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TAKING THE HIGH ROAD: THE BLUE RIDGE PARKWAY

October 2, 2022

When we were in our younger days, one of the jaunts that Clare and I looked forward to each fall was a drive through the mountains.

The high mountains will soon be in their full autumn glory. There is no better way to take in the wonder of this season than a road trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Clare and I have often traveled up the Saluda Grade for a brief retreat. We usually purchased a few pumpkins and several varieties of apples along the way. After a picnic lunch, we sometimes paused to enjoy a Carolina blue sky with a few high clouds drifting above. The southern Appalachian highlands are all the more exhilarating if there is a nip in the air and the vast forest is ablaze with color. Perched on the tailgate of my pickup truck at an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway was better than having a seat on the fifty-yard line at any football game.

The Southern Appalachian Mountains and surrounding foothills will soon be decked out for their annual autumn display. Though the mountains are home to more than 100 species of trees, the most colorful foliage comes courtesy of sugar maples, scarlet oaks, sweet gums, red maples, and hickory trees. Peak fall colors in our area occur from mid-October through early November.

The Blue Ridge Parkway was conceived during the Great Depression as a scenic link between the Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains. The project was designed to put unemployed people back to work.

As the crow flies, the Parkway may be the shortest route between two parks, but certainly not the quickest. The two-lane highway stretches 469 miles across the southern Appalachian Mountains. With its many ups and downs, twists and turns, and a speed limit that would be the minimum on most highways, driving the Parkway takes time.

In 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps simultaneously began construction on several Parkway sections. Contractors were mandated to hire local people whenever possible, giving priority where employment needs were most significant. Almost all work on the Parkway, including the rigorous chore of tunnel digging, was done with hand tools using very little machinery.

The work continued until 1987, when the Linn Cove Viaduct around Grandfather Mountain was completed.

Constructing a road usually begins with an engineer. The Parkway began with a landscape architect who wanted to create a roadway that blended with the natural surroundings, showcasing the panoramic views of the mountains.

Structures along the route utilized modern materials like concrete for bridges, tunnels, and dams. Skilled masons later finished the work with facings of local stone.

The Parkway is a scenic byway with many natural attractions and a cross-section of Appalachian history, preserving some of the oldest Native American and pioneer settlements. Signs and exhibits alert travelers to overlooks and points of interest.

The Cherokee and the Tutelo tribes were among the earliest inhabitants of the Blue Ridge. Mountain and river names reflect Native American influence.

Surviving examples of early Appalachian pioneer structures are open to the public. For instance, Puckett Cabin was the humble abode of Mrs. Orleana Hawks Puckett, a busy mountain midwife of the late 19th century.

Along the Parkway are examples of 19th-century industrial development. Mabry Mill is one of the most photographed locations along the Parkway. It features a blacksmith shop, a wheelwright’s shop, a whiskey still, and the old mill.

Traditional crafts and music still thrive in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Along the Parkway in North Carolina are several places to purchase locally made items and to enjoy good old mountain music.

I never tire of the drama I witness on the Parkway stage. I emerged from a sleeping bag in Shining Rock Wilderness on a brisk fall morning to a gold and silver sunrise.

On a day hike in the spring, I paused on Black Balsam Knob to take in a purple and pink sunset.

I watched white billows moved by the wind cast their shadows across the face of sunlit mountains one summer morning. Later that afternoon, I traced the path of a black anvil cloud flashing lightning as it moved up a distant valley.

These experiences, as well as many others, were breathtaking and have left an indelible impression on this colorblind pastor.

The Parkway is a stage for all seasons. I awakened in a tent to a gentle snowfall one morning at Crabtree Meadows.

One spring day, I parked my truck at an overlook, not to enjoy the view, but because Clare and I couldn’t see anything! Torrential rain and echoing thunder had stopped us in our tracks. We took a brief nap enjoying the sound of the rain. Later, the storm passed, and we were treated to a spectacular rainbow arching from the top of Mount Pisgah down to Looking Glass Rock.

