Upon our return to the South, cold gusts outside Harvest Moon tolled the random-cathedral-gong once, then in desultory claps. At home we discovered that snow falling off the roof and partly melting had damaged our AC-HVAC unit, which was slightly tipped. The potted Christmas tree we had incrementally and cumbersomely transplanted died of exposure. But our own lives in Floyd County resumed as full-branched and much-decorated as ever.Once as we drove along Oxford St., we offered a ride to a pedestrian. I was keen to do so because a year or two earlier I had stumbled along frozen night-slush from the Blue Ridge Cafe to the Presbyterian Church (to retrieve car keys from my wife) when an unknown African American woman gave me a lift. Tonight this walker was trying to carry a blue plastic grocery bag over ice and through 25 degrees. Gratitude first-rate, smoke second-hand.
A shine glazed tall trees on Rt. 221 past Check, and next to the highway a frozen waterfall refused for week after week to drop off the cliff. On Rt. 8 as we drove from Riner, tall white pines on the mountain shone in the noon light as if covered by ice at the tops, swaying, swaying. In Floyd County it was frequently a wind-wind situation. Could I remove a couple of roof-weighting tires from a house-trailer and don them like the Michelin Man?
Although the sun rose earlier and set later, it made little impact on the relentless cold and recurrent snow. I gained a new understanding of the different topography of the area when, in early spring, I reported to Fred that the sun had already risen. “It won’t come up for two hours here,” he replied from the mountain-shadowed valley of Goose Creek.
One day I also gained an unexpected and unwelcome understanding of the county’s location on earth. An airplane carrying half the number of people who live in the town of Floyd evidently crashed in the watery west of Australia. I studied a model globe and discovered that this region is roughly the antipode of Floyd County’s—i.e., the opposite point of a line passing through the solid middle of the sphere. (The coordinates for the town of Floyd are 36.9 degrees N and 80.3 W, so I looked for 36.9 degrees S and 80.3 E.)One afternoon shortly before the vernal equinox, Marjory and I drove along Rt. 221 north of Little River. We felt blessed by the landscape of glowing, straw-colored fields on hillside pastures, dark brown tree-trunks, dark green needles–all under a sky empty except for blue. Animals varied the scenery, as when two black cows strolled heavily away from a mound of food, a scene titled “Hay, hoof, hill.”
One morning in late February as our car, headed toward Roanoke, reached the crest of the long hill, far below to the left, beyond Kings Store Rd., shone a silver lake. Water from its left edge seemed blown across and above the ground. Such fog became cloud a minute or so later on the other side of the road when–“Look at that!”–a white flatness had slipped between the top and floor of the valley.
Each drive through Floyd County brought more awareness of its changeability—not only from one scene to another but within each scene. Each was contingent on the weather, the time of day or year, the sun’s angle, and the onlooker’s physical viewpoint. A long wooden fence and nearby barn seem cheerily enchanted when sunlight falls upon their sides at an acute angle; but when standing in their own shade, lusterless and a little grim. In winter a person can behold more acreage because the intervening leaves have disappeared.
Unlike the still-shots of “Solid Geometry” (Chapter 33), the images of a landscape can seem more like videos. A cloud-shadow glides over a pasture or building; trees sway, rain plummets, snow whirls, a tail flips, a bird arcs, smoke rises. And when even the onlooker is in motion? The foreground shifts when trees, or fences wooden or barbed, slip past, maybe even rise or fall. Especially when a vehicle is headed uphill, branches on the right float upward and reveal the next depth of trees. A rolling spectator might notice a sun-neglected building only to behold a flash of tin a few seconds later. From the chimney of Smith’s Grocery and Hardware, dark smoke shears toward the valley; yet a few miles closer to town, a chimney in the lee of a hill puffs calmly and vertically from an already-picturesque house.
Driving to Roanoke on a windy day, we saw an American flag on the driver’s side that threatened to rip off its staff and fly across the road; on our return, ditto but leftward. Once again traveling northeast on Rt. 221, we followed a brown dump truck. The early-morning sun of mid-January cast shifting-shadow-branches on the recessed panels of its steel portcullis. They created a video of millisecond-flickering that slid from the top right corner to the bottom left as the truck rolled past trees, the shadows coming at random shapes and frequency. (A video recording presented as a loop could grace an art museum.) Oh–see that queue of pine trees on the passenger’s side? That runs to and from the highway at a right angle, like a row of soldiers? As we approach, see how the line is contracting? And as the vehicle comes even with the near end, it collapses into a single tree!
Snowmelt and rain exposed rocks in the field from where I had extirpated them to plant clover–a mineral version of Stuckey’s New Crop Pecans. And the snowplow had flung hundreds of pebbles from driveway to clay, making me pluck them up bare-fingered in stages. I took a box of soil to the Virginia Tech Extension Agency in hopes that an analysis would tell me whether and how to fertilize the ground, but the emailed report was too complicated to understand. So I just watched the tiny cloverleafs sprout up, trusting that these legumes would make their own nitrogen as well as produce blossoms for honeybees. Carpenter bees did somehow track us from South Carolina to hover, swoop, poke around, and drill–Zzu caza ez mi cazzza.
