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Archive for the ‘Life Down South’ Category

One of my go-to spots for a pleasant walk in the woods these days is Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens. SCNC is a 225-acre park, half woodlands and half wetlands, located where Sandy Creek and the North Oconee River merge on their way south.

The park features several miles of trails, a visitor center, a small museum, classrooms, and a gift shop. Activities include classes on woodsy lore, programs for kids, nature walks, etc. It’s a good place to get your nature fix.

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By now, I know the park thoroughly. I’m familiar with all the trails, the terrain, and the various features that help make the place interesting — such as a reconstructed log house from the early 1800s and the ruins of an old brick-making factory.

A topo map of the park would show a long, elevated center ridge dropping off to lowlands on both sides. The river on the west and the creek on the east have created extensive wetlands, some seasonal and some permanent.

Even in dry seasons, the wetland areas are mostly boggy and impassable. And, being important habitat for plants and animals, the swamps and ponds are the pride of the park staff.

Claypit Pond

A century ago, long before the park existed, human activity had a major impact on this locale. In 1906, the Georgia Brick Company built a factory here on a hill overlooking Sandy Creek. Using a newly-patented “tunnel kiln,” which was six feet in diameter and 300 feet long, the company produced 25,000 bricks per day.

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Ruins of the old brick factory. Ironically, a fire put the company out of business in 1923.

This being North Georgia, the red clay soil needed to manufacture bricks is, literally, underfoot everywhere. Georgia Brick Co. excavated it at the bottom of the hill where the factory stood.

As the years passed, the excavation site became a small lake thanks to rainfall, flooding from Sandy Creek, and the work of beavers. It’s known today as Claypit Pond.

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Claypit Pond.

The south end of Claypit Pond has a well-defined shore, but the north end does not. It tapers off to swamp and bog, varying with the amount of water present at the time.

Now that I’m aware of the pond’s ebbs and flows, I have a habit of noting its size when I go walking at the park. The difference from visit to visit is easy to see.

The Beavers

Beavers are fascinating creatures. As you probably know, they are large rodents adapted for an aquatic life. Adults usually weight 40 or 50 pounds and live 10 to 20 years.

Beavers have large, sharp front teeth — incisors — that are designed for serious incising. Their hind feet are webbed for swimming. Their large, flat tails are used (1) as a rudder when they swim, (2) as a prop when they are sitting upright, and (3), when they smack the water sharply, as a way to warn the group of danger.

A beaver’s mission in life is to modify the environment to its advantage, usually by building dams. At a spot where water is running, the beaver will collect fallen branches, cut down small trees, and assemble them to block the moving water.

Why? Because it creates a pond of deeper water that helps protect the lodge and the beavers from predators. It also creates a new area of calm water where aquatic vegetation will grow, thus providing a food source for the beavers.

In addition, new vegetation will sprout around the edges of the pond — another source of food and building material. As a bonus, the new vegetation filters contaminants from the water in the pond.

Typically, beavers eat the tender parts of the plants they harvest, store some for future consumption, and use the rest as construction material. They are most active at night, working from sundown to sunrise and resting in their lodges during the day.

Beavers have lived in Claypit Pond for as long as the staff can recall. The beaver lodge in the middle of the pond is about six feet high and is hard to miss.

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A typical colony consists of four to eight related beavers. They will accept no outsiders in the group and will drive off any newcomers who try to settle too close to their territory.

When their own offspring become sexually mature at about two years old, they are booted out of the colony. In most cases, the youngsters go out into the world, find a mate and a suitable spot, and start a colony of their own.

Apparently, that is what happened at SCNC this year.

If the park staff is right, and they probably are, a young male recently left the Claypit Pond colony, moved to a spot north of the Audubon Society Bird Blind (see map), and constructed a new dam. And a fine dam it is, worthy of a seasoned veteran beaver.

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The new dam flooded the swampy area behind it, creating a new pond that, for the moment, extends north almost to the high ground at Cook’s Trail.

Accordingly, an area of the park that once looked like this…

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… now looks like this.

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The question now: is the pond a permanent feature? Will it survive the dry season? I’m curious to find out.

Beavers are a good example of why we should be in awe of the natural world. Amazing ecological systems are all around us — systems that evolved to perform important functions, even if we don’t understand them — systems that can perform virtual feats of magic when people don’t get in the way.

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A few weeks ago, someone left this stone next to the Claypit Pond Trail. I don’t know if it’s an offering, a statement, a celebration, or what, but I sure agree with the sentiment.

 

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In Remembrance

This is a feel-good story about people and families, although it’s tempered with a measure of sadness. It seems fitting as we enter a new year, a time when the old steps aside for the new.

