It was early, that time of day before birds find their voices or vagrant dogs begin their morning rounds, when I rose from my childhood bed. I’d crawled into that bed the evening before, tired and looking forward to a rare sleepover at my parents’ house, but sleep had not come. Being in a place that seemed so familiar, yet so foreign made the night strange and my slumber restless.
The house still smelled like home and it was still furnished with the same books and chairs and most of the same people I’d always called mine. But I’d been gone from there for so many days and nights that it no longer felt like my home.
I was far too awake to ease back into even a fragment of a dream, so I slipped on my shoes, crept out a side door near my room (the same door I might have used as a teenager to slip away with a boyfriend had I had the courage to do such a thing back then—but I never did because it would have meant crossing boundaries), and set off for a walk down the lengthy dirt road that leads from the main highway to the house our family has inhabited since I was four years old.
I walked slowly at first, my steps unsure in the dark. Just as my eyes began to adjust to the ashen moonlight and my steps settled into an easy gate, the sound of snorts and cracking branches stopped me in my tracks. My footfalls had flushed several deer from their bed in a privet hedge.They dissolved into the predawn dark, fast and jerky as a ragged breath. I stood stock-still, my brief moment of fear fading into a sad insight: On a road I thought of as my own, I was trespassing.
Trespassing is a sin in the South—a shooting offense if not a hanging one. Ownership of land is a status symbol that surpasses cash wealth, and protecting land lines is an almost religious duty. We are fond of our fences, gates, and “posted” signs, and we are indignant, if not incensed, when people fail to honor them. For me, a product of the South and the progeny of families that have passed land down for several generations, this attitude is ingrained in me. I am protective of any land that belongs to us, and I resent anyone who dares trespasses upon it.
My upbringing also ingrained in me an almost absurd respect for the territory of others. When I travel, I am often intrigued by odd side roads or striking landscapes just across barbed-wire fences, places that I would love to explore. But I am well brought-up—or perhaps cowardly—so I don’t go there.
Instead, I limit my detours and ramblings (my chances at discovery…) to numbered roads and public spaces, such as the wooded, watery landscapes of the South’s parks and wilderness areas, or the barren, arid landscapes of the American West, where I can gaze upon and wander in acres and acres of open soil and sky owned by no one—or is that by everyone all at once?
As fiercely protective as I am of “my” land, knowing that someone relinquished ownership of their land to give us those communal spaces makes me feel greedy and guilty, but also thankful. Without their generosity (intentional or coerced) I would never have climbed through a thin mist to reach the top of an immense, ancient Indian mound in west Alabama, or been greeted (from a safe distance) by the dry warning judder of a timber rattler along the Bartram Trail in north Georgia, or glimpsed the sun shining through Delicate Arch in Utah, or become paralyzed with vertigo and awe while scaling Colorado’s Maroon Bells.
As I stood that night in the half-light on my family’s road, I realized what bothered me about that moment’s trespass against the whitetails. It was not the accidental indecency of my intrusion on their sleep. That was no worse than the way blue jays, squirrels, chipmunks, and wrens flush one another from branches and feeders outside my kitchen window. They briefly claim a territory of comfort or sustenance. They leave. They return. That constant ripple of removal and return is natural.
Wha bothered me was not that I trespassed upon the space of those deer — or my parents for that matter. It was how in the world can I avoid trespassing against them…
I went out to my front porch last night just three minutes before midnight to listen to a rain storm move in.
I had the house all to myself (if you don’t count the two dogs sleeping on the sofas inside) and, as always, that aloneness was freeing. There was no one here to care if I was up well at such an hour.
It began slowly at first…just a patter here and there as the raindrops walked through the woods. But it soon grew into a stampede, the drumming of thousands of droplets falling from the sky onto the world.
Somewhere above the rain clouds was a full moon. But it shed little light on the night. All I could see was a pale line of light from the streetlight as its glow bounced off the wet pavement that runs past our house and outlined of overgrown crape myrtles planted along our driveway. They were drooping under the wetness, their white flowers scattering on the driveway I am sure. I could not see the flowers, though. Just the arch of those elegant limbs.
I heard voices through the rain. I thought they were human voices but then I realized it was the voice of the rain in conversation with all the things it touched. And when it finally ebbed away, moved on to some other place, I heard the voices of cicadas and crickets, and the fading complaint of thunder as it traveled on elsewhere taking the lightning along with it.
It doesn’t get any better than that.
Back in June when my husband and I were making plans for a long weekend trip to the Mississippi Delta with our friends, Chuck and Donna, we were trying to figure out just what to see and do on such a short visit. While it’s easy to find Delta tourist advice, we wanted authentic intelligence from someone who knew the area intimately, so I sought help from Rheta Grimsley Johnson.
Rheta is an author and syndicated newspaper columnist who is a fellow Alabamian, but she’s lived in and written about Mississippi for so long now that she qualifies as a “local,” and she generously offered us sage advice on the best food, drink, cultural and musical stops of the Delta. But her finest and most important advice was this:
“The thing to do in the Delta is talk to people…there’s music in their voices.”