The mountains offer both the comedy and the tragedy of the ancient Greek theatre. Our family was camping near Doughton Park. We arrived late. Clare served our young boys Kentucky Fried Chicken while I pitched the tent by flashlight. I heard snickers in the darkness. I turned the beam of light toward the giggles to discover that we had guests. Joining our young sons at the picnic table was a pair of raccoons, both wearing the mask of comedy with chicken-stealing on their minds.

One afternoon, I took a detour on the Parkway. A wild turkey hen and her nine chicks crossed the pavement in front of me. I stopped and waited while the mother hurried her brood to safety. Four roaring motorcycles were coming down the mountain in the other lane. One straggling chick was killed. The mother hen was in obvious distress, protecting her eight remaining offspring and grieving her crushed chick. There is tragedy here as well.

The Bull Creek Valley Overlook marker identifies the last place an American bison was killed in North Carolina.I paused there, just above 3500 feet, to gaze at a magnificent display of turning leaves. Walking a short distance down a trail, I was surprised to find a skunk curled up inside the hollow base of a shagbark hickory tree. Not wanting to disturb his sleep, I made a quick retreat.

Later, I watched monarch butterflies dance on wild blue asters. I saw a pair of red-tailed hawks catch an updraft, circling high above me.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a sanctuary – maybe not for the last buffalo or the turkey chick, but for butterflies and the asters they visit, for hickory trees and the skunks they shelter, for soaring hawks, and for me.

To visit the Parkway is to slow down and examine the pace of my life.

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a high road where my soul is restored.

The words of Psalm 121 come to mind.

I will lift up my eyes to the hills—

From whence comes my help?

My help comes from the Lord,

Who made heaven and earth.

He will not allow your foot to be moved;

He who keeps you will not slumber.

Behold, He who keeps Israel

Shall neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;

The Lord is your shade at your right hand.

The sun shall not strike you by day,

Nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;

He shall preserve your soul.

The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in

From this time forth, and even forevermore.

Amen.

The New King James Version

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Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

Stories from this week’s column will appear in the forthcoming book

A Book of Days, to be published ion 2023.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate or volunteer, as you are able, to your favorite conservation charity.

THE JEWISH HIGH HOLY DAYS

September 25, 2022

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 1 is also my birthday.  We’ll have so much to celebrate on one day!”  The Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah is the beginning of a new year, a birthday, and a wedding remembrance.

My calendar shows that the Jewish New Year begins at sundown today, Sunday, September 25, 2022.  The Festival of Rosh Hashanah continues through Tuesday, September 27.  Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is one of Judaism’s holiest days.  Meaning, head of the year or first of the year, the festival begins on the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Hebrew calendar, which falls during September or October.  This new year is 5783 in the Jewish calendar, but Rosh Hashanah is also a birthday and a wedding anniversary.  It is a day to remember the birth of all creation, followed by Adam and Eve’s marital union in scripture.  It is a day of new beginnings filled with reason to celebrate.

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.

Harvey Cox is a Christian theologian.  His wife, Nina, is Jewish.  In his book, Common Prayers, Cox shares some of the ways that he and Nina have grown spiritually in the context of their interfaith marriage.

His book follows the holidays of the Jewish year, explaining the meaning of each observance.  He begins with the Jewish High Holy Days, the ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah and conclude with Yom Kippur.

Early in the twentieth century, Rudolf Otto, a German philosopher, published The Idea of The Holy.  Otto coined a Latin phrase that has become commonplace in theology, mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Simply put, it means that the mystery of God’s presence evokes a trembling shudder and a sense of fascination.  These holidays remind the Jewish community that God is both awesome and merciful.

Harvey Cox recalls the old-fashioned revivals of his Baptist upbringing.  He remembers the fearful sense of a righteous God and the comforting awareness of divine grace.

He contends both church and synagogue have too often proclaimed a user-friendly God.  Some even rely on marketing strategies to determine what will be included in worship.  The Jewish holidays encourage a reaffirmation of the sovereign God who is righteous and merciful, holy, and loving.    

