Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Online Under the Liverwort

Tuesday began with a cool drizzle dampening my head as I loaded a few bins into the car before driving the twenty-one miles south to the house nestled among trees on Old Dixie Lane. There was a storm warning for this area last night and it was immediately obvious that rain had muddied the road as well as refreshing all the green. The good and surprising part was the sight of a road grader already out making sure the surface was both firm and free of standing water. The happy sight for me was the liverwort’s return to lushness. The plant is something called a bryophyte that has no roots, reproduces by spores and is often found on trees and rocks. What strikes me as strange is its ability to curl up and turn brown for days or weeks at a time, looking for all the world as dead as can be. Then it rains and suddenly it comes to life again, vibrant and pure green wrapped around the trunks of trees.

Arrival was earlier than usual today because the Internet guy was coming and I wanted both desktop and laptop set up and ready for his connections. As it happened, most of his work was out in the backyard setting up the dish on a pole and then getting the cable from there to the side of the house where it comes through the wall into the master bedroom. Turns out it was the perfect point of entry for my arrangement. When the bed is delivered and put in place it will cover both the connection box and the wireless router that provides a Wi-Fi connection anywhere around the house and yard. I have here a stronger and more reliable Internet connection than I had at any time living at the beach. There were always, always problems there and I could never be sure when the Internet connection would be down. Goodbye to all that and it’s worth every penny.

Water out here is from a well requiring a big bag of salt pellets poured into the well ‘filter’ (filter is a guess) once a month to soften the water. What I didn’t know until today is that the added salt makes the water bad for all the trees and plants I’ve been watering the past few days. My neighbor told me today that it’s best to use the two big barrels of rain runoff for watering. On two sides of the large utility shed barrels are set up to catch the water from the drains and each has a nozzle to which a hose can be attached. From now on I had best use that water for the lemon, lime, apple, Japanese plum, frangipani and palm trees, as well as the other flowering plants all over the front and back yards. Living in the country comes with its chores.

My other neighbor down the road is coming tomorrow to cut the grass, which he looked at today and figured was due for a cut. Said I might not get out here tomorrow because of obligations and last minute preparation for the movers coming on Thursday morning, but Manny told me not to worry. “No problem. I’ll just jump the fence,” he said. I repeat myself, but the area to be mowed is something like one acre, which Manny is happy to cut for a case of Budweiser. He calls it “one hand washing the other” or neighbors helping each other out when they can. Without a car, he sometimes needs a ride to the small store about three miles away. A case of beer and a ride to the store… Can anyone tell me where to find a better deal for cutting so much grass in ninety degrees and ninety-five percent humidity?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Books, Woodpeckers & Cicadas

After ferrying a few small things from beach to Oak Hill, today seemed a good time to begin organizing books for shelving that I hope to do next Saturday and Sunday. The large furniture items will be delivered on Thursday, moved around on Friday to figure out a comfortable arrangement and on the weekend stacks of books juggled and confused during the move will hopefully be sorted, categorized and shelved. Books and bookcases are already in the new house, but filling the cases and then realizing I want to move them to another place along one wall or another would be a foolish mistake. Bookcases lined with 200 books or more do not shift easily.

One of the bookcases will for certain go in the larger bedroom along the wall to the right of the bed. And with that certainty I spent an hour gathering from the stacks of books everywhere all those related to Japan and Japanese studies, books that I want in the bedroom. Hunting through everything on hands and knees, I picked out enough to make a teetering ‘Japan’ stack, carried those to the bookcase and returned to collect another stack. Five trips from one room to the other and the Japan books were looking complete, but each time I looked again to make sure, I turned up several more, most of the time at the very bottom of a stack. This got to be wearing after a while, but finding a particular title was sometimes a cue that a companion volume was still lost in the haphazard stacks. Finally I gave up, realizing that everything will come to light in time.

Sitting now on the screened porch later writing some lines in a journal, the woodpecker furiously hammers away in the camphor tree outside. I imagine that at any minute he is going to drill a hole through the limb and come out the other side. Moving quietly, I step outside to watch for a while and maybe see what he is so hard at work on. But I discover that woodpeckers are similar to cicadas in one sense: they don’t like to be stared at when busy with their wood pecking, just as cicadas when rasping in a tree don’t like observers. One day some years back, walking along a road on the Greek island of Crete, I stopped to admire one large and robust cicada clinging to the branch of a tree. Something made me think the insect would carry on singing-screeching and ignore my nearness, but as soon as I drew near the creature went silent and patiently waited until I had passed on before resuming its song. In the same way, as soon as today’s woodpecker sees me looking up at him, he stops his rat-a-tat-tat and maneuvers to the far side of the limb. Could it be that woodpeckers and cicadas are cousins in shyness?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Listening to Grass & Trees

Someone down the road is cutting his grass, the not unpleasant sound of the lawnmower echoing through a wall of trees that makes man and machine impossible to see. The sound makes me wonder just how soon the same task will fall due with the very large yard I look out upon this afternoon. Do I need to ask friendly Fred to come and give me a driving lesson? Should I bring in a few gallons of gasoline for the mower? It’s all too soon for someone who has not fully moved into the house yet and sees the grass as not especially tall just now. Time enough for all that sometime next month.

A little earlier, from a vantage point in the front yard I sat doing nothing but concentrating on the mix of small sounds that make up what anyone would describe as perfect quiet. There is never outdoors the sort of dead silence that occurs inside behind thick walls and doors, for that is an artificial quiet arranged for a purpose. Each day for the past two weeks I have sat in the backyard of this Oak Hill house and marveled at the quiet, but at the same time hearing a million insects, limbs full of birds, the tap dance of a squirrel on the tin roof and the occasional thunk of small limbs falling from a height. And when for a beat of fleeting seconds there are no birds in the trees, no screaming locusts or buzzing hornets, the pause is filled with the lift of wind shifting leaves, a rustle of green bending and murmuring in the thickness of arching branches.