She was so right, and we heard that music over and over again from people like farmer Tim “Moose” Miller, who stopped to chat with us near his field in Friar’s Point, Mississippi, and just a crow’s fly from the Big Muddy. Sitting at the wheel of his pickup truck, Moose told us about his children—a daughter who was making herself a lawyer and a son who was not making much of himself at the moment—and about a snake that ate a radio-tagged bird, and how it could be dangerous in those parts of Mississippi what with the rampant rural crime, but how you’d also never find a friendlier place.
We also heard it in the voice of Barbara Pope, sister of the late Joe Pope who founded the famous White Front Café (AKA Joe’s Hot Tamale Shop) in Rosedale, Mississippi. Ms. Pope’s quiet, composed voice rose above—or maybe somehow below—the sounds of a television in one corner of the café and a window air conditioning unit struggling loudly against the indoor and outdoor heat in another corner. We hung on every word as she talked about how she came home to Mississippi from Chicago in 1990 to take care of her ailing mother and never left, and how tamales had brought the world to her door, but bringing prosperity to Rosedale was a work in progress.
We also heard it late one afternoon as we wandered around the grounds of Dockery Farms—the “birthplace of the blues”—near Cleveland, Mississippi, and met Julius Voss, a retired plumber who grew up working on a nearby farm. He began to tell us stories about his childhood there—about watering their farm horses at Dockery’s place—and I think he would have talked on for hours, but the sun was melting off the edge of a hot June sky and our hotel was miles away in Clarksdale, so we reluctantly said goodbye without fully tapping into the music of his voice.
That night we did what tourists do in Clarksdale—listened to the music of the Delta at Ground Zero then later at Red’s Lounge where Terry “Harmonica” Bean was evangelizing the blues to a largely white congregation of us tourists (some hailing from as far away as Australia). As Terry played, sang and told stories to the crowd, a woman sitting alone at a little bar table strewn with empty tall-boy beer cans and half-pint whiskey bottles—Miss Mae they called her, and we decided she must be a local—would occasionally rouse from a nap and make her own music by offering a barfly’s “amen.”
We also heard it from Willie “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry, the proprietor of Po’ Monkey’s Social Club, one of the last honest-to-God juke joints in the area, maybe in the world.
It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, so Po’ Monkeys was deserted—the singing and dancing occurs mostly on Thursday nights—but we took photos of the establishment’s ramshackle building and its trademark, hand-painted signs disallowing droopy pants, cockeyed baseball caps and outside beer and drugs.
We happily slipped the obligatory $5 (each) requested for outside photos in a padlocked box then stood on the dirt-gravel road that ran beside this sharecropper’s-shack-turned-cultural-icon and toasted the Delta with a couple of fingers of Woodford Reserve whiskey poured into plastic travel cups. Just as we were about to leave, a white van pulled up and out stepped a tall black man wearing a rhinestone belt buckle shaped like a dollar sign. It was Po’ Monkey himself and he invited us in to see the place he had run without major incident for more than 50 years.
For about an hour, we wandered around in the shabby-garish gloom that settles over any jumping joint during the quiet daylight hours and Mr. Seaberry answered our questions and told us stories. He even gave us a peek into his sleeping quarters, a tiny room in a back corner of the shack that was “wallpapered” with Mr. Seaberry’s many famous flamboyant suits, hats and assorted party outfits.
I think Mr. Seaberry would have kept talking with us for hours more—he was polite that way—but we had places to go and we figured he had things to do, so we drove away waving at Mr. Seaberry and thanking him profusely for his hospitality.
There are so many more people and places we encountered on that too-short trip, all worth recognizing, but that would take pages, and the real point of this is that we got the best advice for the Delta—for anywhere, actually—from Rheta. Stop and listen when people want to talk.
The importance of doing that was brought poignantly home to we four travelers when, less than a month after we returned home from that trip, we heard that Willie Seaberry was gone…found dead in his tiny bedroom on July 14th.
I wish we had lingered longer with Mr. Seaberry—and with Moose, Barbara, Julius, Miss Mae and all the other people we encountered in the Delta—and listened harder to the music in their voices. We might not get another chance.
When I started this blog four years ago, I intended to use it as a place to post my many random thoughts, write about things that intrigue me, and give myself an excuse to just play with all the great words that exist in this world.
Since that time, though, I’ve been a wretched blogger. I never show up on the page. My excuse is that I’ve been busy with other things, mostly other writing projects, that are gratifying but also consume a lot of my writing time and energy. But now, inspired in part by Elizabeth Gilbert’s musings about (and nurturing-but-frank advice on) living a creative life—and also because I think it is time to take writing to a different place in my life—I’m starting again. Fourth time’s the charm, right? I’m also getting a little push as I restart this blog from a parliament of owls.
Liz Gilbert’s workbook on creativity and my three owl muses.
