Tuesday, March 28, 2006

My House Is a Bird Blind

I don't think I'll ever get used to looking out the window and seeing wild birds this big.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

More Snow

Princess on the truck hood

In addition to rodent extermination and possum monitoring, Princess is always happy to consult on automotive issues.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Homer Riggleman's Quilting Memories

Here's an excerpt on quilt-making from Mr. Riggleman's account of life on Point Mountain in the 1890's.A West Virginia Mountaineer Remembers by Homer F. Riggleman. 1980. McClain Printing Company, Parsons, WV. 140 pp. Strictly speaking, this is a tied coverlet, not a quilt. I'd like to know whether the top or the backing were pieced, or made of whole cloth. Mrs. Riggleman sewed the children's clothing by hand at home, so she would have had fabric scraps to use up.

We didn't have sheets or blankets then; we used old-fashioned knotted quilts made of cotton or wool batting sewn between two layers of cloth. Mother made these quilts on a frame of poles or slats set to the width and length of the quilt to be made. The frame rested in a level position on two supports about three or four feet high. First, mother tacked the edges o f the bottom layer of cloth over the quilting frame; then she spread the top layer over the frame and sewed it along one side to the bottom layer. After folding the loose end back out of the way, she spread about a one inch layer of batting evenly over the bottom layer of cloth. Sometimes she used carded wool batting. When the batting was evenly spread, she turned the top layer of cloth back over the batting and fastened it temporarily around the edges.

Next the knotting began, and we older kids helped mother do this. We each threaded a heavy needle, called a darning needle, with twine string, and working along in rows, we tied the two layers of material together at points two to three inches apart. At each tie point, I pushed the needle down through both layers with one hand, and with the other hand under the frame, pulled the needle through, and then pushed it back up near the same point, through both layers of material. Then with both hands above the frame, I held the tail end of the string with one hand, and with the other pulled the needle on through and out until the string was taut. Then I tied both ends of the string together in a tight knot, cut the string (with the needle) near the knot, and proceeded to the next tie point. By working steadily, we could complete the knotting in a day or so, after which, Mother stitched the edges of the quilt together. The finished quilt was about an inch thick and very warm.

Quilts could be made by "quilting" instead of "knotting," but because the layers of such quilts were sewn together in continuous seams, using ordinary needle and thread, they required thousands of stitches. Such fancy quilts were not only much thinner and less warm, but took many days to make. As neither we nor our neighbors had any time to waste in those days, we made do with knotted quilts.

Monday, March 20, 2006

That's Because It IS Appalachia

Kentucky's Lexington Herald Leader ran an interesting AP article March 17, 2006: Candidate compares upstate N.Y. to Appalachia

ALBANY, N.Y. - Democratic candidate for governor Eliot Spitzer told a Manhattan gathering that the upstate economy is so bad that the region looks like Appalachia, a comment that an aide to one rival said insulted a vast part of the state....

"If you drive from Schenectady to Niagara Falls, you'll see an economy that is devastated," Spitzer says on the tape. "It looks like Appalachia. This is not the New York we dream of."

...."First he attacks our business community, then he trashes upstate," said Rob Ryan, spokesman for GOP candidate Randy Daniels, the former secretary of state appointed by Pataki. "It's becoming clear that Eliot Spitzer is simply not suited to be governor."

Now, a couple of years ago, I said to a rude West Virginian, "Where are you from, New York?" I couldn't have insulted her more. Regional insults are not solely the province of New Yorkers. (Plus, after living in New England for seven years, I know that there are lots of people ruder than New Yorkers, who, I have found, are helpful, resourceful, and funny on their home turf.)

