Friday, October 28, 2011


On the Saturday of the 100,000 Poets for Change Day, which also happened to be Western Carolina University's Mountain Heritage Day, I sent my poem "Mountain Time" to our NC legislatures and to our Jackson County Commissioners. Poets don't really expect to get responses to their work from legislators and other busy people in government.  

But lo and behold, I received from Commissioner Doug Cody a  response about living here in these mountains.  Turns out we have friends in common and a common interest in preserving our heritage.
A few weeks later, I emailed him my poem "Timberline," and just yesterday, he emailed this sensitive, moving response.    He has given me permission to share his reply, which I do gladly, along with the  hope that we have more mountain men like Mr. Cody willing to take care of the "mother trees" that keep our forests alive.

"A beautiful but sad description of the slow, agonizing demise of that magnificent sentinal of the forest, the mighty Hemlock.  It is so degrading for this beautiful giant to be felled by a cotton-draped gnat.  I am doing my best to save several of the larger specimens on my property, so far with great success.  One 75 foot tall specimen I call "the Mother Tree" graces the entrance to my driveway.  I named her that because she is loaded with cones every year and over the years she has given birth to literally hundreds of offspring.  Unfortunately, I have been unable to save most of little ones but "Mother Tree" is alive and well.  I will attach a photo of her with one of her cones still attached.  When doing my chores I purposely caress her branches just to enjoy that subtle Hemlock fragrance.  As long as I am able, "Mother Tree's" circle of life will not be broken. "

I told Mr. Cody that I had  a Mother Tree, too, down in SW Georgia where I grew up, an old oak 
I sat under many an afternoon.   

Here's a poem by my friend and hair stylist Sara Bishop Morgan, who loves trees, too.  Sara was one year ahead of my daughter at Smoky Mountain High School, so I've kept an eye on her ever since the two of them were in Girl Scouts together.   Her son Elijah is now a Boy Scout!   His poem "The Tree Seed of Love" was featured here in August.

 How easy it is to become distracted, in a hurry, and so forget to "tree see."  It happens to me all the time as I rush to Ingle's for more of this or that,
shuffling through the numerous lists I make to try to bring my life into some sort of order, searching yet again for my bifocals, my car keys, my checkbook.  


There are things on which I ponder
a bird chatterings, speaking of the coming spring.

Thoughts of what the trees whisper amongst each other,
as the new growth thrives up and under.

Magical winds doing their dances all just to ruffle
the leafy canopy in search of the greenest shade of green

Might I, if hushed I remain, hear their songs to God they sing?

All these I wonder while standing in the presence of these giants.  
I feel so  small looking upward through their glory

And for just a time, the swaying of their branches have staved off my world's 
worry, their earthy scent filling my nostrils, 

I remembered to breathe, and tree see.

Sara Bishop Morgan

Thursday, October 27, 2011


We all carry memories that stretch back forever into our childhoods, and who knows if those memories are really the first ones, or if they tell their  stories truthfully. How can we know if every detail of a memory is the way it actually was?  We cling to enough of what happened to give that memory its lasting power, its way of helping us know who we are and where we come from.

This little poem tries to capture what I've come to think of as my first memory.  I can feel the heat of the wood stove, feel my grandmother's hands as she buttoned my dress, see the light off the car windows outside.  It was Saturday.  The wind was everywhere.  We were going into town, that small Southern town that on Saturday became the center of the universe.   Cold was coming on fast.  Halloween was approaching.   The two women dressing me became larger than life as I remember this afternoon.  And the wind whistling and howling around the house!  Such a mystery to me, that wind could take the house I loved and make it sing.   This poem still gives me pleasure because it keeps that memory fresh and lively.

