MORGANTON, N.C. (May 31, 2020) – Rhododendrons have been the laurels of education throughout my life. Ever since grade school days, my visits to one particular university have had as a backdrop this evergreen, even though its bright pink or purple balls of blossoms may or may not have been in season.
Appalachian State University was the main reason that Timberley and I moved from Ocean Isle Beach to Boone back in the summer of 1997. We had a history with the institution—Timberley had graduated from its College of Business in 1982; I had dropped out as a junior with a 4.0 GPA in 1980. Yeah, I did.
MORGANTON, N.C. (May 24, 2020) – I’d been wondering about all the rhododendron bushes already in bloom. Here in the Morganton area, the big pink, purple or red balls of blossoms have been showing off for the past several weeks. The rhododendron at the lower corner of our Rutherwood house finally blossomed nicely before this past week’s four-day deluge started, but two others are still only budding.
A huge rhododendron in our side yard—actually several bushes that have a flame azalea, two regular azaleas and a jack-in-the-pulpit growing within them—was broken down in an ice storm two winters ago by a tree that fell from a neighbor’s property. Another shrub at the basement door that we have for years mistakenly called punctatum, or Carolina rhododendron, is actually mountain laurel, like in hell.
That’s what laurel thickets in our mountains are called—laurel hells. Back in my youthful backpacking days, I had to literally crawl through one or two of them after I wandered off trails in the Linville Gorge Wilderness Area. They’re called laurel hells because that’s what it’s like to get through them, especially when something large is crunching the dry leaves behind you, and you’d just seen a bear sanctuary sign.
And you say “oh, hell” a lot until you find the trail again—like, “Was that a bear I just heard? Oh, hell.”
BOONE, N.C. (May 17, 2020) – When I googled “iris” before starting this chapter, many of the search results dealt with IRIS, a non-profit organization based in Delaware that studies earthquakes. The name IRIS stands for Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology. Its website address is www.iris.edu.
IRIS defines itself as “a consortium of over 120 U.S. universities dedicated to the operation of science facilities for the acquisition, management, and distribution of seismological data.” After reading that, I wondered if one of our state universities—N.C. State, for example—is a member of IRIS, so I googled that and learned that Iris is the UNC School of Medicine’s art and literature journal, published online.
Also at the Chapel Hill flagship university, IRIS is the Institutional Research Initiative for Students, “a partnership between the Office for Undergraduate Research and the Federal Work-Study Team.” Oddly enough, IRIS’s logo is a Duke-blue eye along with the motto “Come see the future of student research.” And it also appears that UNC-Chapel Hill, not N.C. State, is linked to IRIS, the earthquake network.
Even when I ask “gotcha” questions of Google, the answers I get often surprise me. I figured that if I typed “www.iris.com” into my Chrome browser, I’d get a website promoting the colorful, curvaceous flowers and their bulbs. But what popped up on my screen was the snarky statement and request in all lower-case letters, “iris.com is still not for sale. please stop asking.” OK. Thanks for the information.
MORGANTON, N.C. (May 10, 2020) – Memory is a funny thing. I remember my mom always talking about her “flags” blooming in the spring, but I had no idea she was referring to irises. Maybe it isn’t my memory that’s the problem. Maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention to everything going on around me.
But I swear I don’t remember Mom’s flags or irises or any gorgeous white, purple, yellow or blue flowers with curvaceous blossoms like the ones that have been growing in our yard for the past six or seven weeks, about as long as we’ve been quarantined.
Having at least two close blood relatives with memory issues, I’ve been concerned for some time about whether or not I’m headed for dementia or Alzheimer’s disease myself. I didn’t play football beyond Pee Wee League, and I didn’t have any major collisions sliding into home plate that resulted in concussions. No one dropped a big rock on my head. As far as I know, I was never dropped on the old bean as an infant.
MORGANTON, N.C. (May 3, 2020) – We take pictures of everything these days, don’t we? Thanks to the technology at hand, we photograph everything we see and do that we fear might be forever lost, as if our memories are only as long as the sleep settings on our screens. We make pics of our food, drinks, dogs, cats, old folks, youngsters, landscapes, seascapes, and—my favorites—flowers, mountains, sky and clouds.
Like many of you, I share my best photographs on social media—or maybe that means I’m donating all those images to Facebook, Instagram, or the Cloud that captures everything, not just water vaper. Or, if you prefer conspiracy theories, all of my pictures may be going to the Deep State so that they, whoever they are—Google, I guess—can track me until Kingdom Come (Donald Trump’s second term in office, right?).