I am only making a fuss over a matter of fact. I quote from the World Book Encyclopedia article on New York: "The Appalachian Plateau, also known as the Allegheny Plateau, covers half of the state, and is New York's largest land region." It includes the Finger Lakes, and the Catskills. Wouldn't you expect gubernatorial candidates and their senior staff to know where their states are located?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Pearl S. Buck, New Icon of Fashion

The Keyboard Biologist has been working on a project with an intriguing name: The Pearl Buck Swing Jacket. By including a Pocahontas County author and beautiful and informative knitting photos, she's got my full attention. (I was also, once, a keyboard biologist, but they didn't keep the outside door shut, and I ran away.) I was curious about the sweater name. It comes from the Interweave Knits Winter 2005 issue, Pearl Buck Swing Jacket by Kate Gilbert: "Fine literature meets fine merino in a jacket inspired by The Good Earth." To me, swing jackets are more a 1950's retro look than a nineteenth century Chinese peasant look. Maybe the Mandarin collar is the connection. I confess the name made me think of those fox stoles Mrs. Buck and Mrs. Roosevelt used to sport in the 1930's. However, The Keyboard Biologist looks much more fetching as she models her knitting.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Windmills In Our Backyards

Iowa windmill picture, 1970

This is the windmill that was in my backyard when I was growing up. Everybody had one. I always thought they were pretty, and I liked the many sounds they made as the wind changed direction and speed.

Lately, there has been some interest in locating windfarms in Greenbrier County, WV and Highland County, VA (both of them just over the border from Pocahontas). They would generate electricity and green points for a power company. A lot of people are opposed, claiming the windmills would degrade local land values, ruin the scenic vistas, and generally be bad. I've been trying to find out more about windfarms, so that I can come up with a better opinion than "I like windmills because they are pretty." Unfortunately, almost everything I've found on the Internet has been advocacy for the pro or the con position. Here are the best balanced informative sites I've found so far.

From what I've read so far, if care is taken in placing the windmills, they don't grind up migrating birds, cast flickering shadows over people's homes, or create loud noise. They do seem to kill a lot of bats, and no one knows why. You have to cut down trees on the windmill site, but they look a lot better than a strip mine, and you have the option of removing the windmills. There are several mountain tops around here that were strip mined in the seventies. Snowshoe Mountain, where the ski resort was built, is an example; so is Briery Knob. Trees will not grow on these sites again for hundreds of years. They might look nicer with windmills. I'm afraid I haven't developed that informed opinion yet.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Bluegrass of Kentucky and John Fox Jr.

Antique Book Cover: Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come

Here's another strange and disturbing passage from The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come by John Fox, Jr. (1898). While our hero, Chad Buford, embodies "the spirit of the old race that had laid dormant in the hills" of Appalachia, the Kentuckians of the Bluegrass are Nature's Chosen People, led into the Bluegrass Garden of Eden, and fenced in by "grey hill and shining river," so that they would remain untainted. Eugenic as it all sounds today, I think this sort of nineteenth century writing is the bedrock of modern characterizations of the nature of Appalachian people. Note the inevitable juxtaposistion of "sturdiness" and "Scotch-Irish."

God's Country!

No humor in that phrase to the Bluegrass Kentuckian! There never was--there is none now. To him, the land seems in all the New World, to have been the pet shrine of the Great Mother herself. She fashioned it with loving hands. She shut it in with a mighty barrier of mighty mountains to keep the mob out. She gave it the loving clasp of a mighty river, and spread broad, level prairies beyond that the mob might glide by, or be tempted to the other side, where the earth was level and there was no need to climb; that she might send priests from her shrine to reclaim Western wastes or let the weak or the unloving--if such could be--have easy access to another land.