Our Jewish friends and neighbors will observe their High Holy Days for ten days.  The importance of this season to their faith is akin to the significance 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 marks the first of ten days of repentance or Days of Awe.  A blessing is bestowed on others with the words, “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” As with every major Jewish festival, the Kiddush, a blessing over wine to sanctify the day, is recited after candle lighting and prayers. A blessing is offered to God for the gift of Challah bread.

Central to Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn.  This hollowed-out horn from a sheep or a goat is similar to those used by Joshua at the battle of Jericho and Giddeon when he defeated the Midianites.  While neither Rosh Hashanah nor the ram’s horn is never mentioned explicitly in the Torah, the Hebrew scriptures do refer to this holiday as Yom Teruah, literally a day of shouting or blasting. The blasting of the shofar calls the congregation to worship and to repentance.  The tones of the horn are akin to a trumpet blast heralding the coronation of a king.  The sound is a reminder of the sovereignty of God.

My good friend, Rabbi Yossi Liebowitz, shared a story about an American tourist in Israel.  The traveler asked why his taxi driver had no wristwatch.  How could he know the time?

“I have a shofar.  When I get home late at night, I go out on my porch and sound the ram’s horn loudly.  Within seconds, one of my neighbors will yell: ‘It’s two o’clock in the morning!’”

For the Jewish people, the sound of the shofar means it is time to repent.

Yom Kippur is the holiest, most important day of the year in Judaism, known as the Day of Atonement. This year Yom Kippur begins at sundown Tuesday, October 4, 2022, and ends Wednesday evening, October 5, the last of the ten days of penitence that began with Rosh Hashanah.

Yom Kippur commemorates the day Moses came down from Mount Sinai after seeking God’s divine forgiveness for the Israelites who sinned against him by worshipping an idol of a golden calf.  Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, marks the conclusion of this period of repentance.

Yom Kippur is a day of fasting.  The high holidays often include the concept of the book of life, the Sefer Chayim, in which God records our destinies for the coming year.  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 acknowledgment 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.

Yom Kippur concludes with a final blast from the shofar.  Jewish families break the fast by enjoying a meal, usually breakfast food.  Who doesn’t enjoy breakfast for supper occasionally?

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.

Amen.

_______________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

Stories from this week’s column will appear in the forthcoming book

A Book of Days, to be published in 2023.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies.  Thank you for all you have done.  I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind.  Please continue with your kindness and generosity.  This week, please donate or volunteer, as you are able, to your place of worship or to your favorite charity.

BUTTERFLIES GALORE: FLYING FLOWERS OF FALL

September 17, 2022

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 extended 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 one summer weekend before the COVID pandemic, a spicebush butterfly was my constant companion.   While I stooped to pull weeds, the tiny creature fluttered past time and again. My beautiful visitor danced in circles close by when I stood to stretch. I felt unusually blessed by its presence. 

I stopped for a moment to admire the graceful visitor to our garden. 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 mopped sweat from my face with an old, faded bandana as I continued working. 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 perspiration 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 footpath crossed an equestrian trail. The pungent aroma of horses filled the air. A hundred or more bright yellow tiger swallowtails flittered about us. 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 prefer to think of them as being attracted by flowers rather than human sweat or 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. The flowers of the plant are enhanced by the fluttering flowers attracted to the bush. 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.

Butterflies are difficult to count because they are constantly on the move. One sunny afternoon last month, I came into our driveway and paused to look at the lantana. I estimated that there were no fewer than thirty on, above, and around the bush. There were several varieties, including majestic monarchs, deep-orange fritillaries, and one red admiral. 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. Many of the monarchs will migrate; many of the others will not. Some of the ones that dance around the flowers in our gardens will spend the winter in Central America.

One morning the week before school started,  I was sitting on the screened back porch with my granddaughters when we noticed a pair of large tiger swallowtail butterflies fluttering from purple cone flowers to orange zinnias to pink phlox. They seemed to be performing a ballet. The bright yellow wings of the butterflies catching the sunlight added a touch of even more beauty to the flowers.