For the past year, I’ve been watched over by the three owls in the photo above. They were given to me last summer by my friend (and their portrait artist), Mary Ann Casey, and they have kept their soulful, curious eyes on me ever since, peering down on me as I work at my desk and offering me quiet, thoughtful company–the perfect companions for those solitary, intense hours when I write.
But lately it seems more owls keep joining our cohort, a trend that began this past May when my husband and I took a birding trip to the Northwest. Owls were among the many birds we encountered there and we got great daytime looks at a pair of Long-Eared owls in Oregon and a family of Great Gray owls in Idaho. We also went owling, a late-night activity that I’d longed to do ever since my mother introduced me to the Caldecott Medal-winning children’s book, Owl Moon. It was on that night that we didn’t see, but at least got to hear the tender hoots of a tiny, elusive Flammulated owl.
Not long after we returned home from that trip, more owls began to show up. A family of Barred owls, including at least two juveniles, has been calling (so far no “Who, who, who cooks for you” hoots; just some adolescent whining that sound like “screeee” to me) to one another in the woods around my father’s house in Auburn. They’ve also entertained us by swooping back and forth from the ground to tree limbs in the semidarkness of my father’s backyard, a show that apparently is less for us than for training these rambunctious, full-feathered teenagers how to “perch and pounce” for their dinner.
Watching and listening to these Barred owls has been amazing. Though I’ve often heard them hoot and occasionally caught glimpses of them in our neighborhood, I’ve never seen them this close for this long. It’s as though they are as curious about us as we are of them, which I love–though I hope they don’t become too accustomed to human company and lose some healthy fear of us.
My interest piqued by our little owl family, my husband and I went yesterday to a local birding store to meet another Barred owl, this one on the arm of Lori Sewell, a certified wildlife rehabilitator. Lori, along with her family, takes care of Wobbles, a rescued owl that could not be re-released into the wild. Lori talked for a while about Barred owls then invited those of us in the audience to come closer and look (but don’t touch) Wobbles. He sat, seemingly unperturbed, on Lori’s wrist while we marveled at the contradictions of his physicality–his enormous, gentle eyes so at odds with the menacing potential of his sharp, curved beak; the gorgeous feathers that cloak his body, making him look ten times bigger than his 1.5-pound self. He looked as dangerous as he did serene, as substantial as he did ephemeral. He was magnificent. I felt honored and humbled to be that close to him.
I admit, I’m a firm believer in cosmic connections, especially synchronicity. I think that meaningful coincidences, if we allow ourselves to be open to them, not only happen but are meant to lead us to wonderful, unexpected moments. Such has been the case with all of these owls and such was the case this morning when, as I was working on this blog post under the watchful gaze of my three little owl muses, Mary Ann Casey called. I hadn’t talked to her in weeks, but there she was on the other end of the line, calling to tell me about possible new book project…
Who, who, who knows what the next owl will bring when it joins this parliament. I am looking forward to finding out.
The mama Great Gray in Idaho.
One of her three newly fledged Great Gray owl babies in Idaho.
Lori Sewell, Certified Wildlife Rehabilitator™ and caretaker of Wobbles, a young male barred owl, at Wild Birds Unlimited in Auburn, Alabama.
Wobbles up close.
Two juvenile Barred Owls at my father’s house in Auburn, Alabama.
It has been a year since I began this blog and it has been sorely neglected in these past 12 months. But I am spending five days at a cabin in the north Georgia mountains taking a personal writing retreat and among the things I am doing on this retreat is restarting this blog. I begin with photos from my first 24 hours at this lovely cabin called Fernbank, which a writer friend has graciously opened to me for these too-few days.
A candle, a journal and a glass of wine..the perfect menu for my first night at Fernbank. Thank you, Stephanie, for the journal and thank you, Kevin, for the wine.
The wine and the candle sustained me until night fully settled on Fernbank, after which I went inside to write, read and make lists…
My only visitors on my first full day at Fernbank, 20 hours into this remarkable seclusion.
Dinner: 24 hours into the retreat.
…I walked down to the stream at the foot of Fernbank and fully understand the source of its name. I sat in falling darkness by a falling stream among falling leaves. Everything falls into place.
Today is the birthday of William Carlos Willams, author of so many exquisite moments in poetry including This Is Just To Say (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15535), and Hank Williams, author of I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (http://www.lyricsfreak.com/h/hank+williams/im+so+lonesome+i+could+cry_20064142.html), the first song to both break my heart and simultaneously make me fall in love with the powerful imagery of single line: “The silence of a falling star Lights up a purple sky.” How did they know how to make brief so beautiful? Perhaps the stars of poets align on this date…
After years of thinking about it I am finally attempting to create a blog that I hope to populate with observations about things that inspire or intrigue me–and, perhaps, will do the same for those who read it. As it evolves, these pages may include posts on a variety of subjects ranging from writing and creativity to travel and nature. Really, well, life’s random moments. I’ve got a lot to learn about blogging, but then again there is so much more to learn about so many things and maybe, just maybe, this space will be a place to learn and share and think “out loud.”