Archive for the ‘The Kingdoms’ Category


When my cousin Rob was struck by lightning, he woke up under his own dining room table and lay there for a few minutes trying to decide if he was dead. He has never First Snowbeen a big believer in his own soul, so the thought that he might be dead and yet somehow still under the table cogitating caused him some concern.

Eventually he decided that dead would probably hurt less, and he crawled out, discovering in the process that while he was alive, all of his electronics were not. He never even found all of his cell phone. What he said later was, “Grandaddy was right.”

Our grandfather lived much of his life in fear of all things meteorological, plus snakes and moving water. In summer, he would squint at the horizon and say, “It looks like it’s going to come a thunderstorm.” In winter, he did the same squint and said “Feels like snow.” My mother grew up seriously afraid of storms and used to spend them in the (enclosed) staircase of our house, while my sister and I watched from the windows. She counted that as one of her greatest achievements—she didn’t pass on her fear.

And yet there is a genetics that goes deeper than experience, and that is why I am not a fan of snow. Where I grew up, snow was not your white, fluffy friend. Out in the country, people stayed put, or if they had to drive, they did so slowly, with chains, and even then sometimes spent the night in their cars when things went bad on Max Creek Hill or Lowman Hill. Nobody went joyriding in the snow because if you slid off the road somewhere, it might take days to dig you out, and in the meantime, who was going to take care of the cows?
So even now, I have a “Who is going to take care of the cows?” mentality. My Beloved has to get to work no matter what, because hospitals do not close due to weather conditions. Our friend the letter carrier will carry mail, and our friend the state police officer will patrol. I just can’t do the happy dance when it snows.

But there’s this: My Beloved was able to get home on Thursday evening before 81 shut down. By that time, the roads weren’t too bad, thanks to people who, metaphorically, take care of the cows. Our whole street came out to shovel yesterday; it was a party, albeit a little short on canapés and booze. Watching the dog trying to find a place to poop cracks me up. It’s the little things that matter, when the world slows down for snow.

This morning, I finished another quilt top and had bacon for breakfast for the second day in a row. The guys are downstairs watching basketball, and there might be music later. I have yet to be struck by lightning, and Rob does not pick up radio stations with his teeth, so perhaps the world is not as scary as I’m genetically programmed to believe it is.

But it will be okay with me if this is the last snow of the season . . .


Rampage on the New . . . Or Something Like That

Back when I, like Jimmy Buffet, was a tranquil little child, we lived on a hill in Allisonia overlooking the New River.  The hill part is important, because about twice a year, the New would rampage from the railroad embankment on our side to the edge of the hills on the Delton side.

People built their houses on the hillsides and planted corn in the fertile floodplain.

Then, in a decade-long dry spell, people bought the floodplain and built houses there.  The river didn’t seem to rampage quite so often, although when it did, and these folks complained, natives would point to sticks and leaves wedged in the forks of Sycamores 18 feet above the river and say “Did you read the sign when you bought the place?”

The river is rampaging now, boys and girls, and here, because pictures are worth more than prose, is a sampling of what it was like in Allisonia and Delton today.

The road, obviously, is on the right.  We will not be fording this today, nor will you.

The road, obviously, is on the right. We will not be fording this today, nor will you.


Site of the famous boat launch of my sis and her friend Linda.  Somewhere.

Site of the famous boat launch of my sis and her friend Linda. Somewhere.


The river has been in the church basement, so this isn't all that high.  Rampaging all the same, though.

The river has been in the church basement, so this isn’t all that high. Rampaging all the same, though.

2013-01-31 16.18.04

Stuff I Learn From My Dog: Being in the Moment

Last week, celebrating Fall Break and all the things we don’t normally get to do, we took the Wowpup to Allisonia so we could walk up the river to the Little Reed Island bridge.  It’s one of our favorite walks, not least because I grew up there, and have been walking those hills since I was so little my dad had to carry me home. Anyway, the only thing the pup loves more than a car ride is a walk, and getting both in the same trip, well!

Floof Dog on the left, Max on the right. See why we were worried?

We were not two hundred yards from the car when we met Max.  Everybody tensed up, since Max is a muscular type of dog, replete with the jauntiness of youth and completely unencumbered with humans.  I got a tight grip on my walking stick, and my Beloved choked up on the leash.  We do not call him the FloofDog for nothing; he’s about as muscular as a marshmallow, as tough as a piece of cheese.

