Saturday, January 24, 2009

True Stories of the EARTH

That's my earliest remembrance- thousands of them.
My Mother always cooked a big breakfast when I was growing up, since it was generally believed that breakfast was the most important meal of the day in those times of hard physical labor- biscuits and eggs, with ham or sausage you had left over from the November hog slaughter.
This required a hot fire built in the great Home Comfort kitchen stove, and some early morning preparation was necessary to get the old box up to a good heat.  First the scraps of paper, then the slivers of bald cypress kindling, and finally a few sticks of stovewood- ash or black oak downed the previous fall when your share-cropper felled a hollow bee tree.  There, you had it- after 30 minutes of blaze; but while you waited on the warming of the great cookstove, the batter was made for the biscuits and the butter and eggs were laid out.
  As a little one of about five, I could lend my support by helping my Mother gather the butter from the churn or by putting the sticks of firewood in the firebox.  Some of the ash was well seasoned and the wormholes in it had been discovered by a colony of black ants.  This was not noticeable on a cold winter morning until the heat from the flames in the old Home Comfort had been brought up to a high temperature.
  Suddenly the nest in the ash firewood was up to more than a summer sweat, and thousands of black ants poured out of the log towards the stove door. As I opened the door to check the fire- a duty of a five year old- they charged down the ash log towards me.  But their mass debouch was futile- their path was blocked by a blazing piece of kindling.
I looked at the desperate situation and was overcome by emotion.  My Mother caught me crying in heartfelt sympathy for the ants.  I was powerless to do anything without setting the floor on fire with the blazing log.  All the ants perished, as I looked on in horror.

  Some 50 years later, I had reason to relive this earlier episode, when I spent part of the year in my cabin in New Mexico.  During the fall, the 8500 foot elevation made an early fire in the open fireplace feel quite delightful.  I could cut some of the nearby ponderosa pine, which were killed by an infestation of pine bark beetle, and warm myself three times with the effort: once, felling the trees; secondly, carrying and splitting the sawed blocks; and thirdly, by burning the quartered blocks in my stone fireplace.  But some carpenter ants had preceded this effort, and had holed up in a chamber made by the pestiferous pine bark beetles.  The ants were not noticeable, since the frosty temperatures kept them secure in their chambers.
  While I watched the hypnotic blaze of the pine in the fireplace, the carpenter ants suddenly erupted.  Thousands of the critters spilled out of the fireplace onto the stone hearth.  Like some horror movie made real, the hearth was turned black by the exploding mass of ants.
  My wife Helen looked at this threatening scene and immediately counter-attacked.  Grabbing the vacuum cleaner, she charged into this seething mass and sucked them into the vacuum bag.  But thousands more charged out, and again and again she swept the machine over the waves of ants covering the carpet.  She quickly filled the vacuum bag, and they began to swarm up the machine handle.  With my help, she was able to tie off the bag and quickly insert another one.  By holding the bag upright, she was able to gather two gallons of ants in each operation- entrapping most of the milling herd.
Several bags were filled, before the fire consumed the remainder of the black hordes.  My wife wore a look of grim determination, as she overcame this glistening sheet of insects.  But I, after many years dealing with Living Things, looked on this scene and Laughed.

Hog killing
The time to render a freshly butchered hog was in the fall- in November, when the frost inhibited the spoilage of the meat.  My Dad would buy a recently killed sow, and do the whole operation in one action-filled day.
This was and is curious to me, since dad detested farm work (being a civil engineer), and generally turned all physical labor over to others in the family.  Evidently it was a strong custom for him to provide the meat for the family table, while most men in the area were out hunting ducks or were traveling some distance to
get their yearly "buck".  My dad's father was a farmer near the small town of Greenway, Arkansas, and my dad must have watched the annual ritual of hog killing since he was a boy.  I can only surmise most of this, since that grandfather died before I was born.  The Mother- Maude- was still living in Greenway, and was buried in the local Mitchell cemetery when I was just 9 years old.  She was an invalid for a long period, and I can remember almost nothing of the life of my paternal grandparents.
The ritual of hog killing was a vivid scene- there was much slashing and hacking, and great strips of pork and ribs would be thrown over to one side. My Mother had to keep a steady supply of sharp knives, and this meant that
she worked the whetstone over the long blades while dad whittled over the steaming meat.  Nothing was wasted- a lot of the head went into her mincemeat, while the hooves were saved for buttons and some comb-like items
requiring strength.  Some locals used the intestines for sausage casings, but I think that there was an element of class in this usage and I don't remember my Mother cleaning the chitterlings (chitlins) or using this part.
She would make excellent pork sausage, and this was saved for the best occasions throughout the year.

