If never have you ever flipped open the cover of a new book –– or an old one, I'm not judging –– and taken an appreciative sniff, just keep scrolling.
Or give it a try. Page-sniffing is a thing.
I don't know how others turned into readers. The conversion interests me, seeming to divide the world into two groups (yeah, yeah, those who divide the world into groups and those who don't?). A hard binary system of readers and non-readers.
My sister is a reader. She wasn't for a while, and then in around fifth grade, she suddenly was.. I think it was a biography of Miss Harriet Tubman that swallowed her up during –– was it a car trip?
I want to remember the name of the paperback book Freedom Train, but I was a bystander, and this only my recollection. Did she read it over and over? I think she did.
So perhaps when I found a book that worked its wormy magic on me, I was only following her steps.
There I was, awake in a hospital bed, contemplating the small but disgusting remnants of my appendectomy, bored at age 8 as I had never imagined being bored.
It's a signifier of years under my keel that back then I spent 5 days recovering in the hospital. After the first dramatic 18 hours, the novelty of ginger ale, a nurse on call, limitless Jell-O, and four industrial-green walls wore off quickly.
Mrs. Horack, fourth-grade teacher and all-round civilizer of the savages we were, brought a small bouquet and a get-well package of cheerful messages from my erstwhile tormentors and classmates and –– oh joy! –– books from her latest Scholastic order.
A small stack of cheap paperbacks.
There was a Disney movie novelization called The Mystery in Dracula's Castle.
And one of Clifford D. Hicks' Alvin Fernard series –– Alvin Fernard's Secret Code perhaps?
A third that might have been another Disney novelization. I'm not sure. The Parent Trap with movie stills of Hayley Mills and Maureen O'Hara, maybe? Anyhow, forgettable fiction.
And...tahdah! Walter Farley's The Black Stallion.
The story of Alec, a boy who tames the heroic black stallion. While marooned on a desert isle. And who brings the wild creature home to Queens.
It surprises me a little that –– it appears –– nobody has based an academic dissertation on the works of Mr. Farley. The storytelling was like a barn fire: a smoulder for maybe the first sentence, followed by a five-alarm blaze for 18 chapters. Action! Horses! Danger! A Big Race!
The Black Stallion was published in 1941, the product of a college boy who knew and loved horses (it shows), which means it's had 80+ years to percolate through popular culture. The movie version, thank you Francis Ford Coppola and crew, is gorgeous.
I believe that JRR Tolkien produced the granddaddy of all modern fantasy novels in his Middle Earth (not that there weren't ancestors before then, but still –– not one Dragon, not one Dungeon, not one Song of Fire or Ice but which can trace its ancestry...) Anyhow, I likewise believe that The Black Stallion is, if not the first (hello, Anna Sewell's 1877 masterpiece, Black Beauty, not to mention Smokey the Cowhorse by Will James, which won the Newbery in 1928.) then it's the ideal exemplar of the horse-story.
The Black Stallion went on to sire a whole line of descendants. Not just look-alikes when kid meets horse, kid tames horse, horse and kid win big race, but Walter Farley wrote close to 20 sequels, and a son continues to produce new books in the series.
ANYHOW, I veer from me me me and my experience. The Black Stallion was the book that gave me my first immersive escape from physical surrounds. I dove into the dark and salty ocean with Alec and the Black while their tramp steamer foundered, forgetting about the discomfort an IV needle and the too-tight bedclothes, the scent of infection and Lysol, the hunger and weariness. It was magic.
The experience of reading and immediately re-reading the novel ––the pages of my copy are watermarked and foxed, scarred by tea and littered with petrified toast crumbs –– made me into a reader.
Of course I had pretty specialized taste at first. Researching for this blog sent me to a Pinterest page showing column after column of vintage horse-story books. So many old friends among those covers!
Horses and books, books and horses. Not all my book friends had horses, but a surprising number of friends know this two-pronged hayfork: Mumsie herself of course, and Cousin Shirley (Hiya!), the gang of Jill and Sheryl and Megan, plus Robyn, Jekki, Wendy, Arial, and more.
Decade after decade I crack open a book or swipe the Kindle awake, press the delta of "play" for an audiobook, absolutely certain that I'll be visiting a new world between the covers of one book or another. Right now there are two SF novels beside the bed, the latest Robert Galbraith/Cormoran Strike audiobook on the phone for Mr. Linton and me, and a handful of who knows what options on the Kindle. In fact, I should go update my Goodreads list.
Gentle readers, name the book that made you part of this strange clan. Or say what book you're reading now. Or which one bucked you off like rodeo bronc.
