Abscission Layer

image copyright Fred First

An oak leaf will refuse to let go until December, clacking and waggling brown and brittle in the cold breeze. The serrated leaves of a smooth-boled American Beech turn almost white and become so thin and light they hang like feathers and seem to move on their own, even on a still January day. This year’s beech leaf may stay on the twig until next spring’s tiny new leaf evicts it, finally, pushing it out and away, off into space, down to the black soil among the first of the spring mustards and violets. from “A Time to Fall” in Slow Road Home.

And now, I’ve discovered there’s a word for this phenomenon: marcescence. Oooh, I like the sound of it. Here‘s what it means, and here’s how it describes the reason for what I observed and about which I waxed prosaic:

Marcescence is the retention of dead plant organs that normally are shed. It is most obvious in deciduous trees that retain leaves through the winter. Several trees normally have marcescent leaves such as oak (Quercus), beech (Fagus) and hornbeam (Carpinus). Marcescent leaves of pin oak (Quercus palustris) complete development of their abscission layer in the spring. The base of the petiole remains alive over the winter.

Retention of dead parts normally shed. I think there are some human behavior-relational metaphors hidden in this word, and I may just hold on (heh heh) to marcescence and pull it out when the time has come. Could come in handy, describing for instance, the baggage we carry with us from youth to adulthood, that hang brown and brittle well into the next year, and the next, and …

Fragments Gift Pack

Image copyright Fred First Thanks to kind reader Missy for jogging my “remembery” (as the one of our kids used to say) that I had mentioned offering a Christmas Package Deal from Goose Creek Press. And I’m prepared to do just that. So listen and listen tight, pilgrim. (Who used to say that? Hmmm?)

Usual arrangement: book $16, notecards pack of five $10 and shipping $3.

For you, a special deal (but no Ginsu knives, no matter when you order)…

One copy of Slow Road Home (first edition signed by author and inscribed upon request) plus one pack of Fragments notecards (more or less as seen in the sidebar of the blog) for only $25 delivered. What a great gift idea!

Sorry, not available by PayPal, only by check per instructions here. (Note one image in packet is different from original five images seen in sidebar.)

Wined and Dined

Saturday and Sunday past I spent four hours each day manning a mostly-invisible table that did not provide food or drink for a population of folk who surged into the winery reception room when the doors officially opened at noon armed for both and nothing else. Armed: verb intended–they didn’t have a free hand to carry a book if they’d wanted to. Even so, some books sold, several good contacts made who invited me to speak to their women’s/rotary/book club in Stuart/Danville/Raleigh et cetera. And I learned a thing or two between day one and day two about the dynamics of working with this particular setting and crowd; each of these various events I’ve been involved with since the book came along are classrooms, and I pick up pointers that I hope make me more effective in getting the word across effectively.

Saturday mistakes: no name tag. Table information too detailed and busy. Table display did not immediately link me to Floyd County. Vendor sat or stood directly behind table, intimidating some would-be customers. Nothing offered to draw people to the table, even though hundreds streamed past in line for the white wine table.

Sunday corrections: Name tag. Oh, you’re Fred First! Simplified table display, simply the poster with book title, County of origin and “memoir of place” with my picture and name. I stood back-left of the table or fully away from it, and only approached if someone picked up the book, a sample note card or a bookmark. “So are you a reader? or “Did you find one you like?” if they picked up a card. AND, due to a little problem with the packaging of the first set of 150 packs of note cards, I ended up with some free copies, so (aha moment!) I offered a free sample with envelope–a winning idea! Four times more people stopped than Saturday, and I was engaged in conversation for most of the four hours.

The cards were appreciated. Several folks asked if they were paintings or photos (which I took as a compliment.) Others asked if there were any snow pictures; or dogs; or nature close-ups. So of course, that makes me think of future projects. A couple of realtors and also some B&B folks were interested in bulk orders to use in correspondence with clients to the area. Great idea, I thought!

I go back again this coming weekend, and the old dog has learned a few tricks.

The note cards, by the way, are nicely repacked and ready for shipping. See sidebar info. Order today!

Rat Head Stew

Pardon, please, as I look back again. The anniversary of our move north from Alabama to Virginia (Dec 18, 1974) approaches. This little bit of memoir was cut and pasted from the early Fragments of August 2002. For those of you who’ve read the book, you can plug this in to those early dreams of northern migration. And THIS is the job I eagerly left behind in ‘bama. (And it follows an earlier story about my career in fire alarm sales. Maybe I’ll dig that one out sometime for you. And for me.)


So, I would not be bringing in a paycheck off my commision from sales of fire alarms to the poor parents of the potentially charred remains of little Bobby and little Susie. Dang! We were really motivated to move out of my mother’s basement to a place of our own (ultimately, this would be a squalid apartment on southside Birmingham) and it would be very helpful if Fred had a some income here, as wife was great with child.