Cold Spell

I remember the stove’s  black belly
we huddled beside that afternoon,
the three of us,
two old and one young,
the wind whistling round the house.
It’s the corners make it sing, my grandmother said,
the sharp edges.
The windows rattled,
the day outside bright as the sun
on the Studebaker’s windshield I squinted
toward while they were dressing me
in my little white slip edged in lace,
and my little pink socks cuffed in lace,
and my Sunday-best dress with the hem
hitched up every two inches
so I could see more lace whenever
I sashayed around.
Because I was a girl.
I was their girl.
Their hands on my  body were cold,
their mouths clicked and chirped.
The wind howled.

from Catching Light, LSU Press

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


At the first whisper of cool air in the fall, my husband asks me for Pepper Pot Soup.  I began fixing this soup years ago with my ancient Joy of Cooking,  pictured above.   Look at the stains and splats of lord knows what on its pages.  It no longer has covers.  This was a wedding gift from Newt and June Smith, colleagues and friends who live in Tuckasegee, a few miles down the road from us.

Naturally  you need peppers.  I use several of them, along with onion, and strips of bacon sliced into small lengths.   I saute these around in my iron "spider" as my grandmother called it, until they look ready to have stock added to them.  This time I used a blend of chicken and vegetable stock that had in my freezer.  I try to avoid store-bought stock, with its high sodium content and goodness knows what else in it.

My husband likes this soup HOT, so I add whatever comes to hand, most recently a fine jalapeno sauce from Stripling's General store outside Cordele.  (Their logo: YOU NEVER SAUSAGE A PLACE.)   No relation to my branch of Stripling.  This worked its fiery magic.  Highly recommended.  Stripling's has a website and facebook page, so you can order online.
      I'm a big fan of their locally baked cakes, the label being Just Scratchin', and I think their pound cakes are about the best I've ever tasted.
       If you are outside Cordele, Ga. in the neighborhood of Lake Blackshear, you owe it to yourself to stop by Striplings and buy a cake, some hot sauce, and some freshly ground sausage.   Their bacon looks pretty good, too.

While the soup was simmering, blending all those delicious autumnal flavors, I whipped up some cornbread, adding some hot sauce to it, as well.  Then I let it stay too long in the oven, thanks to my laptop and facebook, so it needed a whole lot of butter on it to be palatable.  I apologized to my husband for this oversight.   He was so happy with the soup, though, that I don't think he minded.

Here's the recipe for the soup.

Cut into small pieces and saute in heavy saucepan till clear:
4 slices bacon,
Add and simmer for 5 minutes:
1/2 cup minced onion
1/2 cup minced celery
2 seeded, minced green peppers
(I tsp.  marjoram or summer savory)  I use what I have.  Sage works ok.
Wash and cut into fine shreds:
3/4 lb. honeycomb Tripe------(No way.   I've never used tripe.  I remember it from childhood. But if you like it, go for it.)

Put into the above ingredients
8 cups brown stock
1 bay leaf
12 tsp. ground pepper (I use more.)
Bring this to the boiling point, add
I cup raw peeled and diced potatoes.
Simmer the soup, uncovered, until potatoes are tender.
Melt 2 tblspoons butter and stir in till blended 2 tablespoons flour.
Add a little of the soup to this mixture in a small stove proof vessel
and bring to boiling, then pour into rest of the soup.   (I confess I usually just add this without boiling to the soup and stir well while it's thickening.)
Just before serving add 1/2 cup warm cream.  (  Well, I usually add fat-free sour cream since I don't keep cream around the house.  That works pretty well.  Fat-free half and half would, too.  Or, what the heck, if you want to go whole-hog, get some real cream at the store.  Life is short.)

We love this recipe.  You will, too.  

Sunday, October 23, 2011


 Mickey Mahaffey sent the words below  as a comment on my last post, but I must give them their own post  because they are drawn from his memoir Whispers Of My Blood, which I'm now reading. What a journey, what a transformation this book gives us, written in what comes closer to poetry than prose.  Mickey is from Hendersonville, a former student of my husband's many years ago.  He now lives in Mexico, where he conducts guided tours into Copper Canyon in Chihuahua. Go to his web site to read much more about him, watch a video, and learn about the Sierra Madre where he now lives.  

