Rutherwood; or, Life on the Run (13/19) — Chapter Thirteen, Azalea (3/3)

TRANSPLANTED IN RUTHERWOOD, our wild azalea is the last one to bloom each spring at our house on the mountain. We found the plant at the Biltmore Estate nursery near Asheville.


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.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER RIGHT — The Oklahoma City National Memorial grounds, as seen from its museum entrance on our summer road trip from North Carolina to New Mexico in 2005; the Survivor Tree, an American elm that survived the blast; and one of the 168 empty chairs representing lives lost in the Murrah Building.

As of this morning, online sources say America has lost more than 45,000 lives in less than two months to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, with more than 41,000 of those deaths coming in this month of April alone.

Maybe Doubting Thomas Stearns Eliot was right. Maybe April is “the cruellest month, breeding lilacs [and azaleas, too] out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.”

While Little Nellie is clinging to life with only a sprig or two of new growth this spring, Little Nat has put out a precious few green leaves and red-tipped buds the past couple of weeks. On Sunday afternoon when we got home, I noticed that a single bud had popped open into a nice red blossom. Little Nat lives despite lichens that encrust many of his woody stems. The parasitic growth means something is wrong.

I looked it up online. The lichens themselves aren’t Little Nat’s problem; they aren’t really hurting him, even though they don’t look good. The gardening sources I read—and there were several, because I’m concerned about Little Nat’s survival—all said the unsightly lichens can be chipped and scraped off as long as one doesn’t damage the plant’s bark. What’s actually wrong is that Little Nat’s neighbor is dead.

The family that built our house in the early 1980s and lived here for the next 15 years used to replant their live Christmas trees in the yard every year. The first one was undoubtedly the huge hemlock that towers over Little Nat. When we bought this house in the late 1990s, that hemlock was beautiful and Little Nat was happy living next to him. But through the years, the hemlock has succumbed to blight.

We know we need to take the poor hemlock down. Its gray needles are dead, its withered branches are broken, and its warped trunk is smothered in lichens and vines. But it’s standing in a bad spot, not just over Little Nat but next to the driveway we share with our neighbor on one side and utility lines in the air on the other. The job calls for an arborist, but for various reasons we’ve been putting off calling one.

Little Nellie’s trouble is that she was planted next to a large rhododendron at one corner of our house and not far from a gutter that needs to be repaired. In heavy rain, the gutter—damaged about 10 years ago in an ice storm—overflows and inundates the ground around Big Rhody, Little Nellie and, for that matter, Laurel, too, who has stood beside Rhody next to our basement door since we moved in upstairs.

Punctatum sits by himself across the driveway. He claims the neighbors, not us, but we own the ground upon which he boldly blooms before anyone else in his plant family. In fact, the little punk is blooming right now.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP — The punctatum bush along our driveway is the first member of the rhododendron family to bloom at our house; a wild azalea bud; and a patch of lichen on Little Nat.

Ordinarily, we might have had time last week—the week after Easter Sunday—to hire a tree man or, in our days of better health, do the tedious job ourselves one lichen-covered limb at a time. I took one tree down that way about 10 years ago, but it was considerably smaller and not close to anything important. When we were teachers, Easter week was usually Spring Break when we could travel or work at home.

Now we “work at home” all the time—though remotely on our computers—and we travel nowhere for fun, not to Lake James State Park for a picnic lunch; not to Frankfort, Ky., and back in one long day to visit an old friend; not to the Charlotte or Raleigh areas for quick overnight trips to see important folks; and certainly not to our former home at Ocean Isle Beach, where a second return visit is long overdue.

That had been the extent of our pleasure travel over the past three years, from the days of our respective surgeries in 2017-18 to the current coronavirus crisis with its closures, shut-downs, stay-at-home orders and quarantines that took effect almost six weeks ago. Despite ongoing health concerns, we had started thinking about venturing out—maybe back to Ocean Isle or to New Orleans—and then deadly COVID-19 hit.

Years ago we took memorable Easter week trips to both of those places—staying either at Ocean Isle Inn or The Islander Inn a couple of years and renting a canal house on our old street, Fairmont Street, another year; visiting our favorite area restaurants and stores; playing tennis at the old Ocean Isle Park and golf at Ocean Isle Beach Golf Course and Lion’s Paw Golf Links, two of our favorite old courses.

