Saturday, October 30, 2010


[NOTE: This is a sort of Halloween piece I wrote for one of my columns a few years ago. A true story. Possibly too long for a blog…but I decided to run it anyway.]


“Your family is early mountain Irish, correct?” the old man sitting across the small campfire asked politely.

“Yes,” I said. “Every one of my ancestors—both maternal and paternal lines—came to America well before the Revolution. They followed Boone down the Blue Ridge and southward along the Wilderness Road. The old Warrior's Trail pathway of the Shawnee.”

“I thought as much,” my companion replied, before falling momentarily silent. “I’m old Irish, too,” he finally added.

We'd made ourselves comfortable in a sort of rocky hollow located just below the brow of a steep Eastern Kentucky ridge. Not far, actually, from where a number of my great grandfathers now lay in eternal rest. The night was cold and getting colder, thanks to a chill north wind which rattled the last leaves clinging to the hilltop oaks and sent the occasional swirl of orange sparks spinning into the darkness. Stars winked between scudding clouds. A waning Hunter’s Moon cast a pale silvery light throughout the lonely woods.

My host was a retired professor of Appalachian Studies who'd once taught at a small but prestigious university in nearby West Virginia. Several of his books on regional history and folklore graced my shelves. The Professor and I have corresponded for years. When he invited me down for a weekend of hill rambling, I happily complied.

We’d spent the day visiting various sites of interest—everything from the grave of Jenny Wiley to the jumbled, cliff-fringed hollow which several researchers feel is the most likely vicinity of the storied John Swift silver mine. Towards sunset, the Professor turned his battered pickup off the rural byway, jostled a hundred yards down a rutted two-track, then switched off the engine and began digging around in the duffle behind the seat.

“You’d better bring a warm coat,” he said. “I expect it’s going to turn chilly.”

He handed me a rather weighty rucksack and swung a similar bag over his shoulder.

“Supper,” he said when I raised an eyebrow.

Our destination proved to be the cloistered little pocket near the summit of the steep hill—a demanding mile-long pull from where we’d parked the truck. By then it was full dark. No matter. In short order the Professor had a good blaze going. Packs were opened—and soon we were enjoying an excellent meal of burgoo stew, corn bread, thick slices of apple stack cake, and strong coffee.

After eating, we'd entertained one another for two solid hours trading stories—starting with bits of history from the area's  early days. As the night grew darker and colder, our tales followed suite with reports of dastardly murder and incendiary feuds, sagas of battles won and lost, chronicles of star-crossed lovers, legends of lost treasures, and accounts of splendid daring-do. There was no lack of material. Eastern Kentucky is, after all, that fabled “dark and bloody ground.” Our session of yarn spinning eventually led to the Professor’s inquiry regarding my ancestors.

“Well then,” the my old friend said, “seeing as how you’re descended from such a venerable line, I’ll bet you know the word ‘Samhain’?” He, of course, pronounced the word correctly: “sow-in.”

I nodded. “The ancient Celtic term for the end of summer. November first. A feast day and festival name. The start of winter and a new year.”

He chuckled. "Yup. I figured you'd have done your research.” 

“Well,” I said, “you often hear New Age pagans, neo-Druids, and others claim it’s related to some nonexistent Celtic god of the dead—which is pure drivel.”

“True,” agreed the Professor. “Though there was the belief that during this period—the transition between seasons—the barrier between this world and whatever lies beyond weakened.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “I’ve heard those old tales of faerie mounds opening and wailing banshees.”

“And you reject them all?” my host asked.

I considered. “No. I firmly believe in things spiritual.”

“Well then,” the Professor said, “let me tell you a little story…” 

After stirring the fire and tossing the last of our wood atop the renewed blaze, he began.

“Fifty-odd years ago I was sitting on this same ledge, poking at a similar fire. It was a lot colder that night—in fact there was a light drizzle which turned to sleet and even spat a bit of snow. My father had passed away the week before. He’d worked in the coal mines hereabouts until the black dust got his lungs.”