"The rising flames of my campfire cast an ethereal glow across the meadow of green nettle and mayflowers and illuminate the trunks of the massive trees. Silhouettes of dead tress lean against the living ones, life and death interpenetrated, and the ones half rotted on the ground supply sustenance to untold species of burgeoning life. The electric buzz a million cicadas and crickets suffuse the wilderness. I sense the proximity of black bears and coyotes and rattlesnakes.
     The presences of the living woods expose my egotisms. The clear light of the vital fire pierces my illusions of self-deception and consumes the false gods that bedim my vision.My blood whispers to me from the ancient of days.Now, nothing stands between my heart and the heart of the palpable earth. I sing quietly with the voice of my soul in the temple of the living and dying.

     I imagine my death, my body rotting beneath the dirt like the trees in their holy cemetery. I see the worms and maggots, flies and gnats, vultures and four-legged beasts feasting upon my body. What was once a nightmare of horrors upon horrors is a sober reality. Rot and new birth interwoven. No more fantasies of angels and streets paved with gold; only the loamy dirt and life at the root of existence."

Mickey Mahaffey is a singular American explorer, a fearless saunterer across our modern-day dilemmas of faith and faithlessness, who has written a deeply personal and poetic memoir of his extraordinary life. Once a legendary Appalachian kid preacher and star athlete, Mahaffey's fall from grace led to him to an agonizing period on the streets, insane asylums, among shattered families and the dark woods of outcasts, until he began a journey of healing, literally walking himself back to a state of redemption. From the Blue Ridge of North Carolina, the hip streets of Asheville, to the remote canyons of the Sierra Madre in Mexico, Whispers of My Blood unfolds a spellbinding chronicle of a quest for forgiveness, love and renewal.
------- Jeff Biggers, American writer, editor, journalist, and critic

Saturday, October 22, 2011


       Opening my eyes in the morning,  I turn to  the window beside our bed.  The trees are always there, this morning looking stoic against a gray sky.  When I look straight ahead I see my full length mirror reflecting  amber leaves through the sun room windows in my office.  Just inches above that reflection hangs a painting by Cindy Davis:  trees cradling a full moon, their roots reaching all the way down to the edge of the painting.  They appear to be floating in a blue ether, these trees of a woman's imagination.  Their roots delicate, yet determined.
          Humans were once thought to have sprung from trees.  The image of Daphne being transformed into a tree to escape  a lecherous  Apollo rises up in my memory.   She prays to the river god to save her and he turns her into a laurel tree.   Just in the nick of time.  At the edge of the threshold beyond which lies violation.   How many women have wished to become such a  tree, I wonder, sinking their roots into the soil where they live, free of the duties and dangers of womanhood?
          What do we do when the soil that we sink our roots into has become violated by what rises and flows from the power plants that enable us to turn the lights on when we awaken each morning?   That enable me to lie late in bed (it's Saturday, after all) with my laptop, typing this meditation on trees?
             That the ground upon which we stand is being violated, that the river where my small daughter and I sat, throwing sticks into the current, has been woven through with contaminants I can't even pronounce , that the air itself teams with dust that is not the cosmic dust we've been told has circulated through  space since the moment of creation but the dust from power plants, riding the currents for hundreds of miles, how do I hold that reality in my head this morning as I stare out my windows, feeling the usual surge of gratitude that I live in a place where not only can I see trees from every window of my house....but  I can also shove my feet into my bedroom scuffs and go walk outside among them, drinking my second cup of coffee?

That's a long sentence, that one I just strung together. But it doesn't come close to linking all the images, the fears, the reflections I carry in my mind this morning, waking up after two days of hearing about and seeing what has been happening to our homeland here in the mountains.  And beyond.  "We are losing our homes," says seventh generation ballad singer and longtime friend Sheila Kay Adams, a native of nearby Madison County.  We are losing the very "ground" of home, it seems, and not only the literal sod but also our connections to it and the people who live around us.
           The trees have always been my refuge, whether I stand at the window looking at them or go walking into their  leafy presence.  The Appalachian mountains are the "vegetation cradle" of North America.  They have cradled us, as well.  That cradle needs our care.  Our tending.
              It needs our lullabyes, our love songs, our hands and minds watching over it.
              Maybe we should for a moment in our imaginations become Daphnes, feeling our roots sinking deep into soil, our leaves clinging or letting go,  squirrels skittering over our branches while our dogs yap below, eager to give chase.
             Or maybe they are just pissed off because we have all suddenly disappeared and their supper bowls sit empty on the porch!