The drone of a plane far overhead, invisible through the network of branches and a small sound by all accounts sets the woodpecker to knocking and unsettles a basking lizard that suddenly jumps, scurrying across a bed of dried leaves setting loose a crackling rustle at ground level. I try to imagine how long it will be before this complex outdoor symphony comes to me with fuller understanding of all its instruments and players. From over by the picnic table a bird sings, but I know nothing more than ‘bird.’ There is some impatience now with my inexperienced ear, the inability to identify sounds in a way that gives more shape to the surroundings. I think maybe I want too much too soon. In the passing of a month or two these conversations in the grass and treetops will perhaps have a fuller meaning to city ears. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

Turning a Thumb Green

Watering day at the Oak Hill homestead. Last week the rain was enough to freshen everything on this new expanse of 43,560 square feet, but there’s been little of it this week and everything is sagging with the need for a soaking. I watered some three days ago but only in one area, struggling with a disagreeable hose that slithered itself into kinks at every chance, cutting off the flow of water. Neither could I get a spray nozzle attached, making do finally with a languid flow of water.

Today I used a hose on the near side of the house and made a much better job of it. Made a good job of getting dirty at the same time, but accept that dirt is a big part of yard work. Late afternoon is prescribed as the best time for watering, and on another day I will wait until the cool of the day. Read an Earth Day magazine article yesterday that said in watering outdoors during the heat of day half the water is lost to evaporation. I don’t question that wisdom but hope that some of the evaporation is ameliorated by the shade that covers a large portion of my yard, front and back.

Confederate jasmine growing on a trellis at the front door

I have a lot to learn about yard care and gardening, so the coming months will definitely be a learning experience. Still a little nervous about happening upon a pygmy rattler flashing its fangs in all these leaves and brush, my movements are probably over careful, not quite trusting that my approach will in many cases scare off a snake. A large patch of purple lantana just in front of the screened porch is in bad need of raking, leaves layered almost two inches deep, but I worry what may be sleeping or living among that comfortable nest of leaves.

Purple lantana in a thick bed of leaves

A few tomato plants and an herb garden would be a useful project to undertake and the herbs might not be difficult. Never having tried tomato plants, a bit of reading and asking questions will have to come first. Growing up in south Louisiana my father cultivated a backyard garden every year, growing tomatoes, green peppers, eggplant, squash, butter beans and string beans. How he loved that garden, working in it just about every day after work and on weekends. But he could never entice me to join him in the hoeing, weeding and coddling. I might be in a  better position today had I laid aside the football or bicycle and worked with him in those precious rows.

Yesterday I fertilized the dozen or so citrus trees on the property, but it looks like more will be needed to give the trees some bulk. Half are spindly with too few leaves but the lemon in the front yard doesn’t look all that bad. Again, the right method or fertilizer is something a beginner needs to look into. For this first time, I grabbed up a bag labeled citrus fertilizer in the hardware store and followed the directions. A nursery might be a better choice for fertilizer and advice.

One puny and struggling Meyer lemon

As for the bugs, a new accessory seems to be effective in keeping them at bay, despite the odd appearance. Running the risk of looking like the hostess in the Piccadilly Cafeteria, I pin a sheet of Bounce fabric softener to the front of my shirt where it hangs in bad imitation of a frilly handkerchief bunched like a flower.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Swapping Woodpeckers for Phone Calls

Out in the country surrounded by birds and the strident hammering of a resident woodpecker. Over the past few days I’ve heard more woodpecker pecks than all those of previous years. At first I thought the sound might grow tiresome with a bird so insistent, but it is just the opposite and when Woody flies away I almost miss the sound.

Magnolias are in bloom.

Woodpeckers make a pleasant background, but in fact my thoughts are a thousand miles away. Three or four days ago I got by email an invitation to link with a magazine I sometimes send stories to. Not completely sure what I was joining, I clicked ‘okay’ and soon found myself a member of the professional networking site, LinkedIn. Didn't think much about it until the following day when I got email via LinkedIn from a friend of thirty-one years ago.

I met JB in Los Angeles in 1975 and for the next seven years we spent a lot of fun time together, most of it crazier than mules drunk on vodka martinis. From the first day we met it was obvious we were brothers in humor, and becoming fast friends was a given. Memory reminds me those were heady days, JB and I at the front of the line more often than not yelling for more. At the time JB was living in a big, old house in Hollywood that had once belonged to cowboy star Tom Mix. Not more than a few months in town I moved into the house, joining three others.

JB and I remained good friends over the next seven years. He was having some success with his music and soon enough I found myself taken up with classes at UCLA. Then one day I went to Japan and JB went to New York. Many times over the passing years I thought about my friend, wondering how he fared. Many years passed and eventually the memories got locked away. Around 2006 another California friend emailed asking if I knew someone named JB, that he was asking about me. A mix up of some sort short-circuited the connection and we never did hook up. Until today.

Busy with moving house, I didn’t have a chance to call the number on JB’s email until this afternoon. After a minute of verifying names, JB said, “I have been looking for you for thirty years.” It’s a warm feeling knowing that you have a friend who never gave up trying to re-connect across so many years.

JB lives now in San Francisco, married for the past seventeen years and the owner of a theatrical production company. The timing was bad on our call, not enough time enough to say much, but we made a good start. Looking forward now to re-kindling a long dormant friendship.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

For the Birds

Tuesday saw the wagon train of goods moving once more to the wilds of Oak Hill. Lucky me, four friends wanted to see the house and offered to load their SUVs with lamps, two tables and a big bin of miscellaneous trappings that included the last of the ink and another two stacks of books that surprised me in the back of a closet. We also squeezed in one more painting, leaving only the four largest still to be wrapped and transported. On Wednesday I brought over all the hanging clothes, with only the folded things in the chests of drawers waiting to go. The movers will wrap the chests in bubble wrap with the contents still in the drawers. What I call an easy deal.

A favorite painting on the bedroom floor

A good part of the morning was frustrated by automated telephones and their idiotic questions. “What is your first name? Please say the name and then spell it. For example, if your name is Robert, say “ROBERT” and then “R-O-B-E-R-T”. If you understand, say “OKAY.” If you don’t understand, please say, “WOULD YOU REPEAT THAT.” And God forbid you let out an unsolicited groan, or any sound of frustration escape your lips. Twice I made small noises to myself and twice the robot voice snapped, “I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND THAT. I AM RETURNING YOU TO THE MAIN MENU.” It took twenty-seven minutes to accomplish a change of address for a magazine subscription.

