All gone, to look for America

Tuesday, 23 September 2014, 11:54 | Category : Life, Southern Stuff
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Old gas station

Along Highway 80 in Alabama, in that lonely stretch west of Selma, there’s a derelict gas station. It’s been closed for years. When I lived in Montgomery in the mid-80s, it had already been closed for years. It’s at the intersection of Highway 80 and a state highway, so I’ve always supposed that at one time it was a busier place. But when that was, is a question that’s intrigued me since I first saw the place while driving to Montgomery for the first time in 1984, and it came back to me when I passed it on the way to Montgomery a few years ago, and again last fall when I passed that way. I have this vision of a 1950s service station, with the oil cans stacked outside, and a desk inside where the owner ran the place, and a counter with glass jars filled with gumballs and jawbreakers; a back wall covered with belts and hoses, and a shelf on the side wall with oil filters neatly stacked. The sign out front has to be a Sinclair dinosaur – it just does.

I don’t know why this place has fascinated me so. There are plenty of abandoned gas stations scattered across the south. I suppose this place, like many others, is a throwback to a time of two-lane highways and 15-mile-per-gallon cars, and roads that wound through every small town, so a 250-mile trip took 8 hours, not 4 or 5, with frequent stops for gas and snacks and rest stops. Now we can blast along at 70 miles per hour, on wide interstates with wider medians and shoulders, so that the view along the way is a sterile strip of created, boring landscaping. Fifty years ago, a road like Highway 80 was a narrow line of concrete or asphalt winding through farmlands and fields, by isolated farmhouses, through small towns – through America, in other words. I wonder when that gas station pumped it’s last gallon of gas. I wonder when that America went away. Somehow, this old service station, on a lonely road that I generally drove late on a Friday afternoon going to visit my parents, or late Sunday afternoon going back to Montgomery – late weekend afternoons accentuate that loneliness – this old service station came to symbolize a lost part of Americana.

The Wisdom Of The Oak

Saturday, 8 February 2014, 19:58 | Category : Mississippi, Southern Stuff, Weather
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I’m not one to put stock in things like the Farmer’s Almanac long-range forecasts. I don’t pay attention to which way the wooly bears are crossing the road, or what their stripes look like. In the interest of fairness to the Farmers Almanac, I will admit that they pretty much called this winter:

a decline in solar activity combined with ocean-atmosphere patterns in the Pacific and Atlantic will result in below-normal temperatures and above-normal snowfall during most of the winter across much of the United States.

“This winter is shaping up to be a rough one,” says Janice Stillman, editor of The Old Farmer’s Almanac. “Sweaters and snow shovels should be unpacked early and kept close by throughout the season

I’m not sure they were all that accurate for the western US, I haven’t paid attention.

I’ve mentioned before that overhanging my front yard and house is an enormous red oak, the second-largest in Mississippi I’ve been told. It’s a grand old tree, huge spreading branches and tons of leaves that fall every year around Christmas.

It pretty well dominates the front yard, both in the shade it provides on that side and with its sheer presence. Last fall, I noticed early on that it was dropping tons of acorns. I mean, a tree that size is going to drop lots of acorns, but last fall it was dropping far more than I’d ever seen. I mentioned it to my wife, and to friends. I didn’t really think much about it. I should have paid more attention. According to Farmer’s Almanac and multiple other places, an abundance of acorns is a sign that winter will be cold and snowy. Accuweather says that actually lots of acorns are a result of a hard winter two or three years ago. But our winters have been fairly mild lately, so I’m going with the “lots of acorns forecast a cold winter” theory. Do I really believe this? Well, of course not. It’s just coincidence that a huge number of acorns under that tree last October and November was followed by the coldest winter I can remember in the past 20 years. We’ve had winters where we rarely got below the upper 20s. This year, lows in the teens have been fairly common, and frozen stuff falling from the sky, while never accumulating much in my part of the state, has occurred several times, and south of me has seen a couple of multi-inch accumulations. And there’s another round forecast for next Monday night and Tuesday. So I’m going to just say this: next time the big red oak drops lots of acorns, I’m going to do what preparing I can for winter. Like, for instance, not bothering to overwinter things in my little greenhouse. And not putting off some outdoor chores, like fence repair, that I’ve gotten away with in the past. Next time, I’ll listen to the wisdom of the oak.

