The world of people. In 1955 my dad was promoted from Research Scientist in Pineville to Chief Forester in Marianna. I don't remember the move, but I always got fussy as hell in the car. After all, I was a spoiled brat so that was my job. It's a good eight or nine hour drive. I'm sure I had time to do my duty. That was a big move in my life. I moved from an isolated farm to a suburban neighborhood full of people. I went from staying home full time to Mrs. Rhine's kindergarten, right by Marianna High School, then Riverside Elementary. I went from having no friends to palling around playing drunk men with Dale and Joe at school, playing and fighting the neighbor kid Ron and spending the weekend swamp walking with Joe. I entered the world of people.
Reforestation. My father was proud of his contribution to the reforestation of the south in the 1940s and 1950s. When I was living in Tallahassee in the early 1970s I went to visit them at Riverhaven every other weekend for several years. I'd get up before dawn when he did so I could have that quiet time with him while Mom slept in. We'd sip the monstrously strong coffee he made (you could stand a spoon in it, as Mom would say) in an old-fashion Revere Ware dripolator. It was an intimate time we shared. Sometimes the conversation got deep. One time I got him talking about his life in the Forest Service. There were tears in his eyes as he talked about reforesting the south. In Louisiana he invented a tree seedling planting attachment that could be pulled by the kind of small tractor common on farms back then. At Riverhaven his patent certificate was on the wall in his study and his Chief Forester nameplate was on his desk.
Planting pine seedlings by hand is a two person job I'm deeply familiar with. One person carries and places the seedlings and the other uses a heavy steel planting dibble to open the ground then close it back up again around the baby tree roots, finishing the job with a boot stomp that firms up the disturbed soil. The seedlings came in bundles of a thousand, wrapped in heavy duty water resistant paper with wet sawdust packed around the roots. Dad would heel the bundles in: half bury them so the roots would stay wet. Tim and I planted a ton of seedlings. We planted for four hours every Saturday morning. That was enough time to plant several thousand. How many we planted depended on what part of the farm we were in. Dad had bought a 45-acre farm that was part field, part scrub oak woodland. Planting went a lot faster in the fields, and was way more interesting in the scrub. We'd plant around and between the scrubby little oaks and other shrubs, clearing as needed with chain saw, pruning saw, sharpened spade and lopping shears. I once carelessly held the lopping shears by the blade end with my finger between the blades. I was amazed to see it slice right into my finger to the bone. I didn't feel a thing. Dad kept his tools sharp. I still have a scar at the base of my left index finger. Dad paid me a whopping 25¢ per hour, so I'd come away with a whole dollar; real money! He paid us by the hour to plant trees that would become our inheritance. My dad's invention also used two workers. One drove the tractor and the other sat on the implement he invented. It had two blades: one opened a furrow and the other closed it back up again; the rear wheels firmed the soil up. The worker sat in the middle, between the two blades, placing seedlings in the briefly opened furrow. I suspect this invention helped him get that promotion to Chief Forester.
Westmanor. We lived at 510 Westmanor Dr. Here's what it looks like recently. They changed the house numbering system.
Westmanor used to go a block further south; Mowrey Elevator seems to have gobbled that up. The house looks pretty much the same except the garage was a carport when we lived there. The live oak my dad once tied the wheelbarrow to is gone. In those days the house had a real lawn of dense cool St Augustine turf. That's what lawn meant to me at that age. My poor brother had to mow it with a push mower. The wild area we had in the back yard also appears to be gone. That's what we called a big irregularly shaped bed anchored by longleaf pines, with azaleas, camellias, and smaller perennials below, plus a very particular eastern red cedar.
Red cedar. One day when I was six my dad took me for my first real hike. We walked a loop route: from home to the river at the Highway 90 bridge, turn left to hike along the river a good ways, then back home by a different route. The Chipola River is about half a crow mile east of Westmanor, and Dad estimated our hike to be three miles. I was a hiker! Down by the river I spotted a red cedar seedling a few inches tall. It looked just like a Christmas tree, only tiny. As I examined my tiny tree, Dad asked me if I wanted to take it home and plant it in the wild area. Yes please! He pulled out the pocket knife he always had with him and cut around the little tree, lifted it out, and wrapped the root ball with some tinfoil he found in the litter (we were still close to Highway 90). We took my tiny tree home (he must've carried it, since we did in fact get it home) and planted it out back. It was a sturdy young tree by the time we left for Asheville in 1961, many times taller than I was.