In the beginning, such was her clear purpose to the Kentuckian's eye, she filled it with flowers and grass and trees, and fish and bird and wild beasts. Just as she made Eden for Adam and Eve. The red men fought for the Paradise--fought till it was drenched with blood, but no tribe, without mortal challenge from another straightway, could ever call a rood its own. Boone loved the land from the moment the eagle eye in his head swept its shaking wilderness from a mountain-top, and every man who followed him loved the land no less. And when the chosen came, they found the earth ready to receive them--lifted above the baneful breath of river-bottom and marshland, drained by rivers full of fish, filled with woods full of game, and underlaid--all--with thick, blue, limestone strata that, like some divine agent working in the dark, kept crumbling--ever crumbling--to enrich the soil and give bone-building virtue to every drop of water and every blade of grass. For those chosen people such, too, seemed her purpose--the Mother went to the race upon whom she had smiled a benediction for a thousand years--the race that obstacle but strengthens, that thrives best under an alien effort to kill, that has ever conquered its conquerors, and that seems bent on the task of carrying the best ideals any age has ever known back to the Old World from which it sprang. The Great Mother knows! Knows that her children must suffer, if they stray too far from her great teeming breasts. And how she has followed close when this Saxon race--her youngest born--seemed likely to stray too far--gathering its sons to her arms in virgin lands that they might suckle again and keep the old blood fresh and strong. Who could know what danger threatened it when she sent her blue-eyed men and women to people the wilderness of the New World? To climb the Alleghenies, spread through the wastes beyond, and plant their kind across a continent from sea to sea. Who knows what dangers threaten now, when, his task done, she seems to be opening the eastern gates of the earth with a gesture that seems to say--"Enter, reclaim, and dwell therein!"

One little race of that race in the New World, and one only, has she kept flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone--to that race only did she give no outside aid. She shut it in with gray hill and shining river. She shut it off from the mother state and the mother nation and left it to fight its own fight with savage nature, savage beast, and savage man. And thus she gave the little race strength of heart and body and brain, and taught it to stand together as she taught each man of the race to stand alone, protect his women, mind his own business, and meddle not at all; to think his own thoughts and die for them if need be, though he divided his own house against itself; taught the man to cleave to one woman, with the penalty of death if he strayed elsewhere; to keep her--and even himself--in dark ignorance of the sins against Herself for which she has slain other nations, and in that happy ignorance keeps them to-day, even while she is slaying elsewhere still.

And Nature holds the Kentuckians close even to-day--suckling at her breasts and living after her simple laws. What further use she may have for them is hid by the darkness of to-morrow, but before the Great War came she could look upon her work and say with a smile that it was good. The land was a great series of wooded parks such as one might have found in Merry England, except that worm fence and stone wall took the place of hedge along the highways. It was a land of peace and of a plenty that was close to easy luxury--for all. Poor whites were few, the beggar was unknown, and throughout the region there was no man, woman, or child, perhaps, who did not have enough to eat and to wear and a roof to cover his head, whether it was his own roof or not. If slavery had to be--then the fetters were forged light and hung loosely. And, broadcast, through the people, was the upright sturdiness of the Scotch-Irishman, without his narrowness and bigotry; the grace and chivalry of the Cavalier without his Quixotic sentiment and his weakness; the jovial good-nature of the English squire and the leavening spirit of a simple yeomanry that bore itself with unconscious tenacity to traditions that seeped from the very earth. And the wings of the eagle hovered over all.

For that land it was the flowering time of the age and the people; and the bud that was about to open into the perfect flower had its living symbol in the little creature racing over the bluegrass fields on a black pony, with a black velvet cap and a white nodding plume above her shaking curls, just as the little stranger who had floated down into those Elysian fields--with better blood in his veins than he knew--was a reincarnation perhaps of the spirit of the old race that had lain dormant in the hills. The long way from log-cabin to Greek portico had marked the progress of the generations before her, and, on this same way, the boy had set his sturdy feet.

page 101 Chapter X

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Randolph County Cooking, ~1895

Here's another excerpt from Homer Riggleman's memoir of his 1890's childhood home on Point Mountain in Randolph County, West Virginia. Here in Pocahontas County, stone fireplaces are uncommon. This may be because most of the log cabins have been torn down for salvage. Chestnut logs bring a good price, and people remove log cabins and reassemble them elsewhere. My house, of sawmill lumber, is dated 1911. In any case, I found the description of cooking with a fireplace quite interesting.

Our little log cabin stood in a four-acre clearing in the virgin forest. The little one-room log house was twenty by twenty-two feet with nine foot walls, and an A-shaped shingled roof. The main room was a combination kitchen, living room, and bedroom for father and mother. A tiny bedroom was boarded off in one corner for my sisters; we boys slept in the attic. There was a huge stone fireplace at one end, the opening of which was four feet wide by four feet high, and three or four feet to the back wall. A very old woodburning cookstove sat in one corner. The name of it was "Indiansla." But much of the cooking was done in the fireplace, especially in the winter.