The Southern Way Of Cold

Wednesday, 8 January 2014, 23:33 | Category : Southern Stuff, Weather
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We’re coming out of the record or near-record cold snap today. Brief though it was, it really threw many of us Southerners for a loop. In my part of Mississippi, we’ll see lows in the 20s fairly often in winter – by which I mean, 28 or 29 degrees. Sometimes 25 degrees. Occasionally even closer to 20. But 12 degrees? I can’t remember the last time it got so low. And staying below freezing for the better part of two full days? It just isn’t part of the Southern experience. This:

Ice on pool

is not part of the Southern experience. If the weatherman tells us the temperature is going to drop below freezing, we’ll generally cover our faucets – if it’s only going to get down to 31 we might not – but beyond that, we really don’t have any concept of what to do. Do we worry about the gasoline in our mowers? (and yes, they still have gas in them, because for many of us, after mowing the grass for the last time in late October or early November, we’ll mulch leaves several times until Christmas). And then there’s the matter of coats – we don’t have any. Not coats designed to actually keep you warm when the temperature is in the teens. Temperatures in the teens happen in places like Canada and Wisconsin. Not here. So why would we need coats for something like that? And socks – I have no idea what kind of sock would keep your toes warm when it’s that cold, but I know for sure that I don’t own any.

We just don’t handle cold well. Our blood is designed to allow us to survive in July and August when it’s 101&#176 out. At 25&#176 it makes us unwilling to step outside for more than a couple of minutes. At 20&#176 it makes us unwilling to step outside at all. At 15&#176, we don’t even want to go close to the door. We curl up in a fetal position on the bed, under three feet of blankets. 12&#176? Life as we know it ceases to exist. I’ll see weather reports from places like Minneapolis that talk about temperatures of -10&#176, and there’s really no comprehension. So, don’t make fun of us when you’re sitting there in Chicago and you see reports from the Deep South of temperatures in the teens, and the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth that ensues. We really can’t help it. And if you’re ever down here in July or August, we’ll try to be sympathetic when the full force of a Southern summer hits you.

The Tree Spirits of St. Simon’s Island

Thursday, 6 June 2013, 14:10 | Category : Other Stuff, Photography, Southern Stuff
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St. Simon’s Island is one of those lesser-known gems of the southeast United States. It sits about an hour north of Jacksonville, beside Brunswick, Georgia. It’s a beautiful little island community that has somehow escaped the overbuilding and commercialism that has afflicted places like Gulf Shores, Alabama. It has a nice white beach, although much of it gets submerged during high tide, and hundreds of live oaks that cover the island. And on some of these live oaks, you can find faces carved into knots on the trunk. Local sculptor Keith Jennings is the responsible party, carving his first spirit in 1982 when, as he says, he had “too much time and too little money”. This was his first spirit:

It doesn’t look like anything now, because the tree has, as Jennings puts it, “reclaimed” the spirit. This and his second spirit were in the yard of the house where he lived then. Here’s the second spirit, now being reclaimed by the tree:


Kudzu Is Coming

Friday, 23 March 2012, 8:01 | Category : Mississippi, Southern Stuff
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Someone asked the question on a mailing list – why is kudzu in some places in the south, and not other places? I think it’s a combination of luck and location. It would be interesting to find the places where it was originally intentionally introduced, and map the spread from those places. That wouldn’t account for all of it, of course, but I suspect there would be a correlation to some degree. But it’s also a function of “it hasn’t gotten there yet”. I’ve seen one study that claims it is spreading at the rate of 150,000 acres a year. While it apparently spread by seed, that apparently isn’t the primary means of propagation/propulsion. A group at the USDA research center in Stoneville, MS was researching a fungus a couple of years ago that might help control the stuff. Haven’t heard anything lately.

BTW – it has a beautiful flower, it’s just difficult to see in all that green. I have a small pic of it here.