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As I have written previously, in my dreams I am a tidy gardener. One of those saints who uses a tool and trots dutifully into the garage, cleans said tool in a bucket of sand and oil, and hangs up this now pristine work implement in an orderly fashion; exactly, of course, where it is supposed to go, and where it will be easily found for use as expected when next required.

But order is boring, chaos exciting.

In real life I am a garden slob. Abandoned buckets strewn about, hoes left forgotten for two or three days at a time until a deluge of rain reminds me of my garden duties. Then, after of course the rain is finished (I wouldn’t want to actually get wet), I trot about retrieving my tools; and if I have time, clean them and hang them where they are supposed to go. And if busy I simply cram them willy-nilly into the garage where they threaten to scratch the car and decapitate passers-by. Or I discover some hitherto never-before used or conceived-of place for garden tools so that nobody, most of all me, could ever find them in the future. I get angry that someone put them there, until I remember that someone was actually yours truly. It’s a good thing I’m also working these days on self-forgiveness. So I let my anger dissolve into nothingness.

I have similar tidy habits in the house.

You should understand that I was an unruly child, at least mentally, and tuned out during those early lessons about how like shapes go with like shapes. Or, the truth is I tuned out of this lesson when it comes to certain objects but not all; but anyway, that’s a different column and probably a different publication.

In a kitchen where I’m residing spoons somehow end up with forks; spatulas in the drawer near the refrigerator where whisks go rather than in the drawer near the stove where spatulas go.

The other night, after mindfully measuring out a cup of rice virtually grain by grain and two cups of water laboriously drop by sonorous drop (I’m working hard on mindfulness these days, in fact I recently attended an entire workshop devoted to nothing but paying reverent attention to the moment), I dropped the rice bag into the pot-lid drawer instead of taking it back to the pantry. This gave me a small start when I later opened the drawer to fish out a lid,and reached down and instead pulled out a bag of rice. A bag of rice, I share now with the world, works poorly as a lid substitute.

But I mustn’t wander.

In theory, I was this past weekend on my way to a goat-themed workshop in northern Virginia. I stopped instead in Winston-Salem, exhausted with the thought of driving another eight hours or so, and spent two very enjoyable days in that city’s art district and in old Salem.

There was a much-ballyhooed exhibit of modern art at Reynolda House, the “bungalow” built by the Reynolds family of tobacco fame (their bungalow is my mansion; their rustic campsite would, I suspect, be a grand estate to me). I enjoyed the exhibit, but frankly lacked the language and framework to enjoy the abstracts as much as I suspect they deserved.

After touring the art exhibit and house, I gravitated to the easily deciphered kitchen gardens. I later toured the kitchen gardens in old Salem, too. I have much in common with Moravians and tobacco barons, I learned. They love tidy gardens.

Unlike me, however, Moravians and tobacco barons achieved them.

I am left in envy. Nary a piece of grass dared cross the edging of the garden beds; every bed was exact in geometric perfection; all were weed- and bug-damage free. Perfect, absolutely perfect.

After getting back home, I glanced into my kitchen garden and wished I hadn’t. Weeds, bug damage, beds with lines drawn as if by a drunken snake, a hoe carelessly left out and five or six repurposed Ingles icing buckets serving as fine decorative elements.

Begin anew, I reminded myself. Everything changes, I muttered insightfully. Tomorrow dawns as a new day, a start to my future immaculate kitchen garden; one in which tools are never strewn carelessly about, weeds dare not grow and bugs don’t bite unsightly holes in the vegetables.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

I don’t know Duke Energy CEO James Rogers and don’t have anything against him. But it’s not very hard not to imagine he and the giant utility he runs as the symbolic poster children for much of the discontent brewing in this country right now.

In a recent series of public hearings across North Carolina (including one in Franklin and one in Marion) about Duke Energy’s request for a rate hike, the company’s profits and the pay to its top executives have been mentioned by working-class folks who don’t want to see a 17 percent hike in their power bill. Duke has asked the state Utilities Commission to approve the increase, which would take effect in February 2012 if approved.

According to corporate filings and several news stories, Rogers earned $8.8 million in salary last year and received stock work about $1.35 million. Several other top Duke executives made millions. Also shown by recent corporate filings was a profit rate of 12.5 percent of earnings. Duke had an operating margin of 19.1 percent, which is a pretty good lick in this era. Most of those small businesses who will feel this rate hike would be ecstatic about those profits and that operating margin.

Rogers’ salary and compensation are at a level that puts him in elite company. His compensation is 200 times the salary of someone who makes $50,000 a year. The disparity is jaw dropping.

In addition to Rogers’ huge salary, Duke spent $1.73 million lobbying the federal government in the second quarter of this year. Multiply that out and one would guess that Duke spends somewhere close to $7 million a year trying to influence the votes of the men and woman who are going to make decisions about pollution controls, nuclear energy safeguards, etc.