  My dad had arranged for local labor to build a "smokehouse" for the hams and shoulders of the hog.  This appellation was a misnomer, since there was no provision for a fire or smoke to be used in this small outbuilding and
the room quickly gave way to the weekly laundry.  But the hams and shoulders would be packed in brown sugar for sugar-curing, in the smokehouse; this practice would discourage bacterial rot, but it would also attract sugar-eating critters.  Hopefully they would eat the sugar before getting down to the pork.  The meat might get a little strong, but it would last into the spring.  There was good eating ahead, at least until the strong taste of the meat finally got to you in March.

In this age of diet scrutiny, I can still savor the flavor of ham and eggs, with biscuits, for breakfast- even though I never eat them, just by walking through the local neighbor of retired folks at 7-8 O'clock in the morning. Many of these people are in their 80's and are still eating the diet they were raised on in the country.  The life-shortening effect of lard, bacon, and a heavy breakfast is somehow lost on them. Recalling all this is telling me something about our modern activities, for my own life.

2. The Bee Tree
My dad’s farm was located adjacent to a waterway, known as Big Lake and Little River- which drained into a tributary of the Mississippi River (eventually reaching the big river near Helena, Arkansas). The system is a part of the drainage from Missouri, to the north, created by The New Madrid earthquake zone, and likely many pre-historic actions of the NE-SW fault system which is parallel to the Appalachian Mountains far to the east. This low-lying swamp brings water naturally from Southern Missouri- due to a continual sinking of this part of NE Arkansas- as a sedimentary column of Mesozoic and Paleozoic rocks drop (causing earthquakes). This is created while the interior of the North American continent is stretched by plate motions in the deep crust and earth mantle- which extend the lands west of the Mississippi River in a western direction.
Consequently, this part of NE Arkansas was always subject to flooding and water stagnation during the wet portion of the year. My dad (being a civil engineer) continually tried to offset this sinking- by canals, drainage ditches, and levees- so that his farmlands could be worked by a team of mules without bogging down in the “Gumbo Mud”. His farm lay in the center of Mississippi County, which has been a floodway for water from more elevated lands to the north throughout present and pre-historic time.
Those enchanted with fishing, hunting, and wildlife activities would like this location- at the best season (definitely not winter, with its icy swamps, or summer with its heat, humidity, and mosquitoes). Fishing and duck-hunting are excellent, provided you have the right boat, and there is an air of mystery with the white-lightning distilled in the hidden reaches of the deep swamp. I found that this was a delight for a young boy- under the tutelage of Gabe, our perennial renter of the cotton farm.
Once Gabe told me that he had found a bee hive in an old tree, on one of his forays into the wild area of swamps and cypress trees. He tantalized me with the thought that we would make an expedition into the area to harvest the wild honey and simultaneously get some firewood for the coming winter,
It took several hours to arrive at the bee tree area, since the last flood had washed out part of the levee, leaving a mud-filled canyon now known as the “blue hole”. In later years, the State Fish and Game would work around this hole by placing a half-moon shaped levee there, so that the road could continue uninterrupted. But for us, we had to work our way through the vines and trees east of the blue hole to reach the un-breached part of the levee.
Near the blue hole, we found the bee tree that Gabe had remembered. It was an old ash tree that had become hollowed with age. We could see the bees coming and going through a knothole some ten feet up above the ground. Because of this, the tree must first be felled, and a smoke must be readied before the hive was on the ground. Bees are confused by the smoke, and are driven away sufficiently for robbing the hive. No particular clothes were necessary for this operation, but we wore caps and long sleeves to keep the bees from getting entangled in our hair. One of Gabe’s friends showed up to assist in cross-cutting the ash into firewood- sized blocks, and in a short time the tree was on the ground. Fortunately the tree broke at the weak portion where the bees were lodged, upon striking the ground. Immediately the bees were about us in a swarm, but the smoke was ready and burning limbs were used to drive off the bees. I don’t remember getting stung, but I did observe that some aggressive bees would be “assigned” to you and would pursue a person until the aggressors were killed. This lesson would return to me in later life, when I ran into a hive of killer bees under a piece of plywood. I would be stung 10 times, before I had eliminated these bees enraged by a chemical message of formic acid.
What a delight it was to be able to dig into this large mass of honey and wax, after the bees had been driven off. Big pieces of honey-filled comb could be plopped into your mouth and chewed like gum. The honey was too rich to be eaten without the wax, and the comb tasted like a bit of pastry. One could chew a long time on this sugary concoction, and there were gallons of it. Many buckets were filled, enough for the year, and finally there would be harvested the dark-colored wax and beebread. I supposed that the beebread was pollen not yet used, and it was not sweet, but chewy. No lunch was necessary on this foray, but I found out later in life that I had a touch of hyperglycemia- when I raised bees on my own for honey.
Gabe would not return with me to gather more of the firewood blocks on a subsequent day, and the second woodcutter brought along a friend to help cut the remainder of the tree into blocks that could be put in the wagon easily. It took all day for this second cutting, and a lunch was necessary this time. This was hard work, and you would not get any conversation from the woodcutters until they took a break. But during the lunchtime, I noticed that one of the men was unusually talkative while the other was more reticent. I ate my lunch, trying not to interrupt the one-sided conversation. After a while, the talkative one bragged that he didn’t use conventional underwear, so as to eliminate sweating during this hard physical labor. The other man professed not to know what could be better than Arkansas cotton for cloth next to the skin, and this was just the provocation needed for the talkative one to demonstrate that he was wearing tea-rose or dainty pink women’s undies. This mystified me, but the other woodcutter made no obvious comment about this display. I puzzled over this incident for many years, not solving the mystery until the time came when there was a national “coming out of the closet” movement.