IN JUNE 2011, Timberley and I enjoyed dinner and a show at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. The late Lucien Barbarin’s Palm Court Swingsters, with the late Uncle Lionel Batiste as special guest vocalist, dedicated the classic tune “Old Rockin’ Chair” to us.

At least twice we also traveled to New Orleans over spring break—once staying at the Maison DuPuy, a fancy hotel on Toulouse Street in the French Quarter, at least one other time up the river in Jefferson Parish near Timberley’s cousin Gloria and her family. The number of trips we’ve made to New Orleans since the early 1990s is hard to come up with as we’ve gone there more often than to any other major metropolitan area.

Why? Because of the Big Easy’s music, food and history. As I’ve noted before, we’ve listened to New Orleans musicians like Pete Fountain, Dr. Michael White, Lucien Barbarin, Uncle Lionel Batiste and Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack at Preservation Hall, the Palm Court Jazz Cafe and the House of Blues in the French Quarter. We’ve eaten at Cafe Du Monde, La Madeleine, Camellia Grill, Brennan’s, K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen.

We’ve spent hours in the Louisiana Music Factory on Frenchmen Street and at Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley, also at the Museum of Art in City Park and the Jazz Museum in the Old United States Mint on Jackson Square. Timberley and I know what it means to miss New Orleans. It’s a special place. We hate that the city was one of the first coronavirus hotspots in the country and that it was hit so hard.

We haven’t heard much about our other favorite spring break destination outside North Carolina—northern New Mexico. In 2004, we visited Santa Fe for the first time, flying into Albuquerque from Dallas-Fort Worth and Raleigh-Durham on Easter Saturday and staying through most of Easter week. We were so impressed with the culture that we returned to Santa Fe twice over the next couple of years.

As enjoyable as that first Santa Fe trip was—in large part because we had traveled with good friends—our most transformative sojourn in New Mexico was the one we made later that year when we spent a full week at the Ghost Ranch Conference Center near Abiquiu. We spent our nights in an adobe casita that had two bunk frames, a bare lightbulb, one electrical outlet and no running water; and we spent our days in adult education classes—Timberley learning raku pottery, me learning about some stories Jesus told.

Around that same time I was studying the Jack tales of the Southern Appalachians, entertaining stories with supernatural elements teaching us about some of life’s most confusing aspects. I’d registered for a week-long course comparing the folklores of Appalachia and northern New Mexico, but learned at the last minute that the class had been canceled and that I’d been put in a seminar on the parables of Jesus. Okey-dokey, I thought. I’ve heard those stories all my life, so I can cruise through this class, no sweat.

What I didn’t know until the class began was that my teacher, who was theologian and author Bernard Brandon Scott, a founding member of the Jesus Seminar, wouldn’t be teaching the parables the same way I’d heard them all my life. I also hadn’t counted on being the youngest class member by maybe 10 years and the only non-Calvinist in the room other than Dr. Scott. The conference center is owned by the Presbyterian Church (USA). It was basically me and a couple of dozen retired Presbyterian pastors and Sunday school teachers. After breakfast in the mess hall, we met each morning in the ranch chapel.

I said at the time, and I’ll say again: We weren’t Presbyterians, but our week at Ghost Ranch made us wonder if maybe we should have been—not because they believe in preforeordestination or anything, but because that group of retired old gentlemen and sweet old ladies were among the friendliest folks we’d ever met. But maybe that’s what happens to most people when they’re stranded out in the desert.

There was no TV—well, not really. I’ll explain that in a minute. There was basically no WiFi back then and very limited Internet access, just in one computer lab that took us forever to find, even with a map. If I remember correctly, the computer lab was near the barn and stables. Cellphone service was almost nonexistent. To get a call out, a person had to drive a mile or so back up the graveled entry road to what was called Curley’s Cabin, a tumbledown shack named for the scary cowboy played by Jack Palance in the first City Slickers movie, which was filmed at Ghost Ranch. We made no cellphone calls that week.

CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT — With the Pedernal in the distance, the entrance to Ghost Ranch is on NM Route 84; the Ghost Ranch library, the conference center’s most popular and coolest spot for indoor entertainment; the apple orchard below the ranch chapel; Timberley and me at the Ghost House, the ranch’s oldest structure.

The main road out there is New Mexico Route 84. Ghost Ranch lies on one side of that two-lane river of hot asphalt, while the Benedictine monastery Christ in the Desert sits on the other side, down its own miles-long, graveled drive into the wilderness. Oddly, the monks there maintained a great website even back then and were big on computer technology—so long as the brothers and guests didn’t get too loud in general or talk during meals.

After being cloistered with the Presbyterians for a week, we wondered if Catholic monasticism would be as much fun. Seriously, before the quarantine, I was looking into visiting, at least for a late morning or early afternoon, Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s old monastery, Abbey of Gethsemani, just south of Louisville, Ky., on one of our daytrips to visit our friend in Frankfort. I’ve never minded keeping quiet.

Keeping quiet—at least until something needs to be said. It’s a virtue that too few people observe now. Remember the old joke about the boy who didn’t speak until he was 15? Preparing to eat breakfast one morning, the teenager looked at his plate and muttered, “The toast is burnt.” His long-suffering mother exclaimed, “Glory be! You can talk!” The spoiled teen sneered and said, “I never needed to until now, Mom.”

I, too, have wondered about burnt toast—the bread of life, rather—since I was a teenage punk who came of age in a household headed by parents who both had graduated from strictly fundamentalist Bob Jones University. My first religious doubt was whether or not the religious people whom I heard saying the same religious buzzwords over and over really understood what they were saying Sunday after Sunday. I wondered if they really knew the meaning of their words and if they paid attention to that meaning as they rattled off those bon mots mainly from the Gospel of John. Of course, the apostle Saul of Tarsus is always heavy in the evangelical mix, too, through his letters to churches and to younger male companions.

For example, what does it really mean to “accept Jesus Christ as one’s own personal Lord and Savior”? I’ve pointed that out before, but it’s the one single phrase, I think, that leads more well-intentioned folks astray than any other admonition in Evangelical Christianity. It’s part of what born-again Christians call the Simple Plan of Salvation—accepting Jesus after confessing one’s sins and asking forgiveness, or, in simpler terms, getting saved. Fundamentalists also believe that once we say those magic words, we’re automatically rewarded with eternal life in heaven—that is, after we live out what may be long or short, tolerable or miserable existences here on earth, and then die what would hopefully be painless deaths but could be painful ones, surrounded by an unbroken circle of loving family and friends, or all alone. Sadly, too many people are having to die alone in this pandemic.

And then, if we ever said the magic words at any point in our lives—even with our very last breaths—we have no worries about going on to our reward. If we didn’t, we go straight to hell when we die, and we are punished forevermore.

That’s simple enough. But I know what you’re thinking. It isn’t quite fair. No quid pro quo, you know. Or is it the ultimate this or that?

I’ve noted it before, and I’ll note it again: Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is within you.” Though my teacher interpreted the Greek word for kingdom as reign, a somewhat less militant term, Dr. Scott said that particular phrase is the key to Jesus’ teachings about loving one’s God and loving one’s neighbors.

But, oops, there are two more of those phrases—loving God and loving our neighbors. How, exactly, do we perform each of those actions? What does love mean in those seemingly different contexts? Or are they different? Didn’t Jesus also say we can’t truly love God unless we also love our fellowman?

Now, I’m sure the Revs. Bob Jones and Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell had simple answers to all those questions, as I’m also sure that I wasn’t the first (or last) person to have all those doubts about faith and fundamentalist Christianity, hopefully not a contradiction in terms. Perhaps all the best answers, not to mention all the best soul-saving plans, are simple. So maybe we aren’t supposed to love or worship one man so much as love each other, all mankind, the best we can in trying not to do anyone any real harm.

Again, if I say, “I love Jesus,” but knowingly say or do anything to hurt anyone, then I fail to love him the same way he claimed to love all men—in our imperfect states, flawed beings with human failings.

