Friday, September 28, 2012

A Sense of Place

so i listened to a radio interview with the author Alexandra Fuller today and was slightly perplexed by the interviewer's insistence, as was Fuller i think, that Americans couldn't possibly relate to Fuller's deep attachment to the land she grew up on in Zimbabwe . . . that somehow Americans don't get the idea of being connected to land and that only people who lived in big places like Africa could be grounded in the earth around them. Fuller spoke of recently returning from a visit with her mum and dad in Africa and described the distant sound of hippos, the birds, the bush babies, the light . . . and i couldn't have related more, i am horribly entrenched in my own spot of earth, all 13 acres of it here in Hillsborough and when i visit my mother's farm in South Carolina, my soul sings with the big water birds of the Wateree and the seemingly unstoppable sky of Kershaw county. A sense of place is not lost on us folks who inhabit less spectacular landscapes, on the contrary, I believe a sense of place is what makes so many of us human.

it's thundering now, and i can hear the rain, and the birds have gone quiet . . . it's not Africa, but it'll do.

The Adventures of Ellie Starr - Part One


i can't tell you how long i been here, but i can tell you it's important to pay attention every day, cause there sure is a whole lot that goes on. i used to live under the dogwood tree near the garage, that was a long time ago, when it was real cold, and the girl would come out in the dark, under the stars, with a flashlight, and she'd give me leftovers from her dinner, "I saved this for you Ellie Starr . . . " and she'd put it in my bowl and sometimes it would be a piece of pizza or some turkey tetrazzini  or macaroni and cheese, but there was one night, one splendid night when she brought me a turkey leg, that night she said, "Happy Thanksgiving Ellie Starr, sleep tight . . . " But one night it was raining, real hard, and she came out, under an umbrella, and just when she was about to hand over half a cheeseburger, the man came to the door, "Valerie! Valerie Starr! Your brother told me you been feedin' Ellie, get back in here, Valerie Starr!" So the girl didn't come anymore, and not long after that, they moved me back near the old Mustang that's up on blocks, the one the boy says he's going to fix up before he goes to college, but all i ever seen him do is show it to that boy with the lazy eye and the acne on his chin - he shakes his head and says, "Man, that car was your dad's? No way your dad was that cool." Only the woman, who is always kind, comes with my portions now, and says things like, "Here's you kibble Ellie Christmas Starr . . . " and you know, most of the time she doesn't stay to watch me eat, she might pick up my water bucket and take it to the garage and fill it up, and bring it back, and say, "Oh Christmas! You're done already?" And then she gets in the big car and drives away and that's when the day really begins . . .

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Cry of a Child

So the news came while i was sowing snap peas in the eleven o'clock sun under the brightest blue sky with those clouds that if you sit still, which i don't, you might find meditative, and my hands were grimy with compost, and i was trying to be neat about the little furrows i was digging, and economical with the number of seeds i was dropping in the ground, and you know, peas are easy because the seeds are enormous, and occasionally i would take a deep breath, and tell myself to be thoughtful as i covered the seeds, because seeds are wishes, really. I stopped to go in the house and have some water and checked my phone and there was a voice mail from an old friend, one whom i've spent the summer helping with her young horses because she was widowed back in November, and so it must have been especially hard for her to call me  to let me know another friend had been widowed and her husband, who i have admired for so long, was killed in his airplane two nights ago - he and a friend were flying to Nevada and they missed a pass through the Rockies and broadsided a mountain, and well, mountains always win don't they? I felt nauseous listening to the message and i remembered the last time i had spoken with him - i'd gone to their house to pick up a copy of a land survey for a piece of property my husband and i had planned to purchase from the flying man and his wife. He invited me to sit at the kitchen table in their sun dappled house, their horses in the green pastures through the windows - we shared some cold wine and conversation. The land deal fell through, but our friendship stayed the same. The shock of his death in his plane came for so many reasons, but most especially because he had cheated death eight years ago in a plane crash. He'd lost a leg but you would hardly know, he continued to ride his horses, fox hunt, fly his plane, and work his tractor - some said he had more lives than normal people and i believe it.

