Saturday, July 17, 2010

Two days in West Virginia

Before I talk about the two days I spent at my parents' house in West Virginia with my parents and Merry and Rusty and Sally, allow me to update my account of my drive up there. You'll remember that I made a disastrous discovery, about Beaumont or so, that the cigarette lighter in the Honda hybrid didn't work, which rendered inoperable both my BlackBerry and my computer-as-iPod-standin-and-Chinese-tutor for the rest of the twenty-some-odd hours up there and twenty-some-odd hours back, much to my frustration. Well, my sister Stephanie (who sold me the Honda in the first place earlier this year) read that post and sent me the following e-mail:


Just read your blog about the WV trip. If you were in the Honda Hybrid…did you realize there was another cigarette lighter in the console between the front seats? That’s the one I always used – I don’t know that I ever even tried the “regular” one.

Sorry ‘bout that,


[tries, but finds nothing to say, and decides to just go on with the story]

Clarksburg, West Virginia is a small town, and so my parents don’t often receive visitors who haven’t already been to their house. But on the rare occasions when somebody does come to my parents’ home for the first time, each such visitor always notices the same thing: the gardens. My parents’ house, you see, is on the side of a very steep hill, halfway up the hillside looking down on the town below. And when they moved in, their front lawn and their back lawn both looked about the same, which is to say, more or less like this:

But that is not what my parents’ yard looks like now; that’s the neighbor’s part of the hillside. If you swing the camera slightly to the left, then you get my parents’ back yard, which looks like this...

That’s not what you see when you first arrive at my parents’ house, though: I only show you those two for the sake of the before-and-after contrast. Here’s what you see as you turn into the cul-de-sac that ends at my parents’ house:

And as you proceed up the cul-de-sac you realize that the front garden extends even further than it appears to at first glance.

Now, everywhere that you see garden, used to be hillside like the hillside in that first picture I showed you. All those terraces – plus a service road for the pickup truck -- have been dug out and built up and filled in and reinforced, by hand, by my dad and mom over the last decade or so. I might mention that in September my father will turn seventy-one years old, and while my mom is younger than he is, she was no child bride. Furthermore, as befits my farmboy father’s work ethic, these gardens are meant for function, in several respects.

First of all, what is grown in these gardens is meant to be eaten. A bit of dialogue between Merry and myself as we all ate dinner on Saturday night…by the way, that dinner consisted of venison steak (shot by my mom and field-dressed by my dad out on their mountainside property), venison gravy, a “concoction” of green tomatoes and onions and peppers, two different potato dishes, freshly frenched green beans boiled with new potatoes, steamed Swiss chard, sweet green peas, fresh avocados, Wonder bread, and apple butter, of which only the avocados and the apples and the Wonder bread had been storebought. Merry and Grandmother had cooked, while I think Rusty and Sally had snapped and frenched beans, made the table, etc. Following standard practice, the table held what the table could hold, and if you wanted the stuff that didn’t fit on the table then you got up and went to the stove where the rest of it was sitting:

So, as we’re well into the dinner and everybody’s on about their third plateful, Merry decides it is time to gloat.

MERRY: So, Dad, this is how we’ve been eating every night for the last two weeks. [grins evilly] Jealous?

DAD [responding instantly]: So, Merry, this is how I ate pretty much every night until I was eighteen years old. [matches her evil grin] Jealous?

A roar of laughter goes up from the table, in which Merry joins in; she spends about five seconds searching for a suitable response and then simply raises her hands in surrender: Dad wins this round.

The garden is useful for hospitality, as well. A new neighbour moved in down the street recently, and my parents, who are from the old school when it comes to neighbourly duties, duly dropped by to introduce themselves, fresh vegetables in hand. And their new neighbour started laughing and said, “You know, when I was thinking of buying this house, the real estate agent told me, ‘If you buy this house, the Pierces will give you lots of fresh vegetables from their gardens.’”

Second of all, you will note the extremely high fences. This is because for the first year or two, my parents fought a losing battle against the deer who freely roam the streets of Clarksburg, and who considered that my parents’ gardens were proof that God exists and that He loves deer. But my parents are not accustomed to losing; and so their gardens are all now surrounded by the sort of deer fence that one sees out in South Texas or the Hill Country…though on those giant deer leases the fences are meant to keep the deer in, not out.