You know, talk bookly to me...
If the internet has taught us nothing, it's that there are more random activities to generate human joy than anybody can shake a keyboard at.
It's just a hop, skip, and a jump from hand sewing a pirate shirt to creating cordage from plants, right? A mere matter of, oh, 400 or so centuries into the past.
In prehistory, plain cordage (aka twine, yarn, two-ply thread) was used for snares, nets, for lashing x to y, and, step by step, into fabric. Many plants –– nettles, willow, basswood, berry brambles, burdock, rhubarb, etc., etc. –– grow stringy fibers known as "bast."
It's a thing I missed learning as a kid, though I was fascinated by wildcrafting in general.
The Would-Be Farm has enough bast-on-the-hoof to keep a schoolbus full of crafty cordsfolk busy until the next Ice Age.
And so during this summer's regatta roadtrips, I have been spinning straw into gold. Rapunzel and that patient sister with the enchanted swan siblings? They got nothin' on me.
Wither went I, along came the bundle of dried plant, a glass of water, and piles of chaff. My technique improved with each ell.
Regardless the state of the world, and the awful things that are going bump in the daytime, the Would-Be Farm is full of urgent and pleasant chores.
It's the first thing on my spring chore list: Clear trail. Which means cutting up fallen logs (both emerald ash borer and something that might be pine beetles are burning through the woods).
Much farther down the list, but equally important for navigating is to locate the two critical culverts in the big field. Because nobody likes to slip into the ditch.
The grass is more than 4 feet tall in places, so there's an element of fun and danger in scouting the way in the 4WD mule.
There's other tidying to do, like sweeping up pollen and other detritus at the –– still critter-proof! –– gazebo in the woods.
And installations! Last December, my favorite skipper constructed two bat houses and a barred owl nesting box for me.
It wasn't chinchy to get this first one mounted on a 20-foot pole and then –– like the mother of all mast-stepping moments –– raising the pole upright and settled into its post-hole, but the result is magnificent.
We hope the bats find it and make it home. The local populations are –– we hear –– rebounding from white-nose-fungal colony collapse.
Sadly, since we are only part-time farmers, and because poultry are not notable for excellent traveling habits, we don't plan on adding chickens to the mix.
Good thing we have good neighbors who could not walk past that stock tank full of tiny chicks this spring at the feed store. And you do have to buy six at a time.
In addition to being unable to resist the charms of chooks, the neighbors have a 6-year-old granddaughter who has nothing more pressing on her to-do list than to hand-tame the chickens. I'm thinking about sewing them (and her) matching tutus.
This summer's largest project hones Jeff's carpentry and patience both. Without the camper trailer to protect, the shed suffered a bit of a breakdown, or possibly a depressive episode of some kind, drooping visibly and listing downhill.
The strategy that seems to work for us (QED, baby!) when this kind of thing occurs in our lives, is to get help, get to work, and find new meaning.
Transforming the shed into a barn has meant shoring up the structure and adding a concrete floor.
Followed by enclosing the space and helping it to a new identity by color.
And when not holding metal panels in place while Mr. Linton does his drill thing, I have about a thousand daffodil bulbs to re-arrange.
I started in 2015 by transplanting "Scrambled Eggs" a fluffy double-flowered daffodil, from where the previous owner of the farm had bedded them by the old farmhouse. I wanted them where I could see them, so I stuck them hither and yon. They are prolific and have doubled, tripled, quadrupled in number.
As some may remember, my sweet mother-in-law and I put in 200 or so jonquil bulbs a few years ago. They too have multiplied and started to crowd one another.
Plus she gave me dozens of bulbs to start in Florida this winter. It's not a kind climate for jonquils, so those bulbs also came to the farm.
I transplanted or replanted maybe 200 bulbs last week. Digging up the plants, feeling for the bulbs amidst the other roots and rocks, removing them feet first through a chunk of turf, then putting each chubby knob back into its own neat divot...I don't know what else will come next spring, but I thoroughly expect to have a glorious crop of flowers.
It's not a fancy camera, but it does allow me to take a very close (if not entirely focused) close-up. It's often a surprise when I put the images onto my laptop to see just what turns up in these photos.
This sweet green plant is a wild garlic (aka "ramp"). I was interested in how the droplet of water holds itself together within the fold of the leaves.
Forget Paris, we'll always have midden.
The Would-Be Farm has at least two separate dump piles full of jetsam. We cleared out a trailor-load this spring, hauling away one and a half broken pot-bellied wood stoves, a white enameled cooking stove (such an eyesore!), miles of metal and wire scrap, and cubic yard after cubic yard of disintegrating plastic junk.