For a moment my learned friend fell silent. Far away, back in the head of the remote hollow, I heard the low hoot of a calling owl. Finally my host cleared his throat and continued. 

“I came up here that night to get away—from the house and room where Dad spent his final hours, from Mom and my sisters who were still awfully broken up, from all the food and flowers everyone brought after the funeral…from everything.”

I nodded but didn’t speak. I’d done pretty much the same thing following my own father’s passing. 

“Sometime late that night,” he went on, “I heard something. Out there—” He nodded at the darkness. “—beyond the firelight.”

After a judicious interval, I asked. “What?” 

“Don’t know,” my companion said. “But something was there. I could hear it moving around, shuffling through the wet leaves. Sometimes I even thought I could almost catch a glimpse of whatever it was.” He shrugged. “Course it could have just been flickering shadows from the fire.” 

“What do you think was there?” I finally asked.

The old teacher stared directly at me across the flames. “I think it was my father,” he said.

“Why?” I asked, almost in a whisper in case the night still held secrets.

“Because in addition to movement in the shadows and the shuffling noises, I clearly heard whatever was out there breathing…and the sounds were identical to those labored breaths my father drew just before he died. Death rattles, Mom  called them.” He sighed. “And…oddly…because instead of being frightened, I finally felt at peace with all that had happened. As if Dad were nearby, reassuring me.”

I didn’t know what to say except that I believed what he was telling me. Men such as the Professor don’t make up ghost stories.

“But why did you ask me about my Irish lineage and my understanding of Samhain?” I inquired later, once we’d doused the fire and were picking our way back downhill through the darkness towards the truck. 

“Because,” explained my host, “I trust you, and what you might do with my story. So I wanted you to hear from the source, exactly where it occurred. And since it happened on Samhain, I figured you being a writer, and old-line Irish—a kindred spirit, so to speak—would remain faithful to the original etymology in the retellin' and not invest the date with some evil mumbo-jumbo.”

“Ah,” I said, understanding. “I promise to tell it honorably, as a possible father and son New Year’s encounter.”

“That’s precisely what I’d hoped," said the Professor, patting me on the back. “Thank you.” 

(Copyright © 2004-2010 JLM/Natural Light Productions. All rights reserved.) 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


In case you hadn't noticed, Riverdaze has been "off the air" for a week. This unanticipated silence comes, not because of sickness, incarceration, or some impromptu vow of silence. And no, I haven't been off on an rum-induced toot or a fishing ramble. (Yes, there are differences.) 

Nope, plain and simple, I've been technologically afflicted—which is to say, the victim of computer issues. To put it more succinctly and painfully, my Mac died.

I suspect the cause of death was a lightening strike several weeks ago. I usually unplug my computer during thunderstorms. It, along with the printer, back-up hard drive, and peripheral speakers are all plugged into a single power strip with surge protection. Because I mistrust any such device's capability of beating lightening to the punch, I play it safe and unplug whenever I hear the rumble of distant thunder.

Unfortunately, the storm that did me in was sneaky. The sky got dark, it looked like rain…but not a peep was heard prior to a tremendous and obviously very nearby explosion. The deafening SNAPBANG! shook the surrounding earth sufficiently to be felt inside this stone cottage. All power within the house immediately went out.

The sound came from the roadway along the hill, perhaps a hundred feet from the rear of the building and my corner room. I rushed out the back door to see what had been hit. This turned out to have been both an electrical power line on a pole across the street, and Time-Warner's main box on an adjacent pole. The bolt  blew out the electric line's transformer at the top of the hill as well as the cable's feed box and several cable lines. My cable feed comes directly off this box—on a wire which crosses the street to a pole on my side, thence to another pole in my yard, down that pole and into the ground to the cottage, where it reemerges, feeds into the splitter box, and into the house to TV box and a modem which is connected to an AirPort Extreme base station. My Mac gets its cable hookup wirelessly via this AirPort Extreme base station mounted on a bookshelf a few feet from the desk in my workroom. As it subsequently turned out, the cable line was fried by the strike, along with Time-Warner's TV box and the modem. All had to be replaced. 

