Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (11/19) — Chapter Eleven, Dogwood (3/3)

IN OUR BACK YARD this Japanese dogwood once struggled to live, but it survived and is covered with white blossoms in the summer.


MORGANTON, N.C. (March 8, 2020) – I’ve mentioned before that we’ve lost several dogwood trees over the past few years in our front yard here—two white ones along the street that we replaced with a single crapemyrtle and a pink one on the side that Timberley’s dad had strangled with Christmas lights, as if he had been trying to stunt its growth the way a bonsai artist would wrap a tree with copper wire.

Nat, my father-in-law, liked blue twinkle lights for some reason and had wound at least a dozen strands of them around the trunk and every sizable branch of that pink dogwood. That was 25 Christmases ago when the tree still had some growing to do. We inherited the tree about 12 years ago and over the next five years or so watched it lose one diseased branch after another until we finally had Grady Rose, the best arborist in Burke County, take down the whole tree and a similarly ailing white dogwood out front.

The other white dogwood had already been destroyed in an act of God—a thunderstorm that lashed our side of town with heavy rain and high winds. That was in the old days when my back was still OK, and I could wield a chainsaw like a lumberjack all day. We cut up the dogwood and left it for the city brush truck to haul off. Before disposing of the tree, we did manage to save the string of solar-powered lights like Chinese lanterns that Timberley had hung in the low limbs. Yes, I know. Like father, like daughter.

A STRING OF CHINESE LANTERNS adorned one of our white flowering dogwoods before it was destroyed in a storm several years ago.

As I’ve said, Timberley also takes after her grandfather when it comes to gardening. Of course, she has yet to get into the kind of trouble he did once for cultivating some pretty red flowers that a guy wearing a dark suit and badge identified as poppies—like the special ones in The Wizard of Oz. Pahhhh-peeees! Grandpa had to stand by and watch the revenuer cut down and carry off his crop of red poppies, but not before some plants had already gone to seed and fallen on fertile ground. They grew back the next year.

In our back yard is a white Japanese dogwood, Cornus kousa, that Timberley’s late wicked stepmother, who shall remain nameless, planted in exactly the worst spot, in a shaded corner between the garages of two neighboring properties. In the year or two before Stepmom died, the little dogwood struggled to survive. We came close to cutting it down a couple of times, but we decided to leave it alone and let nature take its fateful course. Now the tree is thriving, though its broad, white petals seem to fade and stain quickly.

What happened to that Japanese dogwood is similar to what we’re all up against, huh? We’re often put in situations that aren’t ideal or are downright bad, and we must struggle to survive and thrive. One’s yard can be a microcosm of life. A single plant can serve that function, too. Arthur Joura, bonsai curator at the North Carolina Arboretum in Asheville famously said (because it’s on a plaque posted outside the exhibit): “The world of bonsai is miniature, but the natural world that it evokes is boundless.” So true.

ARTHUR JOURA’S QUOTATION (top) greets visitors to the N.C. Arboretum’s Bonsai Exhibition. At bottom left, a stained petal and fruit on our Japanese dogwood. At right, a Japanese dogwood bonsai that is available for purchase online.

Anyway, we replaced our God-doomed white dogwood in the front yard with the summer-blooming crapemyrtle, whose pink blossoms in July and early August signal the end of summer vacation and the start of a new school year. As I’ve said elsewhere, our street is known for its row of crapemyrtles along the sidewalk. In or out of season, I love those trees. They remind me of days past when I’d wheel my yellow ’74 AMC Gremlin onto Morehead, Timberley’s street, and feel a wave of youthful anticipation wash over me.

In winter, those bare crapemyrtles also remind me of the beautiful, multi-colored “crayon trees” we saw on Maui, Hawaii, during our vacation there in 2007. Maui is the most exotic and most distant land that we’ve ever visited, a place we would like to see again but know we never will. I’ve said that before, too. For various reasons, our far-off traveling days are over. We’ll never fly around the world or even take a slow boat to China. We will be glad if we can keep traveling a good deal between our two hometowns.