According to Democracy North Carolina, a nonpartisan watchdog group, 115 of the 170 state legislators elected in 2010 got a donation from either Duke or Progress Energy. The PACs of Progress Energy and Duke Energy gave $540,000 to General Assembly candidates in the 2010 election alone. That was more than any other PAC. The two companies are on their way toward a merger that will likely be approved.

And here’s a kicker that might raise some hackles. According to Democracy NC, “The companies are also lobbying the N.C. legislature for an unusual law that would allow them to raise rates automatically to recover the millions spent on developing and building new nuclear or other power plants, even if the construction project is ultimately abandoned. The proposal would make ratepayers, rather than investors, bear the financial risk of expansion operations.”

This is not meant as an anti Duke diatribe. Duke Energy is a popular corporate citizen that gives some of its profits back to the communities it serves. Its executives and employees take part in hundreds of community service organization throughout North Carolina.

But the timing of this request is what is so galling. Duke is reaping huge profits, pays its executives exorbitant salaries, and spend millions lobbying lawmakers who make the rules it has to follow, while at the same it wants the poor, the elderly, the unemployed and struggling small businesses to pay more for power.

The reports about of income disparity and poverty are raining down on us like a tropical storm: largest income disparity in U.S. history between top 1 percent and everyone else; elderly rate of poverty highest it has ever been; income gap between young adults and their parents at highest level ever; student debt at record levels; and more and more.

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper is lobbying the state Utilities Commission to deny the request. The N.C. Public Staff, which represents the public in these rate hike requests, wants the proposed increase cut by almost two-thirds. Obviously, the opinion of the state’s citizens has been overwhelmingly against the rate hike.

Duke wants more than just the rate increase and the ability to let ratepayers take the risk for its expansion. It also wants the Utilities Commission to up its allowable profit margin to 11.5 percent, up from the 10.7 it is now allowed. The Public Staff recommended a return of 9.25 percent. Most U.S. utilities have been allowed returns of 10 to 10.5 percent in the past five years, according to the  industry trade group Edison Electric Institute.

Taken as a package, this sounds like a big corporation trying to stick it to its customers during an economic recession. Duke’s political clout, however, means it will in all likelihood get at least part of the increase. That’s my bet. Any takers?

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

One of the drawbacks perks of my job is the amazing number of meetings I’m forced fortunate enough to attend.

For instance, earlier today (a Sunday) I spent several hours in Franklin at a Tourism Development Authority retreat. The nice people on that board fed me Bojangle’s fried chicken and politely put up with my drilling down for details on their various tourism projects, funding and so on. The retreat lasted for more than three hours.

I am paid to attend these meetings. I assume the two Town of Franklin employees who sat in were reimbursed for spending their Sunday afternoons there, too. It’s part of our jobs; I worked a Sunday instead of a Friday, no big deal. They probably did something similar.

But not the seven board members — they are volunteers, and attended the retreat after putting in full workweeks of their own at their respective businesses. Hence, I suppose, the very odd day of the week chosen for this gathering.

Frequent readers of this column probably know I’m not given much to general cheerleading. And I’ve certainly never been accused of being a Pollyanna. Though I’m not prepared to render a verdict on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of this particular board (this being my first opportunity to watch them in action), what did strike me as I endured enjoyed the retreat is just how fortunate we are to have volunteers such as these.

“We” being those who live in these mountain communities. And who subsequently benefit from this wealth of time and resources given by our neighbors. Countless groups, countless volunteers, countless volunteer hours — what would we do, what would we have in the form of communities, without them?

Matt Bateman is a new member to Franklin’s TDA. This was, I think, his second meeting. Matt admitted to missing the opportunity to watch NFL football on this Sunday afternoon, but said that he had decided to serve on the TDA for a simple reason: “I wanted to know, ‘How is Franklin being positioned as far as tourism goes?’” In other words, instead of standing apart and criticizing the board’s action, Matt asked that he be placed on the TDA board as a member.

I counted, and Matt asked the other board members exactly one-million-and-one questions. He would have made a dandy journalist. And in a sense, that’s something of what Matt’s doing within the vast capabilities of new media. He’s the developer of “playandstayinthesmokies.com,” a website-based business headquartered in Macon County.

Ron Winecoff is also a member of the TDA.

“I’m interested in the future of Franklin – I try to be progressive. But, sometimes Franklin won’t let me,” Ron said when I quizzed him on his volunteering bent. I’ve known Ron, in passing, for decades. He’s served on a variety of boards that I, in turn, have covered for a variety of newspapers.

I wasn’t sure if Ron was joking or not about being hindered in his progressive agenda. But I knew he wasn’t joking when he talked about young professionals such as Matt, at 30, as representing “the hope” of the community.

Winecoff described himself and the other, older-than-Matt volunteers as “pay phone people in a smart phone world” — we need these younger folks to take a seat at the table, he said. I agree. Fifteen years older than Matt, and I, too, feel like a “pay phone” person in a smart phone world. (Though I do have a smart phone of my own — I’m convinced that it is, indeed, considerably smarter than me.)  