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

BLACK LUNG, by R. T. Smith

The legacy of coal is one of environmental devastation and human exploitation.  The poem below, by my friend R. T. Smith, author of numerous books of poetry and fiction, expresses that reality by focusing on the Appalachian singer and song-writer Hazel Dickens.  Rod's poem gives voice to the grief and pain that has come from the mines and the blight of mountain-top removal.  In the few days before Western Carolina University's ROOTED IN THE MOUNTAINS conference begins, I can think of no more powerful voice than this to sound the warning about the threats to the mountains we love.  

Black lung 
R. T. Smith 

When Hazel Dickens watched her brother die 
of the miner’s curse, the room shook with weeping, 
and she thought, So much cold sweat, so many tears, 
the womenfolk might’s well be mining salt. 

As a child singing “Man of Constant Sorrow” 
in the shadowed kitchen of a sharecropper’s shack, 
she knew even hymns burned their truest 
when you could hear keening beneath the praise. 

Singing for the rights of ridgers and diggers, 
she kept that note close, a ruined lung’s gasp. 
Hazel sang lovelorn, ever angry for the hungry. 
She learned Maybelle’s lick to teach the guitar 

to mourn. In her heart she found a sound 
with the beauty of redbuds stained dark 
as a seam of blood coal—pick and drill, carbide 
light, blind mules and men’s skin shiny 

as a wet crow’s feather. She gave it throat 
and breath, the lyrics edged across her teeth, 
and would not be muzzled for the sake of tact 
or cash. The maverick activist stood stern 

in the city, her flowery skirt and blouse 
plain that autumn day at the Folklife Fest. 
Aiming for relief, she unleashed nervy words, 
the feel of scars, dust deadly as pepper, 

grief as wives turn widows and daughters 
sob, the greed of companies restless to rob. 
“Black lung, black lung” she wailed, “your hand’s 
icy cold, as you reach for my life and you torture

my soul.”  Could she picture poor Thurman 
frozen in his coffin? She felt a mortal chill 
riddle her bones. Even the hecklers hushed 
when she finished with: “a good man is gone.” 

In the bowels of the mountain, maybe a calm 
touched the seam and the air felt sweet 
and clean, but soon on hogback ridges 
the riven earth was night-struck again, and men 

underground breathed their last. Now we pray 
whatever snow God allows will never halt 
her hard song amid the tears and sweat. 
Can we get an amen here before this whole 

suffering country is sown with salt?


Sunday, October 16, 2011


MOUNTAIN WOMAN: SUNDAY FIRE: Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves.... Elinor Wylie And so it has seemed, watching the wind scatter the fiery leaves...


Swift autumn, like a bonfire of leaves....
   Elinor Wylie

And so it has seemed, watching the wind scatter the fiery leaves hither and yon,
as we sit under our Tulip Poplar watching.

I want to gather them  to me, hold them close.  Cling to this day.

Else lie among them, breathing in the scent of autumn hastening away.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


When I first saw Barbara Bates Smith do her one woman show based on Lee Smith's Fair and Tender Ladies, I was so overcome that by the end, I needed a box of kleenex.  I think Barbara was a bit taken aback by my emotional response!   So was I.  I had become Ivy Rowe as I listened to Barbara become Ivy--girlhood, childbirth, widowhood, old age.  Each time I see Barbara perform, whether it's Lee's On Agate Hill or several of her short stories, I have a similar reaction, though I know by now to keep the tissue close by so as not to embarrass myself.  Or Barbara.
I remember Barbara telling about presenting Ivy Rowe in Lee's hometown of Grundy, Virginia.  The only correction Lee had to make during rehearsal was her pronunciation of "bury."  
 It had to be "burry."  Yes, indeed.  And I still remember the announcement in the Sylva Wal-mart a few years back, "Will the woman who wanted the chocolate covered churries please come to Health & Beauty."  Barbara offers her post on the rewards of performing Lee's characters, followed by a video of the closing scene of  On Agate Hill.  
And for those of us in the Jackson County area, Barbara will be presenting a Christmas program, Deck the Halls with Southern Writers at the new Jackson County Library in Sylva on November 29th.  She will read from work by Lee,  Allen Gurganus, Truman Capote and she's included one of my own poems.  Don't miss it.  And don't worry if your memory is as fallible as mine.  I'll keep reminding everybody about it.

