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THE MIRACLE OF SEAGULLS

August 29, 2020

For thirty-eight years, our family vacationed on the South Carolina coast. We have not done so for the last two years because it is difficult for us to travel. Even so, we have many fond memories of those times together. Walking in the surf at low tide gathering seashells, fishing on the rising tide, crabbing in the creeks, or swimming in the waves just beyond the breakers were favorite pastimes. We built sandcastles and flew kites when our children were younger. When they were older, we played Frisbee golf or beach football. Now, it is our joy to know that our grown children are enjoying the beach with their own families.

            Clare and I enjoyed fresh seafood, good books, an afternoon nap, and rocking on the front porch. It always took me a while to unwind, but if I took off my shoes and my watch, I was able to live for a few days by the tides and by the sun. Among my favorite quiet activities was bird-watching.

            The Carolina coast offers a wide variety of shorebirds. Watching osprey feed their young or catching sight of a snowy egret winging over the marsh was a joyful surprise. Even identifying birds as common as seagulls, was interesting. Herring gulls were typical, laughing gulls were entertaining, and spotting an occasional great black-backed gull was a rarity.

On a recent sunny afternoon, I passed the pond at Milliken headquarters in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Families with small children were flying kites in the summer breeze. Teenagers were sailing a Frisbee in a nearby field, and others were gathering at the pond to feed the ducks. In the sky above the pond, a small flock of flapping seagulls took turns diving down, looting the scraps of bread intended for the ducks.

            I have often seen seagulls at our large reservoirs – Lake Murray, Lake Hartwell, and Lake Jocassee. I thought it odd, however, that gulls would congregate above a small pond like the one at Milliken.

            The seagull is the state bird of Utah. Why would a state in the Rocky Mountain West choose a coastal bird as its state fowl?

            In 1848, after Brigham Young had led the first Latter-day Saints into what is now Salt Lake City, Utah, the pioneers experienced a mild winter. The Mormon settlers seemed destined to reap an abundant harvest.

In late May, though, swarms of insects appeared and threatened to decimate the crops. Mormon journal writers described this disaster in Biblical terms: a plague of locusts. These invading hordes of insects, which resembled grasshoppers, were related to the katydid family. They came to be known as Mormon crickets.

            On June 9, 1848, apparently attracted by the Great Salt Lake, legions of seagulls appeared. The birds feasted on the insects, eliminating the encroaching threat.

To this day, the event is known as the miracle of the seagulls. According to Mormon tradition, the gulls are credited for saving the Latter-day Saints’ first harvest in Utah. Church leaders recounted the story from their pulpits. To commemorate the birds’ aid, the Mormons erected the Seagull Monument in front of the Salt Lake Assembly Hall on Temple Square.

Seagulls can drink both fresh and saltwater without ill effect. A unique pair of glands over their eyes is designed to flush salt from their bodies. For that reason, seagulls enjoy an expansive habitat. They are equally at home on the Carolina coast, the Great Salt Lake, Lake Bowen, or the Milliken pond.

These seabirds are scavengers that will eat just about anything, from fish to small rodents. They enjoy an international cuisine, often taking handouts of food from humans.  They are known to eat French fries, English muffins, and Italian pizza. These clever birds know how to break open clams and other shellfish.

Gulls are typically coastal birds, rarely venturing far out to sea or into deciduous forests. They nest in large, densely-packed colonies of their own kind. They lay two to three speckled eggs in nests composed of vegetation.

Seagulls are resourceful, inquisitive, and highly intelligent birds. They demonstrate complex methods of communication and a highly-developed social structure.  Noisy, mobbing behavior is typical. They attack and harass would-be predators and other intruders, including humans. Gulls have also been known to steal from unattended picnic baskets and to filch from fast food lunches left on the tailgate of a pickup truck. Along the Carolina coast, gulls have learned to coexist and thrive in human habitats successfully.

In October 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a World War I ace pilot, was given the assignment to deliver a message to General Douglas MacArthur at his headquarters in New Guinea.

Somewhere over the South Pacific, the flying fortress, a B-17, became lost beyond the reach of radio. With fuel running low, the crew ditched the plane in the ocean. The colossal bomber stayed afloat just long enough for all who were aboard to escape. The plane went down, leaving eight men in three life rafts adrift at sea.