Next on the agenda was the same chore at the DMV. I had been warned to check the website for the necessary documents in changing the address on a driver’s license and now I suspect it is easier to cross the border into North Korea. They wanted my birth certificate or a valid passport, my social security card and two documents showing the new address with my name included. Then I had to hand over $25 to proceed to queries asking if I were a drug addict, a convicted felon and if I suffered from either epilepsy or insanity. Last, the woman wanted to know how many times my license had been suspended for either DUI or hit and run. I was sorely tempted to ask if the big screen on her desk was a computer and did it show any of these descriptions under my name and license number. However, it is best not to antagonize a bureaucrat. I walked out with a new license showing a loopy picture that suggests an insane epileptic with a drug problem.

The friends who came to see the place yesterday brought an excellent housewarming gift. I have mentioned before all the birds, and now there is a bright red octagonal bird feeder hanging from a limb of the elm tree outside the back screened porch. For now, it hangs there empty of any seed and swaying gently in the late afternoon breeze. It came with a big bag of seed—a mix of sunflower seeds, thistle, millet and sunflower chips—but I am saving it for the time when I move out here to stay. No fun in putting seed out, going away and missing the action. Pretty sure if I filled the feeder today half would be gone before I next return.

Today I’ve seen two cardinals, a male and a female, and a solitary woodpecker. There is a steady chorus of birdsong out there beyond the screen, but today I’ve had only fleeting glimpses of anything other than cardinal and woodpecker. Birds aside, I did see a fox crossing the road as I drove up to my gate.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Crawfish Pie

Monday came around with me hardly able to climb out of bed. The day after day heavy lifting hit all at once and I came awake with the awareness that a rest from the packing and moving was necessary or I would need a month of physical rehab. That fact clear in mind, lying in bed my thoughts roamed until I recalled Sunday night’s dinner, a delicious treat eaten after crawling in the door too tired for cooking and grateful for the foil wrapped pie waiting in the refrigerator—another five-star wonder from sister Beverly’s kitchen.

Most Louisiana natives will walk through fire to get at a table of boiled crawfish, and I’m no exception. I have long had the impression that crawfish is a misunderstood delicacy among too many outside of the state, all too often the very mention of eating crawfish rousing a nasty “Ugh!” and a disgusted look. Well, they just don’t know what they’re missing. Yesterday my sister brought a crawfish pie with the suggestion that I might not be up to cooking later. 

The recipe originated with one of our Louisiana aunts and at sometime in the murky past was passed on to our mother. Beverly stood at Mamma’s side by the stove every night from the age of twelve learning the basics of Louisiana cookery. And well she learned. I have on many occasions thought that my sister should apply for a private Michelin star, so skillful and tasty is her cooking. From Aunt Flossie to Mamma to Beverly, here is a recipe for crawfish pie that would delight Gordon Ramsey and John Folse.


1 pound peeled crawfish tails (Chinese crawfish do not have the flavor of Louisiana crawfish)
4 oz (1 stick) butter
½ can cream of mushroom soup
1 10 oz can of diced tomatoes, no juice
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 cloves minced or crushed garlic
1 small bell pepper chopped
2 medium onions chopped
2 stalks celery chopped
Handful of chopped mushrooms, but not too fine
Handful of chopped parsley & scallions, tops included
Zatarain’s Louisiana seasoning to taste
No salt needed.

Sauté onions, celery & bell pepper in butter until tender. Add mushroom soup & tomatoes, then garlic and cook 10 minutes. Add crawfish and cook a little longer. Add mushrooms & cornstarch diluted in water, then add parsley & scallions. Pour the mixture into a cornmeal pie crust (recipe below).

Cornmeal Pie Crust:
1 cup flour
½ cup yellow cornmeal
½ teaspoon salt

Combine flour, corn meal and salt in a bowl. Cut in 1 stick of butter until mixture has the look of coarse cornmeal. Sprinkle with ¼ cup of ice water and stir until it forms a ball. Roll the ball out as with any pie crust, put it in a pie dish and bake 10 minutes at 400 degrees. Remove crust from oven and fill with crawfish mixture. Bake 10 minutes at 400 degrees, then another 30 minutes at 350. Cut and serve as you would any pie.

Serve the crawfish pie with a green salad followed by a light dessert, maybe sherbet or a sorbet. Sure thing you will never again turn away from a dinner of Louisiana crawfish.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Good Neighbor

Mid-afternoon of a mostly cloudy Sunday, looking out at the front yard from a table under the evergreen tree, and the mosquitoes are a-buzzing. I’m fast learning how to gear up for time spent in the yard when dampness, or whatever it is draws the females from their caves. I read in a book somewhere that only the female mosquitoes bite, but if that is true then what do the males do for their vampirish needs? The prevalence of mosquitoes here in Oak Hill reminds me a little of Louisiana where in certain places and times of year they can be ferocious. This area has seen squalls of rain for each of the past several days and along with a refreshment of everything green, it’s brought out the mozzies. For refreshed green, notice the lush Liverwort wrapped around the trunk of the tree behind the table. A few days ago that was completely brown and shriveled. I thought it was dead. 

With the help of family this morning another great heap of stuff got loaded up and delivered to the house. I have the bookcases here now, but am reluctant to fill them as they become too difficult to move with books in them, and there is good chance I will want to shift furniture around finding the best arrangement. All the books are now in the country, but wait in tall stacks around the walls of both bedrooms. Eventually, they will find a spot in bedroom or living room. For now I am doing my best to sort them all, arranging the categories. For the past three years my shelving has been mostly random, but this time I hope to bring a little more order to the shelves. For too long Moby Dick has stood pressed against Captain Jack’s Woman.

The heavy lifting these past few days is starting to show in the bone-deep tiredness I feel each night. Returning to the beach last night it was all I could do to make it from dirty clothes to shower to bed. And then at 7:30 this morning I got a text from sister Beverly saying, “On the way. Get ready to load cars!” Well, thank God for family and friends, but without a push I would have slept until noon on this traditional day of rest for everyone but coal miners.

Had a good talk with my closest neighbor earlier. Randy and his wife divide their time between Florida and New Hampshire and will be returning north in about three weeks. He is a goldmine of information for someone like myself who is new to the area. But in connection with something I realized a week ago, these country folk are quick to offer help. The reason Randy came over was to ask if there was anything he could do to assist with the unloading and carrying of bins from car to house. A few minutes later the subject turned to lawnmowers and Randy offered, “If it turns out the lawnmower needs repair, give me a call and we can put it in my truck and take it to the shop.”

