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Wild Waters

One fall after a very heavy rain, some friends and I rented canoes and, despite warnings that the Shenandoah River was high and dangerous, paddled down its South Fork from Page Valley Estates toward Overall. The waters were muddy and traveled like ocean waves in a storm. At Compton Rapids, a Class III, we capsized, all wearing life jackets. Contents dumped and widely spewed, the canoes crashed bottoms up against outcroppings as they drifted swiftly away downstream and out of sight. A few of us ended up standing on or clinging to sheer rock ledges on the far east side, while others emerged in the center here and there, heads bobbing up from the roiling wet turmoil. We all got rides with other canoers and managed to retrieve our boats, but not most of our belongings, dispersed against muck-and-stone shores to arrive at the pickup point where we returned in the Outfitters' bus roundabout and to our cars.

The ground is covered each fall with the large round green husks of black walnuts fallen from old trees planted and sown by Caroline and Jesse Keyser of the original German farming family who claimed and settled that land and bend of the river in the late 18th or early 19th century. Together with their many progeny, and slaves owned and used to work on it with their own still-maintained separate graveyard, water was drawn from and foods cooled in hand-dug springs and horses were driven or ridden across the river, iced-over heavily or nearly drawn to a trickle by mid-summer "dog day" heat, for sugar and grist-mill flour from a small store in unincorporated Overall where neighbors gossiped and visited, and to Sunday morning services in the tiny one-room church still standing and sometimes used by families and friends related to a Pentacostal preacher long gone but still fondly remembered there.

That mini-farm had the best beachfront of any acreage for quite a ways in either direction. It was gently sloping down to the river, mostly sand and flat, with huge, old sycamore trees for shade from summer heat. It wasn't at all difficult to drive a jeep or truck or four-wheeler down onto it, or pull in a canoe or kayak and was at the foot of a small, ever rippling, splashing and bubbling riffle so the water was almost always clear, clean, swift-running and cool.

In the backcountry, arrestingly colorful Baltimore Orioles picked all the fruits from black cherry bushes right before they ripened. Peach and pear trees produced dependably, and black walnuts, tall and spreading sturdily, grew wild, as did persimmon. Mild honey bees spread pollen between flowers. Variegated hummingbirds siphoned nectar from hollyhock bushes gone wild. The lilac to the right of the front door expanded to cover the entraceway, so its sweet-scented bulbous blooms had to be pushed aside for entering the house in springtime. The outhouse, grandfathered in as legal and kept painted, was a second, and then third bathroom. Violets and orange daylilies transplanted from other sites landscaped buildings. Birds built individualized and interesting nests in the eaves. Climbing roses twined around deck supports, and peonies sprouted each year to the north of the house in partial shade.

Sliding downhill toward the river, daffodils and tulips, anemones and wild cactus bloomed. Wild daisies, forsythias and domestic rose bushes scattered, and a wisteria grew and fell near the top of the hill. Unreliable white locust blooms dangled their drunken fragrance by the deck. Red and white delicate wild roses and the snarling vines of wild grapes grew and wandered west of the house, as did osage orange trees with their intriguing large green fruits. Sweet-smelling cedars popped up everywhere. And then there were the entrancing diminutive wildflowers of various design and shade. And the moss. Wild cherry, small, hard pear and apple trees flowered and fruited. Gypsy moths attacked some of the trees but never killed any. Wild blackberry, raspberry and blueberry bushes lined fence rows and mountain paths. Azaleas and mountain laurel bloomed alongside them. By late fall, acorns and dead leaves carpeted higher grounds. Wild chestnuts disappeared long ago.

Nearly all the land, barren to the wild at my purchase of it, had been planted and filled. Children, in particular, loved it, and the domestic animals, and some adults were entranced, too. Robins, finches, sparrows, cardinals abounded, and an occasional indigo bunting in its spectacular glimmering blue, or a bluejay, passed through. Woodpeckers, large and small, pecked at tree trunks. Raptors -- hawks and eagles -- soared on skywaves. At night, owls stared and hooted. Wild geese hung out by the river where mallards glided with their chicks in tow during the summer season. Beaver chopped small trees down and built their community dams. Sometimes woodducks, herons or seagulls would visit. Butterflies and dragonflies particularly enjoyed hovering and dancing in the air or fluttering and mating on multi-nuanced stones of the beach, or around stands of water reeds. Fallfish, helgrammites, minnows, freshwater oysters, clams and mussles, muskie, water snakes, bullfrogs, mudcats and little tomcats hiding snugly under rocks enlivened the ever-moving, rising and receding Shenandoah waters.