Rooting. One day I was watching my dad trim a shrub. He started telling me about rooting. I was skeptical. Just stick it in wet sand? Does not sound legit. So once he was done with that shrub, he told me to grab some trimmings and we went to the garden annex. I didn't know that word back then, but it fits. There was a large tool shed already there when we moved in. He built a sturdy lean-to onto the east side of that. The lean-to's other walls were some kind of translucent corrugated sheet, plastic or fiberglass, on two by four framing with six by six treated corner posts set in concrete. He never built anything flimsy. He built a stalwart table inside it against the shed wall, our potting bench. It now became the site of our rooting experiment. He filled a small tray with sharp sand and wet it down good. Then he had me stick some trimmings into the sand. Easygoing and informal; no retrimming the bottoms, no root growth hormones. He said it was important to keep the sand wet. That was my job. I had a watering can that made a gentle shower and a stool I could stand on to water. He said three times a day at least, and to keep an eye on the sand if it got hot. In Florida? I suspect he quietly made up for any lapses in my memory, but I felt like I was doing it myself. After a couple of weeks, we assessed our experiment. The leaves of several of the twigs had withered, but most of them still looked fine. He had me carefully dig one of these out with a spoon and rinse the sand off; dang if it hadn't sprouted roots! I went rooting crazy and stuck all kinds of unlikely suspects in sand along with some winners, in the process learning something about what parts of what kinds of plants liked to root. It's no wonder I wanted to be a scientist like my dad when I grew up.
Mom. While Dad was helping me forge a healthy vision of the future, Mom was teaching me how to cook. Not intentionally; it just sort of happened. A combination of necessity and my inquisitive nature. I wanted to know about things. I wanted to learn how to do things. That's how I explored the world. Check out what I've written about eggs, pizza, green bean mushroom soup casserole, and buttermilk biscuits. Mom was a tea drinker all her life. "Hot tea," as it's known in the south. Tea meant ice tea. No, not iced tea. That's some yankee shit. Then there was sweet tea, ice tea that was good and sweet. I always loved sweet tea. You have to sweeten it while it is hot or you can never get enough sugar to dissolve. Trying to sweeten the thin bitter ice tea served in restaurants by dumping sugar packets in it is an exercise in frustration. You never get anything better than half-assed. Mom's sweet tea was our all day every day family beverage. She made it in a Coffee Mate jar: brown glass, straight-sided, almost a foot tall. She stirred with a wooden spoon that took on a deep tannic stain, like the cypress pond water at that secret beach near Destin. I inherited that spoon then lost it along the way. Now I use a battery operated milk frother to stir. Works so much better. Mom liked to make herself a cup of hot tea as a break. I wanted to have tea with her, so she made me my own special version. She called it kettle tea. She poured hot water in a cup like the one she what drinking from, sweetened it with plenty of sugar, and added plenty of milk so it wouldn't scald me. I still make that but she wouldn't recognize it. Too many instantaneous changes.
Elephant ears. Mom gave me my first experience of poisonous plants, so popular in warmer climates. She planted a bed of wildly colorful caladiums, expanding on the theme of the closely related elephant ears that were already growing there when we moved in. Elephant ears are rudely invasive, like their namesake.
Elephants don't mean to mess stuff up. They're just so big, and hungry. There's no overgrazing like elephant overgrazing. That was one of the ecological problems Dad worked on in Kenya, part of the 800 pound problem of grazing competition between wildlife and livestock. Elephants had been migratory, but fencing the bush put an end to that. They'd get stuck in an area and kill off all the vegetation. I never thought to ask him if B. rothrockii was any more resistant to elephant death than the native grasses. Anyway, the elephant ears had to be cut back frequently so they wouldn't crowd out the more mannerly and delicate caladiums. I loved to watch her work in the garden, so I was there one day when she did a big elephant ear cutback. She gathered her prunings so I wouldn't get into them, but the stubs where they'd been cut off remained. I went exploring after she left. I saw milky sap oozing from the stubs. It looked like cream, so I had a taste. Don't try this at home, kids. My mouth was on fire; it felt like I'd stuck a live wire in there. The oxalate crystals stung and burned at the same time. There was much screaming and sobbing, a call to the doctor, and an Rx to sip real milk, slowly.