Beverly Mason is another perennial volunteer in Macon County. The acronyms for the groups she’s served on roll off her tongue like an odd poetry: TDA, TDC, EDC. Plus, the county planning board, the board of realtors, a bank board, two terms on the chamber of commerce board.

“The community is good to me. I love the community, I love these mountains,” said Beverly, a Buchanan by birth from Sylva.

Like Ron, Beverly is thrilled to see a younger generation in Macon County, the next wave, coming to take their places at gatherings such as the one Sunday. The volunteering, do-good spirit that has sustained this community, that has built and given meaning to all of our communities, lives on. And that, my friends, is a very good thing indeed.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

During the five years that I spent at Western Carolina University (1954-58 and 1965), I had the good fortune to attend classes under some extremely gifted but eccentric instructors. There were two Rhodes scholars that passed through the university like a summer cyclone, leaving a modest amount of wreckage in their wake.

One of them would sometimes appear on campus at midnight wearing a Scottish kilt. He sang Robert Burns songs and did a raucous little dance down the sidewalk between Hoey auditorium and Stillwell (some witnesses claimed that he did not wear underwear). Another, sporting a magnificent beard and speaking in a deep baritone, told us raunchy stories and taught us to write our names in Greek.

Since this was a “beardless era” at the university, he was told to shave. According to the campus gossip, he told the administration that he had a rare disease and that if he shaved, he would die. Some were skeptical, but they left him alone. There are numerous stories about this venerable scholar who managed to both offend and delight numerous teachers and administrators.

However, the most interesting personality in this motley crew was Dr. George Herring. Unlike his colorful associates, George survived ... or at least, he chose to stay. As a consequence, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of his former students scattered across the United States that remember him with affection and admiration. Certainly, there has never been another like him in my experience.

George’s attire and physical appearance was memorable. He sometimes sported a ragged tweed jacket, but weather permitting, he usually wore colorful (striped) T-shirts, wrinkled pants and sneakers (not tennis shoes) and no socks. He always seemed to be in need of a shave and his hair was always in such disarray I used to imagine that the last thing he did each morning before he came to his first class was to massage his head until his hair was a total mess.

In the classroom, he was filled with a kind of spastic energy, charging aimlessly about the room and talking excitedly. A student may have signed for a course in medieval literature, but George would be delivering a brilliant lecture on astrology or Chinese dictionaries.  Somehow, his students never felt cheated because somewhere in all of that constant flood of arcane knowledge, he would learn a great deal about medieval literature.

What rendered his students rapt was George’s feverish excitement. He loved what he was doing, and as he raced back and forth between the students and the blackboard, he laughed, wrote significant quotes on the blackboard, stopping occasionally to rake his disheveled hair into even greater disorder.  Sometimes, there would be sudden bursts of anger, directed at some disputable idea or person (Erskine Caldwell, predestination, etc.), but it would vanish as quickly as it had appeared, leaving us, his enthralled audience and George, an amiable elf. This fellow was wonderful!

Over the years, I had heard people talk about George’s “Everyman” lecture which was part of his course on Medieval Drama. The lecture had acquired a kind of “folklore” status at the university and each year, as the day approached for the Everyman Lecture, people who were not enrolled in the class began to call. I had the good fortune to hear this presentation twice and I can attest to the fact that there were attentive listeners standing in the room ... some from other universities.

Due to the fact that I was a theater major, I tended to perceive George as “theatrical.” When we were all in our seats, staring at the door in anticipation, George entered wearing his ragged tweed jacket and carrying a little attache case ... an item that I perceived as a “prop.” George began by telling us that he had attended Northwestern University and that each year, the university staged an outdoor version of the old play, “Everyman.”

As he recalled it, the stage was built at a point where two rivers converged and the banks of the rivers had a sound system, consisting of numerous loudspeakers. The play began as the sun was setting.  In the opening scene, a character named Everyman” was in a tavern with a bar maid in his lap drinking and singing. Then, suddenly the summons came. “EVERYMAN!” and that word echoed down those two rivers: “Everyman! Everyman! Everyman ....”  Then, Everyman stands, a bit frightened and says, “Who Calls?”  The answer, loud and echoing is “Death calls, Everyman.”

At this point, Dr. George Herring goes into full performance mode. He tells us the story of how Everyman begs for time, pleading that he does not want to go to his final judgement alone. Could he have time to seek out companions to go with him? Death agrees, but notes that Everyman must return promptly within an hour. In a series of frantic visits, Everyman goes to his companions who have names like Money, Beauty, Power, Love, Family, Strength, etc.

Regretfully, they all decline, stating that on this last journey they cannot accompany their friend. “You must go alone,” they say. As Everyman prepares to leave, a small frail figure named Good Deeds appears and agrees to accompany Everyman. He apologizes for the fact that he is so weak, noting that Everyman has neglected him all of his life, but finally, the two figures climb a nearby hill where Death waits by an open grave with a ladder. As total darkness comes, gravediggers with lanterns surround the open grave as Everyman descends.