A restaurant not far from here serves breakfast for $3.18. They offer what they call a 2-2-2; two eggs, two pancakes or slices of French toast, two sausage or slices of bacon and coffee. Hard to eat breakfast at home for that price.

Friday, April 19, 2013

On Old Dixie Lane

Today’s carload of items going from beach to country filled both trunk and backseat, a few bucket loads more than usual. As always were the books, doubled this time, a bunch of kitchen things like plates, bowls and glasses, the hi-fi system, fountain pen washing machine, an outdoor chair, bottled water and clothespins, the wooden kind 50 for a dollar at the Dollar Store. And for all that the house now has the tinge of being inhabited—or at least part-time since there is still no bed anywhere.

An hour after getting everything unpacked and put away, I saw some specks on one of the windows and ended up washing all the windows and the glass doors going out to the screened porch. Who doesn’t love newly washed windows? Still buzzing with energy, I started with the cobwebs on the porch and didn’t stop until I had brushed the majority away, say five pounds. Couldn’t stop there so swept the concrete floor of the porch, but what felt like only the first layer. I will have to go back to that a couple more times. What I would really like to do is put outdoor green carpet over the whole floor.

A tile just outside the screened porch

Manny stopped by and asked if I would run him up to the small store in Scottsmoor five minutes south on US 1. He showed me a back way that I was unaware of and gave me a good look at some of the land around my house. A half mile down from me someone has what looks like a farm with a herd of goats mixing and mingling with the cows. The second surprise was learning of the small store so near to home, which includes the sale of gasoline cheaper than anywhere else within fifty miles or more. Finding this was good timing because a friend with a truck is helping me move stuff on Saturday and I can fill his tank for a good price before he heads home.

Seems cooler on Old Dixie Lane today. Cooler than yesterday and the mosquitoes don’t seem as bad either. But then, I’m wearing my poison wristband guaranteed to ward off winged pests. Maybe it’s working better today than yesterday. My sister suggested tucking a sheet of Bounce fabric softener, half in-half out of a pocket, that it would send to all bugs the scent of death. What a thing, to be conjuring death in this green paradise.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


From my usual spot on the screened porch in Oak Hill, I watch the shifting light and shadow of afternoon, the fall of leaves loosened by the breeze and the gentle sway of moss in the trees. I cherish this hour when all around me, apart from chair and porch are uninfluenced by human hands. The perfect whisper of quiet but intense life flourishing at the height of spring.

Puttering about in the front yard earlier (picture below) I met a neighbor from 200 yards down the road. Except for short times in Missouri, Manny has lived here for eleven years, deeply attached to the quiet and isolation. He told me stories of a large black panther living in the woods across from my gate, and of her cub and their fondness for chickens. He described a 400 pound wild pig that he and a couple of friends bagged one night, and of the good fishing in the lagoon at the end of the road. I enjoyed the stories but am not certain I want to join the night hunts or fish for trout in the lagoon.

I asked Manny if he could connect me with a local high school kid who might want to earn some money cutting grass. The house did come with a riding lawnmower, but the thought of mowing an acre of land with a couple of dozen trees in a hundred degrees of summer heat is daunting. Without the least hesitation Manny told me not to worry, that he would take care of cutting the grass. I didn’t have to study the man to know his price for that work will be more than reasonable. Something about Manny tells me he is not Beverly Hills. 

Still no sizable furniture in the house but it grows nearer day by day to something like inhabitable. There are now dishes and bowls, napkins, soap, toothpaste and a few items in the refrigerator apart from ice. Hope I can remember to bring some new clothespins tomorrow. The house is equipped with a washer and dryer but when possible I want to use the clothesline in the backyard. Nothing like the smell of freshly washed clothes dried in the sun. And I have to add, there’s something kind of nostalgic and good about having a backyard clothesline.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Scrap of Rain

Thirty minutes after a rain shower mosquitoes are on the prowl in Oak Hill and a bright yellow, heavily scented wristband is coiled about my wrist as I sit on the screen porch pondering the backyard concert played by whistling birds, rasping grasshoppers and their buzzing cousins. The wristband is something called Insect Repelling Super Band and directions say, ‘Just slip it on wrist or ankle and enjoy a bug free day.’ In only ten minutes I’ve watched two different mosquitoes land on my arm a few inches from the wristband and casually begin searching for a vein. That said, it has a fragrance I really like that includes Philippine geraniol (geranium oil), Indonesian lemongrass oil and citronella. As pleasant as the fragrance is, when the third mosquito landed on my arm I added a spray of insect repellant to arms and neck. Since then I’ve been left alone.

Driving here earlier a fleeting sprinkle of rain made me hope—despite the mosquitoes—for my first thunderstorm in this setting. I imagined rain dripping from Spanish moss and frogs croaking in the joy of an afternoon deluge. But it was dry again when I drove through the gate and into the carport. Just as I began to unload the boxes and bags from the trunk, the rain started again but the covered pathway from carport to front door alleviated the problem of wet boxes. I got them inside and returned outside to enjoy the rain falling through layers of green, but it stopped in the space of three minutes. Not enough for me but apparently enough to stir the mosquitoes from their torpor.

Interesting discovery today. On my first occasion to use the bathroom for something other than washing my hands, I found the toilet to be rather like a highchair, a height that made me sit on tiptoe. You have to be over six feet if you’re planning on having feet flat on the floor while sitting on this grand throne. Otherwise, it’s an average appliance.

Received my first mail at the Oak Hill address today. Don’t know why I even bothered to look in the mailbox, but before turning onto my road I pulled up to the mailbox and was surprised to find mail. I’ve never before had one of the long, domed tin mailboxes with a little metal flag to signal mail. Must remember to take a picture of it. If anything ever epitomized rural, this mailbox is it, with its worn wooden post wreathed in weeds and the box itself creaky with rust.

