I wandered off

I wandered off to new projects and adventures back in the late spring of 2011. If you’ve ever started a journal and soon drifted away, you’ll understand. In the summer of 2012, my co-editor Susan Curtis and I launched the new and improved MiddleWeb, a site for educators working with grades 4-8. It’s doing very well and occupies my time in a very satisfying way. Drop by!


(I have recently begun using the Day One journaling app on my laptop. I’ve kept it up for a couple of months. With my improved WordPress skills, I might start sharing some of those entries in this public space. Meanwhile, learn a little more about me here.)


On Teacher Recognition Day

My friend Susan Graham posted this in the Teacher Leaders Network private forum several years ago. As so many of us work to shift the negative narrative that now often dominates the national conversation about teaching and teacher evaluation, these words by John Steinbeck are a counterpoint to the high-stakes environment in public classrooms this spring:

In her classroom our speculations ranged the world
She aroused us to book waving discussions.
Every morning we came to her carrying new truths, new facts,
New ideas cupped and sheltered in our hands like captured fireflies.
When she went away a sadness did not go out.
She left her signature upon us.
The literature of the teacher who writes on children’s minds.
I’ve had many teachers who taught us soon forgotten things,
But only a few like her who created in me a new thing, a new attitude, a new hunger.
I suppose that to a large extent I am the unsigned manuscript of that teacher.
What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person.

Astringent spring

The witch hazel is blooming on Witch Hazel Ridge. It’s one of the first signs of spring, my 63rd. It’s a welcome sight, whatever cruel ironies may come with April. We’ve had a short but very hard winter this year. Warm spells in January, February, March. Ten years ago, when we first moved in, we would have been seduced by the warm. Planted tomatoes or something. But we’ve “larned better” as our neighbors might say. Do not plant before Mother’s Day is the high mountains rule of thumb. It’s excellent advice, and we’ve tossed many an ice-wilted plant into the woods as proof.

But the witch hazel is blooming now. Wikipedia tells me there are five species: three in North America, one in China, and one in Japan. I wonder if they’re blooming in Nippon, about to face the cruelest April ever.

I’ve also learned that witch hazel was once commonly called “winterbloom,” and that it’s usually a shrub, rarely a small tree, and even more rarely over 8 meters tall. The one outside our kitchen window looks to be about 25 feet. Tall and spindly and determined.

When we first thought about buying 10 acres of raw land at the head of this old moonshiner’s hollow, the mountain man who would eventually sell it to us had already named his 80+ acre parcel after the early-flowering tree. I think he liked its history as a medicinal plant prized by Native Americans for its astrigency. He’s an implant, like ourselves, came from Kentucky about 30 years ago. I believe his dad was an accountant for a small company. You’d  never know he wasn’t native (unless you’ve always lived here), given his fierce Bluto beard and rough ways.

The first day we met him he sized us up and introduced himself as a “Zen Baptist.” One of the local gentry in my monthly poker game, who made his fortune jackhammering rocks into gravel and selling dynamite to the good old boys around here, snorted when I mentioned our first mountain man friend. “Jake the Snake,” he said dismissively. I wouldn’t dismiss him so quickly. Jake (given name Jerome) is a fascinatin’ character. More stories about him to come.

The “witch” in witch hazel, according to the world’s favorite crowd-sourced free encyclopedia, derives from an Old English word “wice” – meaning “pliant” or “bendable.” That’s the sort of thing Jake would know — and a good thing to be in this lovely and harsh place that Floridians rush to in the summer when their swamps start steaming — and flee from in October when the first flake falls.

In the winter, 50-60 mph winds from the northeast are not uncommon up here at 3600 feet. (They reach 180 mph atop nearby Grandfather Mountain.) I can sit here at our kitchen table and watch the poplars and elms, the arbor vitae, and our tall but skinny  witch hazel bend and sway in the wind. When it’s all done, they stand placidly, knowing sun will come. And then the wind again.

Y2K + 10

The propane man came today. Spring’s sneaking into the mountains but the tank is running dry. In 2001, when we buried this 1000-gallon tank at our new cabin, propane was 89.9 a gallon. It’s a physics lesson I haven’t quite learned, but the tank only holds about 800 gallons – 850 if the person filling it is skillful. So roughly $720 for 800 gallons back in March of ’01.

When we were building here, Y2K was on the horizon. In an abundance of caution (it only seemed sorta stupid back then), we opted for features that could extend our comfort zone after the 19th C returned: propane heater on the main floor, gas stove, gas water heater. As it turned out, we got not Y2K but the iGeneration. Even so, the gas strategy has been good in another way… ice and snow storms are common here at 3600 ft asl. Loss of electric, warm baths, hot food.

Ten years later. . .

This morning Danny put in 300 gallons. $1212 or $4.04 a gallon. “Propane is a waste product of the gasoline refining process,” he says. “You tell me why it costs more than car gas.” I shrug, thinking if you subtract road taxes, it costs a lot more – around here at least.

“I’ll tell you what I think,” he says in his mild Appalachian drawl.

“G-R-Double E-D.”