The next layer down revealed a surprising number of unbroken glass items, including this prescient cough medicine bottle.
The former inhabitants of the Would-Be farm were brand loyal to Pepsi and Jim Beam, for long enough for the Pepsi bottles to evolve from one shape to another to another. I suppose they also had diabetes.
It's known as mud season; moving even the 4-wheel-drive mule across a field is a slippery clay adventure in the spring. As each shoe grows its own brick of mud, a person develops a sort of "Big Lick" walking gait. It's part of the inspiration for my rock stepping stones.
Still, looking up, the season also has its crystal-clean moments.
It's the Spring 2022 collection! Can you hear to pop-pop-popping of the cameras? Live from the Would-Be Farm, I give you...a fashion show of sorts.
They prowl the stage.
They have cheekbones to die for.
Others preen and strut.
Some amble, even.
Many –– so many! –– are ready for their close-up, Mr. deMille.
Please disregard the off dates on these game-camera photos. The tiny chip's worth of brains that power the camera occasionally lose track. Reminding me, uselessly, of the first rule of time travel: ascertain your temporal location.
It seems like only yesterday: those exciting the first couple of months as landowners trying –– without success or joy –– to imagine staying in a tent at the Would-Be Farm.
Even for a few days at a time, it's just too much cooking and cold wind, early sunsets and muddy boots.
In the spring of 2014, we found a used camper at the back of an RV lot. We drove the 1985 Sportsman (so much orange plaid!) away for $800 bucks, hoping it would make the trip to my sister's lawn. A few solid days of rehab, a whitewashing, and voilá! a place to sleep, cook, and close the bathroom door.
Bringing the Sportsman over to the farm was like the first part of a buddhist koan for capitalists: If a camper breaks apart on the twisty road, how attached are we to this material item?
We were not tested. It held together even over those bumps and muddy ruts.
We docked the camper on a bluff overlooking the marshy stream, the old barn foundation, and the antique windmill. Base Camp.
It became almost immediately clear that Base Camp was by nature slightly too porous and fragile to stay intact in the North Country. The tin-foil roof leaked and some important wooden structure was spongy. We had visions of a foot or two of snow rendering Base Camp into a compacted oblong of foam and tin.
That autumn, we rustled up carpentry talent in the form of Jeff's brother John, my sister Sarah, and Sarah's friend Curt Dundon and had them put our muscle to work constructing a shed roof over Base Camp.
My sweet elderly Boston Terrier, Lilly, was there in her usual supervisory position. To this day, her ratty little footprints can be seen on the clear roof panels of the shed.
Over the years, we slept like neatly stacked logs in our small bed in Base Camp. We drank innumerable cups of scalding hot tea and watched the weather come up the valley from a drafty inside. We berthed houseguests under the dining banquet. We saw deer and coyotes and turkeys wander by.
Base camp grew more porous, though while mice found portals, raccoons did not.
Then came the morning when the thermometer outside read 28° F. The inside thermometer, likewise, read 28 big degrees Fahrenheit. From my cozy nest of wool and goosedown, I said to my favorite skipper, "I don't know what else it's going to be, but the cabin starts with a wood stove."
We finished the interior of the cabin during that first plague summer of 2020, channeling anxiety into planks and nails and paint.
Through 2021, we kept Base Camp intact for houseguests, but perhaps we revealed her mousy shortcomings a bit too liberally; only one set of visitors moved in for a weekend. Other guests made themselves comfy on the expanded level parking area with access to shore-power.
In any case, April of 2022 was time to play taps and send Base Camp along her dharmic way.
We unbuilt the shed a little, which is to say, Jeff defied gravity and removed beams as well as yanking the A/C unit off the top of the camper and then, once the camper cleared the beams, replacing the beams AND the A/C.
Not thinking, I charged into the camper to retrieve the fire-extinguisher and a box of potting gear while he was tap-dancing on the roof. One could nearly see the imprint of his boot in the vinyl-covered ceiling.
We dug a pair of trenches for the wheels –– to keep the profile low, and ended up deflating the rear pair of tires (stale air!). The fact that all four tires held air is remarkable; the tires had to be 20 years old, and the porcupines failed to nibble on them.
We first tugged and then pushed with the tractor and astonishingly enough, Base Camp submitted to being heaved onto the driveway.
The next morning, hitching the truck up, we relived the koan: what if the hubs seize up or an axel gives out? what if the trailer's back breaks or the hitch lets go and Base Camp goes sailing into a ditch?