Third, my father has had both knees replaced and doesn’t like steps, and besides, he makes heavy use of a old but reliable Troybilt tiller. So each of the terraces slopes downhill from right to left, allowing every part of the garden to be accessible by wheel, if desired:

Fourth, much of the point of these gardens is to save money; but you can run up a big water bill really quickly if you have a dry summer and have to irrigate. So my dad, having taken note of the fact that the rain gutters had a couple of places where they leaked badly, decided to turn the gutters’ weaknesses into strengths. So under the places where the raingutters leak most prodigally, my father has installed huge plastic tubs that hold gallons upon gallons of water…but wait, there’s more. At the bottom of each tub is a faucet, to which one can attach a garden hose. And my father does indeed attach garden hoses to those faucets...

...which hoses run down the hill... more big tubs down in the garden... that when all is said and done my dad collects and stores gallons upon gallons – in the hundreds, actually – of rainwater. And that’s what waters the garden during droughts.

I woke up on Friday morning to find that the rest of the family had been up, doing such useful things as taming butterflies:

My parents were tremendously proud of my kids, because the whole two weeks they were there, my kids joined into the ethic of my parents’ house, in which little or no television is watched, but nobody is ever bored because you get up early in the morning and go find something useful to do. For example, here's Merry with a string of onions she dug up and then braided to be hung up in the garage:

I mentioned the service road my father carved into the hillside for his pickup truck; here’s a picture of it:

Notice the shed on the ridge? That’s new from the last two weeks. My parents had already dug out the space for the concrete-block foundation and set the blocks in place. But then Merry and Rusty and Sally, with appropriate adult supervision of course, set down the flooring layer on the foundation, and then put up the shed, with Merry, who had been appointed straw-boss, deciphering the manufacturer’s instructions.

The purpose of the shed is to house the firewood that goes into my parents’ wood stove to heat the house during the winter, and part of what the kids had spent their two weeks on, had been trying to learn to split wood. Merry and Sally hadn’t had much luck, but Rusty had gotten to where with the help of a wedge and sledgehammer he could actually work his way through a reasonable quantity of logs, though his most recent attempt had left the wedge stuck in a log where he could neither finish splitting the log nor get the wedge out:

Well, it’s been a long, long time since I split any firewood, but it’s a very satisfying thing to do...when you wind up and swing the splitting maul down on the end of the log with your whole body providing leverage, and the maul drives through the log and buries itself in the stump you’re using as a splitting platform, and the two halves of the log jump three or four feet to the right and left respectively, that just feels good. So I wandered down to the garage and retrieved a pair of gloves and a sledgehammer, as well as a hat that I fear betrays that I’ve allowed some Texas influence to creep into my Okie wardrobe:

And then I proceeded to do something I very rarely get to do: I impressed my children. My dad knows how to split wood, but then he’s 70 and these days he leaves it up to the kids. So when the kids, who had spent two weeks hacking away at that firewood, saw me swing that maul and split one log after another with one stroke…well, I got lots of awed, “Oooooo, DAD!!!!” And any dad will tell you, you don’t let opportunities like THAT go to waste…they don’t come around that often.

From there we headed out to the mountainside property my parents own outside town. The kids had been going out there pretty much every day, learning to drive the pickup truck...

...and my dad’s small tractor with its backhoe and front-end loader...

Actually, Sally’s legs, to her frustration, aren’t long enough for her to drive either the truck or the tractor; but she can dig up the mountainside with the backhoe like a champ.

Today, however, there was a new item on the agenda: learning to shoot a .22 rifle.

Even I got in on the act for a couple of shots (at slightly longer range than the kids were working from), though I left most of the bullets for the kids’ use...I hadn’t pulled a trigger in ten years and wasn’t happy with the steadiness (or lack thereof) of my left hand, but it was a nice feeling to have the rifle butt nestled up against my shoulder again – that particular .22 rifle and I are old, old friends, as a few pots of squirrel’n’dumplings could have born witness back in the day.

One thing that struck me out there on that West Virginia mountainside is that, while I can provide plenty of pictures of that deep green forest light...

...what I can’t blog is the distinctive smell of the forest, of the leaves and the ferns and the underbrush.

Merry had climbed my mom’s deer stand...

…when it started to rain. So Rusty drove the truck back down to the main road, and we closed the gate.

By the time we got home the rain was coming down hard. I settled in on the front porch, where I like to spend a lot of my time when at my parents, because when you sit in the rocking chair on my parents’ front porch, you are looking out over the following scene (you’ll forgive the cheap-camera-imposed necessity of photographing it in sections):

But as I’ve told Helen, one of my very favourite ways to spend a day is sitting in a rocking chair on a front porch watching a soft rain fall; and by the time we got back the sunshine of the morning had given way to exactly the kind of rainfall I love in the mountains, where you can tell how far away the different parts of the landscape are by how blurred and indistinct they appear:

(And it's even better at night when you have moonlight and the clouds are drifting so low that they get all tangled up with the mountaintops, though a cheap camera like the one I was using can't do it justice.)