My Mac apparently got zapped through the electrical line, though the surge wasn't immediately fatal. I did notice I had a hard time getting the Mac to turn on, but just chalked it up to a balky power switch since I almost never actually turn the computer off, but simply put it to "sleep" once I'm done for the day. Until last Thursday, when I switched it off to move some stuff around, and couldn't get it back on. 

After exhausting all my computer skills to effect a restart—which took about ninety seconds, though I repeated them each and every one multiple times—I carted my ailing Mac to the shop and tried to deal with the withdrawal symptoms until Myladylove came home after work. The computer shop called the following day to say the problem was terminal. I sucked it in, asked about prices for a replacement, and made my choice.

I'm proud to say I picked my new iMac up yesterday evening. It is hooked up, running smoothly, and dazzling me with its technological improvements—even though my old iMac was only four years old. And the best part is that I never lost a single bit or byte of data—though that new Nikon camera will have to wait.

Now, it's back to work—though rejoicing all the way!—as I'm seriously behind on my work. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether this is good news or not.

Monday, October 18, 2010


There was a bit of fog along the river yesterday morning—though not a lot, as you can see from the photos. However, it doesn't take much fog to really change the look of things on the water.

When I stepped outside after breakfast, the stream was still in shadow, though the sun had just cleared the hill to the east and was glowing like new varnish in the golden tops of the big sycamores up and downstream from the cottage. The sky was clear and blue, and its reflection, seen through the scrim of fog, colored the pools a soft slate—a lovely, rather ethereal look with perhaps a touch of the phantasmal. It is, after all, the season for things that go bump in the night. 

This morning it's simply cloudy. No fog. And I hate to admit it, but the fall color hereabouts—such as it has been this year, which was mostly various shades of yellow and gold—now seems to be past its peak. Moreover, there are still lots of green leaves on the tress, and an almost equal amount of brown ones. 

In spite of the overcast and less than prime photogenic potential, I'd hoped to be able to spend the day afield. Alas, I have about a dozen things to do today, with little hope for more than a few stolen moments of outdoors time between errands. Nothing like starting the week off with a Monday morning whine.  

Saturday, October 16, 2010


A platinum-bright October moon was already high in the sky when I went out to retrieve the mail, trash barrel, and recyclables bin the other evening. I paused midway up the hill to watch it slip along through the darkness beyond the tall sycamore's tangle of leafy branches. If you've never been able to detect the moon's movement during such casual observations, you've simply never stood still long enough to carefully watch—of course I suppose it says something about me and my susceptibility to impromptu inertia that I regularly notice the moon's astronomical slow creep.

On this night the moon was half-full, and reminded me of the slices of candied citron my mother always put in her Christmas fruit cakes. I saw, too, that it was encircled by a halo, a misty, pinkish-purple glowing ring caused by the refraction of light shining through ice crystals in the upper atmosphere.  Country lore says a moon ring's appearance indicates a spell of bad weather is on the way. And that is often—though not always—the case. But hey, even the National Weather Service with all its latest and greatest technology doesn't get it right all the time. 

It is also said that if you count the number of stars you see shining within the circle of the moon ring, it will correspond to the number of days until the storm arrives. I didn't remember to do this until after I'd continued on up to the road, collected the day's mail, retrieved barrel and bin, rolled and lugged the receptacles to their storage spot near the back door, deposited the mail on the hallway counter, washed my hands, and gone back outside armed with the camera for a quick shot. By that time the halo had faded. So, no star count, only a photo.

At this point, from just across the nearby river, a great blue heron suddenly cut loose with a series of guttural imprecations which left no doubt as to what he thought of all my comings and goings that were apparently disturbing his sleep. The mouthy bird continued rasping expletives at me as he flew a hundred yards upstream. 

I don't know if moon rings are trustworthy oracles…but I do know offended herons never go quietly.  

Thursday, October 14, 2010


"…a muted still-life of time's eternal passage."