In the late summer, something happens in our garden that is nothing short of amazing. The miracle of metamorphosis occurred yet again this year in our backyard. It’s the season for caterpillars and butterflies. By late summer, our garden is aflutter with butterflies of all varieties. Once they take wing, they are drawn to flowering plants that provide a feast of nectar.

Creating a butterfly garden requires a little planning and some maintenance. And it is well worth the effort. Among the favorites of butterflies are ageratum, aster, butterfly bush, bee balm, black-eyed Susan, catmint, coneflower, coreopsis, cosmos, goldenrods, honeysuckle, hyssop, lantana, marigold, phlox, salvia, sedum, verbena, yarrow, and zinnia.

There are literally millions of species in the biological order Lepidoptera. Every one of them has a larval stage we know best as caterpillars. There are both Jekyll and Hyde varieties. That is to say, some are malevolent while others are benevolent.  

I have a volunteer sunflower in my backyard, now taller than I am. It sprang up when a sunflower seed escaped a birdfeeder and landed in a flowerbed. Out of curiosity, I decided to let it grow. I have recently noticed that several leaves have been chewed to a pulp. I have yet to see the caterpillar that is doing the damage. I imagine his eating binge occurs after dark.

Caterpillars have been rightly called eating machines. They can devour the foliage of plants seemingly overnight. Some cause great destruction and do millions of dollars in damage to agricultural crops ea

The boll weevil has wreaked havoc on cotton crops across the South. Armyworms attack cotton and soybean crops.

Every vegetable gardener knows to be on the lookout for cabbage worms and tomato hornworms. Earlier this summer, I noticed a webbed tent, the characteristic abode of tent caterpillars, on the branch of a pecan tree.

Some caterpillars are desirable. Fishermen know that the delicate purple blossoms of the catalpa tree attract Sphinx moths that lay eggs on the underside of the large green leaves. When the eggs hatch, catalpa worms start eating the leaves of their host plant. Bream fishermen treasure these tiny worms because bluegills and shellcrackers consider them to be such a delicacy.

Other caterpillars are raised because of their economic importance. The silkworm is perhaps the best example. The minute threads produced by the silkworms are used to make valuable cloth that can be fashioned into fine garments. Most of my old neckties were created from the secretion of caterpillars.

In my garden, I have planted bronze fennel. With their lacy leaves, the dark green plants make a lovely backdrop. The fragrance reminds me of licorice.   I have fennel in my garden because it is a favorite host plant for a particular kind of caterpillar, the larvae of the swallowtail butterfly, our early morning visitor. 

Near the back of our property grows a patch of wildflowers. There is some goldenrod, but more importantly, there is milkweed. The orange blossoms of the milkweed plant attract monarch butterflies. They lay their eggs on the leaves. The larvae eventually become butterflies. These orange and black beauties are migratory. The majestic insects fly 3000 miles each fall to winter in the high mountains of central Mexico. In the spring, they wing their way back to North America. 

All butterflies begin life as caterpillars. After a time of chewing on leaves, they hang upside down and shroud themselves in the silken case they spin. 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, gloriously transformed. 

This metamorphosis has made butterflies a reminder of new life. They are beautiful symbols of hope. Sometimes butterflies are released at weddings, just as the bride and groom are pronounced husband and wife, to mark the beginning of their new life together. Early Christians saw in the butterfly as an apt symbol for the resurrection. For several years a church in my hometown followed the Eater worship service by having the children release painter lady butterflies. This weary world needs as much hope as we can find. Butterflies are gentle blessings, tender mercies from a divine creative hand.

I vividly remember the funeral service for a woman who loved butterflies. She had decorated her home with a butterfly theme. She tended a unique 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 flower arrangements sent by friends and family 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 moments, we marveled in amazement.

There is just no telling what will attract a butterfly.

I sat in the backyard of an older man who had cultivated an active butterfly garden for several years. 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, 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.”

_______________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

Stories from this week’s column will appear in the forthcoming book

Cultivating the Spirit: Devotions from the Garden, to be published later this year.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate or volunteer as you are able, to Hope Center for Children, P.O. Box 1731, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29304, 864.583.7688, https://hopecfc.org/.