———

Here in Jefferson, the local hotspot on weekends is the Pendergrass Flea Market, billed as the largest indoor flea market in Georgia. Indeed, the place is sprawling, chaotic, and crowded.

PFM

Over time, the PFM has evolved into a social gathering spot for area Hispanics, and, to a lesser extent, various Asian groups. Much of the merchandise reflects that fact.

Maybe you aren’t in the market for Mexican pottery, oriental spices, cell phone cases, boom boxes, Iron Maiden tee-shirts, imported toys, imitation jewelry, pony rides, tools, tires, or live chickens, but the fresh produce is plentiful, and the food court has an array of authentic international cuisine.

The PFM began as an ordinary flea market operated, then as now, by Anglos. Likewise, while many of the vendors are Hispanic and Asian, just as many are locals of European stock.

One of them is my amiable friend Tony, a fellow divorcé and retiree.

Tony is a builder, a tinkerer, a hands-on kind of guy. In the same way that Trump golfs and I busy myself with wordsmithing, Tony enjoys woodworking. Behind his house is an elaborate workshop where he spends his days, and many nights, building planters, birdhouses, benches, side tables, and whatever else strikes his fancy.

On Saturdays and Sundays, you will find Tony at his booth at Pendergrass Flea Market, selling his creations.

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Tony rented the booth a few years ago as an experiment, to see if sales would make it worthwhile. He seemed hopeful, but not optimistic. And, I gather, sales were slow at first.

But he stayed with it, and, over time, business improved. And continued improving. Soon, he was spending much of the week in the workshop to prepare for the weekend ahead. He also branched out and began making seasonal items for the various holidays.

One Saturday before Christmas, I stopped at the flea market to see how Tony was doing. His booth was brimming with woodcraft, including quite a few Christmas-themed items. Most notable: dozens of colorful paintings on rustic 4”x4” pieces of wood — Santas, Christmas trees, snowflakes, snowmen, elves, and more.

Had Tony painted them? Did his skills transcend woodworking?

No, he said, they were painted by his mom, an artist and author who lived on the other side of Atlanta.

To be clear, I know Tony only casually. I knew little about his family or his daily life. His mother was an artist and a writer? Interesting.

This is what Tony told me about his mother Marge.

She was born in Ohio, got married, had four children. She was a Registered Nurse by profession. Eventually, the family moved to Kennesaw, Georgia, where she worked at a local hospital until her retirement. Before long, she founded a private nursing service and ran it for the next decade.

Marge was an accomplished painter, working in oil, acrylic, and watercolor. She published five books. Her cooking skills and singing voice were widely acknowledged.

She was widowed in 2002. In 2015, at age 85, she toured Europe with friends.

Tony and his siblings were quite prolific. Marge had 13 grandchildren and 27 great-grandchildren.

In early 2017, Marge called Tony with a business proposition. If he would give her a supply of rustic wood squares, she would paint them with scenes suitable for Halloween, Christmas, and other holidays. Tony could sell them in his booth, and they could split the profits.

This was not a lady fading into her dotage.

Tony made and delivered several dozen 4”x4” squares. She demanded more.

He furnished more. She demanded more again.

In the end, she painted about 350 wood squares, all initialed, dated, and equipped with a ribbon for hanging. As each holiday arrived, Tony displayed and sold the appropriate paintings.

One of her favorite subjects, he told me, was an angel. Marge had painted about 50 of them. Tony figured they would be the hit of the Christmas season.

In November, after a long life of good health, Marge suffered a sudden and fatal stroke at age 87.

Because of his mother’s fondness for the angels, Tony decided not to sell them. Instead, he gave one to each of the 40 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in remembrance of Marge.

The proceeds from the sale of her other paintings will go to her favorite charities.

When Tony finished telling me all this, I turned away and began perusing Marge’s paintings. It helped me maintain my composure.

At that point, I badly wanted one of her paintings. Any would do. I chose this one.

Snowman

I may leave it up after the holidays. Just, you know, in remembrance.

 

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As the Dog Barks

As the Dog Barks: A Soap Opera.” That was how my son Britt described the events that unfolded recently when I began looking for another dog.

You have your dramas, I have mine.

———

Early in 2016, I lost my friend Paco, the best dog I ever saw. The loss was profound and painfully slow to diminish. Even now, if I let my guard down, tears will flow.

For a year and a half after that, my heart told me it wasn’t time to get another dog. I checked often, and the answer was always the same: not yet.

I don’t know what finally precipitated the change, but one day, I realized it was time.

