Saturday, April 30, 2016

Mountain Talk

Lessons on talking like the natives

It's a true fact. I know you are not from these parts by the way you say the name of the school where I graduated all those years ago. Appalachian State University. Appa-lay-chian? No, It's Appa-lat-chian.

We just don't talk southern around here, drawling out the words, turning one syllables into two. We also talk mountain, using ancient words passed along by the ancestors who first pioneered these hills and kept their language pure by isolation and little interaction with others. And when the two intersect, it makes for wonderful catches for a storycatcher like me.

Like in my earlier post on sarvis trees, so named because they bloom at the same time in the year as the ground thaws enough to have the burial service for those who died over the winter.

Which brings me to a story I heard at the local county retired teachers' meeting last week. One man who spoke is now working with student teachers at that very same aforementioned university. Appa-lat-chian. Social studies teachers, to be more specific. The student teachers met earlier this month to catch up with each other and share their experiences out in the field.

One important detail, although this is a state university, many of the students are from "up north," which makes student teaching in the backwoods of the mountains even more challenging. Imagine your first job teaching ever is a lesson on vowel sounds (pat, pet, pit) for a kindergarten child who has never pronounced those words differently, and what's more, can't hear the difference when someone with a strange accent pronounces them.

Or imagine, like in this situation, the student teacher grabbing the attention of a cynical group of boys one generation removed from bib overalls, engaging the class in a discussion of the first battle of the civil war when the women and families followed the troops dressed in their finest, dragging their parasols and picnic baskets.

After what she thought was a most excellent lesson, one boy in the back raised his hand. No wait, I'd bet he didn't raise his hand, just blurted out. "You're a-lying."

The student teacher froze, innocence about to be challenged. "It did happen that way. The citizens thought the war was more like a pageant to watch, to wear their best dresses and bring their parasols for an afternoon in the outdoors."

"You're a-lying," he repeated.

She shook her head. "How so?"

"Because powersaws weren't even invented back then!"

Catch of the day,


Saturday, April 23, 2016


It's a weed. Around here, in the foothills of the Appalachians, it's definitely a weed.

So if it's a weed, can it be worthy?

I heard about an elderly teacher with her old school values who had two groups of readers in her classroom. I'm talking way back, back when teachers typically chose cutesy names for the groups. Red Birds. Blue Birds. Sometimes the students even voted for names of their group. It didn't take long for the students to grasp which was better to be in. They might not be able to read words, but they could read realities.

Blue Birds, of course. And dare not mention the Yellow Birds.

When I was in graduate school there was a similar ranking. You were either an Orchid or you were an Onion. True story! But we were adults, not second graders growing self esteem.

But this one particular teacher had a naming system that there was no denying which ranking was better. Her two groups were the flowers and the briers. By the way, that rhymes when said with a southern mountain accent. Flowers. Briers.

So if a child is a brier, is he (because the majority of poor readers were boys) worthy?

Look at the beauty of the wisteria as it fights for its life in the brambles.
I see beauty. I see shelter for the animals in the woods. I see friends taking cuttings of this plant beside the back country road and taking them home to root and grow their own.

I see struggling readers. Worthy? Yes.

Catch of the day,


Saturday, April 16, 2016

Azaleas in the Yard

A row of azaleas on my street
red in my front yard

Spring has progressed with more blooms, and now it's azalea time in my yard.
purple in the back

I'm not sure which I prefer, the flaming reds or the delicate purples. The whites are yet to bloom, but they will add yet another dimension to my yard.

Supposedly azaleas were first added to yard landscapes in the eastern part of the Carolinas in the 1830's, and their beauty has been celebrated ever since, especially at the Wilmington, North Carolina Azalea Festival. I attended once, in high school when my band was invited to march in the parade. 

The piedmont and western regions of the state soon adapted the azalea as their own, thanks to its easy nature when establishing new plants from the generous neighbor's cuttings. That's what we do here, share plants in the southern hospitality way.

The best part of my azaleas, other than adding a bit of color to break the drabness of winter, is that they offer shelter for my cat to rest under when the dog days of summer arrive. That's the true form of southern hospitality, just being there when needed.

Next up, wisteria, already starting to bloom.

Catch of the day,

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Blooming Dogwoods

The dogwood trees are blooming! 

On the street where I live
And I'm thrilled.

Now it's really spring! The progression of daffodils and dandelions and sarvus trees continued this week into the dogwoods, our state flower. Note that it's not North Carolina's state tree. That's the longleaf pine. I'm talking flower, a flower that grows on a tree.