Turns out, we were needlessly fearful, as is so often the case.  Max proved to be a cupcake,  only interested in making some new friends.  (We knew his name was Max because someone had written it with a Sharpie on his day-glo waterproof collar.)  He just wanted to hang out and walk with us, which he did, bouncing ahead and then back to the Wowpup, as if to say, “Can’t you do something about that leash?  Here, smell this!”

City Dog gets his paws wet. Since we had to ride home with him, I guess we should be grateful he didn’t dive in.

Dogs can be oddly social.  Max and the Wowpup behaved as if they’d made an appointment to meet on the trail.  After the initial sniff of greeting, they pretty much sniffed other things together.  They wove their way down the trail with Max bouncing in front and then rushing back to check that the older dog was still behind him, and still enjoying the same sniffs of trail-side goodness.  When a biker went by, Max let me hold his collar, just to keep the biker from being nervous.  A stuffed dog toy would not have been more gentle.

The four of us walked the trail in the slanted evening light, two dogs bouncing and sniffing (except on the bridge, where the Wowpup went all hangdog.  Go figure.)  Newly-fallen leaves smelled wonderful and marked our passage with an autumnal whispering.  In that peaceful time, our brains could let go of all the things we’re worried about; instead, we focused on the antics of two dogs, who have never, ever worried about the future.

Dogs just live in the moment.  Hey!  A walk!  Whee!  A car ride!  Oh, hey!  Another dog!  Best day ever!

This is why I love dogs.  They’re okay with the Now. It’s not some anthropomorphized Zen thing; it’s just how dogs are.  The Now is all they’ve got, and they don’t get fretted about it.  Humans also only have the Now.  But we also have the ability to imagine the Later, which never looks like what we’ve imagined, but that doesn’t stop us.  The Later has given me insomnia lately, while my Beloved and the Wowpup snore in unison because they are wiser than me.  I have got to learn some stuff.  Does that count as inappropriate focus on the Later?

My Beloved and I walked down to the millrace to let the pups have a drink.  The City Dog stood at the edge of the stream, lapping.  The Country Dog waded right in, lying down in mid-stream with his mouth open, I suppose on the theory that it’s easier to let the river run in than to suck it up.  They were two happy dogs.

Max walked us all the way back to our car.  If we had given him the slightest encouragement, he would have jumped in, (which would be unfortunate for somebody, and is a good enough reason not to let a dog roam un-humaned.)  We left him in Allisonia, where his family will no doubt be happy to see him.  He won’t worry about the Wowpup, and by the time we got home, the Wowpup was singularly focused on getting a treat.

I don’t think I can live life the way my dog does.  Somebody has to pay the bills, buy the Denta-Treats, and keep the water bowl filled.  But maybe I can lighten up a little, lie down in the river and let it come to me a bit.  At least be more in the Now and less in the Later, so I can be happier in both.

The Sound and the Fury — New New Inlet

When we drove across the New New Inlet bridge last Monday, I looked at the people fishing, sunbathing, and generally cavorting in the new spot, and I thought, “Man, I want to go down there!”  This morning, after we missed church because we couldn’t FIND it (Fair Haven’s building having been pretty much destroyed in the storm, it’s meeting in the community center), I was in a dangerous mood.

This resulted in the Great Toilet Paper War of August 5, 2012, which, let the record show, my daughters lost, especially the oldest one.  To save lives, my Beloved took me up to the New New Inlet, which is “Oh-holy-cow-this-is-incredible” fabulous.  It’s every bit as awesome from ground level as it is from the highway.

We learned some interesting stuff by accident.  We parked first at what’s left of the old ranger station lot, and hiked over the dune, where we saw that access to the inlet is blocked by a host of ropes and stern warnings.  All the debris from the ranger station and its buildings has washed down on that side, and the sign warns “New dangers emerge with every low tide.”

Well then.

We hiked back to the Baja, went across the bridge and parked on the north shore, along with what looked like a significant portion of the citizens of Dare County.  Let’s switch to second person, so you can see how this works.

When you hike in from the north, you go along the sound side of the bridge, past stagnant ponds and general fetid marsh.  Soon you realize that the thing to your left is the old NC 12, and it’s an eroded, undercut piece of asphalt that ends in a drop-off.  If you keep to the right, a number of trails lead toward the sound, but because you’re with us, you’re going left and under the bridge.

The outgoing tide is ripping along, probably eight miles an hour in the main channel.  You wonder, watching all that water spilling out, how the bridge’s engineering is standing up to such an erosive force, but then you stop wondering, because you’re underneath, and every time a car passes, the bridge clangs and rattles in an unsettling way.

The things that look like people’s heads out there to Hank’s left are actually sheared off pilings. Eep.