Sorry about bringing up politics so early in this essay. It’s just that I’d made the mistake of mentioning social media and couldn’t help but make the leap—well, the baby step, rather—to the topic that again dominates our discourse, if I dare call it that, on Facebook and Twitter, in particular. I’ve come to view Instagram as an oasis in the desert of hate and lies that is social media. But that will change too, sure as shootin’.
BOONE, N.C. (April 27, 2020) – Life is full of irony. Exactly a month ago today—on March 27, 2020—our first iris bloomed in Morganton. Though the Rolling Stone-lipped flower is named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow and also shares its name with the colored part of the human eye, our first iris of the year was pure white, with only a touch of yellow from pollen around the blossom’s so-called beard.
Since then, the bearded irises that have bloomed in our yards—all of them in Morganton, none here in Boone yet—have been bountiful and beautiful in at least four colors of the spectrum, five if one counts the green of stems and leaves. Our two-toned, violet irises blossomed a week after the white one. Then came the yellow-and-white ones, the light violet ones, the light blue ones and the violet-and-gold ones.
BOONE, N.C. (April 22, 2020) – I was right a couple of weeks ago when I predicted that our azaleas here would bloom by Shakespeare’s birthday tomorrow—well, our azalea, anyway, one of them. We call it “Little Nat” after Timberley’s dad because he let us move it here from the Morganton house when he lived there. “Little Nellie,” a small white azalea named after my mother, came here the same way. She hasn’t been doing too well.
April isn’t usually the cruellest month in my book, despite what T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land. Flowers are always blooming. Several people who have been so important to me through the years—Timberley, my late brother, my late father, the late William F. Shakespeare, and my first girlfriend, who was late for most of our dates—were born this month. Any other year, baseball season would be well underway by now. And today is Earth Day, for goodness sakes. But this April is all about death, in numbers.
Like on April 19, 1995, when I came home from the beach to visit Dad at Grace Hospital, turned on the TV in his room and saw the Special Report on the Oklahoma City bombing that claimed 168 innocent lives. Or like on April 20, 1999, when 13 innocent lives were lost in the mass shooting at Columbine High School. Like on April 16, 2007, when 32 innocents died in the mass shooting at Virginia Tech. Or April 15, 2013, at the Boston Marathon; April 30, 2019, at UNC Charlotte; or April 20, 2020—that’s right, two days ago—in Nova Scotia, Canada.
MORGANTON, N.C. (April 11, 2020) – Like everything else this past week, our Encore azaleas aren’t doing too well. They bloomed their hearts out last fall, but this spring they must be feeling puny, as my grandmother used to say. Life in a pandemic is sort of like that, right? Good thing we got them on sale.
I know this has been Holy Week, and yesterday was Good Friday. I’m usually really happy when Lent ends and I get back whatever I gave up on Ash Wednesday. But this year I don’t feel too good. We have given up so many things since this quarantine began that I’m losing track of what all we’re doing without.
(Maybe that’s a good thing. And maybe the few blossoms on our Encores aren’t all that bad after all.)
BOONE, N.C. (April 5, 2020) – The azaleas are so, so beautiful on this last Sunday of Lent, this Palm Sunday—in Morganton, not in Boone just yet. I’ve noticed that flowers here bloom some 2-3 weeks later than they do off the mountain. So all the colors—all the pinks, purples, reds and oranges—that foothills residents now enjoy will wash westward across the High Country like a sunset by Shakespeare’s big day on April 23. That is, unless we have a late frost.
Shakespeare’s big day? Yeah, 4/23 was the day he was born and the day he died—or, rather, the date of the two important events in Shakespeare’s life, as he was born in 1564 and died in 1616. That’s William Shakespeare, by the way, the Bard of Avon, the Sexy Wordsmith of Stratford, the Perennially Punishing Poet of Perpetually Perplexed Pupils, not the inventor of level-winding fishing reels and Ugly Stiks.
But in his sonnets and his better plays, William Shakespeare has the final word on the fairer aspects of life. “’Tis beauty truly blent, whose red and white Nature’s own sweet and cunning hand laid on,” says Viola, the cross-dressing castaway, about her admirer Olivia’s natural good looks in Twelfth Night. The two beauties and Orsino comprise a love triangle that piques the interest of even a Shakespeare hater like me.
MORGANTON, N.C. (March 29, 2020) – It’s the fifth Sunday of Lent, a period of somber reflection before Good Friday and Easter, the two most important days on the Christian calendar—not everyone’s calendar, mind you, just that of particular people who believe a particular story from a particular book.
Having been one of those particular people my whole life, I know that word particular probably pisses people like me off—and particularly other people who just pretend to be pious, like poll-minded politicians and other posers.
And a pootie-grabbing president whose surname ends in p—a pusillanimous prick and potty-mouthed pantywaist who cares more about pushing stock prices ever higher, than about protecting poor people.