Legend has it that the dogwood tree was once a majestic specimen towering higher than oak trees. Today it only towers over single story houses. Once it was strong enough to bear the weight of a man. Jesus Christ. Crucified on a dogwood tree. Now it can't support the weight of a ten year old tree climbing adventurer.

A close examination of the blossom reveals more of the legend. Its four petals form a cross and at the tip of each petal, a scar or an imprint or more specifically, the stained dent of a nail. The center cluster of seeds resemble the crown of thorns that Jesus wore.

No where does the legend tell the inconvenient truth that dogwood trees don't exist in the middle east.

Legends to a storycatcher like me are approaches people use to relate difficult stories, and the crucifixion is the most difficult of all to explain to children. How does an adult tell an innocent child about cruel death. In the span of a couple months, children go from hearing about peace on earth through a baby in a manger to love and kisses and chocolate at St. Valentine's Day to a cross draped in black on Good Friday. Little wonder the Easter bunny (with colorful eggs and baskets of chocolate goodies) appeared on the scene to distract children from the harshness around them.

By holy design or by convenient accident, the dogwood blossom does a very unique job. It gives an opening to start the discussion.

All is not beautiful and rosy or, dare I say, dogwoody. Diseases are killing off many of these impressive trees, including several in our front yard. Our front yard pink dogwood will no doubt succumb to the plague in a few years. The branches are naturally gnarled, spooky when bare, flowing when in bloom, and hidden when in full leaf. For an amateur horticulturist like me, it's hard to tell a healthy dogwood from a struggling dogwood.

One last observation, thanks to the yearly student response I invariably heard during our fourth grade class discussion on dogwoods. How do you know a dogwood tree?

Answer: By its bark.

Next up, azaleas. 

Catch of the day,


Saturday, April 2, 2016

Sarvis Trees

The hills are alive with sight of white blossoms everywhere. With no killing frost this year, we've had a most beautiful display of nature's majesty. The woods are still brown, only a tiny bit of green peeking through, so the white stands out even more...especially with the deep blue skies we've had this week.

My view across the road from my house

A close up of the same tree
The trees were alive with humming, too, the buzzing of delighted bees. I hope the sourwood trees are just as successful this season for the sake of that delicious commodity we call sourwood honey. Yummm.

I learned something about the white blossomed trees this year when I went to Tennessee for a quick vacation weekend in the Cumberland plateau region. My friend asked about the trees that were dripping carpets of white petals all over the ground. They weren't the Bradford pears that were so easily identified because of the perfect conical shape. So what were they?

"Those?" says the waitress in the catfish hut restaurant where we ate a delicious meal. "They're just old sarvis trees."

Of course, my friend just had to ask. 

"What are sarvis trees?"

In all my time here in western North Carolina, I've never heard that term. But for sure, there are sarvis trees growing amongst the foothills and the Appalachian Mountain peaks and the Cumberland plateau. Each year they are the harbingers of the spring thaw. Their blooming is the announcement breaking the drab of winter. "Spring" they say. 

So the waitress goes on, because the story is not complete. "Years ago," she continues, "when a person died in the winter, the ground was too hard to dig a grave. So the body was kept..." and this she didn't explain, but I can imagine... "until the blooms appeared on the sarvis trees." Which didn't explain the term sarvis. Until she said, "Service."

Say it...service.

Now say it with a mock Appalachian accent...sarvis.

A sarvis tree in the wild
When the blooms appeared on the sarvis trees, only then could the circuit rider appear in the backwoods Appalachian communities to conduct burial services for those who were unfortunate enough to pass away during the dead of winter. Only then was the ground thawed enough for the gravediggers to do their job. The burial sarvis. The white blossoms to alert the world that now is the time. The white blossoms to decorate the bare grave. The sarvis tree.

Okay, so modern that I am, I checked google and sure enough there it was in wikipedia with basically the same story, only dispelling the story! Ugh. Seems that the sarvis tree was identified back in the fifteen hundreds in Europe before the New World was even a glint in an explorer's eyes. The European Sorbus. But maybe, just maybe, they talked the same way as the early Appalachian settlers, and maybe, just maybe, those white blossoms told them that the European spring thaw was coming and maybe, just maybe, the people could have the service, pronounced sarvis, and bury their dead. 

True or not, it makes a great story to catch for a storycatcher like me! Up next this spring, the dogwood trees that bloom throughout the mountains. I can't wait.

Catch of the day,