You hurry out the other side, and discover a whole new world.  First, it’s got the biggest crowd of any beach on Pea Island.  These are mostly locals, too, with little kids, grandmas, and loaded picnic baskets.  Some of them are fishing, but most of them are playing in the water.  The line of umbrellas and canopies goes around the corner and up the Atlantic beach.  Wow.

The main attraction is the inlet’s secondary channel.  You notice two things; first, it is relatively shallow, and second, the

current moves along here, too.  There is a sandbar on the seaward side of this, teardrop shaped, with the big end of the tear toward the main channel.  The main channel looks menacing, first because the tidal rip is so fast, and second, because there’s a bunch of sheared-off pilings out there.  The ocean breaks across the mouth, and people are surfing the break.  You decide not to look at that.

That’s the New New Inlet bridge behind me, and the secondary channel to my left. The main channel is behind my right shoulder and hat brim. Wowsers!

You get up your nerve, shed your shorts, and your Beloved helps you walk across the shallow channel, which is only knee deep, but the water pushes like it cares.  You clamber up onto the sandbar, and you are standing in the MIDDLE of the NEW INLET.  It is so cool, you grin like an idiot.  Parents and little kids are floating with the current, stopping themselves before the surf break on the other end.  It’s like nature’s water park ride.  Your Beloved floats around in the channel, while you dangle your legs and boggle that you’re even here, where this time last year, there was only ranger station and beach.

As a side issue, we need to mention that the ranger station fell into the inlet, and now there’s just some alarming-looking plumbing coming out of a sandbank on the south shore.  Nobody goes there; it’s the ghost town to the populated north bank, so either the rangers patrol constantly or it’s really that scary.

After an amazing paddle and a hike back to the beach, you’re ready to head out.  Instead of going back under the bridge, you take a path through the dunes, around a pond, and back to NC 12.  New New Inlet is just as cool as you thought it would be, but probably only at low tide.

Paddling and Art, Whoever He Is

This morning our bed woke us at the crack of dawn, because it has one of the five worst mattresses of all time. We went down to the Liberty station for coffee, dishwashing detergent, and donuts, and on the way out, I saw a flyer in the window for an art show at Hatteras High School in Buxton. Hmmm, I thought. Hold onto this idea.

After a donut-intensive interlude, we decided to find out if this girl can kayak this summer. We left our own kayaks at home with the dog and the house-sitter, mostly because I probably could get INTO the SS Diet Dew, but I would never get out. Instead, my Beloved rented a sit-on-top, and he managed to rent a relatively flat-keeled one. The question was, could I sit on it without hip pain.

And I can! General rejoicing ensues. Sitting down is the only issue here , since two years of “assistive devices” have given me upper body strength to spare. Woohoo! Off to Pea Island we paddle, me chortling like a cartoon villain with a ray gun.

Geez Louise, how I love this! In the morning light, laughing gulls dive and swoop for their food, making loud plashing noises and trying to steal each others’ fish. We glide over eelgrass jungles, where crabs scuttle and skates sail. (We actually saw a big one just off our dock, which means that Sarah is not going to go near the Sound this year, which bodes ill for the annual Sound Football Challenge. I digress.)

We stalk egrets, great blue herons, and night herons. We watch an egret dart into the water and come up with its flashing, silver breakfast in its beak. Schools of four-inch fish leap and sparkle out of the water. They have blue spots on their tails; I don’t know what they are. A school of about twenty flying-fish-like things leaps and sails along the surface. It’s enchanting.

On the way home, my Beloved explores all the inlets, deeper since the storm. (Really deep, actually; an exploring paddle can’t find the bottom.) One of these opens up into the Round Pond, and we have an amazing paddle around a place that we have never been able to get to before. Birds are everywhere, and marsh periwinkles look like little jewels on the cordgrass. Glasswort, an ancient algal plant, looks coral, red beneath and green above. The whole place is quiet, except for the chattering birds and the gentle dip of paddles.

By the time we get back, I am sun-drenched and happy. A morning’s paddle will do that for you.

So I was all set for the Hatteras Art Show. I expected a bunch of things hung on walls, with a lot of elderly patrons of the arts stroking their chins. What I got was a gymnasium full of friendly people in booths selling beautiful things. Here are some of my faves, and if anyone wants to give me one of Pembroke Bryant’s rings for Christmas, I won’t turn it down.

Sea, Sand, and Hand is Pembroke’s official website. His sea glass jewelry is amazing. I bought a pair of amber glass earrings, but I loved all of it. He use silver and gold in clean, spare designs.