Autumn is coming down today here along the river. At least a lot of leaves seem to be falling every time a bit of wind kicks up. Several trees in the yard are already stark, their bare limbs showing, which causes them to look decidedly skeletal if they happen to be standing between other trees which have yet to lose the bulk of their leaves.

"…a textured frame for a rounded rock and reflected sky."

Not all the leaves hereabouts have turned, and those that have are mostly shades of yellow, gold, bronze, tan, beige, and various hues of brown. Admittedly, it isn't the most colorful autumnal palette; certainly nothing like last year's glorious fall patchwork which was heavy on reds and oranges, each scene more dazzling than the one before. 

"…like looking through the stained-glass window of a country church."

But…you take what you get with nature and the passing seasons, learn to appreciate them one and all. Besides, there's a subtle side of beauty which often goes unnoticed. A pile of leaves at your feet reveals a muted still-life of time's eternal passage. Leaves caught in a pool can be either choking clutter or a textured frame for a rounded rock and reflected sky. Sunlight through sycamore leaves—some colored, others still green—is like looking through the stained-glass window of a country church. Upstream, scattered leaves speckle an impressionistic mirror.

"…scattered leaves speckle an impressionistic mirror."

Sometimes, desires and expectations get in the way of finding treasures and blessings we've already been given. Life is a participant experience. What we long for isn't always what we need; what we look for isn't what we always find. Autumn is coming down here along the river. Leaves are falling, the sky is blue, the sun warm. And best of all, it's mine to enjoy.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


It is a day of golds here along the river—golden sunshine, golden leaves everywhere I look, golden reflections in the water as it eases slowly along. I feel as rich as King Midas sitting in the midst of of his treasure room. 

By rights, I should be working. Lord knows, I have plenty to do. Yet as the day rolled on, passing noon, I became increasingly weary—not of body, but of spirit. There have been a lot of things to accomplish and deal with over these past couple of weeks. So I came outside more than an hour ago to sit in the rocker and eat a late lunch on the deck, to rest, to find some perspective. In case you're wondering, my meal consisted of a bowl of Dutch oven chili I made a couple of days ago. Chili, like true love, is one of those things that only gets better with time. Dessert was a tart and juicy northern spy apple from an orchard up the road. After eating, I sipped on a cup of coffee and read a lovely piece from a new book, In the Sweet Country, by the late Harry Middleton. 

Harry Middleton was only fifty-three years old when he died from a massive coronary in the summer of 1993. I knew him peripherally, through mutual friends. Though he'd worked as an editor and columnist for such publications as Southern Living, and produced a fair number of articles for various magazines, Harry wrote only a few books—the first being The Earth is Enough, published in 1989. His second book, On the Spine of Time, came out in 1991. Three others followed. And then he was gone…

The tragedy—beyond that, of course, of anyone dying at such an early age—is the loss of a genuine talent. Measured against any standards, Harry Middleton was one of the finest writers around. His voice was unique, his literary skills exceptional. His first two books can rightly be called masterpieces—sufficient to insure his name will never be forgotten by those who love mountain streams and wild lands, along with the creatures and folks who find comfort in such places. This latest work, a collection of some of Harry's magazine pieces, is really a way for us—his devoted readers—to enjoy one more helping of his wonderful tales.

As I do with many good things, I try to savor such experiences by taking it slow, reading only one or two pieces from the book per sitting. After finishing the story—of a float trip Harry took with his grandfather down an Arkansas river—I laid the book aside. Moon the dog was stretched out nearby, snoozing. It's possible I dozed a moment or two myself. 

And then a little gust of warm wind blew across my cheek. I looked up and watched hundreds of bright walnut leaves loosen from the tall trees along the drive, to come pouring down like water from a pitcher. I got up, crossed the yard, and began picking up a few gold leaves. Why? I have have no idea…but I carried them back to the deck and examined them one-by-one. Why is beauty always so transient? 

Afterwards, I stuck a few in the pages of Harry's book. In time, they'll lose their color. Gold always fades. They might even stain the pages of the book. But they'll also mark this day, this moment, and perhaps a few golden reveries, in a way no other bookmark could. 