Barbara Bates Smith as Ivy Rowe

Lee Smith
She’s turned into a mountain woman. She’s moved to the mountains, she plays the dulcimer, she clogs, she’s taken up quilting.  She’s turned into Ivy Rowe!” That’s what prizewinning novelist Lee Smith has said about me. I’m proud of that. An actress by trade, I’d been touring with my one-woman show, “Ivy Rowe,” based on the spunky Appalachian heroine of Lee’s novel, Fair and Tender Ladies. And I’d moved to the mountains of Western North Carolina, a perfect base for touring. I’d taken a lot of teasing from my peers: “You’re just trying to become this mountain woman you’ve been portraying.”  Yes! AndIvy Rowe” and I are still going strong with close to 700 performances.
Lee says that when she wants to empower a heroine, she sends her to the mountains. And I myself have become further empowered thereby—adding a musical accompanist and other Lee Smith works such as “On Agate Hill” to my repertoire.

Lee asks if I ever get tired of playing Ivy Rowe.  Never.  I love it every time. If six months go by with no Ivy, I get restless. This mountain woman both grounds me and lifts me up. The way she looks life in the face, says yes to it, makes mistakes, but always manages to “keep on keepin’ on.”  Sometimes I don’t know where she ends and I begin. I don’t care. I’m having too much fun.!"

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Guest Blogger: Julie Brooks Barbour

View from Julie's grandparents' attic

The attic in the house where I grew up fascinated me, a treasure trove haunted by the past.   My grandmother's sewing machine sat under one of the windows, her cedar chest of old clothing waited back in the eaves, spilling  remnants of this woman I had never really known, herself a mountain woman who moved to south Georgia to teach school.

 I loved looking out the windows at the yard and tool house grown small and strange, as if images from a storybook.  The light that entered that dark repository always seemed to come from far off, to seem intrusive, as if darkness was the attic's natural state.

Julie Brooks Barbour, raised in the foothills of western North Carolina, has captured this ambiance of such an attic in all its mystery.  The photos, by the way, are from her grandparents' attic.  I can see that attic windows fascinated her as much as they still fascinate me.

My Grandparents’ Attic 

The only unfinished area in the house, the air held me close, 
pressing in, but I stayed, searching for what my grown cousins 
left behind: comic books, wood burning kits, marked pages
of schoolwork, scattered among boxes for safekeeping
or one day’s garbage, the only facts of their childhoods. 

They hit puberty before I was born. My father married late 
so I rummaged alone, needing to study a cousin’s 
handwritten vocabulary words, unfold game boards to trace 
the patterns of boredom, turn a geode over in my hands 
and stroke its spiny edges. The dark recesses of the attic 

peered from a far corner, accessible only by the ability 
to balance on plywood boards.  Lace curtains hung at the windows, 
gray with dust and dotted with dead flies, their cousins still trying 
to find a way out at the corners, greeting me each day 
with their small swarm. Those windows remained closed 

throughout the year, slanted summer sunlight adding to the heat. 
The few times she realized where I was headed, my grandmother 
begged me not to go up to that room, aware of its appearance, 
but I couldn’t stop. I had mysteries to solve: the rusted bed 
with its flattened, stained mattress, the tubes of old paints, 

stuffed animals boxed and waiting. Who was that room 
waiting for? My family told few stories. They related only 
childhood antics or what time dinner would be ready. 
The old secrets stayed hidden, washed away each time 
I cleaned the dust from my hands. 

Originally from Shelby,  Julie  received her MFA in Creative Writing at UNC-Greensboro. Her poems are forthcoming in Kestrel and Migrations: Poetry and Prose for Life's Transitions. She currently lives in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan where she teaches at Lake Superior State University, and is founder and co-editor of the journal border crossing.  As a  sister alumna of UNC-G, I welcome her to my blog. Her poem carries me back to a place that continues to live in my memory.

Julie Brooks Barbour