My first choice was a rescue dog, a young adult, male or female. I would consider any non-aggressive pooch that I connected with and would be content as a roommate and hiking buddy.

So I spread the word. I told the people at Paco’s kennel, his vet, and other places around town to be on the lookout for me.

I began checking the local animal shelters. I found Paco at a shelter; maybe luck would be with me again. Twice, I sent applications to local canine adoption agencies. They seem to be everywhere.

Two months passed. Over that time, I inquired about and looked at an array of adoptable dogs. But I didn’t come across even one that seemed right.

At that point, I began to question my tactics. And I turned, rather reluctantly, to a resource I had been holding in abeyance.

My ex-wife Deanna has a friend in South Carolina who breeds and trains border collies for herding competition. This woman is truly connected. She knows every border collie person in the Southeast and most of their dogs.

As Deanna explained, when people in the business identify a dog that doesn’t have a strong enough herding instinct, or simply lacks the skills, they don’t waste time trying to train it. They re-home the dog as a pet. And Deanna’s friend always knows when such dogs are available.

Why was I reluctant to contact the friend? Because I would prefer to save a shelter dog. This time, that didn’t seem to be happening, so I emailed the woman and told her my story.

Within 30 minutes, she replied with the name of a possible adoptee.

The timeline of events tells the story…

— Saturday 10:30 AM. I email the trainer.

— Saturday 11:00 AM. The trainer gives me the name of a local man who owns Trace, a 5-year-old male border collie. Trace suffered a hip injury that hasn’t responded to treatment. He is no longer suitable for herding competition. The owner wants to find Trace a new home.

— Saturday 2:15 PM. I email the owner to inquire about Trace.

— Saturday 7:30 PM. I call the owner’s home phone. No answer.

— No response from the owner on Sunday. I am puzzled.

— Monday 11:45 AM. Owner answers my email and provides details about Trace. Owner says he brought in a new male border collie to train, and Trace resents it. “Instant fight.”

— Monday 2:00 PM. I reply and ask owner when I can see Trace.

— No word from owner for several days. I am perplexed.

— Friday 8:00 PM. Email arrives from owner. He provides contact information and asks when I would like to see Trace. I am baffled.

— Friday 8:30 PM. I reply and suggest Monday morning.

— Saturday 11:00 AM. Owner replies that he prefers Sunday afternoon.

— Sunday 10:30 AM. Owner calls. He apologizes and says he has changed his mind. He is too fond of Trace to let him go. I tell him I understand and wish him luck. I am bewildered.

— Sunday 7:15 PM. Owner emails me to apologize again, this time for “letting emotions block good sense.” He has re-reconsidered. He suggests that I keep Trace for a week as a trial. I accept. I am mystified.

Until the trial period began the following Friday, I had not seen any photos of Trace. He turned out to be a striking, classic black-and-white border collie with a velvety coat and hypnotic eyes that would give pause to any sheep.

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At first, he was uncertain and uneasy, having been abandoned in a strange place with a strange human. But he soon adjusted and warmed to me. He was friendly and affectionate.

I gave him plenty of attention and ample time to run in the back yard. When I drove to town on errands, he rode with me. Twice, we went walking around Jefferson. At night, he slept beside me. A daily routine took shape.

By the third day, I tried leaving him at home alone while I went to lunch. When I returned, he was extra happy to see me, but nothing in the house had been disturbed.

On the morning of day four, when I let him outside, he and a squirrel surprised each other. The squirrel quickly escaped up a tree. Trace appeared shocked.

He circled and paced in hound mode, looking up, seemingly fascinated that creatures ran freely in the treetops. Maybe he had no experience with squirrels. Are sheep pastures normal habitat for them? Beats me.

From then on, his first act when he went outside was to look skyward and check for movement in the canopy.

Having a dog around the house again felt right. Trace was good company.

But finally, reluctantly, I had to admit that he was not The One.

I came to that conclusion because Trace is all border collie — an exuberant, high-energy, dynamo of a dog. And the more comfortable he became, the more his border collie nature surfaced.

My neighborhood is secluded, but kids, dogs, cats, and squirrels are everywhere. Even deer are common.

It’s quiet here, but the silence is often broken by the sounds of children, passing cars, delivery vehicles, school buses, the mail truck, and more.

Trace was aware of every sight and sound, eyes ablaze, ears at attention. Sometimes he reacted silently, sometimes he barked or growled.

It’s fair, too, to call him high-maintenance. Briefly, he would be content to watch me do chores, putter around the house, or sit and read. Before long, however, he would appear with a tennis ball, ready to play.