Monday, October 11, 2010


Maples are suddenly blazing away!

Finally…FINALLY!…fall is starting to look like fall hereabouts. Although, as I glance through my workroom window, the view downstream is still mostly green vegetation along both banks. There's not a hint of red to be seen; even the Virginia creeper twining up the sycamores at the lower corner of the yard remains an anemic pinkish-orange. 

About half this tree's leaves came down before turning yellow.

Yet while we may not have any reds here along the river, it's a different story a couple hundred yards up the road, where a wealth of maples have decided to turn on their flames. All I can say is: Hey…it's about time!

Virginia creeper up the road.

This color arrived suddenly—in fact, over the last 24-36 hours. I drove by the same trees Saturday morning and only a few leaves were starting to show hints of red and gold, orange and yellow. This morning, almost all their leaves had changed into full-autumn dress. The transformation was glorious! 

 Mixed colors, including asters and waterwillow.

Still, such patches of bright color are the exception rather than the rule. Most of the landscape looks pre-fall instead of mid-fall, greenish-yellow, with the overall emphasis have just barely shifted onto the yellow side of things. 

A little maple brightens up a corner.

Our summer-long drought is likely to blame. And it's doubtless the cause of so many trees already having dropped their leaves. A great many trees hereabout, covering a wide variety of species, have, over the past week, have simply lost the majority of their leaves without showing any color other than a listless tan.

As you can see—it's mostly yellow hereabouts.

But I'm not complaining. A little bit is better than none. Not all years are show-stoppers when it comes to fall color. Or you can have a great color display, and the weather suddenly cold and stormy, and every pretty leaf on the trees disappears overnight. 

There are still a number of aster species in bloom.

Nope, I'm good with what we've got…and who knows, this one isn't over yet.

What I think is nannyberry.



Saturday, October 9, 2010


Though we're already a third of the way through October, it still doesn't look very autumnish here along the river. Green is not just the predominant color still—in many directions it's the only color…though some of the greens are admittedly looking a little jaundiced. 

This dawdling yellowish-green landscape is, I think, partly due to the river location itself—a result of extra moisture and possibly a measure of protection by being lower than all surrounding areas. I know fall color always seems late in arriving hereabouts, when just up the hill and up the road, maples may already be flaming away.

But not this year…at least not yet. There's simply not much in the way of fall color to be seen anywhere around. And given that summer's latter half was a season of heat and drought, it's anyone's guess as to whether this will much of a bright color year or mostly a bust. Another two weeks will give the answer. 

In the meantime, the river—low and clear, looking more than a bit emaciated with so many rocks showing in the riffles—will continue to flow like a slow-moving mirror, doubling the view of leaning sycamore and blue sky above…and everywhere, the lingering green.


Thursday, October 7, 2010


Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia)

As much as I like to see the patchwork carnival of bright autumn leaves, I hate to think their arrival marks the beginning of the end for the colorful fluttering butterflies. Sure, the coming of fall also means many birds will be flying south to winter in warmer climes. But to a degree, that's more like a changing of the guard—one group of species being replaced by another. Winter or summer, we still have plenty of birds around. With butterflies, however, it's feast or famine. You don't see many butterflies in January!

Orange Sulphur (Colias eurytheme Boisduval)

I expect that bittersweet thought was on the edge of my mind yesterday when I spent an hour poking around a tiny patch of roadside meadow just up from the cottage. There were butterflies everywhere I looked—flitting in the air, feeding from bloom to bloom, sometimes settling into the long grass or atop a handy weedstem for a rest, occasionally taking off is if they'd suddenly decided to scout some other sunlit patch elsewhere. 

Pearly Crescent (Phyciodes tharos)

How many photos of a Common Buckeye does a fellow need? I have no idea…but I made dozens, as if the more images I captured, the more I could hold on to some essence of their delicate winged forms and bright colors. I did the same for every one of the dozen or more butterfly species I saw. 