Not thirty minutes after the news i drove to town, and found myself wandering in the market looking for some kind of lunch, some kind of connection with all the living people and a baby screamed and raised hell on the granola/cracker aisle as his mother studied the side of cereal box; now most days, the pierce of the baby's cry would fold me up and put me away, but in that moment, i needed that baby to cry out with all his might, to move the mountain that wouldn't move for my friend, cry baby, cry cry cry.

Things On The Ground . . .

a dead beetle being eaten by ants
a mockingbird feather
a green snake
the haunch of a deer
something that looked like an octopus
the foot of a crow
a screw in a bolt
string
half a baby copperhead
a diet pepsi can
a biscuit wrapper from bojangles

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Out To Sea

Hurricane Fran, September, 1996
Bermuda was threatened by tropical storm Leslie earlier this week - Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel got a free trip to the islands for the occasion, and I thought it fairly amusing as he stood there on Elbow Beach, a gentle breeze caressing his storm jacket - the sense of urgency just wasn't there. And well, even if Leslie didn't blow east of the islands, even if she had crossed the fishhook sea mount, it wouldn't have been a great story. Bermuda knows how to ride out a storm with her buried power lines, her underground water tanks, and all the shutters closed tight. In the two years we lived there, we never got to see a hurricane, but we were always ready. The worst we saw were winter gales and hellish thunderstorms, but never a hurricane. Oddly, I rode out Hurricane Fran just a few months before I moved to Bermuda. My husband was already out on the island, and I was home alone in Durham. There was barely any warning from the authorities, it was before the internet, before the Weather Channel tweeted every cloud, every rain drop, every sun spot - I went to work that day, and I remember exactly what I bought at the grocery store on my way home, a quart of milk and a bag of kitty litter, and not one person in the store with me was stocking up, preparing for disaster. The last thing I remember was Greg Fischel of WRAL-TV saying on the tv with the image of hurricane Fran at his back as she bared down on the coastal plain, "Folks this is going to be a little worse than we thought," and the lights went out, right on cue, and they didn't come back on for almost three weeks.

Even when the lights went out, I didn't panic. I just took the dog and the cats to bed with me, they were my only companions with my husband out on the island. And we tucked in for the night. I awoke two or three hours later to my brave hound lab Jack straddled over me in the bed in the pitch black growling fiercely at the windows. And outside Fran raged, all Category 3 of her - there was a weird light that came from her belly and I sat up and held Jack as he growled and growled, his hackles raised from shoulder to tail. He was determined to keep that storm outside and away from me. I could see the pine trees down in the park near our home twisting and blowing like egg beaters, I could hear things cracking and exploding, and the wind revved like a NASCAR racing mobile right outside my window. But there was no race car, no motorcycle, that was Fran - her sustained winds at sixty miles an hour, and then the nauseating gusts over 100 miles per hour, some said we had 115, that came in two minute waves, I began to count the seconds until the gusts died down, 1-Mississippi, 2-Mississippi, and around 6-Missippi I could hear the giving way of trees and unknown objects. I felt the gusts in my lower gut, my whole body was being crushed with barometric pressure.