Or he would bark to go outside, only to decide that nothing of interest was there, and he was ready to come back in.

The reality: Trace is a trained herding dog who would be out of a job in my world. Worse, considering my routine and habits, he would spend a fair amount of time at home alone. I couldn’t always take him with me. That was worrisome.

All in all, I was compelled to conclude that I wasn’t right for Trace, and he wasn’t right for me.

In retrospect, I had been fooling myself. My previous two border collies were mellow and low-key, but they were not typical of the breed. Finding another border collie like them would defy the odds. I simply made a mistake.

The decision made, I turned to the task of breaking the news to Trace’s owner. Composing the email wasn’t easy. I wasn’t sure I explained my reasons properly.

But it didn’t matter.

This is proof there is a God,” the owner replied. “I was trying to compose a letter that would convince you to let me have my dog back.”

Trace is gone now, back with his owner. After they left, I put away the food and water bowls, the treats, and the toys. The house is quiet again.

Dogwise, I am back in search mode. No telling what will happen next.

Hasta la vista, Trace. You’re a very good boy. I’m glad we crossed paths.

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You have your dramas, I have mine.

 

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Another Claim to Fame

A few years ago, I wrote a series of blogs about Jefferson, Georgia, where I’ve lived for the last dozen years. They were stories about the history of the city, the county, and a few local people of varying degrees of celebrity.

Well, since I wrote all that, Jefferson has scored another claim to fame. Added another superlative to its history. Stuck another feather in its cap.

We are now the home of the world’s largest mattress.

Laugh if you must, but one Jefferson business took the matter seriously enough to actually construct the thing.

Here’s the story.

The world’s largest mattress is 38 feet wide and 80 feet long, which is about 3,000 square feet. That’s the size of 72 king-size mattresses. Or 96 queen-size, or 110 regular-size, or 156 twin-size.

The WLM was designed and built by a mattress company from Tennessee. It weighs 4,560 pounds. It consists of a frame, a boatload of foam padding, a giant mattress pad, and an equally huge cloth cover. The structure is supported by 46 roof trusses.

The WLM is located in the middle of the two-acre sales floor of Cotton Mill Interiors, a furniture and accessories store that occupies most of a former cotton mill near the center of town.

That enterprise, Jefferson Mills, is remembered fondly by the locals.

The mill opened in 1899 and for decades was the town’s largest employer and taxpayer. It was noted for its production of high-quality corduroy. The mill closed in 1995, and the structure was renovated for retail use.

The world’s largest mattress, you’ll be pleased to know, is open to the bouncing public. The owners invite kids and parents to take off their shoes, climb aboard, and go for a romp. A safety railing protects against falls.

As often happens, the PR people laid it on a little thick at the ribbon-cutting: “The reason for building the mattress is to promote the importance of sleep to an overall healthy lifestyle.” Uh, okay.

Still, as promotional schemes go, the WLM is benign and inoffensive. And it’s a lot classier than an inflatable gorilla in front of the building. Or the Chamber of Commerce throwing turkeys off the roof at Thanksgiving.

So far, I have not availed myself of a round of bouncing. But, hey — never say never.

WLM

 

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Help is On the Way

A few days ago, I stopped at the local Kroger for a few things, among them a bottle of Pinot Noir.

At the self-checkout, in order to get the pesky proof-of-age step out of the way (as if a graybeard like me isn’t over 21), I scanned the bottle of wine first.

I.D. check required!” barked the scanner in a female voice. “Help is on the way!”

Moments later, a young clerk in Kroger blue appeared, probably a high school senior or college freshman. I recognized him from previous visits. A pleasant kid.

I held out my driver’s license. He leaned forward, squinted, read my date of birth, and turned to inform the computer.

That’s a new recording,” I said. “The ‘help-is-on-the-way’ part. I don’t know why it strikes me as funny, but it does.”

Oh, thanks for reminding me,” he said. “I forgot to put on my name tag when I clocked in.”

He reached into a pants pocket and began fishing around.

With an aha, he located the tag, took it out, clipped it to his shirt, and turned so I could see it.

I made this after I heard the recording, like, a million times,” he said.

The badge:

Help

 

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A trip to Walmart, if you’ll permit me this peculiar analogy, is a bit like going to the Mos Eisley spaceport in “Star Wars.”

Not because it’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Au contraire, mes amis. Rather, because Walmart is a societal and cultural melting pot, teeming with activity, always poised to surprise and entertain.

When in Walmart, a person should be observant, because sometimes you strike gold.

————

So, there I was at Walmart, in the electronics department, perusing the laptops that hadn’t been vandalized yet.