Each day I feel a little more comfortable in Oak Hill, looking forward to the time when I don’t have to lock up and drive back to the beach for the night. Just two more weeks, but something tells me this slow transition to the rural is ultimately the better way of shifting my environment.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Country Folk

One more day of ferrying household goods out to Oak Hill, one more of fine tuning a feel for the new environs out among woodpeckers and low-hanging Spanish moss on surrounding oak trees. Trying now to establish a daily transference of furnishings, those things that I can pack and fit in trunk and back seat of my mid-sized Japanese car. Many would probably tell me that I’m going at it sissy fashion and could finish it all that much sooner if I stuffed the car and wore myself to a frazzled ruin. No thanks to that, the packing and loading and unloading and unpacking of a little at a time suits me just fine. At my slow and measured pace I’ll be in good shape when the professionals arrive on May 2 to move the bigger pieces of furniture and the heavier boxes of books.

A jumble of unpacked things on the mantle and fireplace

Easy does it, a little at a time and hours in the afternoon to sit under a tree and read or contemplate the hum of nature in this still new setting. The workings of the house and its idiosyncrasies reveals itself a little more each day. On this Tuesday, I discovered the remote control that governs both ceiling fan and light in the living room. I filled ice trays and was happy to find them frozen solid two hours later. I stocked the kitchen with dishcloths, paper towel, sponges, soap and a minimum of dishes, glasses and utensils and the refrigerator holds not just ice but an ample supply of iced tea. In the bathroom a fresh supply of soap, toilet paper, tissue and toothpaste adds a touch of hominess. Little by little.

A mostly empty kitchen for the time being

I sat on the screened porch for almost an hour reading and occasionally watching the birds and squirrels cavorting on the other side of the screen. Concerned about a large black wasp trapped inside and looking for a way out, I managed after a while to catch it by one thin leg in the soft rubber clamps of a three-foot litter-picker-upper, gently ushering it outside. It flew away in what I took to be a relieved burst of freedom.

Not altogether pleased with my cellphone reception inside the house. Calls break up and I'm forced to go outside, or at least out onto the screened porch to get clear reception. This is a result of the tin roof on the house, I think.

A view through the open front door

Heading back to the beach in late afternoon, I stopped for a few minutes to talk with my nearest neighbor and was impressed by his friendliness and willingness to offer help in the process of getting settled. From him I learned of another neighbor down the road who may be willing to mow (for a reasonable price) my one-acre yard during the hot months of summer. I'm certain he can ride the lawnmower in my shed much better than I. Continuing on, I stopped at the post office to ask about package deliveries at my rural address, concerned that the mailbox down the road can’t accommodate anything larger than letter-sized mail. Oak Hill’s post office is a one-woman operation and upon inquiring, the young woman dialed up the delivery person to inquire what the standard regarding packages is. Getting no answer, she said she would call me later to let me know. I could hardly believe my ears when I got voicemail a half hour later saying the mailman would happily take any packages the extra distance to my house. Nice people.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Thoughts Under a Tree

Out to the house in Oak Hill with packed boxes, all of it unpacked and piled in out of the way corners, I sit now in front of the bedroom window, future site of my desk when eventually delivered. I thought at first the desk would go in the guest bedroom with its view out onto the large backyard, but on second thought the view from the front seemed better. Inaccurate really to call it a “better” view, but then the giant magnolia now coming to bloom changed my mind. I also like that the front bedroom gets more natural light and is considerably larger. 

I’m finding things in the house I can make no sense of, but can’t really say it surprises me. Switches, lights and ceiling fans have a mysterious electrical order, but more puzzling is the hidden telephone inside a walk-in closet, a phone with a dialtone. Nothing to do with me, I wonder who is paying the bill. One more question for the property manager.

Since my arrival was at lunchtime, I brought a sandwich and ate it sitting on a stool at the work island in the kitchen. The ham sandwich was particularly good and the pleasant setting with views out to both back and front yards were definitely an enhancement. Certainly the perfect quiet helped, a blessing only rarely enjoyed at the beach with its constant tourist soundtrack. Looking out to the long screened porch that stretches across the back of the house, I decided that a small table with a couple of chairs would be perfect on the porch, a shaded spot with its wide view of the backyard extending to the woods. Just the thing to improve the flavor of summer lunches.

Today was my first opportunity to try out the Henry Lever-Action .22 rifle I bought last week. With all the years since I last shot a gun, it was a slow process, performed with exaggerated care and the hope I wouldn’t blow a toe off. The first loud crack of the rifle surprised me and I worried that someone beyond the next clump of trees might be taking cover. Not likely really. I heard gunshots from down the road the first time I visited the property, and talking later with my October to May neighbor I learned that rifle and shotgun fire this far out in the country is usual. Making sure that the direction and angles were safe, I set up a couple of tin cans and from about twenty feet did pretty well at knocking them off the stump. Took me two shots to hit a ping pong ball, but the second shot was right through the middle. Two or three squirrels ran scampering up the tall trees but their alarm was unnecessary. Squirrels are not on my hit list.

To get a better feel of the outdoor sounds I move my chair to a part of the backyard just outside the screened porch. For the moment I hear nothing but the rasp and click of insects. Far overhead an airplane's roar is pared to a fraction, fading gradually into the distance. Waiting in my place under the arch of limbs I soon catch a hesitant trill of birds beginning their shy recital. The first songs come not from my yard but from the nearby woods. The wind is there as well, slight, ruffling the leaves overhead. Occasionally a heavy twig falls with a small thump on the carport’s tin roof. Looking at the tall oaks around me, each one hung with Spanish moss swaying slightly in the breeze, I remember a friend in New York who longs to see this well-known southern sight. Doubtful that a photograph would capture the full effect.

Now a cardinal has flown into the tree in front of me, and on another tree to the left what I believe is a woodpecker bounces on a limb but doesn’t stay long. Another bird out of sight on the other side of the house chirps and whistles with all its heart.

Too soon surely to make comparisons of the beach and the country, but maybe it is enough to say that the familiar peace of walking the surf line on an off-season morning is no more soothing than the calm of a backyard in the country.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Losing Sight of Blue

Preoccupied and muddled with the business of sorting, packing and preparing to move, my eyes have not been focused lately on the daily beauty of this paradise-like beach setting I have called home for three years. With little time for walking on the beach and a mountain of preparations to work through, the sights outside my doors and windows have passed unnoticed these last days. It’s been more like closet dust, jumbled drawers and hidden corners of stashed books. I sat out on the patio a few days ago with friends from up the street but for the hour we spent catching up, I never once turned my eyes to look out at the ocean and sky. And then a friend came out today to pick up his fishing equipment, a well-rounded collection that has been stacked in my utility room for a long time. When he first got here we sat for a while on the patio, him smoking and me gazing out at the deep blue simple of ocean and sky.