"It's just as easy to call for a tow truck from the side of the road as it is to get them to find us here," we consoled ourselves.
Our better helmsman took the wheel and, sticking to backroads and driving 45 (sorry speedy little car! sorry guy! sorry big pickup! sorry beat-up Suburu! sorry to you too!) we winced over potholes and gritted our teeth when the suspension rattled. And in about 30 minutes, the truck eased Base Camp into the muddy parking lot of the one salvage yard that scraps campers.
I felt a pang, seeing Base Camp among the wrecks, but that big wheel of dharma will keep turning.
So let us charge our glasses and offer a toast to Base Camp: the best $800 house of all time. This may –– or may not –– be your final resting ground. I suspect you have another season of shelter for humans as well as small rodents in your diminutive chassis. Hail Base Camp! Fair winds to ye!
As for the shed, we have plans to transform it into a barn over the summer. A red one, as befits a farm.
Every spot on this sweet blue globe of ours has its miracles: bioluminescent dolphins speeding under a sailboat on a calm night in the Gulf of Mexico like constellations on the move, the sound of peepers demanding the return of Persephone from the underworld, the scent of actual chestnuts roasting on an open fire. They happen all the time, but we only sometimes notice.
For several years, neighbors at the Would-Be Farm regale us with the walleye run. Early in the spring, the story goes, northern walleye gather to spawn. The walleye –– Sander virtreus –– is a nice little freshwater fish, delicious and sporting to catch, a beefy cousin in the perch family.
"You look for their big googley eyes at night," we heard. It's a natural wonder.
It usually happens too early in the season for Mr. Linton and me. We miss maple season. We miss ice fishing, and generally, we miss the walleye.
But not this year. Spring is dawdling, despite the peepers' chorus. We are here early. Our first nightfall, we bee-lined from the Would-Be Farm to the rapids of the Indian River.
Flashlights revealed ambiguous tan shapes for a moment until our eyes reconciled the truth: those are fish, and those are indeed big glowing googley eyes, as promised. But in such astonishing volume.
SO many fish.
At the flash of my camera, each googley eye showed as a spangle –– a spark –– a star –– in the madly rushing water.
There's no flinging about like salmon, no crazy aggression, just this seething vision of piscatorial mass.
We stood by the roar of the river (the waterfalls are just out of frame in these photos, cold and brutal in the dark) for a long while, meeting their googley gazes under the cloudless starry night. Then, shivering, we chased the beams of our flashlights back to the truck.
On the far edge of the parking area, the game warden eyed us but didn't bother getting out of the truck.
The locals have been known to fill their wading boots with walleye and then squelch right past the officer, equal parts insouciant and insolent. But Mr. Linton and I might have been wearing big mouse ears. Obviously tourists. Just here to see the sights and move on.
They pressed the "okay" button on their SPOT locator at 3:19 pm Sunday, March 20, fifteen days and 9 hours after pushing off from shore and accepted the hero's welcome from a gang of family, friends, and supporters at the Fort DeSoto boat ramp.
The final 27 hours of their circumnavigation of Florida took them down the Suwannee and finally –– finally! –– back to the Gulf of Mexico aboard Spawn. Mother Nature, who, by the way, ALWAYS wins, gave them a few additional affectionate swats during this last 84 miles.
At the mouth of the Suwannee, after a long day of tacking down the river, the team thought they'd anchor and have a meal and wait for the westerly to fill in. Alas this put them in the lee of a pestilential island at sunset. Swarmed by gnats, which managed to find a way to bite, even around a dry-suit. The margin between cuff and glove is particularly vulnerable.
Still, the wind came along, and the team headed to their Cedar Key checkpoint, knowing that some weather –– oh, yes, another cold front! –– was due. The cold front, they hoped, would give them northerly winds to scoot them down the coast to Fort DeSoto.
Around midnight, as they tried to check in to Cedar Key, the promised weather arrived, They had shortened sail already as they counted Mississippis between lightning and thunder. Even with radar coverage on the coms, "You just never know how it's going to be." TwoBeers said. "It started piddling, and then it was like Ut-OH, even though it didn't look so bad on screen."
Spawn grew restive, so they rolled up the jib, and as the wind built and built, they took the main down as well. They found themselves making 8.5 knots under bare poles –– in about 8 inches of water.
When the second line of squalls came along, the guys were anchored and snuggled under their boat-tent, ready for it, they thought. But in the teeth of the squall, it became obvious that the anchor was dragging. If it wasn't onto a lee shore, it was a decidedly shallow lee area.