Now, here is the thing. We had all read the play, “Everyman” in the textbook. Although we may have found it a bit grim, I am quite sure that none of us found the experience “riveting.” Ah, but Dr. George Herring’s version left us limp and speechless. As George read the lines, as he pled with his friends to come with him, we were transfixed by his words. As Herring finished his lecture, he picked up his notes, dropped them in the little attache case, stepped to the door and opened it. He then flipped the light switch, leaving us in darkness and closed the door. For a single moment, we sat silent and motionless .... and then the bell rang for the end of the class.

I have often wondered about that final moment. Did Dr. Herring have his lecture timed to interface with the flip of a switch and the closing of a door?

I do remember that no one moved for a while.

George is gone. The halls that he once walked and the classrooms that he once made vibrant with ideas an images are now filled with a different breed of scholars. There are no memorials outside of a few personal tributes by former students over the years.

However, I do believe that golden moment when George Herring closed the door and flipped that light switch is the most fitting tribute a teacher can have. Ave, George.

(Gary Carden is a storyteller and writer who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

I missed a golden opportunity to see my name emblazoned on a book spine by not writing about Western North Carolina’s very own serial bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph. Many people suggested I turn my experiences into a nonfiction account. I certainly had the material and the background.

I covered that madman and the ensuing years-long manhunt in exhaustive blow-by-blow for the Asheville Citizen-Times, whose motto should have been “no detail too small to print.” (Today, by contrast, the newspaper might well consider using “nothing west of Asheville.”)

But, back to that rascally Rudolph and all his endearing reindeer games. Such as adding nails and tacks to bombs to ensure living victims were torn into as many bits as possible.

I wrote about Rudolph and how he ordered a deluxe Bible at the Christian bookstore in Murphy just before he blew up that policeman and nurse at an Alabama abortion clinic. I interviewed the bookstore owner in-depth and wrote the article in my best breathless, cliché-ridden Brenda Starr-reporter style.

I wrote about a threat Rudolph did not send (though we did not know at the time that someone else was seeking attention) to one of Murphy’s weekly newspapers. It was suggestively signed “the Army of God.” CNN and other national media outlets picked up what proved a non-story, and we at the newspaper were quite proud because this seemed proof of “owning the story” and of setting a torrid pace for everyone else to follow in panting envy.

I wrote about caves Rudolph did not hole up in when he did not hide in the Nantahala Gorge, complete with interviews with geologists who had never heard of Rudolph and extensive timelines and helpful maps about the region’s history of mining, hence the existence of the many caves not used by Rudolph.

I even wrote a piece, which I most fervently hope never again sees the light of day, for the newspaper’s parent company’s newsletter about how other Gannett newspapers around the country could cover big stories in an equally riveting style as mine.

I was, as you can imagine, suffering a full-blown case of Rudolph burnout when he was finally nabbed in 2003 Dumpster diving in Murphy. A book was out of the question.

By then, my interest in the Rudolph story rivaled my current level of passion for covering Macon County’s apparent insatiable appetite for initiating land-planning studies and fighting over them. The first time I wrote on that subject? Try 1992.

Even then, as a rank green cub reporter at The Franklin Press with a big dose of bravado and few skills to back the attitude, I suspected covering planning studies in Macon County might simply prove an exercise in burning newspaper space. Two decades later and I’m suspicious of precisely the same thing.

Hell, even most of the people I’m covering are the same people, often saying exactly the same things I quoted them saying three newspapers and two decades ago.

We — and this would be folks on either side of the issue, I don’t have a particular dog in that fight — often hug hello at meetings before getting down to business. It’s a familiarity that feels perfectly appropriate after our long, strange journey together. Like greeting extended family you never see except at the occasional funeral of some great aunt or great uncle, or hugging hello when everyone gathers to bury a cousin so far removed on your mother’s side that the exact connection isn’t fathomable even by the most ardent family genealogist.

A book about the various planning scrums in Macon County, however, would bore even those involved in the issues — not to mention me, the poor writer.

This leaves me to contemplate a one-year book. There is a sudden proliferation of taking on inspiring goals for one year and then writing best-selling books about these experiences.

One year of living biblically, one year of “test driving” the wisdom of the ages to discover the secret of happiness, one year of cooking every single recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

With this publishing explosion comes one-year improvement plans, too, such as one year of not buying anything new, one year of not eating processed foods, one year spent reading the “Five-foot Shelf” of Harvard Classics.

I understand what these authors are about, what they are “up to,” if you will. The one-year format provides ready-made topics and structures. That is very appealing for would-be writers who are short on good, original ideas.

Perhaps I could spend one year making various potpies, then write about eating potpies. I adore potpies, so that would be very enjoyable — but I shudder to think what I’d pack on in weight eating a potpie a week for a year.

I’m a voracious reader, so perhaps I could do something along that line … One year spent in bed reading whatever I wanted to, probably mainly British mysteries, with my food catered to me. I would, of course, condescend to get up to go to the bathroom as needed. That, in fact, could serve as chapter breaks.