After a week or more of not noticing, it suddenly hit me how spectacular this life I'm giving up truly is. I have been blessed to occupy this space along the Atlantic coast for the past thirty-six months. Most people would agree it offers a vista that never grows stale, one that can hold the eye for hours day after day. How many times have I taken a book out to the patio and immediately lost in the view never once opened the book? When I bought this property some years back, it was first of all for the view from the patio, and I expect the new owner had similar thoughts upon first looking out across the sand, surf and ocean blue and feeling something resonate in his bones.

With sunlight losing ground to the shadows of late afternoon, I walked down to the water’s edge on Saturday to wander for a time through the ripples of surf and its endless scatter of seashells. For a change, no boats or ships were in view and the ocean shimmered and heaved in an uninterrupted sweep of one hundred and eighty degrees. Related no doubt to my upcoming move, the scene this time was enhanced by a special clarity that made me linger until the sun faded into shadow.

No regrets about trading places at this point. I look forward to enjoying the diversity of country life every bit as much as I have enjoyed the diversity of this coastal setting. Hard for me to visualize now just what the daily cycles of nature will reveal out there on the back side of Oak Hill. But I’m game. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Small But Vicious

Pygmy rattlers have been known to bite even after they’re dead. 

Not haunting my dreams just yet, but this recent anxiety I have about rattlesnakes has brought them to mind several times this past week. In the right setting, I might even enjoy looking at snakes as long there is a glass wall between me and them. I’ve visited cobra farms in Thailand to watch the handlers do circus tricks for the tourists, but always from the back row. I have a healthy respect for creatures prone to lunge out with a venomous bite. Never been tempted to look for them in their natural habitat and certainly not pick them up. So why are they on my mind these past few days?

Since my first visit out to the house I will move to soon, I have been imagining pygmy rattlers everywhere. They are the reason I went out and bought a .22 rifle and hightop boots. Everyone I mention these little snakes to says, “Oh, yeah. They’re everywhere in Florida. Especially out where you're going.” Just the other day a friend told about a pygmy rattler biting her daughter when she put a hand down into the laundry basket in their utility room. Okay, I know the little devils are not slithering all over the place and curling up at the doorstep, but a seed has been planted and I've been reading snakebite articles on the Internet for two days. What is my concern exactly?

Sistrurus miliarius, or the pygmy rattler is a venomous pit viper found in the southeastern United States. The Dusky pygmy rattler is one of three species found in the Carolinas, Florida and Mississippi. It is responsible for more snake bites in Florida than any other venomous snake. They inhabit palmetto-pine flatwoods, scrub oak sandhills, mixed forests, roadside ditches and the area near lakes and marshes—good description of my home-to-be. They spend most of their time well-hidden among leaf litter and can be very hard to spot, but are also seen in the summer sunning themselves or crossing the road late in the day. Their prey includes small mammals, birds, lizards, frogs and insects which they ambush from a hiding place among leaves and twigs on the ground.

Most pygmy rattlers are between sixteen and twenty-four inches in length. The young snakes have bright yellow tails. The rattles are tiny and almost invisible even on the adults, and very difficult to hear even when at your feet. If you do hear the rattle, say the experts, it will sound a lot like a buzzing bee. The Dusky pygmy rattler is most common in the Oak Hill area and gray with black blotches down its length, including the underside. A series of vaguely circular black markings distinguish the snake’s back, with an orangish or brick red dotted line running down the center between the black blotches. These snakes do not dig their own burrows, preferring to use those dug my small rodents, or sometimes Gopher tortoises. Often turning up in the backyards of neighborhoods, like other snakes their range of movement increases as the temperature rises.

Despite their small size, most will act like they are twelve feet long and ready to take on anything. Some individuals are very aggressive and will strike furiously, while others seem lethargic and don’t even rattle. But they are surprisingly agile and can strike almost the full length of their own bodies. A pygmy rattler’s fangs are full of poisonous venom, and while its bite is painful and dangerous it is not usually lethal. Too small to kill a human in most cases, its bite will definitely give the victim a very unpleasant several days. Children bitten by a pygmy rattler often require a prolonged hospital stay.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Paper Chase

I’ve never been very good with multi-paged documents. My eyes see complicated lines of small print and when I finally sit down to read and fill it all out, mistakes come naturally. The insurance agent must be pulling her hair out by the roots over my repeated foul ups with the documents required for insuring the contents in my new “old” house in the country. Email has made a lot of things easy and fast, but I was reminded today that had I gone to the agent’s office in person to handle the paperwork all the mistakes could have been avoided. But who wants to drive 100 miles round trip when a click of the send button can do it all in three seconds?

My first mistake was giving the agent an optimistic value of the contents to be insured. My fault in not realizing that the premium would soar if I put a slightly bloated value on my books, paintings and furniture. Call it a duh moment. Receiving the nine pages of documents (email) and shocked by the amount of the premium, I quickly called the agent and said it was too high, to lower the estimated value of the contents. A new premium was easy for her to calculate, but it meant I had to go through the nine pages, crossing out the old value and old premium, writing the amended numbers in and then initialing all the places where something was crossed out. Sound easy? Trust me to complicate it. The next screw up was me dating five pages incorrectly, writing May for April. And then the photographs of the house I sent were missing a side view. When last out at the house taking pictures it didn’t occur to me the insurance company would want a side view. Suppose I should have guessed that.

With half a dozen paper cuts, ink stained fingers and both my scanner and email limping, I shelved all that and moved on to new customer business with the power company. This time no real paper was required, only a telephone and the patience of Job. I would like to strangle the person who first conceived of long telephone ‘conversations’ with a machine. It only took about ten minutes to find a telephone number online for Florida Power & Light. Companies are getting very stingy with phone numbers these days, something hard to figure since an employee is rarely required to field telephone calls.