I lived in a typical Durham mill house, and it had an attic. About an hour into Fran, the wind not letting up, I began to hear the attic windows at either end of the house slamming open and shut. I was frozen to the bed, mesmerized by the sight out the windows of the bedroom, Jack wouldn't let me move. The cats paced up and down the hallway, occasionally coming in as though we might join them, they made guttural meows, harmonizing with Fran. And then the roof began to moan, like every damn sea faring movie I had ever seen, my roof sounded like a ship straining on the swells of a perfect storm, the house was yawing and popping all around me. Jack sat and stared at the ceiling and began to growl again, I felt my ears popping over and over. Were we going to lose our roof? The attic windows slammed and slammed, my heart could not beat any faster, and more things cracked and more things exploded and I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my life, despite my dog, who was trying with all his might to tell the storm to go to another neighborhood. We sat there all night, and I think the eye of Fran came an hour before daylight and sleep would not be had. I picked up the phone to call my husband in Bermuda, but it was dead. The back end of Fran finished us off, and just when I thought I might die of sheer fright, she was gone. And the sun came out and I noticed all the windows were plastered with leaves - Fran had paper mached my house with summer leaves, autumn was not necessary that year. I put Jack's leash on and we ventured out the back door. The large old pin oak in the back yard was still standing, but a poplar had been pulled up and out of the ground and lay along one side of the house. My car was also paper mached like a Cristo with leaves and sticks and debris. Jack and I ventured out to the street and there were all my neighbors, like zombies, with their little children in pajamas, I think we were all in our pajamas, and shock, and we all had the same expression, one of complete awe and surprise. The damage was unbelievable. Trees, now Durham is a city of trees, big trees, and it seemed as though they had been kicked down and around by the gods. One long ranch style house less than a block from me had an enormous loblolly pine entering at one end of the house and exiting at the other end - it had dissected the home along it's center line. The family was miraculously unhurt, and they stood in the yard, in complete mental comas. We had all been blind sided. The city went into chaos over the next couple of weeks, there were massive lines for water and batteries and food. I remember waiting five hours for a small can of propane for my camp stove. The phone service was returned within a day or two and I could talk to my panicked husband who was way out to sea, he was helpless to help me. There were curfews and rationing. I had an elderly neighbor, she was Polish and spoke no English, and every night and every morning her live-in nurse, also Polish, would bring a single pot of something to cook on my camp stove. She had seen war, she knew how to cook in a war, I had only camped, but it was enough to get me through. The nights were the worst, my fear of the dark returned with a terrible vengeance, there weren't enough flashlights to relieve my anxiety.

And then, only four months later I was living in the middle of the ocean, with my sweet husband, and my hurricane sniffing dog and two cats who never wanted to live at sea. And the world began to open up to me - because Expats go through that in the first few months. You are cast out from the safe walls of your home country and you begin to look back and you see your country in a very different light. You read international newspapers and the shipping news and listen to the BBC and your country is suddenly not the only place on earth - you realize how sheltered you were, and it changes you forever.

Sometimes, we watched The Weather Channel and they would show great colorful maps of the eastern seaboard of the US and twirling tropical systems and we would squint and nowhere would we see Bermuda in the ocean, in the place she was supposed to be, just 600 miles due east of Cape Hatteras, and frequently they would console the East Coasters by telling them, "not to worry, this storm will be going out to sea." And we would smile as Jim Cantore or one of his lovely weather girl colleagues would gesture toward Bermuda, yes, we were Out to Sea, thank goodness.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Alice B. Toklas Says . . .

My friend Jarret Liotta, the infamous writer, recently told me he had learned how to "poach, literally" and when I first read this, without glasses, I thought he said "literary" and I was momentarily thrilled by the idea of him poaching literary works of others and then before I ran too far with this notion, I remembered I had only recently told him I was on my way to "boil an egg" and the whole exchange became very mundane, eggs in water, nothing of the stuff of shooting arrows at the Queen's deer up at Balmoral by the light of the Royal Moon, no just eggs, just breakfast. But then I recalled another recent event, my reading for the very first time, The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, and I dug around on my desk, which lay in ruins these days, and I found the wonderful little book and searched for eggs of the poached variety and there, on page 177, I found this and I hope that Jarret might expand upon his new culinary skill and make this delightful concoction for his famille:

Poached Eggs À La Sultane

Bake puff paste in fluted påté shells. When baked and still hot place in each one a poached egg. Cover with a sauce made this way:

For six påté shells, melt 1 1/2 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over low heat. When butter is melted add 1 1/4 tablespoons flour. Turn with a wooden spoon until thoroughly amalgamated, then add slowly 3/4 cup strong hot chicken bouillon. Stir constantly over lowest heat for for 5 minutes. Add 1/2 cup heavy cream. Do not allow to boil. Add 1/4 cup pistachio nuts that have had their skins removed by soaking for 3 minutes in hot water. Dry and rub in cloth -- the skins will loosen and finally remain in the cloth. Pound them in a mortar with a drop of water added from time to time to prevent the nuts from exuding oil. When they can be strained through a sieve, add 1/4 cup and 1 tablespoon soft butter to them and mix together. Add this mixture very slowly (called, naturally, pistachio butter) to the chicken bouillon cream sauce. Heat thoroughly but do not boil. Cover the eggs with this and serve at once. As good as it looks.


(from The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book, by Alice B. Toklas, 1954)