The trouble with this outstanding idea is that my every-two-week bank deposit from The Smoky Mountain News might not continue in the manner to which I’ve become accustomed. But I’d be happy to dedicate the book “to my friends at The SMN, with many thanks for the literal support” if the newspaper’s owners would subsidize my yearlong break.

Plus, please, pay for an extra few months so that I could actually write what would — as inevitably as night follows day and local television reporters freely and without guilt lift stories from newspapers that are, in their books, too-small-to-count — be a runaway bestseller.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

I followed the Janet Moore controversy from the beginning to its conclusion, which was all of three days. The former vice president of marketing for Mission Hospital made a mistake — a mistake that became very public — and paid a high price by losing a job she had held since 1991.

What seems obvious is that Moore was a casualty in a war that involves politics and medical market share, and that the war is far from over. She got caught in the crossfire.

This controversy, however, is also about cultural understanding and the words we use and knowing that what is acceptable in one conversation may be totally out of line in another place at another time. Moore crossed a line, and it cost her a career. In many instances, however, that line is not so clearly marked.

 

Wrangling over market share

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a short version. An audio recording of Moore speaking at a medical marketing conference earlier this year became fodder in the raging debate among healthcare institutions in Western North Carolina about Mission’s operating agreement with the state.

An excerpt from her comments at that conference was played at a public hearing on Thursday, Oct. 20. She countered that her comments about Mission’s market share were taken out of context. So Park Ridge Hospital officials, who released the earlier, edited version, put her entire conference presentation up on a website. She resigned on Friday, Oct. 21. The Asheville Citizen-Times reported the story on Saturday, Oct. 22.

Here’s what led to Moore’s resignation. At that conference, she told an anecdote about visiting a woman way up in a holler in Haywood County. Here’s how an article by Jon Ostendorff and John Boyle of the Asheville Citizen-Times on Oct. 22 described what she told that audience:

In the recording from the Society for Healthcare Strategy and Marketing Development conference in September, Moore told an anecdote about taking her elderly parents to a remote part of Haywood County.

Moore said they encountered a woman at her trailer “that had in front of it some used appliances and old cars, which is not an unusual sight in our part of the country.”

Moore’s father wanted to know what some pens were in the backyard. At this point, Moore mimicked the woman living there with her “best Haywood County accent,” saying the pens held fighting roosters and curly horned sheep.

“My father said, ‘Lady, what do you do with these things?’ And she said, ‘I sell them on the Internet,’” Moore said. “True story. So here you have this woman in a holler in Haywood County — clearly not investing in dental care, I can tell you — and she is doing e-business. With illegal animals, I might add.”

In the audio recording (which can be found at www.wncchoice.com/, go down to picture of Janet Moore and then click on “full presentation” button, and then go about 7 minutes and 20 seconds into the audio to get to the controversial part), Moore’s portrayal of the Haywood County’s accent and her reference to “not investing in dental” care are in poor taste. The ACT story quoted both the chairman of the Haywood County commissioners and the head of the Tourism Development Authority criticizing Moore’s use of stereotypes to describe county residents.

Moore made a mistake. In the audio, she follows up her negative comments by saying that you can’t stereotype rural mountain people, that these folks way back up in the woods are Internet savvy.

Unfortunately, in this case it became clear very quickly that the end did not justify the means.

 

It is what it is

But what about the comments? Anyone completely outraged about the description? Where do we draw the line when talking about groups of people?

First, of course, is the fact that Moore was in a position where she is paid to say the right things. If you’re a spokesperson or marketing person, a slip of the tongue can be expensive for the company you represent.

In my private life, seldom does a day go by that I don’t hear similar derogatory comments — jokes, by another name — about Yankees and Floridians, or the “left-coasters” in California. As a Southerner who has done a bit of traveling, I’m used to snide or trying-to-be-funny insults coming my way (still happens everyday in television and in movies) about being from the South and living in the Appalachians.

Is it OK for someone here to talk about rude, sarcastic New Yorkers with Yankee accents but not hillbillies with bad teeth and a mountain twang? I guess it’s all about context and timing. Moore’s remarks became a firebomb in the political battle about Mission’s market share. At a different meeting in a less contentious situation, they might have been shrugged off as just being in poor taste.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The exquisite, fleeting beauty of autumn is with us now. Cold nights signal changes to come. Soon there will be a killing frost; winter will be upon us then.

“Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all.”

Autumn, this brief window between the heat of summer and the gray skies and frigid mornings of winter, is my favorite time of year. There is a bittersweet quality to the season that I’ve never quite been able to capture in words. I think it’s in autumn, or in my desire to write autumn, that I most wish I had been given the gift of poetry. Only poets, it seems, can come near capturing the … the what?