MAUI’S ‘CRAYON TREES’ (left), a type of eucalyptus, were just one wonder we encountered during our vacation on the Valley Island in the summer of 2007. In winter, the crapemyrtles on our street remind me of those exotic Hawaiian trees.

Earlier I wrote about News Herald publisher Beatrice Cobb’s travelogue, On a Clipper Trip Around the World, a collection of letters home from her 12-week airliner tour as a war correspondent in late 1948. I thought about her again two weeks ago when President Donald J. Trump and wife Melania made a 36-hour state visit to India. In Miss Cobb’s book, the Indian subcontinent provided the highest and lowest points of her entire excursion—at the Taj Mahal near Agra and in the streets of Calcutta, respectively.

“[A]ll that I had ever heard or read,” Miss Cobb wrote, “was not enough to prepare me for the breath-taking beauty of the incomparable Taj at sunrise.” She found the beauty inside the tomb to be equally impressive and inspiring. Three days later, Miss Cobb’s tour reached Calcutta: “Never in all my life, and in my extreme ideas of what slums and low standards of living might be, have I ever imagined that there could be such filth—that’s the only word to describe it—such ignorance, superstition, want, in fact utterly revolting conditions that I couldn’t have thought monkeys would tolerate, much less human beings”—that, coming from a newswoman who had seen Appalachia in the depths of the Depression.

Our president, who Salon says “has more business dealings in India than in any other country outside North America,” landed in Ahmedabad, then traveled by limousine in a parade to Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram, then to a packed 100,000-seat cricket stadium in Gujarat, where he was feted by India’s prime minister with a “Namaste Trump” celebration. Talk about contrasts: Gandhi, a man of nonviolence and self-reliance who advocated peace and simple living; and nationalists Trump and Narendra Modi, who reportedly made a deal for India to buy $3 billion in military hardware from the United States. And the irony of the prime minister’s state gift to Trump—a marble replica of Gandhi’s “Three Wise Monkeys,” who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil—was priceless. We also need a tweet-no-evil monkey.

Trump then flew to Agra, where he and third wife Melania visited the Taj Mahal at sunset. The Taj, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is seen as civilization’s greatest monument to a husband’s love for a wife, as it was commissioned in 1632 by an Indian shah as a mausoleum for his second wife. In the Taj guestbook, Trump slowly copied from a card that he eventually deposited into his coat pocket: “The Taj Mahal inspires awe. A timeless testament to the rich and diverse beauty of Indian culture! Thank you India.” One wonders what Trump might have written about the Taj on his own, or what he might tweet early every morning on other topics if he thumbed from cheat-sheets prepared for him by smarter folks.

By the way, Trump didn’t see India’s poverty from street level during his whirlwind state visit. Again, according to Salon, “The Indian government built walls to block visibility of poor neighborhoods along [Trump’s] parade route.” Also, mass violence in the streets of New Delhi during Trump’s visit resulted in 17 deaths. One wonders how Gandhi himself might have welcomed a president like Trump to India.

In contrast, when former president Bill Clinton campaigned in Morganton for wife Hillary in 2008, his two-car motorcade drove up Bouchelle Street to Avery Avenue past all sorts of housing and then down Morehead Street past our humble house on his way out of town. After the primary campaign rally on the front porch of Sid Simmons’s house at the corner of Avery and Morehead, we hurried home so we could wave to Clinton as he passed in his black SUV. Even through the tinted windows, we saw him wave back. One wonders what he might have said to his driver—maybe, “That guy sure did marry up.”

DAFFODILS ONCE LINED the front sidewalk of the old Sloan house across the street from us. Now descendants of Mrs. Sloan’s daffodils grow in our front yard.