A few yards away, a young man and woman in their 20s were rifling through the DVDs in a large bin marked “$3.74.”

Strapped to the young woman’s chest was a googly-eyed infant dressed in pink. The baby was trying gamely to snag one of the DVDs from the bin, emulating Mom and Dad.

Twice, the child succeeded and began to gnaw on the corner of the DVD. Each time, the mom snatched it away and sailed it back into the bin.

After a time, this exchange ensued:

DadHey, look. Alien. That’s an oldie.

MomWe got that already. You paid too much for it. I told you that.

They continued digging.

DadOh, wow! The Terminator! Another classic!

MomWe got that, too.

Dad — I know. I’m just sayin’ it goes way back. Schwarzenegger made The Terminator before he was President.

Mom — Honey, for God’s sake! Schwarzenegger wadn’t never President!

Dad — He damn sure was. He was President of California.

Mom — That is so dumb! Listen, he wadn’t PRESIDENT of California!

Dad — He damn sure was.

Mom — No, he wadn’t! He was MAYOR of California!

Dad — You sure?

Mom — Hell, yes!

Dad — Mayor, President. Same thing.

$3.74

 

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Torque

I believe in maintenance. When you maintain things, small problems are less likely to grow into big problems.

For example, I get myself checked regularly by an assortment of medicos. Not just my GP, but the dermatologist, the ophthalmologist, and the periodontist. If something needs fixing, in me or on me, I want to know about it, pronto.

This philosophy also extends to my vehicles. I take them in for regular maintenance to keep them running smoothly and, knock on wood, head off serious issues later.

My mechanic is a life-long local, a soft-spoken family man of about 40. He’s a pro, very conscientious, well regarded hereabouts.

But sometimes, stuff happens.

One morning several years ago, I took my Subaru to his shop for an oil change. It’s a fairly large operation for this little town, with half a dozen mechanics working in the bays. While I waited, one of them would change the oil, inspect things, and rotate the tires.

After about 30 minutes, the deed was done. I exchanged pleasantries with the owner, paid the bill, and drove away.

100 yards from the shop, the car suddenly lurched and pulled to the left. I stopped immediately.

When I got out to investigate, I discovered that the left front wheel was askew on the wheel studs. Three of the lug nuts were loose, two were missing.

For whatever reason, the technician had failed to tighten that wheel. As I drove away — fortunately at low speed — the nuts had unthreaded themselves, and the wheel was on the verge of coming off. Yikes!

I walked back to the shop and gave them the news.

My friend the mild-mannered owner blew his top. He was as angry as I’ve ever seen him — close to breaking things

Finally, he calmed down, collected himself, and dispatched a truck and two employees to retrieve the Subaru.

Fortunately, no damage was done. They made things right and triple-checked the work. The owner offered a heartfelt apology and said I was ready to go again.

“You know,” I told him, “This surely was a freak thing. Your guy probably just got distracted. You can bet he won’t let it happen again. Don’t be too hard on him.”

“No, this is unacceptable,” he said. “He and I are gonna have a come-to-Jesus meeting, and then I’ll decide what to do.”

And there, for me, the episode ended.

Since then, no one at the shop has mentioned that particular unpleasantness. A few times, I was tempted to make a joke about it, but I always stopped myself. Too touchy a subject for levity.

But last month, while I was at the garage for an oil change on my current vehicle, I got curious and decided to ask.

As I was preparing to leave, I said to the owner, “Got a minute? I’d like to ask you something.” I turned and went outside, indicating that I wanted privacy, and he followed.

“Remember that time a few years ago, ” I said, “when I drove away, and the front wheel on my Subaru –”

“You bet I remember,” he said. “It was a nightmare. A low point for this business. ”

“Well, I never knew who did the work that day. You said you planned to read him the riot act. How did things work out?”

How things worked out was a bit surprising.

The come-to-Jesus meeting was brief, animated, and, no doubt, one-sided. But the mechanic had been a steady and reliable worker, and he kept his job.

More importantly, the shop put new procedures in place aimed at preventing similar screw-ups in the future.

First, the shop’s standard work order was changed to include new checkboxes about lug nuts and the proper torquing thereof.

Under the new rules, mechanics are required to look up the manufacturer’s torque specifications, tighten the lugs as recommended (it was 75 ft-lbs in the case of my Subaru), and record it on the work order. Individually for each wheel.

After that, a second mechanic is required to check the work and add his initials to vouch for it. Four wheels, four initials.

Yikes.

The moral: preventing human error is a tough and never-ending job.

It’s pretty much hopeless, but you have to try anyway.

Torque

 

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