Farmers’ Supply displayed gardening stuff in the window and on the sidewalk, and a pickup-truck towed a bass-boat through the intersection. The wire-sculptured steer in front of Harvest Moon now wore a necklace of flowers. A squadron of wild turkeys reconnoitered in the woods, rabbits appeared from secret hats, a scarlet tanager decorated a Leyland cypress, “our” indigo bunting returned to draw an exclamation from a guest, and bluebirds returned to their tiny condo.
One night as I walked down the porch toward the screen door, wings flitted right past me like a dark bird. The mammal evoked only a half-blink from this veteran, who simply opened the screen door and turned on the outer light. To keep out bats we had just sponsored the last step of a perennial house-tightening that included end-caps, a sealing-board, whatever, in hopes that only a few of these insect-netters would find shelter on the cabin. Although I had re-applied lure to the bat-house atop a high pole, I had little hope that the swarm would take advantage of it. And I had little certainty that there would even be a quorum after the animals spent another winter threatened by white-nose fungus. (See “You Alone,” below.)
The wire-framed steer in front of Harvest Moon once again wore a green hat in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.
Our deer enjoyed a calla-lily salad of both greens and petals. These animals seemed unfazed by the head of Buddha, which Marge had purchased from Finders Keepers and anchored in the garden. The visage looked equally unperturbed, just as it had after getting a buttermilk shampoo to help the terra cotta turn copper-green. And just as it did when a pair of daffodils cast leafy shadows on his right cheek.
Branches finally sprouted leaves, but we discovered that one apple tree, one sumac, and one hitherto-roly-poly variety of spruce had not survived the winter. When the thermometer rose enough for us to open a bedroom window, we occasionally heard a loud rendition of “Donkey in the Dark.”One May evening, a brass quintet played under a leafy walnut tree outside Hotel Floyd. Of the high school students from a nearby community, two were Caucasian and three African American of differing tints. They played “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” a rousing score with overwrought lyrics–lily-bosomed bombast that fused church and state. General Jesus. Perhaps the work, I thought, should be relegated to historical status, to performance only in museums or in programs on (say) wartime music. Yes, the Confederate statue uphill and across Main is an anachronism; but it pays a stand-down tribute to the “fallen” instead of drumming up fallers (“Let us die to make men free”). As the musicians–descendants of former slaves and, quite possibly Rebs–trumpeted, tromboned, and tuba-boomed their intoxicating vintage, I felt inner disharmony. On the one hand I stifled the impulse to rise and march around the bandstand; on the other, I considered the 110-year-old soldier. Even with his tin ear, he could probably catch the abolitionist anthem–and construe it as gratuitous jubilation.
Glimpses of Floyd included many a charming one. Late on another balmy evening the single doorway to Slaughters’ was wide open and I was greeted by two high school students–a male bagger and a female cashier.
Randall: “It’s either ice cream or the emergency room!” Cashier: “We have a two-for-one special on Turkey Something Brand.” R: “I don’t think we have room for two in the freezer.” Cashier: “You can always make room for ice cream.” R: “A good rule for life. [Returning:] I think this flavor will get me more points at home.” Bagger: “I never was much of a chocolate mint guy.” Cashier: “I’m more of a vanilla swirl girl.”
Downtown, a fortunate person could sit on the balcony next to the park, raise a glass of beer or wine, laugh with friends and acquaintances, and contemplate South Locust St. as it curved slightly back to The Stoplight. The richly luminous red-glass circles resembled the good cheer of Christmas-tree bulbs, Coca-Santa’s cheeks, Rudolph’s schnozz, Red Riding Hood tulips with a love-note, sun-warmed tomatoes on the vine; the bright green lenses, eyes of the life-source itself, shimmered along the pavement. One Friday evening in Lineberry Community Park, the performance shelter became a pirate ship with a ten-year-old captain. Babies, children, and adults enjoyed the grassy inclines as fiddles, guitars, banjos, and voices sounded nearby.
Across the street one house-trailer was home-ified by a garden of irises and roses. The native switchgrass, having waved wan-brown since late autumn, taller than me, began to push up green shoots. So did the Blueberry Cobbler Nectar Bushes, now cat-free, butterfly-ready. Where a bunch of Virginia pines had been cut down at the suggestion of the forester, Laura Polant, our grandsons helped me plant a white flowering dogwood, a flowering Yoshino cherry, and a sarvisberry. On a hike along The Saddle with visiting friends, only I (with HaruSpex) could identify a delicate five-pointed scarlet flower as an Indian Propellor.
I myself had just visited the Netherlands, where I toured a magnificent park and flower show of multiple venues known as Keukenhof, “the most beautiful spring garden in the world” (brochure). So upon my return, espying a profusion of wildflowers near the junction of Rt. 221 and Annie Lane, I newly appreciated their unique kind of beauty. For they adorned a humble ditch with herbaceous grace. And they had planted their pink or white selves, no gardener except for the Virginia Department of Transportation, which had cut down shrubbery on the incline between road and stream, thus providing sunlight. Moreover, the petals ascended and descended the steep-and-high clay-cut on the other side of the road, a change in elevation rare in Holland, which is lower than the sea from which it was reclaimed. The ditch, moreover, was created by something rare in the Netherlands, where the canals are essentially long ponds: a downhill-tripping stream.