Maybe that is what it means to love God. Maybe it’s that simple. Yes, it’s another abstract concept, not one grounded in the real world that we encounter every day of our lives. And, no, I’m not even close to loving everyone, not by a long shot. At various times, more often than I like to admit, I’ve thought and said and done things that have hurt people, many of whom deserved their comeuppances. But in all those cases, fairness isn’t at issue. Forgiveness is.

Oh, there it is again—another one of those words! Forgiveness. What exactly does forgiveness mean? Well, I don’t really have the answer to that question either, because I think it means different things to different people in their different situations. But I suspect that true forgiveness is more of a negotiated arrangement between two or more persons with vested interests in their association than a personal decision by the aggrieved party who was maltreated—in other words, a social contract, a peace treaty between me and him, or me and them.

That’s the real question, isn’t it? Does forgiveness require a meeting of minds? Does the guilty party—maybe both sides—need to confess their “sins” and ask for forgiveness before they can be forgiven?

Or can we be forgiven simply by the quiet grace of those we have hurt through our words and deeds?

We could call it the Simple Plan of Forgiveness and take the show on the road, the same way at least one hypocritical evangelist has done with his thinly-veiled political campaign rallies to support a vile man who supporters apparently think is the second coming of King David, if not of that other King of the Jews who died on Good Friday and arose by Easter Sunday. Such willful ignorance and hypocrisy.

All those folks do know, don’t they, that America is an autonomous collective and that executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical, 50-state evangelical bus tour? Right? In 2016, that evangelist told people to “hold your nose and vote.” This year they’ll have to remove their masks first. Oh, my goodness. There I go again, confusing the hypocrite with his hypocritical behavior.

I should just forgive them, I guess. They didn’t know what they were doing—not all of them, anyway.

Speaking of being hypocritical, the other folks with us that summer at Ghost Ranch were a bit peeved at my “Parables of Jesus” class because Dr. Scott defied conference center tradition and showed us movies to illustrate several parables, like A River Runs Through It for “The Prodigal Son” and As Good As It Gets for “The Good Samaritan.” Our privileged class was the talk of the ranch that week.

“Oh,” said the fellow camper we met on the trail from Box Canyon, “you’re in that class, the one that gets to watch TV.” He was speaking to me, not to Timberley, whose pottery class was dealing with bear sightings, not movie viewing. A juvenile bear broke into the crafts room twice that week to eat kids’ macaroni art. But I didn’t apologize for being entertained as well as educated out there in the wilderness.

COUNTER-CLOCKWISE FROM UPPER LEFT — Today is the 50th Earth Day, though we should celebrate Mother Earth every day; our huge snapping turtle, probably old enough to have lived here when our hollow was still part of the Boone Fish Hatchery, came out of hiberation two weeks ago as I mowed our grass; and Little Nat bloomed.

Sometimes Mother Earth needs a little help from us humans, if only for mankind to get out of her way or do what we can to right our environmental wrongs of the past. For instance, we’ve had such beautiful azaleas in Morganton and until this spring in Boone. But because of something—exactly what, we’re not sure—something we’ve allowed to happen or have ignored here on the old fish hatchery grounds, Little Nellie is dying and Little Nat isn’t feeling well, either. But we won’t give up. We want to correct whatever is wrong, even if it means cutting down a dead tree or fixing a dented gutter.

Still, our last best hope to appreciate an azalea’s particular beauty at our mountain house this spring lies in the wild one we bought from a plant nursery in Asheville and transplanted here at least 10 years ago.

For the past few years, that wild azalea has been absolutely beautiful. Here in Rutherwood, it is always the last azalea to bloom at our house. It’s like the wild azalea that blooms a bit earlier each spring at my mother’s house in Morganton. Wild azaleas are so alluring, more so in their fiery shapes and golden hues than all the pink, purple, coral, red and white varieties that fill yards and gardens in this April of life and death.

But if one buys a wild azalea at Asheville’s Biltmore House & Gardens, or transplants a Rhododendron calendulaceum, a native flame azalea, from the woods into one’s yard, is that plant truly wild and free?

And which azalea is better—the cultured one or the wild one? Does it matter? Is a man any different?

Forgive me for asking all these hard questions and not offering easy answers. But that’s the way life is, all year long.