Mother baked cornbread and roasted potatoes and other root vegetables in the hot coals of the fireplace. She cooked dried soup beans and bacon in a heavy iron pot that hung in the fireplace. She baked the bread in a heavy iron pan we called a "baker" or "Dutch oven" which had three short legs and a rimmed lid. First, mother raked hot coals out on the hearth and sat the baker in the coals. Then she poured sweetened cornpone dough in the greased oven, put the lid on, and raked more coals around and over the baker, replacing the coals as necessary until the bread was done. The smell of that food cooking nearly dove us kids crazy.

When everything was ready, Mother put the cornbread, the pot of beans, and the roasted potatoes on the table, and called everyone in. Father said grace, and we dug in. Now that was really living high on the hog.

A West Virginia Mountaineer Remembers by Homer F. Riggleman. 1980. McClain Printing Company, Parsons, WV. 140 pp.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Mary Moore, The Captive of Abb's Valley

Last week, my friendly neighborhood librarian showed me this interesting story: Mary Moore: The Captive of Abb's Valley." Abb's Valley is not too far from here, in Tazwell County, Virginia. It was a jolt to me to read that Native American tribes were still a powerful force in the Blue Ridge Valley after the end of the American Revolution. Much of what I've been reading about Appalachia glosses over this, and attributes the mountaineers' affinity for violence to an Old World tradition of blood feud. I'm not convinced that Appalachian people have (or had) a greater affinity for violence than other groups, but if they do (or if they did), there's nothing like on-going guerilla warfare to keep such a trait alive. Mary Moore's children, who grew up on tales of her harrowing experiences, found the Civil War fought in their back yards, by their own children. This seems much more likely to explain a readiness to violence than the persistence of sixteenth century Border Reiver folkways.

There is a Pocahontas County connection in all this. One of Mary Moore's sons, Rev. Samuel Brown (1806-1889), came to Little Levels, and founded the "Academy," a school for which the community was named. "Academy" was changed to "Hillsboro" in the late nineteenth century. Pearl Buck's mother, Carie Stulting Sydenstricker, was disturbed by this change when she came home for a visit from China.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

W. E. Blackhurst, On Logging Pocahontas County

W.E. Blackhurst, a Pocahontas County native, devoted much of his life to documenting local history and observing local natural history. He was an English and Latin teacher at Greenbank High School for over 30 years, and he was active in the movement to create the Cass Scenic Railroad. He belongs on my Literary Pocahontas Page, and this is my first attempt at writing about him. This excerpt from the Preface for the posthumously published Afterglow: A Collection of Short Stories and Poems gives a quick rundown of his work:

Warren Blackhurst....wrote of the first great cuttings of the virgin forests, and in Riders of the Flood he told of the formations of the great rafts of logs, from the time they left the stump until they and their riders completed their journey of nearly a hundred miles down the Greenbrier River to the lumber mill at Ronceverte. In Mixed Harvest he told of the first timber surveys, the beginning of the sawmill town and the coming of the railroad which would supplant the river as a means of taking the lumber to market. He also told of the people who were there, and those who were drawn to the industry. Sawdust in Your Eyes depicts the social life of a lumber town when the twentieth century was young, and no one could tell it better; while Of Men and a Mighty Mountain weaves the biographies of the men who made the wheels of the lumber industry turn--from the head of the Company to the mill hand, and how the work of each contributed to the finished product. And through each book there runs a thread of romance, skillfully woven into stories of a great industry. Then there was the railroad, built just for logging, which was the forerunner of the Cass Scenic Railroad.