Captain Eddie and his crew endured the ocean, the weather, and the scorching sun. As the men floated in shark-infested waters, their greatest adversaries were thirst and starvation. After eight days, their rations were depleted.

The crew took turns reading from a small Bible that belonged to one of the men. On the ninth day, they read from the Gospel of Matthew, “Take no thought of what to eat or drink.” The eight then prayed and sang a hymn.

Captain Rickenbacker pulled his hat down over his eyes and dozed. As he slept, something landed on his head. It was a seagull.

Captain Eddie caught the gull. The men ate the bird’s flesh and used its intestines as bait to catch fish. After a short time, a rainstorm brought fresh drinking water.

The crew aboard the raft drifted two weeks longer. On the twenty-first day at sea, search planes sighted and rescued the men. The survivors had been sustained because a lone seagull, hundreds of miles from land, became their miracle.

Later Captain Rickenbacker recounted the story with the publication of a small book entitled, Why I Believe in Prayer.

Jack Parr, an early host of the television broadcast “The Tonight Show,” knew Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. Parr’s home on the Atlantic coast was located near Rickenbacker’s residence. Parr said he would often see the Captain along the shore at dusk, feeding the seagulls.

Just before sunset on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast, a white-haired man walked along the beach, carrying a bucket of shrimp. In the twilight, the screeching cries of gulls grew louder as they gathered around him.

For half an hour or so, the elderly gentleman would stand surrounded by a raucous horde of ravenous gulls, feeding them shrimp until his pail was empty.

Just as the Mormons of Utah built an improbable monument commemorating a shorebird, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker expressed his gratitude by feeding a flock of birds.

 Both had experienced the miracle of seagulls.

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

THAT HUMMING SOUND

August 22, 2020

This far into summer, I notice that when I take a few minutes to sit quietly, I invariably become aware of a faint humming noise. 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 the hummingbirds.

We have several hummingbird feeders located just outside the windows of our dining room and our den. We also have one near our screened back porch. These give us front row seats for a fascinating show featuring the tiny winged visitors to our garden.  Our grandchildren are enthralled, and we are delighted that the children enjoy the hummers as much as we do.  

Last week, a few days of mid-August brought blessed relief from the oppressive heat and humidity of our dog day afternoons. On Monday of last week, I enjoyed a second cup of coffee with Clare on our screened porch overlooking the flower garden. Hummingbirds provided the entertainment while we read our local newspaper, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. 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 backporch.  We were treated to an amazing air show.  As we savored our supper, we witnessed an incredible display of aerobatics.  Agile flying machines were buzzing our yard, staging midair 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 captivating 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 enchanting 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 sizeable 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 at feeders filled with fresh sugar water.  A mixture of one part sugar and four parts 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 humans 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.

This has been an active season for hummingbirds in our garden. Just this week, a person commented that they had never seen so many hummingbirds in one place. I have had to maintain a steady supply of nectar ready and available to keep up with the demand. Last week our daughter went to the fridge to find something refreshing to drink. She thought she was pouring a glass of cranberry juice over ice. Instead, she mistakenly poured a big tumbler of hummingbird nectar. Imagine her surprise! I’m afraid she might sprout feathers and fly off to South America.

Several years ago, a ruby-throated hummingbird, attracted by a cut flower arrangement, entered a large sunroom through an open door in the memory unit of 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.  The staff allowed the bird to feast on the flowers for a few minutes.

When the tiny visitor attempted to exit, it could not find the way out. With the aid of a towel, a nurse was able to capture the small 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.

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

KUDZU FOREVER!

August 15, 2020

Several years ago, 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, Pueraria lobata.

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, power 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 tireless efforts of Newt Hardy and others who did so much hard work. They actually had success in eliminating the voracious vine in selected areas. But kudzu is a stubborn foe. Newt explained that the persistent vine grows from crowns. Think strawberry plants on steroids. In order to kill kudzu, the crown has to be destroyed. More often than not, a backhoe is required to remove the crown that can be as large as a tree stump.

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 they produce milk and wool products.

Basketmakers 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 that 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 stopped 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.”

Northern visitors who vacation in the Southern states are awestruck by scenic vistas revealing miles of endless vines.

When Clare and I were on 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!”

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