzu control seems like an oxymoron, to be sure. I appreciate the efforts of my friend Newt Hardy and others doing the work. They have actually had success in eliminating the voracious vine in selected areas. But kudzu is a stubborn foe. Newt explains that the persistent vine grows from crowns. Think strawberry plants on steroids. In order to kill kudzu, the crown has to be destroyed.

The Cherokees believe that a weed is a plant for which a use has yet to be discovered. When it comes to kudzu, Southerners are still eagerly searching for a use. Researchers at Tuskegee University successfully raised Angora goats grazing in fields of kudzu. The goats keep the kudzu from spreading further while producing milk and wool products.

Basket makers have found that kudzu vines are excellent for decorative and functional creations. Ruth Duncan of Greenville, Alabama, makes over 200 kudzu baskets each year. She is called the Queen of Kudzu. Regina Hines of Ball Ground, Georgia, has developed unique basket styles which incorporate curled kudzu vines. She weaves with other vines as well, but she says that kudzu is the most versatile. Nancy Basket of Walhalla, South Carolina, not only makes baskets but also makes paper from kudzu.

Diane Hoots of Dahlonega, Georgia, has developed a company to market her kudzu products, which include kudzu blossom jelly.

Henry Edwards of Rutherfordton, North Carolina, cuts and bales the vines producing over 1,000 bales of kudzu hay each year on his Kudzu Cow Farm. The hay is high in nutritive value. Henry’s wife, Edith, makes deep-fried kudzu leaves, kudzu quiche, and other kudzu dishes. Yum!

The quest for a suitable use for the green monster has made it to the Ivy League. Research with laboratory animals at Harvard Medical School has revealed that a drug based on a 2,000-year-old Chinese herbal medicine extracted from kudzu root may help in the treatment of alcoholism.

I have my doubts. When I was at Furman University, one dark night, a fraternity brother under the influence stop by the roadside to relieve himself. He fell into a tangle of kudzu and grappled with the cussed vine for fifteen minutes before he freed himself. He was no less drunk when he finally escaped than he was when he went into the fray.

Ask any Southerners about the vine, and we’ll have something to say or a story to tell. Love it or hate it, we can’t escape it. James Dickey once said, “Southerners close their windows at night just to keep the kudzu out.” Visitors to the South are awestruck by scenic vistas revealing miles of endless vines.

When Clare and I were at the coast several years ago, I visited a local garden shop. While there a couple from Canada came in to browse. After a few moments the woman asked the proprietor, “What is that plant that covers so much of the countryside? We noticed the interesting shapes that it makes along the highway.”

The garden shop owner looked at me with a question on his face.

I thought for a moment and asked, “Can you describe the plant?”

The man offered a description. “It is a beautiful lush green plant that takes many unusual forms as if it were shaped as topiary designs are.”

“That’s kudzu,” I said. I knew exactly what he meant.

“I have heard of kudzu,” he said. “Will it grow in Canada?”

An older gentleman standing nearby offered, “I can tell you how to plant it.”

“How’s that?” the tourist asked.

“Cut a piece about the size of a pencil. Throw it as far as you can in one direction, and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction,” the old man said with a twinkle in his eye.

“Then y’all will have kudzu like we do – forever!”

BLESS YOUR HEART

August 20, 2017

When I shop at the grocery store, I jockey for position in the shortest checkout line. Inevitably, the line I choose, though it may be the shortest, is also the slowest. So, I wait, sometimes conversing with folks I know, sometimes glancing at the tabloid headlines. For example, just recently I overheard an update on Britney Spears, one that I was not seeking. I just wanted to pay for my groceries and exit the store.

Ever since bursting onto the scene in in the movie “Oops, I Did It Again” Britney’s life has been high drama. She had a quick marriage to a boyfriend in Las Vegas followed by an equally quick divorce. She then married and divorced Kevin Federline. She famously shaved her head and kissed Madonna. It seems she has gotten her life in order and has been working out with a personal trainer. Not long ago at a Las Vegas show, a fan rushed the stage. Britney feared the man might have a gun, and she fled the scene. More high drama!

I listened as the checkout clerk and the lady who was in line ahead of me in line comment on the young celebrity’s history. I am not at all sure I have the details right.

“Bless her heart,” the woman said.

“Yes, bless her heart!” the clerk replied.

I wondered, “Bless her heart?” What exactly does that mean? Read more…

THE SOLAR ECLIPSE

August 13, 2017

I was driving east on I-26 one morning last week. The rising sun was shining brightly. Suddenly, things became dark. A large eighteen-wheel truck passed me, moving between my vehicle and the glaring light. The big rig momentarily obscured my view of the yellow orb.

This is exactly what happens in a solar eclipse. The moon’s orbit takes it between the earth and the sun, blocking most of the solar rays for a brief time. It is an unusual occurrence; one that most people experience only a few times in their lives.

The total solar eclipse will be best seen in what is known as the totality path. That is the area from which the eclipse will be complete. This seventy-mile-wide path stretches across the United States from Salem, Oregon, to Charleston, South Carolina. Those in the path will be able to see a total solar eclipse on August 21, 2017.  Many in the United States will be able to see a partially blocked sun. Some in the Upstate are directly in the path. Most of us will see only a partial eclipse. The last total solar eclipse visible in the United States was in 1979. The next will be in 2024.

Folks have anticipated this rare cosmic phenomenon. Local schools have even given school children the day off to witness the event. Clare and I are looking forward to having children and grandchildren with us for the spectacle.

A note of caution is important. It is dangerous to look at the sun with unprotected eyes. The intense radiation can damage our retinae. To watch the eclipse, get a pair of special glasses. They can be purchased online. Make sure the glasses are up to the right standard. They should be marked ISO 12312-2. Don’t look at the sun through binoculars, telescopes, or your camera’s viewfinder. Read more…