Gabe was really in his element in the backwoods of Arkansas, and he was able to live off the land as much as anyone. Whether it was fish or ducks for the table, firewood for the stove, pet birds for the children, or furs for the market, Gabe was the ace. He had four children altogether, and each had a colorful nickname. His oldest was a girl- terrapin- and the younger boys were called hix, quack, and jug. His wife answered to “duck”. They were all loyal to him, and I had to observe that he must have been a loving and respected father. Later in life, when he had emphysema and lung cancer, his daughter moved to a house near him to care for him until his death. This, in spite of his weekend drinking binges, his womanizing with any female that was loose, and his gambling habits. His wife Virgie ignored all this, and was true to him.
I always watched for hints that it was the right time to fish, and any break in the fieldwork was the right time, so long as it wasn’t on the weekend. Gabe liked to do things on a large enough scale that would be productive for both our families, and trot-lining or jugging was just such an endeavor. One could use old syrup jugs or bottles to hold a single hook or line, for catfishing. The contraption could be thrown out at random from a duck boat, so long as there was no current to carry it away. And in Mississippi County, there was no difference in elevation for the whole county more than 30 feet. Water only moved significantly during floods, consequently only warm water fish that were sluggish could be caught- such as catfish or carp. An exception was for sunfish and what were called perch (goggle-eye, bream, and buffalo). We did have a strange fish in these muddy waters which the whites would not eat. This was the grindle, a fish known elsewhere as the bowfin; it was a holdover from prehistoric times, and it had many colors and almost slick scales. It looked almost like an eel, but it had a mouthful of teeth and was very aggressive when hooked. Normally it would silently approach your dough ball or catfish bait and pull it down sneakily, so as to not be noticed by the fisherman. It quickly turned infirm after being caught, and had to be cooked immediately so as not to stink and turn your stomach.
The trotlines could be strung on a line, using about 50 hooks per rig. They would be hung individually out a foot or so from the main line, so as not to fowl the whole rig. You used cooked carp or mussel meat for bait, and the line was left out overnight. The following day, one pulled in the line for the harvest. The fish would generally still be alive, when you pulled them in, but you could see how the catfish had twisted the one foot outriggers in order to try to break off the hook. You lost a lot of cord and hooks, when there were channel catfish about, but mostly you caught pollies- the soft mud catfish. Blue cats and Channel cat was considered the best eating, but there were a variety of catfish- grannies, spoonbills, and mud cats of many kinds (to quote Gabe).
Both jugs and trotlines could be baited with boiled mussels and left out overnight, since the meat was tough enough that most fish could not suck it off the hook. Gabe would cook the mussels or carp in a great washtub for an hour or so out on the floodway bank. Then, all the shells would open, exposing the tough muscles and meat. This bait could be hung directly on the hooks, or cut into hunks for smaller fish. The bait stunk considerably, but that supposedly helped attract catfish. If the lines were left in water for days, the whole thing had to be asphalted or tarred to prevent rotting. When the line got too close to the bottom, the polly cats would suck off the bait; and these pollies were not desired, since they tasted of mud. Hence the whole line had to be hung firm in the water by stretching it between strong poles driven in the bottom of the barrow pit. In case of rain and floods one lost the whole string.
I began to try fishing on my own, since it was attractive to me, and I developed a gig to spear the fish. It had a long pole so that one could work at a distance where the fish would not see you in the muddy water. And you could feel around in the shallow water under boards or trash, with your hands, to find the shallow cats. Once I was feeling my way in a few inches of water, and I pulled up a water snake. It was not poisonous, as was the water moccasin, but that was sufficient warning for me to use the gig pole. Even with the long gig, one could not be sure, and one day I was checking my fish box where I stored my live fish. A water snake had found them earlier, and it had eaten so many of them that it could not crawl through the slots it had used to enter. There it was- fat and happy- on my fish! I opened the lid so that the overturned box could let the water moccasin out. Though the pole was eight feet long, and I speared him on metal tines, there he came up the pole, wrapping itself around the handle many times. I threw it all down, when I saw the snake coming up after me, even though he appeared to be impaled through the tail. I learned to have a healthy respect for snakes, after being struck at by water moccasins, a cobra in Java, rattlesnakes in the desert; fate has been kind enough to prevent me from ever being struck by a poisonous one.
I was never discouraged about fishing, with all of this bad luck, and I maintained a lifelong interest in studying, experimenting with, catching and eating game fish. At one time, upon retirement near New Mexico’s Eagle Nest Lake, I fished for rainbow trout and kokonee salmon at least four days weekly for fifteen years, catching the limit almost daily after finding out the trout’s feeding cycle. I counted almost 400 fish caught annually, greater than ten inches in length. That harvest occurred in about four months during the summer, in Eagle Nest Lake, and we ate that valuable protein diet almost daily- smoked, salted, roasted, fried and in chowder. That was good eatin’ and good health, and I owe it all to Gabe, who got me interested in fishing at a critical time of my life. May his soul forever rest among cool waters, under moderate skies, on calm mornings where our gilled friends watch and wait for intriguing things just above the waves.
It is best to keep your fishing techniques and locations secret, since others will quickly ruin the value of treasures that you have discovered. But if I have learned this lesson, my ego will not let me retain it, since I am always telling others about my secret holes and of my luck. This generally backfires on me, and I have gnashed my teeth many times over disclosure and ruination of some favorite swimming, fishing, or duck hunting place.