I lack the words, the skill needed to describe this perfect day in a perfect autumn. Blue skies, the sun, the chill, the leaves in yellows and reds; leaves that the winds blow down to become ground; to become trees with leaves that are first green, then yellow and red; leaves that the winds blow down to become ground — a cyclical pattern writ perfectly, but one written here imperfectly.

•••

John Keats wrote to a friend in September 1819: “How beautiful the season is now — How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather — Dian skies — I never liked stubble-fields so much as now — Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow, a stubble-field looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm. This struck me so much in my Sunday’s walk that I composed upon it.”

Keats’ composition was “To Autumn.” It begins: “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, / Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; / Conspiring with him how to load and bless / With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run/To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,/And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core …”

As with Shakespeare in the first quote, we find “ripeness” repeated here in Keats. That tickles my thoughts, and the Buddhist phrase, “like licking honey from the razor’s edge,” resonates in my mind. The simultaneous gain of pain and pleasure is one possible interpretation of that saying. Or, the insistence on gaining pleasure, knowing that doing so brings with it the inevitability of pain — that would be another interpretation, perhaps.

“Here be dragons,” one of the world’s oldest maps, the Lenox Globe, warned would-be travelers nearing the east coast of Asia; another way, I think, of saying something of the same thing … explore at your own peril, living on the working edge, licking honey from the razor’s edge, ripeness is all, autumn changes to winter.

•••

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven/A time to be born, and a time to die/a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted/A time to kill, and a time to heal/ a time to break down, and a time to build up/A time to weep, and a time to laugh/A time to mourn, and a time to dance/A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together/A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing/A time to get, and a time to lose/ a time to keep, and a time to cast away/A time to rend, and a time to sew/ a time to keep silence, and a time to speak/A time to love, and a time to hate/ a time of war, and a time of peace.”

•••

When autumn comes and my thoughts spin into unanswerable questions such as these, about beginnings and endings and the passing of the seasons; when I pick up the Bible and read Ecclesiastes, or search the Norton Anthology of English Literature for Keats; and when I find myself staring for too long into the glass front showcasing the wood fire at night, I like to ground myself by thinking about the ending of a particular book by the fine Dutch writer Janwillem van de Wetering. He spent time in Japan studying Zen. Van de Wetering, who also wrote a fantastic series of detective novels, recounted his youthful experiences searching for life’s meaning in “The Empty Mirror: Experiences in a Japanese Zen Monastery.” This quest involved long hours of meditation and endless efforts to solve koans, those puzzle-like questions designed to help one obtain enlightenment.

Ultimately, at the book’s end, van de Wetering leaves the monastery and goes to a bar and has a beer.

That, too, is ripeness of a sort, I suppose. Having already imbibed my life’s allotment of beers, I think I’ll go have a glass of tea.

(Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The Occupy Wall Street movement is leaderless, somewhat vague and lacking vision. Still, people are joining in growing numbers around the world in spite of the fact that the movement is flawed in so many very fundamental ways.

And I love it. I’m a sucker for rebels, malcontents, subversives and nonconformists. Always have been and always will be. Makes for challenging parenting. It’s a delicate proposition to encourage one’s children to break the rules and challenge authority while also encouraging them to follow most of the rules and respect teachers, coaches and other adults.

I found my first literary hero in middle school. It was Henry David Thoreau and his essay “Civil Disobedience,” which argues that one’s conscience is the moral compass one should follow, not the rules imposed by a state or national government (or, for me during those teen years, silly school rules that wouldn’t let me forego classes on a beautiful late summer day to hang out at the lake with the other malcontents).

It’s a collective moral compass that’s driving this growing movement, telling people that something is fundamentally wrong. In one sense it is a very simple reaction to the country’s problems, such as the fact that the disparity between CEO compensation and average worker pay has doubled in the last decade. Or that political leaders and parties vote against issues they once supported and that might help the country simply because that vote might benefit the opponent or the opposition party.

This all sounds simple, but as one writer has said of the protestors, sometimes simplicity can be very complicated.

Reacting against Wall Street greed, in general, is very easy. Then it gets complicated when we are forced to admit that Wall Street only does what government allows it to do (most of the time). The crash followed years of de-regulation and laissez-faire enforcement from both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Then there are the Occupy Wall Street attacks on capitalism. Capitalism can be very, well, dog-eat-dog, rewarding the most successful with untold riches. But it has helped us  create a very large, very important social safety net. It also encourages entrepreneurship and individualism and invention, which have become synonymous with the American identity and has been the catalyst for making us the leader of the free world.

What these protests lack in intensity and message they make up for in inclusion. All are welcome, whether it’s aging hippies or college students, union supporters and anti-war pacifists, the unemployed and the stay-at-home dad. The shared values are frustration, anger, helplessness and — optimism. The belief that knitting together people from varied backgrounds and beliefs can make a difference in government and in the economy is refreshing. This a big-net, wild-eyed kind of optimism.

And while it shares the belief in the power of democracy that is touted by the Tea Party, it is radically different. Tea Partiers talk about taking America back, but it’s not quite clear who we would be taking it back from; they talk about stopping “them” from spending our money or taking our jobs, but again, it’s not quite clear who “them” is.