While there is much to learn about Pocahontas County here, I really wish Mr. Blackhurst had skipped that "thread of romance, skillfully woven into stories of a great industry." In fictionalizing his stories, he fell into some of the unfortunate habits of mid-twentieth centry popular novelists. The attempt at dialect, whether of Irish, Italians, blacks, or hillbillies, is poorly done and offensive. The characterization of the workers as simple and childlike makes my skin crawl. If you can wade through this stuff, which he doubtless included to make the stories more palatable to the "reading public," you can learn a lot about Pocahontas County, and about how logging changed the Appalachians.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Where Droop Mountain Fits

View from Droop Mountain

I've spent a lot of time trying to understand where Droop Mountain fits in the geology and biogeography of the Appalachians. Maurice Brooks' The Appalachians (1965) seems to place it either in the Allegheny Mountains or immediately west of it. Despite the hours I've spent with topo maps, I can't quite understand if Droop is in the Yew Pine Mountains, or between them and the Alleghenies. Despite finding Droop interesting enough to mention, Brooks never quite spells it out.

Brooks mentions an unnamed muskeg (a bog, like the Cranberry Glades) somewhere on Droop.

Mrs. Graham Netting found an orchid rarity, Small's twayblade (Listeria smallii), not known elsewhere in Cranberry but common in a rich (and unnamed muskeg on Droop Mountain, about twenty miles away. There are other plant specialties in these southern muskegs. The one on Droop Mountain, just mentioned, has thousands of plants of netted chain-fern (Woodwardia areolata), a species associated with coastal plains, seemingly out of place on a 3000-foot mountain....

Brooks' The Appalachians includes a very helpful breakdown of western Virginia and West Virginia in this passage:

The westward escarpment that defines the Shenandoah Valley is called North Mountain, and with it we may again take up the course of Paleozoic geology. Old Appalachia is to the east; the Great Valley and the ridges beyond are a part of New Appalachia, where rocks are sedimentary, and where the fossil record of ancient life has been preserved. In parts of the valley, and just westward, there are outcrops that date from the...Cambrian....

North Mountain (with its counterparts north and south) marks the beginning of a distinctive Appalachian topographic province, the Ridge and Valley Province. Comparatively low but steeply abrupt ridges are arranged parallel to each other on a northeast-southwest axis. Between these ridges are streams, tributaries of the Potomac River, which form a trellised drainage pattern....

Just over a hundred miles west from Washington, the Alleghenies rise abruptly one or two thousand feet above the Ridge and Valley Province. This escarpment marks the beginning of a new topographic province. On its higher expanses it recaptures much of the northern atmosphere that occurs on Blue Ridge summits, and it introduces many new plants and animals of boreal distribution. To add further to its biological significance, it shelters surprising numbers of plant and animal endemics. Greatest elevations normally occur along the axis ridge known as Allegheny Backbone, but there are also extensive areas above 4000 feet on such westward ridges as Cheat, Gauley, and Back Allegheny.

Along higher Allegheny crests there is a southward extension of the red spruce forest, so typical of Maine and New Brunswick. Here hermit and Swainson's thrushes nest, red crossbills occur at all seasons, and varying hares, brown in summer and white in winter, reach their farthest southward limits. Visitors will soon come to recognize the loosely cemented sand and coarse gravel, geologically Pottsville conglomerate, which outcrops on many of the higher Allegheny peaks. Another characteristic Mississippian formation is Greenbrier limestone, holding within its depths many of the caves which we shall be discussing in a later chapter. Some of Appalachia's finest ferns are at home on these limestone ledges.

Between high Allegheny ridges and the prairies of interior America is a region of eroded hills, which are dissected by streams that flow in almost every possible direction and then are finally drawn to the Ohio River. So broken and irregular is the topography that it takes close looking to see this area as a plateau, but actually the hilltops maintain remarkably even elevations. This is the Appalachian Plateau, with outcrops that date from the Pennsylvanian Period to the east and from the Permian to the west, where hills run out and the level lands begin.