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)

Butterfly time is long but limited. Their reign is almost at a close. A month from now, the only thing apt to be stirring here will be a handful of fallen leaves blown by November's searching wind. 

Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus) 

[NOTE: My butterfly identification skills are, at best, shaky—and I frankly question at least one of the above myself. So if you think I've gotten it wrong, just let me know and I'll make the correction.]

Monday, October 4, 2010


Yup, it's Dreadful Monday again. Another whole work week looms ahead. Five long days of soul-deadening toil, selling your freedom for an inadequate amount of dollars just so you can put beans on the table. What a bummer! 

Well, cheer up, Bunky! Things could definitely be worse. You could be a carefree grasshopper out for a morning of sprightly leaps, perhaps a nibble or two on a tender stem, maybe a bit of a warm-up amid the rising sun. 

Suddenly…disaster! You make what you think is a masterful vault—a long arching leap, astonishing for its grace and distance…and land squarely in a sticky web. And a moment later some eight-legged horror scuttles out and begins sinking its venomous fangs into you while it spins and wraps and trusses you up like a Thanksgiving turkey. Which, of course, is already beside the point because you're paralyzed, your insides turning to soup—though the old nervous system hasn't quite yet caught caught on.

Now this, my friend, is a truly Bad Monday.

Unless, I should point out, you're a fat and hungry argiope spider—in which case your Monday is starting off rather well, with a big breakfast delivered fresh right to your doorstep. 

It's all a matter of perspective…

Saturday, October 2, 2010


Asters get their name from the Greek “astron” derived from the Latin “astrum.” Both words mean “star,” and are the same roots from which we fashion a whole host of words including “asterisk” and “astronomy.” A hillside of blooming asters is like looking at a tawny sky spangled with gleaming purple stars.

Of course, to describe a New England aster merely as purple, is like saying the Grand Canyon is a big hole. As a description it is both monumentally understated while failing entirely to convey any sense of the breathless wonder induced in the viewer. The purple of the New England aster isn’t a mundane purple; rather it’s a magnificent electric purple. A kingly Tyrian purple, like the dye the ancient Romans once obtained from a certain species of mollusk. An imperial purple, of a shade long reserved for the fabrics worn by monarchs and magistrates.

Up close, a single flower head of New England aster atop its stout, waist-high stem, is a vision of astonishing beauty. Two inches across, with a golden center disk around which numerous bright purple rays radiate like light from a miniature amethystine sun.

Now, back off a pace or two, and look at the whole plant. Not one miniature sun but a multitude of a dozen or more suns, clustered about the stem, each afire in incandescent purple glow. And that’s just the power of a single blooming New England aster plant. In fact, asters seldom grow alone. A clump of three or four, maybe a dozen, is more the norm.

A thick swath of blooming New England asters bordered by an autumn woods in shades of red and yellow and orange, is truly a sight to behold. If there are a few goldenrods and a lingering Queen Anne’s lace or two nearby, so much the better. 

But it's always the cool starry fire of purple asters that provides the scene with depth and richness. Simply put…asters leave me awed.


Friday, October 1, 2010


Yesterday evening, I made this shot of a couple of rocks in front of the cottage. I thought they looked rather serene and a bit inscrutable sitting there in the shallows amidst the dimming twilight. I particularly liked the mix of colors on the water—the salmon-pink of the setting sun (the photo is taken looking straight west) and the turquoise of the fading sky overhead. The river's ripples mix the two colors wonderfully.

I think the image captures the moment's mood of tranquil mystery rather well.

The bottom photo, taken last week, is of one of the same rocks (the stone on the left in the image above, shot from a slightly different angle) in the strong overhead light of midday. Which was exactly what the basking turtles were after—though was way too harsh and terribly angled for making a good photo. Not that the turtles cared about their portraits; what they did care about was warming their cold reptilian blood. For the time is coming—and isn't all that far ahead—when they'll be digging themselves into the soft mud nearby to wait out another long Ohio winter.

So you see…whether as a focal element of beauty, or a merely utilitarian place of repose, even rocks have their roles.