A colleague of mine said the Tea Partiers and the Occupy Wall Street supporters — both with their passion and their belief that people can wield influence in a democracy — may end up eventually backing into each other and finding common ground.

Perhaps. That would be called compromise, and I think these new protestors and their open-armed inclusion are symbolic of the kind of compromise we need to solve some very big problems. This movement may very well fizzle, but its fundamental philosophy is admirable.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A box of bulbs arrived Saturday, containing within the cardboard confines all the promises of fall work, winter waiting and spring wonder.

The decision was made last March or April to order then rather than waiting to select and purchase the following season’s bulbs during these autumn days. That way, the reasoning went, the choices would be thoughtful, with awareness of precisely where new daffodils, fritillaria, tulips and crocuses should best go.

Needs were plain to see, as absences that begged filling. I also developed an itch that required scratching: a heated passion for tulips. With this newly awakened appreciation I marvel at how I could have wasted more than four decades failing to enjoy the beauty of these flowers. Hoity-toity me, I sniffed and condemned tulips as too artificial for the likes of my cultured self.

My ignorance, now that I’ve discovered the vast array and endless beauty of the tulip, staggers me; my condescension toward those who enjoy them shames me. Before this past spring, I suspected tulip aficionados to be of a type who most likely enjoyed ‘tulip tires,’ too, and who whitewashed tree trunks. And who were capable of positioning an abandoned metal bed frame beside the road, planted with flowers, bearing a helpful hand-painted sign for passer-byes cleverly noting that here is a “flowerbed.”

Gentled this past year, tulip tires, white-washed trees and metal flowerbeds seem poignant  — a Southern phenomenon like our Easter-egg trees, when mountain families festoon winter-bare trees with colorful plastic eggs, a cultural practice I can’t, frankly, quite fathom. But we’ll be poorer for it when that day comes in the South when no one in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina decorate their yards for motorists’ enjoyment, and if trees in Western North Carolina each April don’t inexplicably spawn plastic Easter eggs.   

To return to bulbs: I’m very happy, now that bulb-planting time is here, with the decision to order early. It was so unlike me to do something in anticipation, rather than in mere Pavlovian-conditioned response. To actually plan nearly 12 months in advance for future pleasures — how thrilling now that the box has arrived in the mail, how satisfying the expectations of spring beauty to come.

The word “spring” is used in the loosest sense. For the flower gardener, at least this particular flower gardener, the beginning of spring is the onset of bloom following snows. That can be early February some years in Western North Carolina, though sometimes we must wait almost for March to arrive.

After months of hot weather and crazed growth, I can no longer easily picture what the landscape looks like during the comparative bareness of spring. Not with the flower garden bursting with fall bloom. I can’t see beyond the now of lilac-colored asters, gold- and maroon- and salmon-colored chrysanthemums, bright zinnias and light, delicate pink cosmos flanked by the husky, darker pinks of autumn sedum. A huge patch of grasses, as tall as I am, has declined to remain within its allotted space but towers resplendent in the gold and fading greens of fall, dominating the front bed. Sea oats bounce in response to the slightest breath of air, a quivering living edge for the back bed nearest the dining-room windows.

My breakfast, as usual a bowl of cereal drowning in goat’s milk, was spent this morning watching birds visit the feeders and surveying the flowerbeds. This breakfast inspection wasn’t encouraging.

The flowerbeds do not seem to allow for adding even a single blade of grass. Much less the 100 or so bulbs ordered, with more to come in another shipment.

Though I congratulate myself on the ordering early aspect, my failure to map where I intended to actually plant these new bulbs haunts me now. Were the crocuses destined for the empty space I seem to remember near the front of the hellebores, or were they to go along the side of the house entrance? The poppy collection — where in the world did I think they could be planted? Ten minnow daffodil, five tulip, 10 Grecian windflowers, 12 hyacinths; what was I thinking? I’m surprised that in my spring enthusiasm I didn’t order a partridge in a pear tree, because if there’s room for all of these bulbs, there’s certainly room to squeeze that in, too.

If I follow my usual planting patterns, I’ll remain in frozen indecision until the last possible moment. One bleak, cold December day with snow threatening will find me hunched in the flower beds, digging holes with a trowel, dropping bulbs hither and thither in a willy-nilly frenzy, telling myself that come spring the flowers will look good wherever they grow.

And, that’s actually true. Our finest Southern garden writer, Elizabeth Lawrence, once noted that of the myriad flowers found in our seasonal gardens, none are so important as those first few we discover blooming. I find this particularly insightful following a long, drab winter, when the barnyard is a disagreeable mucky mess and the landscape a dull, lifeless brown for months on end. Those first blooms bring such joy and excitement. Totally out of proportion, perhaps, with the actual discreetness of the white, yellow or purple flowers. As one often discovers in a general way about almost anything in life, context is everything.