Within Pennsylvanian formations are some of the richest coal beds the world holds. The Pittsburgh coal seam has often been called, and with justification, "the world's most valuable mineral deposit." This and other coal seams have profoundly affected the habitance and economy of the region, since the mining of coal is ever an ugly and destructive process. Still, there are forests in the coves, remarkably rich and varied ones, with trees that suggest regions farther north or farther south.

pages 13-17

Sunday, March 05, 2006

More Local Knitting History

I've been reading another interesting book: A West Virginia Mountaineer Remembers by Homer F. Riggleman. 1980. McClain Printing Company, Parsons, WV. 140 pp.

Homer Riggleman was born about 1890 in a log cabin on Point Mountain, in Randolph County, WV. Starting in the early 1970's, Mr. Riggleman dictated these reminiscences, and they were later transcribed and edited by Leslie Ware and Leonard Riggleman (Homer's younger brother). There are hunting stories, observations on how things were done in his childhood days, and descriptions of the various ways he made a living. The stories are vivid and detailed. If you can find the book, it's well worth reading.

Here is an entry for my "Knitting History" category, from pages 18 and 19. It demonstrates the quality of detail he brings to all his stories. This book is a little gem.

Mother knitted all the socks worn in our family. First, sheared sheep's wool was washed and all burrs and foreign objects picked from it. Then it was carded into fluffy rolls using steel brushes similar to curry combs used to brush horses. These fluffy rolls of wool were spun into yarn on the old spinning wheel, and the yarn wound up on a spool. Later mother knitted the yarn into socks using four long darning needles. All this took many hours; my sisters were helping mother make yarn and knit by they time they were thirteen or fourteen years old.

Usually the finished socks were dyed either red or brown. To make red dye, we boys gathered sumac berries, sumac bushes kept their berries all winter. The berries were boiled in a kettle of water until the water turned red, and then the socks were put in the kettle and boiled about ten minutes. The socks were then hung up to dry. They were now a beautiful brilliant red. To make brown dye, we used the bark of a walnut tree; otherwise, the dyeing process was the same.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Elaeagnus umbellata, autumn olive

I have a little patch of cleared, level ground surrounded by trees and brush here on Droop Mountain, and much of the brush consists of this pretty plant, Elaeagnus umbellata, autumn olive. The USDA now classifies Elaeagnus umbellata as a noxious weed for the state of West Virginia, but in the 1970's in Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties, their Soil Conservation agency planted it as part of strip mine reclamation. It is invasive, it is hard to kill, but it has these really pretty, red berries, fragrant white flowers, and silvery leaves, and there is an indigo bunting that sits and sings for many hours each spring in one of these bushes.

I also remember it fondly from a graduate course in plant taxonomy, because the family is easy to identify by its elaeagnaceous hairs. They are much too small for my macro lens (I have the extension rings, but I'm too lazy and out of practice to work out a flash setup.) The photo I've linked to, from the Digital Flora of Texas Vascular Plant Image Library's Elaeagnaceae Page, hints at these scale-like hairs but does not do them justice. Take a strong hand lens and outdoor light, and have a look at any plant part this spring. Foliage, flowers, new twigs, fruits--all are covered with elegant, silvery elaeagnaceous hairs.

Until I started writing this entry, I was misidentifying the shrubs as Elaeagnus angustifolia, Russian olive. As "angustifolia" indicates, the leaves of Russian olive are more lanceolate than those of autumn olive. (Botanists use such poetic language. I would never otherwise have occasion to say "lanceolate.") According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation service, Russian olive is not found in West Virginia, although it is recorded in all surrounding states. Sounds like a challenge, doesn't it?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Famous West Virginians

I've had a posting hiatus, but not for lack of time spent writing. I have a dozen posts started based on my recent Appalachian readings. They're interesting (at least to me), they're on topic, and they're just darn depressing. I haven't hit much lately (either on the bookshelves or on the Internet) that has been upbeat.

For that reason, I'm going to share with you an interesting, well-maintained, unpretentious Web site I found some time ago: Jeff Miller's West Virginia Pages. A native of Beckley, Mr. Miller has obviously put much work into this presentation, and addresses West Virginia place names, history, and government. My favorite section is the Famous West Virginians Pages. It lists "famous West Virginians -- people who were born in or lived in West Virginia." I'm just working my way through the alphabet.