Moresailesed let the centerboard down, TwoBeers found enough steerage to head into the breeze, and the anchor caught again. The two went back to sleep, and let the storm blow itself out.
Later, still in the predawn hours, they put up a headsail until the boat started planing. Two weeks into the challenge, less than 100 miles to go –– prudence is the virtue you want to court. Reduce sail again.
They sailed this last leg conservatively (as Moresailesed has been known to say, "To finish first, first you must finish."), giving the conditions their fatigued best attention. No doubt they knew that the record of 17 days was well within their grasp –– as long as they didn't have to, say, ROW all the way from Clearwater.
And suddenly, there they were –– a sliver of black sail on the horizon, flanked by an honor guard powerboat (the SPOT did some good after all!). Sailing under jib alone, the team made a stately entrance, docking at the same Fort DeSoto ramp where they had put in weeks before.
Champagne was popped, cheers sounded, and at least one person heaved a mighty sigh of relief.
Will they do it again next year? Thank goodness the event runs only every OTHER year.
Will they do it again in two years? I heard them say, "Well, that's one thing off the list." and "We don't have to do THAT again." but also, "If we had a little better weather..."
But I rather think not.
It's been a whirlwind 35 hours since the previous blog. Our manly paddlers –– my sweet spouse TwoBeers and his friend Jahn "Moresailesed" Tihansky –– have now completed Stage 4 of The Ultimate Florida Challenge. One more to go!
When last we left them, the guys were taking a break at Blue Springs state park. They grabbed as much shut-eye as they could before midnight on Thursday, and then took back to the river.
The moon was nearly full in a clear sky, and as we know from our pal Lucky Jack Aubrey, "There is not a moment to lose!"
So they paddled 70 miles down the river without much break until Friday afternoon.
Meanwhile back on shore, several restless Watertribespeople and some impatient fans started to converge on the lower Suwannee, at south side of the route 19 bridge in Fanning, Florida.
After drinking his sundowner beer, TwoBeers had clearly made up his mind; after gathering intel and contemplating the state of his person, Moresailesed concurred: it was time to put a fork into Stage 4.
So they decanted gear from the Miss Patsie, accepted additional beverages from adoring fans, and loaded all into the waiting van.
Mike Walbolt, Cindy and Chali Clifton, and the gang of three Spawnsters hit the nightlife of Fanning hardcore for the 45 minutes it took to order, receive, and snarf our dinners at the Suwannee Belle Landing.
Thanks, Rappin' Rodney for the dining recommendation and weather thoughts!
Thereafter, we retired to the modest property that somebody pronounced a roach motel (I saw clean shower, bleached white sheets, and –– in my room, anyhow –– any untoward creatures kept their teeny heads down), where the Sandman lambasted us all before 8:30 pm...
Saturday morning found us deciding against a leisurely big breakfast. Thanks Cindy and Chali for bringing breakfast sammies for the sailors so they could rig and launch with as much alacrity as they could muster.
Spawn designer and occasional Spawnster, OH "Ninjee" Rodgers showed up to provide moral support with and his nearly-anonymous buddy Ray. Both were happy to also offer the odd bit of heckling and Ray, who is a bit of an electronics wizard, addressed the wayward SPOT with little hope that even he could manage to make it behave any better.
For me, the takeaway lesson of the morning: do NOT –– as you love life –– do NOT take an experimental sniff of any item of clothing found in the van.
At around 11:30, we wished Spawn a bon voyage and watched them dodge speedboats as the current swept them rapidly around the bend.
According to one local, the boat-traffic was nothing special, "No, not a race. Some of us is just havin' a river run."
When a 40-foot Scarab blows by on a stretch of river only a couple of hundred feet wide, I can tell you who's going to run.
The Challenges are various and vast.
Cindy and Chali leapfrogged Spawn from overlook to overlook and reported at 2 pm, the guys were maxi-tacking down the river, making excellent progress.
At his 6:30 pm phone call, TwoBeers reported that according to Moresailesed, their team is the first and only (including natives in their dugout canoes, et cetera.) to ever, in the whole history of time, ever, EVER sail upwind down the river the whole dang way.
Spawn was at anchor while the boys awaited the promised westerly, ate some dinner, and got suited up for the possibly snorty/sporty weather expected tonight.
Home stretch! Knock wood!
About the Blog
A lot of ground gets covered on this blog -- from sailboat racing to book suggestions to plain old piffle.
Trying to keep track? Follow me on Facebook or Twitter or if you use an aggregator, click the RSS option below.
Old school? Sign up for the newsletter and I'll shoot you a short e-mail when there's something new.