My Dad and Boundary Disputes
One day, when I was about six years of age, I witnessed an event which would impress itself into my psyche for the rest of my life. It probably was in the spring, since it seems the weather was mild, and my Dad felt energetic enough to work on erecting a fence at our front yard and road boundary. Dad had not yet gotten into his “ditching phase”, and our land simply bordered that of another farmer named Harry Hilman with a north-south junction. This fellow lived in a shotgun-shaped house (long and simply-erected, on blocks), some 300 yards to the northeast, and I can just remember his family as being congenial but poor. There were several children, who were older than I, and there were day laborers who stayed in the simple home, in addition to the family of five. I remember that my Mother had good relations with the wife, and I can recall visiting the house at least two or three times. Once, on Halloween, my two sisters and I had put on home-made costumes and had sneaked down by the home to scare the occupants. There was a lot of merriment, and I remember that the two day laborers had been impressed enough to quietly leave the room before our return, and to position themselves along our path. When we returned toward home, there were some eerie noises and crashing sounds- enough for us to bolt and run home in sheer fright. Later the perpetrators presented themselves before we could get home and alert the whole household, and reveal that it was indeed they who had “paid off” our Halloween trick with a similar one of a more realistic nature.
So I was caught off guard, when my Dad dug the post holes for insertion of cedar posts, to make a boundary between Hilman’s and our land, by a threatening event. Suddenly, as I watched my Dad, here was the neighbor with a shotgun- threatening my father. He was indeed serious, claiming that Dad was trying to take part of his land, by staking out the fence. My Dad, who was always a taciturn man- even in normal times, said not a word. He merely looked at the neighbor briefly and turned away. He laid the post-hole diggers down, walked away and disappeared. I simply stood there, concluding that the issue was resolved, when the neighbor returned to his home.
The confrontation was not concluded, however, and of course I was too small to be brought into the reason for the face-off. There must have been some previous provocation to this incident, but I never heard of it. But it seems that there was a court case, involving this boundary and other issues, in which the neighbor lost the battle. Fortunately, there was never any other weapon display that I was aware of, but neighbor Hilman was placed in the state psychiatric institution, where he spent the rest of his life. I remember that many years later, my Mother visited the man in the institution, and that she described him as being completely gray-haired, benign, and resigned to his life of incarceration in the asylum. Mother got this location, by continuing to have mail contact with Mrs. Hilman after they vacated the farm.
This whole incident emphasized to me that land and property were in a special category in the affairs of men. People will fight and kill over their perceived “rights”, particularly over issues involved territory. After all, this isn’t much different than animals, which will fight and die over boundary disputes- witness wolves and other territorial canines. Evidently, there is a strong emotion over ownership, especially land, but also about any material wealth which generates sustenance. Later, I would witness this principle, when I noticed that people to whom I would sell property would suddenly bare their emotions and reveal things vital to their deepest thoughts, when taking title to a home or land. I resolved to always concede in matters of dispute about land and property, whenever there was an argument, and this has prevented violence and hostility. I took it as a rule, to give something extra, after a contract had been consummated, so that the buyer would see that there was no attempt to extract the last ounce of fat from an agreement.
My dad was an enigmatic man, and I don’t think that I ever got on his wave length. Although my brother related to me that Dad and he could communicate in a serious way, I never thought that I could. I remained distant and unmoved by my father for all of my life. My brother related to me that dad had stayed some time near the border with Mexico, when he was in college and off for the summer vacation, and had been a surveyor in south Texas. He had once told my brother, that he should get one of those Mexican girls, since they would treat you right.
This led me to want to know more about the Overton lineage. However, grandfather Overton was dead before any of my siblings knew him, and only his wife Ma was observed by my generation. I remember her as humorless and stern. Of course, I was only able to observe her in her declining years. Grandparents were those back there, in those days- not like nowadays when they have good health on into the 90’s. Now oldsters in their 80’s can still indulge in outdoor activities such as with Elderhostel programs or hiking groups; they do not have to be dependant on their offspring for support, since retirement plans give them independence well into their 80’s and even 90’s.