(Quintin Ellison can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The news media in this country is abuzz with talk about North Carolina. Unfortunately, it’s not flattering. What they’re saying is that we are being controlled by an oligarchy of sorts that begins and ends with multimillionaire Art Pope, the discount store heir who has effectively bought control of state politics.

The magazine story that has lit the national fire starts right here in Western North Carolina, detailing the tight 2010 legislative race in which Franklin orthodontist Jim Davis beat former judge and senator John Snow of Murphy for a state Senate seat.

The piece in the Oct. 10 issue of the New Yorker is titled “State for Sale, a conservative multimillionaire has taken control in North Carolina, one of 2012’s top battlegrounds” www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/10/10/111010fa_fact_mayer.

The reporter, Jane Mayer, was already well known for reporting on billionaires Charles and David Koch and their political influence. In the week since this more recent article was published, Mayer has been on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross and on Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC cable news show. Here are a couple of excerpts from Mayer’s article:

 

That fall, in the remote western corner of the state, John Snow, a retired Democratic judge who had represented the district in the State Senate for three terms, found himself subjected to one political attack after another. Snow, who often voted with the Republicans, was considered one of the most conservative Democrats in the General Assembly, and his record reflected the views of his constituents. His Republican opponent, Jim Davis — an orthodontist loosely allied with the Tea Party — had minimal political experience, and Snow, a former college football star, was expected to be reelected easily. Yet somehow Davis seemed to have almost unlimited money with which to assail Snow.

“…. After the election, the North Carolina Free Enterprise Foundation, a nonpartisan, pro-business organization, revealed that two seemingly independent political groups had spent several hundred thousand dollars on ads against Snow — a huge amount in a poor, backwoods district. Art Pope was instrumental in funding and creating both groups, Real Jobs NC and Civitas Action. Real Jobs NC was responsible for the ‘Go fish!’ ad and the mass mailing that attacked Snow’s ‘pork projects.’ The racially charged ad was produced by the North Carolina Republican Party, and Pope says that he was not involved in its creation. But Pope and three members of his family gave the Davis campaign a four-thousand-dollar check each — the maximum individual donation allowed by state law.

 

Back during the last General Assembly election, I kept reading about Pope and his influence. While the New Yorker will get credit for nationalizing this story, the Institute for Southern Studies, a Durham-based nonprofit that professes to be a “nonpartisan media, research and education center,” did the first real reporting. Way back in 2010 it, in conjunction with the newspaper The Independent, was reporting on Pope’s growing political clout (the institute’s Facing South online magazine is one of the best currently reporting on issues facing North Carolina and the South).

This Mayer story turns on three interesting points.

One is the tie to Western North Carolina. Not only does Mayer use the Snow-Davis race as an example of how Pope and his allies smeared candidates to influence elections, she also quotes Asheville’s Martin Nesbitt, the leading Democrat remaining in the state Senate after the Republican takeover of 2010. Further, Pope’s wealthy parents sent him to the Asheville School. Here’s a description of him from the New Yorker article, an aside from when Mayer was interviewing Pope in his office:

 

He is now fifty-five years old and bespectacled, but the energy with which he darted from one file to the next suggested why his classmates at the Asheville School, an elite preparatory academy, had nicknamed him the Flea. He was on the school’s basketball team, and had such a strong tendency to spin and bounce off his opponents that he was often given personal fouls.

 

The second — and perhaps most important — point in the New Yorker piece and the Facing South stories is how much control Pope is indeed wielding in our state. He doesn’t only contribute to campaigns, but he is the primary benefactor for organizations such as the John Locke Institute. That conservative think tank’s writers are regular contributors to newspapers and talk shows and helps set the state’s political agenda. So Pope is savvy enough — and rich enough — to push his message through the media and by influencing campaigns.  

Three groups for which Pope’s foundation and family are the primary benefactors — Civitas Action, Real Jobs NC and Americans for Prosperity — contributed 75 percent of the $2.6 million spent on the state’s 2010 legislative races by independent, nonparty groups. All of that went to Republicans who won a historic majority in both houses of the state legislature. According to Facing South, Pope’s support helped influence 18 GOP victories in those 2010 legislative races. That’s a lot of power for one person, regardless of his political alignment.

Finally, according to Mayer, it’s important to look at the potential for Pope’s influence on national politics. Republicans are now in control of the General Assembly for congressional redistricting. As expected, the new maps will favor Republicans (as they would have favored Democrats if they had been in power — such is the system). North Carolina went to Obama in 2008, and is considered a swing state. The new GOP clout will certainly influence the 2012 presidential race. If he helps hand North Carolina to the Republicans in 2012, Pope has set himself up to become a powerbroker on the national stage.

Times are changing. A recent Supreme Court decision opened the door for corporations to spend more on politics, and so we will see the super-rich who have millions to spend doing just that. And it’s all legal. All voters can do is try to stay informed and keep tabs on who is pulling the levers behind the curtain. In North Carolina, it’s Art Pope who’s playing Oz.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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