My other fave is Stephanie Kiker, whose work can be found at Lightkeeper Gallery Her joyful, playful designs capture the emotions that I feel paddling among the eelgrass and the birds. After I got back to the house, I realized in some amusement that I already own two of her prints. Wish I had remembered that when we were talking. She has a coloring book that I bought in sheer, unmitigated delight.

All of this made me miss John Mowder very much. He has moved on to another chapter in his life that does not include Rodanthe, and, of course, his charming, art-filled home was in the North Beach campground, which now does not allow permanent installations. More’s the pity; I miss you, John. Some of his work can still be found at Moon Over Hatteras, if you look.


Mirlo Beach, After Irene

Who can be serious or sad when THIS is going on? Yes, the front of the house flooded today in the rain.

I am on vacation, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on doom, gloom, and rumors of boom, unless I decided to do a whole post about this house, which I will call “Carping About Carpe Diem II.”  But last night I indulged one of my favorite beachy pastimes, showering in the open air. This house, new to us, is a cross between a disappointment and a major irritation (Carpe Diem II — no expense expended), but the shower is wonderful, and THAT is because it’s brand new.

So I stood there last night, trying to imagine what it was like last August, when Pamlico Sound roared through here in a wall of water eight feet high. I have a good imagination, but it’s not really necessary. The rear ground floor of Carpe Diem was ripped off, including the shower and the first four feet of the interior stairway.  Every single house on the Sound has a new walkway to its dock, AND a new dock.  All that lumber became battering rams that knocked Swan’s Nest off its foundation and pushed two houses into the sea.  (A third fell in because the brief Mirlo Breach destabilized its foundation after the storm.) Two houses on the Sound side of NC 12 have fallen into the holes created when their swimming pools apparently sank into the earth.

Two driveways down from us, the site of the majestic, (not to say completely-over-the-top) Sentinel on the Sound is a grassy patch. The lot is for sale; the house will not be rebuilt, and who can blame the owners?  They were riding out Irene when a generator caught fire, and they were forced to flee their retirement home in the raging water, struggling to swim the 400 or so yards to the next inhabited house, while their own was an inferno behind them.

Next door, at our beloved Surround Sound, owner Steve and his wife are in residence, still making repairs. Surround Sound has a ground-floor bedroom, or had, anyway. It temporarily became a roomful of water, and then, nothing.

Irene, “only” a category 1 storm, hit Rodanthe exactly wrong, piling up the Sound and then letting it go in one gravity-fueled push. The water surged back toward the east, washing over Pea Island and creating a new inlet at (I am not kidding) New Inlet and a breach right here.  The breach didn’t last, but the inlet went tidal, carving a channel and requiring a bridge.

And that’s where the doom and gloom stop.  The inlet is a wondrous thing.  Every time we go by, it is lined with people fishing, crabbing, and birdwatching.  The Sound and the beach have benefited from the exchange, and we have noticed more fish in the Sound even down here.  The pelicans are back, and every morning we see them dipping into the Sound for their breakfasts.  The beach, meanwhile, has been replenished far more effectively than the Army Corps of Engineers can do it, and has a gentle slope, not the eroded mini-cliffs of last year.

Overwash is what barrier islands are supposed to do on a regular basis.  The Mirlo Beach area of Rodanthe is a textbook example of the pros and cons — nice beach, wrecked houses.  I don’t know what we do in this tenuous place, this ribbon of land caught between sound, sea, and sky.  Hang on, I suppose.  I mean, we’re back this year.  We could have gone traipsing off to some other beach, but it would feel like infidelity.  We KNOW this beach, some of the people, many of the places.  We don’t like high-energy beaches, like Myrtle, where the natural world long ago gave up the struggle and left the ocean to be a kind of backdrop.

Here the ocean and the Sound are the main players, in the center of the stage all the time.  Birds wheel, fish jump, and swamp mallows nod their beautiful pink heads in the sunshine.  We fall effortlessly into the lazy rhythms of beach life — breakfast overlooking the sound, a day of kayaking or volleyball and swimming in the ocean, evenings making communal meals and watching the sun sink into the water over Swan Quarter.  This year we’ve added some Olympics excitement, but even that is hardly an interruption in a low-key, relaxed life.

I was at the Liberty Station on Monday, looking for items that, oddly enough, they didn’t have.  As I was leaving, a hairy man was leaning into someone’s car explaining that his skiff unloaded its fish and shrimp in Wanchese, and the occupant of the car could buy some there.  Two yuppie looking men were buying beer and Red Bull (bad idea, guys), and flirting with the hired help.  Libby was on the phone to a vendor.  It was just like any other summer afternoon.  It ain’t nohow permanent, but it’s good enough for now.