Clinton also passed the big old house we used to rent across the street. For whatever reason, the house’s current owner, who evidently enjoys yard maintenance as little as I do, had mowed his front lawn that morning for the first time in weeks, probably because he had been told that a former president would be passing by that afternoon. If the homeowner hadn’t tidied up his yard, one wonders what bad impression the tall grass and weeds might have made on Clinton—or on the city officials who had plotted the motor route. It’s ironic that some of the flowers blooming in our yard had come from that old house across the street.

I’ve written elsewhere about Mrs. Sloan, the former owner, how she lived alone in the big house for years after the death of her husband, who had been the county’s agricultural extension agent. She liked flowers and a little girl who lived across the street, a girl named Timberley, who often joined her to look at the daffodils lining her front walk to the curb. During the year we rented that house, Timberley divided the daffodils and replanted the bulbs at my mother’s house outside Morganton, then moved some of the new bulbs to our place here when we took up housekeeping 12 years ago. Those daffodils have really been around.

Like Mrs. Sloan, apparently—and I don’t mean that in a bad way. We don’t know for sure, but we think she liked to travel the world, like Miss Cobb. Mrs. Sloan once gave little Timberley a “dress-up” ladies watch that no longer worked. Later, Timberley’s dad took the watch to a local jeweler to be cleaned and fixed, and he learned that it was an expensive Swiss-made watch containing real rubies. But maybe the widow had bought it here, or maybe it had been a gift from someone. Another hint that she might have been a world traveler was a red Indian-looking figurine that she displayed on her living room mantel, a curiosity that anyone walking on the large wraparound porch could have seen through a front window.

Since I never saw the figurine, I wonder if it represented Mangala, the Hindu god of war, son of Bhumi, the Earth goddess, and Vishnu, the Preserver, one of Hinduism’s three principle deities. Or maybe the statue was a red Buddha, which would have been easy enough to find then. Whatever it symbolized, an ignorant somebody had seen the figurine above Mrs. Sloan’s fireplace and then had started the cruel rumor that she was a witch and that her house was haunted. Teenagers soon started harassing the poor women by trespassing on her porch and peering through her front windows to get looks at the curio. It got so bad, Timberley said, that her father and a neighbor once had to confront some mean boys on the porch.

TIMBERLEY AND HER COUSIN Anastasia Gilliam, then lead singer of the Voodoo Suns, Maui’s premier rock band, visit the Heritage Gardens at Iao Valley State Monument on Maui, Hawaii, in July 2007.

So ignorance and superstition exist everywhere, even here in civilized Morganton. If my back doesn’t start feeling better and we can’t power-wash the side of our house soon, filth won’t be too far behind on our block, now that our neighbor across the street has started mowing his grass more often—or did last summer, anyway. We do have the most, shall we say, unusual yard on the first block of Morehead, with our circle driveway and all our different flowers, shrubs and trees. Our next-door neighbors’ yards and homes are more conventional, except for the beautiful bonsai trees that one young neighbor tends in his back yard sometimes. Remember, I wanted to find a camellia bonsai a few weeks ago? He has one next door.

Not knowing that, we went to the North Carolina Arboretum last Saturday to see if a camellia bonsai or dogwood bonsai were on display there. We learned that the outdoor bonsai exhibition had closed for the season last November and that the botanical garden, part of the state’s university system, doesn’t have much of an indoor tropical bonsai exhibit, despite the official website’s claims. The bonsai we found in a small greenhouse were unmarked, with no educational information on any of the trees. But nothing on display bore blooms like a camellia or dogwood. Sometimes institutions do let us down, don’t they?

And sometimes, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, we must learn that our heart’s desire can be found in our own back yards—or, if not, maybe next door.

2 thoughts on “Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (11/19) — Chapter Eleven, Dogwood (3/3)”

    1. Thanks, Brenda. Timberley also got to see him in the pits at the Darlington racetrack in ’92. I missed him because T’s dad only had two pit passes.

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