Once again, I let my fingers do the walking through the Yellow Pages, and got a bite from the University Medical Center–some place called the Department of Comparative Medicine. Whatever. I took the job as research technician and would be working with several Veterinarian PhD’s on various projects that used animal models for human disease. Kewl!

What it actually meant was that, faithful to the footsteps of those who had preceded me in my chosen field of Vertebrate Zoology, my Masters Degree qualified me to handle various kinds of animal poop while knowing the Latin name for the animal producing the deposit. Also the higher degree somehow instilled a willingness to tolerate inordinately high levels of inhaled ammonia, a by-product the breakdown of stale urine. Got to where is sorta smelled good…a true sign that I had ‘made it’ as a zoologist. Like the folks who live near and work at papermills say of that awful stench: Smells like money to me!. And all those nay-sayers who told me all I could do with a Masters in Zoology was shovel poop behind the elephants at the zoo were dead wrong! Much smaller poop. No heavy lifting!

My chief responsibility would be with a study of trace element effects on dental caries (‘cavities’) prevention. Rat mommas were fed various low to high sugar diets while nursing new litters of rat pups. New born rat pups are bright pink, half the size of your thumb, and look like writhing little plugs of old-fashioned pink bubble gum. The rat pups received various trace minerals by intubation (now that is another story) to see what effect boron, strontium and so on might have on tooth developement.

So, I mixed diets, cleaned cages, formulated and administered treatment doses, and generally tried to keep all the rat mommas and babies happy and properly fed or dosed toward the objective of the study, which was to determine how the trace minerals had impacted tooth developement while nursing on a high sugar diet of momma’s milk. And so, when the rat pups were 40 days old, tooth development had reached the desired degree of maturity.

Oops. I guess I hadn’t really thought about the next step. Somehow, little rat chums, we sort of need your teeth for assay, if you don’t mind. Now baby rats are cute in the way that all mammal-babies are: big-eyed, trusting, playful and innocent. I have to confess, after handling each of these little white-furry critters many times each day since birth, I was not comfortable during my instruction on the use of the Murine Cephalic Clevage Device. Yep, that’s right: a guillotine. I will spare you the details.

So, now I have 120 tiny rat heads, with the teeth we need to extract for the P-32 study. That requires extracting the tiny little rat molar teeth. Extraction requires heating. So, I put 120 little foil-wrapped rat heads in the autoclave, a glorified pressure cooker, for 30 minutes. Opening that autoclave when the task was done is the one thing that stands out in my mind of the 14 months I worked at this job.

I opened the autoclave slowly, to let the pressure escape gradually, and out pours a cloud of rat-head-scented steam filling the room…a vapor of all my little chums I had nurtured for 40 days, until I became their executioner. Was it too late to consider a career change, I wondered? Not a good day, folks. I was never so relieved when the job came to a stopping place and I could go home where there were no rats…heads, teeth or otherwise. I began the 2 mile walk home, trying to think about anything other than the details of my day.

Ah, finally, our apartment door appears. Ann has been home today and I am looking forward to a home-cooked meal. I will never forget opening the door and being overcome by the smell of hot, cooked meat. Ham, if I recall. It was overpowering, too much like the rat head stew I had just left; I almost chucked my cookies. I apologized from outside the door and without explaining other than to say “I’m sorry. We have to eat out tonight. Don’t ask. I will tell you about it. Some day. Maybe. Let’s go get a salad”.

So, I had my job. I was bringing home $7000 a year. Plenty. Soon after the rat head episode, our first child was born, and we knew we were destined to leave Birmingham for a place to the north, rural and beautiful, but without a clue as how to go about finding this place we dreamed of. Reading maps and Mother Earth News were fine for dreaming, but we were too conventional to just buy a VW bus and start driving, like many were doing in those days. We had to have a plan, a destination, and jobs would be nice.

It seemed like it was going to take a miracle to deliver me from a life of perpetual animal poop. So far, all roads had ended in a cul-de-sac. Ann could find work anywhere, and I could find it nowhere. Finally, in the Fall of 1974, our angel called from Virginia, and we never looked back. We felt like we had finally arrived, when, in hindsight, we had only taken our first steps toward ending up here at Goose Creek.

You know you’re in the south when…

Comfort food: those edibles that bring us to a safe, warm-fuzzy place–the gustatorial counterpart of sucking our thumbs while holding our worn flannel bankies next to our cheeks.

In the south, whatever comfort you find in your foods, they will most certainly be fried.

The smell of hot grease alone is enough to bring down a true southerner’s blood pressure a notch or two. Stick something in it while hot–anything; doesn’t much matter–and you’ve cooked up a batch of Southern Sedative. Let’s see. What might be fry-able. How ’bout pickles?

Yep. We went to two restaurants in Birmingham last weekend, and Fried Pickles were on the menu both places.

I hate to admit they were good. So good they made me want to curl up right there and take a nap.