Ten minutes later my call was answered by guess what? It wouldn’t be half as bad if the recorded voice did not assume that every caller is a complete moron. “Did you say the 15th? Please press 1 for YES or 2 for NO. If you don’t know, press 3.” In opening a new account with FPL I answered recorded questions for a full fifteen minutes—why do they need my high school locker combination—before being transferred to a living representative who asked the same questions all over again. He verified my email address six times over the course of our conversation.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Armed & Dangerous

Mine was a childhood filled with western movies, cowboys and Indians, quick draw heroes and villains and images of Richard Widmark galloping across the plains firing his trusty lever-action Winchester 73. At other times it was Randolph Scott facing down a bunch of marauding Comanches, his rifle firing off a blaze of 30-30 bullets. I grew up wishing for one of those battered old lever-action rifles.

Despite the early dreams of cowboys and rifles, unlike many boys growing up in the sportsman’s paradise of south Louisiana, I never did get a rifle. My father had a shotgun that I was allowed to use on hunting trips a few times and my best friend and I sometimes spent an afternoon shooting his two .22 rifles out in the woods, where we figured birds in the tall trees were fair game. From around the time of high school the idea of shooting or wanting to own a gun receded, never to be revived. Until last month. 

When I got the idea to move and began looking at a house in the country, in our walk around the property the realtor pointed at some rustling leaves on the ground and hinted that it was the kind of place that might call for having a gun around the house. Later, telling friends about this place I was considering moving to, I got the same suggestion from more than one advising me to at least think about it. The immediate reaction on my part was an “I don’t know about that” kind of hedging, not ready at all to run out to a gun shop. First thought was that there are enough people with guns already, that I don’t feel any threat, and for the time being see no need for adding my name to the gun register. 

Still, the idea had been planted and I found myself thinking more about whether it would be a good idea to buy a gun. And for that matter, what kind of gun? Turning it over in my thoughts for several days, somewhere from out of the past rose up those old childhood images of cowboys and their lever-action rifles knocking hostiles off the ridge and rattlesnakes off the doorstep. A little bit of research told me that the same style of lever-action rifle was available in a smaller caliber and I began to think that a .22 might be just the thing to fit my still undefined needs out there in the ‘wilderness’ of south Oak Hill. So, I typed ‘lever-action .22’ into the Google search box and came up with 1,260,000 hits. At the top of the list was: ‘the Henry lever-action, a classic western-style rifle and one of the most popular .22s on the market today.’  I looked at the picture for no more than half a minute and my interest in owning a gun flared. Suddenly I saw myself decked out in raunchy cowboy regalia, a rumpled black Stetson shading my eyes as I sat atop a roan mare squinting into the sun and levering a cartridge into my rifle.

A week later, now $392 poorer, I am the owner of a Henry Lever-Action .22LR rifle. What exactly I’m going to shoot at with this handsome piece of American workmanship I’m not sure, but I’ve already spent too much time striking dangerous gun-wielding poses in my bedroom mirror, closer than ever to feeling like Richard Widmark or Randolph Scott. “Take that you red-skinned varmint!” BAM!

A little unsure just where this .22 rifle is going to fit into my soon-to-be country lifestyle, I must admit to a little bit of excitement in having a rifle that fulfills at least a tiny portion of those long ago childhood dreams of fighting off outlaws and protecting the homestead from rattlers and rapists.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Getting Wired & Wrapped

Moving all my accumulated goods from point A to point B will involve a heap of physical work starting with the packing of boxes and probably requiring the physical stamina of a college athlete. That part of the upcoming move to the country hasn’t started yet and I can only hope that when the time comes in a week or so, my own stamina doesn’t fall short. Some moving companies offer a deal where they come in and do all the packing for you, but in my neck of the woods that kind of pampering is not a part of the basic package and would add considerably to the bill. Not even sure I could really trust others to handle and pack some of the more precious or breakable items. But I haven’t reached the packing point just yet and my concerns now are more along the lines of setting things up, scheduling movers, installers and the necessary paperwork of stuff like insurance.

I’ve been thinking about television out where I’m going and someone told me the TV antenna with artfully wrapped tin foil ears sitting atop my set will prove inadequate out among the bears and possums. So I called the Dish Net cable company recommended by friends and asked what the deal is out where wireless networks are stranger than fiction and TV remotes have only four buttons.

Wilderness doesn’t stop the folks at Dish Net and within a minute I was hearing offers of 200 channels, premium bonus channels, free movies from Blockbuster and popcorn on Friday nights. The telephone reps have the sales spiel down pat and I wondered more than once when friendly Imogen was going to take a breath and give me an opening to say, “Basic plan without the frills, please.” Hearing that I would only be connecting one television, I could almost see Imogen’s mouth drop open. After a moment’s silence she asked if it was an HD television. I had some fun with her and said it was a black & white console model from Motorola. 

The next call was to HughesNet to arrange Internet hook up. Service in the southern part of Oak Hill where I’ll be living is either via satellite or not at all, and the neighbor I spoke to said HughesNet will do the trick and the prices aren’t bad. On the telephone I was swamped by the enthusiasm of a young woman who spoke 630 words per minute and never ran out of script. If she hadn’t sent it all to me later in an email I might not have known what I signed up for. It all looks good. After the free installation on May 3 I should have a fast and continuous hardwire connection with Wi-Fi inside and out—a lot more than what I get here at the beach.

One thing alone sold me on Two Men And A Truck, the company that will move my furniture and books on May 2. I have to think they learned it from the Japanese: running from house to truck and back again. My guess is the running part will come on the empty-handed leg of their back and forth trips, because who other than the Incredible Hulk could run with a 300 pound sofa on their back? I was also told by the company that it isn’t necessary to remove things from drawers in desks and chests of drawers, that they will shrink wrap anything with drawers and carry it to and from the truck with the contents still inside. Would be great if they could shrink wrap the books into manageable bundles, but I’m guessing that would take too much time.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Dressing the Part

One of the more pleasant aspects of life at the beach is the long established and widely accepted custom of casual clothing anywhere anytime. Even the better restaurants are filled with diners in shorts, T-shirts and flip flops—what passes as dressing up for dinner—and many of the people seen walking down the street are in something more casual: a swim suit, maybe a faded and well-worn shirt over it. With all the sand and warm sun typical of a beachtown, leather shoes, dress shirts and ties are definitely out of place.