I ruminated over this with the following Poem:

Grandmother Overton

Solemn, humorless, grim the scene,
Of the one who’d pass the gene
Of the curse of intellect’s stark view-
That Life was just a random stew,
Without thoughtful logic, and its’ wean.

There she lay, for an impressionable child
To absorb her outlook, stern and wild,
That existence painful, cruel and hard,
Was now waiting- to play its’ card-
Stripped of laughter ‘n Love – however mild.

She’d pass on the Church so stern
Which wove evil – you’d discern-
In frivolous activity for me to see,
So one must work to make the plea
That we avoid Joy or else we’d burn.

Life had indeed been very grim,
For the second wife of Tom, of him,
Who had fathered with an earlier wife,
Just two (of eight) who would survive
The rigors of 19th century’s whim.

Ma- Mary Ann- would soon begat
Six of her own, only two to pat,
Since most were lost in infancy-
Twins and others from the tree,
Only found ‘neath Campo Santo’s mat.

Only two would there remain,
To produce heirs to tend the chain-
William Robert and sister Minnie,
One was huge, and one was skinny-
But both were humorless, ne’er to gain

The glee of life, the joy of Love
The sport of Laughter, like a glove,
Which fits o’er man like curling lip
And makes of Life a relationship,
That brings smiles close from that above.

So, she lies there, but not serene,
Just gritting those old teeth so clean,
Whence I can hear the wails of old
(Which propagate the tale that I just told)
That cast a spell on all I glean.

Harold L. Overton