Spending the Summer in China

The canal-rich village of Ningbo, featured prominently in one of my books. It’s lovely.

I did not intend to spend the summer in China.  I’ve never actually been a fan of China, for reasons having to do with art, the Cultural Revolution, and my inability to master Chinese brush painting.   Several years ago, the Older Daughter took me to a walking lecture one of her professors conducted at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian, and I nearly died of boredom.  Twice.  I’m pretty sure I disgraced my kid by doing Appalachian Tai Chi behind the lecturer’s back, but I had forewarned her.  I only came back to life in the National Gallery, because I am That Narrow.

This spring, though, the Younger Daughter introduced me to the BBC series Wild China while I was gimped up, pre-surgery, and post-surgery I have watched the whole series on Netflix.  To my own surprise, I got really interested in a subject that has never interested me.

In my massive ignorance, I thought of vast China as a loosely-connected slurry of grimy industrial towns and  concrete-driven architecture, all held together by a Communist Party with the charisma of a loaded gun.  To be sure, there is plenty of that; Wild China can’t even completely ignore the amazing amount of filth Chinese industry has dumped into its own rivers, soil, and humans.

But there’s a lot of other stuff, too:  Backwater villages where people were somehow missed by the Red Guards and allowed to keep living in their ancestral ways, mountains wearing Appalachian-esque forests, landscapes worn into human form by 5,000 years of continuous occupation by, yes, the same ethnic groups.

I had known for a long time that Chinese is the oldest continuous written language.  The ideograms of today are directly linked to the pictograms of the Sheng Dynasty, some of which are older than 2,000 BC.  Many Han Dynasty (roughly 300 BC to 300 AD) documents are readable to modern Chinese speakers because of this link.

What I didn’t know is that, thanks to paper (something that won’t even show up in the West for a thousand years), the Han were a writing bunch.  They wrote EVERYTHING.  In duplicate.  Calligraphy became an art form in its own right, and people learned it by copying manuscripts.  Modern historians know vast amounts of stuff about ancient China because of paper, ink, and junior calligraphers.

Even though the crane is a symbol of long life and good fortune, that didn’t stop people from allowing them to almost go extinct. Cranes are on the rebound in China, but only just, because they need wetlands, and people just can’t seem to help draining those. . .

Partly because of the pictographic nature of the written language and partly because of the ancient conventions of Chinese art, painting and calligraphy have always been intertwined.  Chinese inscriptions dating from 760 BC assert that a person’s character can be known from his brush-stroke.  (This has been echoed in modern times by Choggam Trungpa, who said “It is possible to make a brush stroke that expresses one’s whole life.”  I digress.)

Certain symbols – bamboo, plum blossoms, cranes – have persisted in Chinese calligraphy and paintings for thousands of years.  They became ritualized and stylized, so that Chinese art became less about individual style (a very Western notion of art, by the way) and more about the ability of the artist to perfect the ideal forms.  Pictograms, and the later abstractions they became, require precise execution.  The position of lines, their thicknesses, and their relative weights all have a bearing on their meaning.  Get a tiny stroke wrong, and you’re praising a nostril instead of recording the emperor’s tax laws.

Thus emerged the need for convention and regularity in forms, and this spread from calligraphy to painting because of the close connection, viz. above.  Therein lies the

A Ming Dynasty hand scroll, property of an emperor, dating from the 14th Century (Western style dates because I can’t figure out the Chinese years.)

thing about Chinese art that makes me (because of the whole Western background thing) nuts – it’s intentionally imitative.  Individual artists have styles, but they are measured against an ideal, rather than appreciated on their own merits.  (Also, the no-cast-shadows thing always makes me think that objects in ancient paintings are floating in midair.  Perhaps they were.)

When my ancestors were painting their faces blue and banging rocks together, the Chinese were making books, silks, and porcelains.  I suspect this fact alone means that I should shut up and keep learning.  I’m on my second book about China’s history (this one is on art), and the third one, on calligraphy, is waiting on my desk.  None of this has made me want to go to China, (mostly because my in-laws lost a total of 30 pounds while traveling there,) but it’s been a fantastic place to spend the summer, and I might possibly come out the other side more open-minded and knowing some stuff.

My mother-in-law brought me a set of brushes and an ink stone from China.  Now I’m motivated to take them out (again), dig out the rice paper (again) and see what happens.  If I create a brush-stroke that expresses my whole life, I’ll let you know.

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