From my first day here, shorts, T-shirt and a pair of Crocs became a uniform. Give me a chest of drawers with three pairs of shorts, a pair of jeans, a drawer full of T-shirts and another with underwear and I need little else, maybe a baseball cap. Sure, the colder months call for a sweater, a pullover or two and maybe a jacket, but even in chillier times shorts will usually do the trick. As for socks, I’ve forgotten what they feel like, and in the shoe department a pair of Reeboks and the Crocs fill the bill just fine. On rare occasion when I feel the need to be a little less casual, I replace the shorts with a pair of jeans and the T-shirt with a polo shirt, but at the bottom I am still sockless.

I’m going to miss all that.

The day I decided on moving to the house in the country I realized it would call for a few new items of clothing, something casual but in a different direction. Shorts may be fine inside, but outside is a place where long pants, socks and high top leather shoes bring more peace of mind—peace of mind in the arena of safety. In Oak Hill you don’t want to step on anything in bare feet or brush up against unfamiliar foliage with bare legs. And rather than a baseball cap, a wide-brimmed hat will do more to stop the hairy caterpillars from dropping down a shirt. Though I’ve always disliked them, gloves for working in the yard might also be a good idea.

Walking over the acre of property with the realtor a couple of weeks back, he suggested, with a small adjustment to his Daniel Boone attire, that it was an area where having a gun in the house would be wise. I couldn’t imagine he was talking about crime in the form of robbers or kidnappers, and I looked at the ground around me with new eyes, expecting to see something slither under a log. For a moment my head was filled with the vision of me as a rugged pioneer uncovering a nest of rattlers in my garden at the edge of the woods. A moment later I told the realtor I had to leave, that I had an appointment at the gun shop.

It’s still a couple of weeks before I move out to the house in the country and I’m still enjoying my shorts, T-shirts and bare feet, but I have been to Sears for a pair of sturdy shoes and while there I thought maybe a Bowie knife would come in handy, something to hold between my teeth in a wrestling match with unwelcome critters. I’ve seen Animal Planet and the scenes of anacondas released in the swamps of Florida. I just want to be prepared.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Blue for Green

Okay, so I’m trading a house at the beach for one in the country. My first thought was, “How does that work?” What will replace the constant background murmur of surf tumbling to spill itself on the beach, the slushy rumble of collapsing waves? In place of the blue and white outside my windows now what will greet my good morning eyes in this new home twenty-one miles south and marginally inland?

Oak Hill, on the Atlantic and southern edge of Volusia County is home to barely 1,800 souls. An early sixteenth-century map shows it as the site of an Indian village called Surruque el Viejo. Before the long-running Seminole Wars starting in 1814, northern timber cutters arrived and named their camp Oak Hill. The name stuck but the timber cutters were eventually driven off by the Seminole. At one time commercial fishermen and citrus growers found the area promising but these days most residents of the town commute either north or south for work.

My current knowledge of the area is slim, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of study to see that Oak Hill’s biggest draw nowadays is fishing. Looking for a grocery store, or God forbid a bookstore, Starbuck’s or McDonald’s is a waste of time in a town no more than a blink along the side of US 1. On my first visit there I spotted the local library, a quaint little building along an oak-shaded lane, but it didn’t require a look inside to tell me that it likely houses fewer books than my at-home library. But there is a hardware store and a weekend flea market, along with a Dollar General and the Country Kitchen Family Restaurant. Among the scatter of bait shops and fish camps is another restaurant named Goodrich’s Seafood & Oyster House. This one has a good reputation and attracts diners from areas outside of Oak Hill. Uncertain if it is still the case, but at one time the restaurant was owned and operated by Larry Csonka, a well-known ex-fullback for the Miami Dolphins football team.

The thing is, I am not exactly moving to the Oak Hill described above. Leave all the excitement behind, head south for another seven miles and at the bottom edge of the county make a left onto a dirt road leading off into nowhere. Somewhere down that road is another left turn and another dirt road leading to Indian River Lagoon. A few hundred feet shy of the lagoon is the place I will soon be calling home sweet home.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Moving On

Things change. October’s bliss is January’s headache, and the thrill of 2010 can always turn to disappointment in 2013. Most of us are aware of the changing nature in all things human but depending upon the person or change, metamorphosis arrives either with surprise or a groan:  “I saw that coming.”

I made the decision in 2010 to leave Japan after many years and make my home on Florida’s east coast, less than 200 feet off the Atlantic Ocean. A tremendous change and one layered with possibilities both good and bad. One thing was certain: I was trading a crowded city life for one in a near paradise of ocean, surf, sand and cloud-filled blue skies—a place as different from Tokyo as the moon—and my first thought on looking out at the stunning vista outside my Florida windows was that living in this environment could go either way.

Newness, novelty and grand scenery always make change easy to bear. Some things at first seem difficult or unreasonable, but whatever the gripe it is soon painted over by the overwhelming scale of living on a beach. And though you’ve read a few books about life along a coastal environment, they are nothing to the experience of walking out your door every morning and encountering firsthand the power and diversity of nature. One morning walk on the beach can be colored by seashells or baby turtles, a burst of red-orange from a carpet of wildflowers growing on the dunes, an expanse of sand and water empty of even one other person. The next morning may find that same beach a dangerous place to be, lightning splitting the sky and wind-driven rain turning everything into a waterworld. 

I have catalogued a great many of those wonders over the past three years in the pages of this blog and most of those posts were fueled by the joy of living in an endlessly fascinating place. But like I said, things change.

The time has come to leave this beach and make my home in a place with different qualities, another setting calling my name. I’ve been defeated by the popularity of Florida beaches and the noisy throngs of vacationers they attract. These days I hear mainly the shouts and screechy frolicking of too many children and endure the ill-behavior of inconsiderate strangers inflicting their holiday activities on me and my home. Beer cans in the flowerbeds, randomly tossed cigarette butts, the midnight hoot ’n holler of college boys, the horrified screech of schoolgirls encountering a harmless sand crab on the walkway…

The sale of this property on one of the state’s golden beaches has not been difficult and to make the process even easier, moving out to make way for the new owner is unhurried. Time aplenty to transfer furniture, books and art to the new house. 

Moving from Japan back to the US in 2010 was one thing, and like that move this one too will involve new experiences and a different set of challenges. It promises to be interesting and as time allows I will try to keep a record of it all here on Scriblets. Come back another day to read about well water and wild turkeys.

About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America