The kids, however, could think of a lot of things to do with the rain besides sit on a porch and watch it like an Aged Person such as their dad:

As the rain slackened off, Merry and Granddaddy went down to check the progress of the tomatoes...

...and the corn Rusty had requested this spring back when Granddaddy and Grandmother were asking what the kids wanted to eat from the garden in the summertime...

...and the squash and zucchini that Sally eats in astonishingly huge quantities, Sally having originally requested that Granddaddy and Grandmother plant “pumpkins” under the mistaken impression that pumpkins are rather small and oblong and come in yellow and green.

(Okay, I admit that that’s actually one of the cantaloupe beds...I forgot to take a picture of Sally’s yellow squash.)

And by the time the sun went down, we were dressing up a little bit for a venison-and-vegetables dinner, courtesy of Merry and Grandmother with some help from Sally, very much like the one that Merry tried to use the next night to make me envious.

You don’t get many days better than that one.

But the next day wasn’t too bad, either. I wanted to get out and do some driving in the West Virginia woods, on the tiny little mountain roads that are only big enough for your car but that’s all right because you won’t meet anybody else on them anyway -- you know, the tiny little “country roads” that John Denver had in mind when longing to be taken home. Roads like this one, which I might add I photographed shortly after noon on a bright sunshiny day:

Roads that take you through woods where the dappled sunlight causes brown-rock-strewn creek and earth and trees and leaves to blend all together as if Jackson Pollock were in charge rather than God (yes, there’s a creek in that picture if you look closely enough):

And even roads that have, apparently randomly, places where you would presumably get a ticket if you insisted on parking there and a policeman were to happen along:

So I suppose now you and I, Gentle Reader, have both seen a forest fire hydrant.

While Rusty and Grandmother and I were out getting me my mountain fix, Granddaddy and the girls had their own project going on out at the “farm” (that is, the mountain property where my parents farm…well, venison, I guess, is the primary crop). Here’s a shot I took of grandparents and grandkids all gathered around the pickup truck:

Did you notice, at first glance, the newly installed freezer? (The point of having an old freezer out in the middle of the woods, is so that you can have a deerproof and waterproof place to keep the feed corn with which you stock your deer feeder so that the deer will learn to call “home” that part of your property that is within easy range of your .30-.30 and far enough away from your neighbor’s fence that you won’t have to go onto your neighbor’s property to retrieve the venison if the deer runs a few strides before giving up the ghost.) I imagine the old freezer wasn’t the first thing that struck your eye. Try it from this perspective:

You’ll note that Merry and Sally ran out of paint before they were able to finish camouflaging it. You’ll also note how easy it is to see the unpainted side, compared to the camouflaged top and side – both of which are just as much in view, and just as much in the light, as is the back.

That was Merry’s and Sally’s project for the day: camouflaging the deer-corn freezer. And you have to admit that until they ran out of paint they were doing a heckuva job.

And dinner that night was more of the same…so, you know, another really, really good day. Which made Rusty and Merry and Sally about fourteen of fourteen on “really, really good days” since they hit West Virginia. What a successful two weeks that was, from the perspective of everybody involved.

I might add that I sent pictures across the water to Helen and Kai and Helen’s parents, including pictures of the kids playing in the rain and the wood-splitting and the gardens and the tractor – and one picture of myself aiming a rifle. These pictures elicited the following initial reactions:

1. Helen was startled, and somewhat alarmed, to discover that my family not only doesn’t think guns should be outlawed, but owns them and uses them both for amusement and for Bambi-killing. So THAT wound up being productive of an interesting conversation.

2. Helen’s mom thought it was all fascinating but (a) she didn’t like the guns either, and (b) she thought the woods looked awfully dark, and she wanted to know whether or not there were snakes and spiders and other venomous critters.

3. But Kai’s reaction: “West Virginia looks like FUN!!!!”

At one point Helen called my cell phone while the gun lessons were going on, and, since I was helping out with the instruction, I handed her over to my mom, and they talked for half an hour or so. The more Helen and my parents talk to and write to each other the more they like each other, and later in the day Helen spent some time talking to each of the kids as well, and then of course she saw more pictures…and in my last conversation with her before I went to bed on Saturday night, before getting up at 5:00 a.m. Sunday morning to start the twenty-three-hour drive back to Houston, she warned me, “So, Kenny, will it be all right if Kai and I move to West Virginia and live with your parents, and you come see us on weekends?”

And I’m not sure but what she wasn’t half-serious. So maybe next summer, as I watch the tractor moving slowly away from me in low-’n’-slow gear with a load full of happy kids and my dad strolling alongside to keep everything under control, there will be a couple more delighted cityfolk in the shot.