In the fields, groundhogs dug deep, and sometimes precarious holes. Small, glistening, multi-colored lizards crawled and tiny tree frogs hopped on the grounds. Once in a while, a wild turkey hen with her babies would peek out from the borderline forest. Deer and rabbits were common, as were the only North American marsupial, the ugly possum. Red and more plentiful gray fox ran and prowled through fields. A very rare sight was a cougar, bobcat, red or flying squirrel, or skunk. There were rumors of wild boar, but I never saw any. Two good-sized field rats once set up house in an outbuilding, but were trapped and disposed of quickly.

It was a very beautiful, and generally peaceful place -- a wild and domesticated orchestra of nature's bounty crescendoing toward summer annually with a nearly overwhelming explosion of shape and color and movement by breeze or storm or self-directed and empowered.

To begin with the river was not as heavily-trafficked with canoes, kayaks, rafts and rubber dingies as it became later on, so we were relatively free to sit unremarked and undisturbed in the "riffles" where rock ledges created white water of a relatively gentle sort and drink our pina coladas or beers from nearby coolers in usually sun-drenched and wind-tossed peace. We barbecued the usual fare over hibachis and grills and drank our breakfasts of mimosas and Bloody Marys to the trills of songbirds seduced by wildflowers gone truly free as we sunbathed on blankets and lounge chairs, planning and discussing our next foray to the temptations of the Shenandoah unwatched and unbound.

As weather permitted every spring I spent all my free hours alongside and in the river also until chill and frost made that once again uninviting through winter months generally. The Shenandoah, though, initially and for many years teemed with life and promise, truth and ecstacy, beauty and suggestion. From dragonflies hovering low in their irridescence over deep blue to aquamarine flowings that sometimes ebbed but never ended to guppies nibbling enthusiastically at ankles and toes while pileated woodpeckers landed and knocked in all their brightly-etched splendor on tree trunks of the opposite bank, the river and riverside offered an infinite variety and show of natural delights unsullied by the artificial structures of wo/man and governments, politics and policies. It was truly and profoundly, blessedly free.

For backcountry winters....[t]he larders would be stocked also in anticipation of several weeks possibly of incapacitation from making trips into town for replenishment of anything at all considered a necessity, including over-the-counter medical supplies. The road could be iced or snowed over, or the river could rise and flood parts of it making the whole impassable and impossible. It takes a great deal of foresight in planning and activity to survive comfortably under those geographic and geologic circumstances, but the good weather days, in all the senses that phrase may convey, made it all worthwhile for the time that it lasted in a place, unfortunately from my point of view, that has changed completely in atmosphere and presentation. Today it is much more built up and differently settled by folks mostly from the Baltimore area, escaping what they experienced as an uncomfortable invasion of their urban and suburban neighborhoods by various unwelcome ethnicities, most particularly African-Americans but also Chicanos, and increasing crime related to disparities in wealth and income and employment opportunities, as well as general hostility and socio-economic dysfunction. All the old farmers there have long since passed on and passed by. There are no working fields of hay or corn or cattle, no over-sized homemade rafts held up by 55-gallon drums beached or floating or wafting downriver with folks fishing off of them and bathing in the sun.

Never having attempted to live organically "off the land," I studied books about companion planting, rotating crops, natural fertilizers of compost and chicken or rabbit manure, and talked with farming people about techniques of seeding and caring for successful gardens. Some followed proscription of the "Farmers' Almanac," which adheres to synchronization with phases of the moon, in addition to warmth of the earth and air. Others, myself included, simply attended to directions for correct seasonal timing.

I dug my first very small garden with a shovel, but thereafter tillers were rented to loosen and turn the soil. Worms are important in keeping it aerated, and roots need frequent watering, natural and otherwise. Swiss chard, snow peas, spinach, turnips, radishes, lettuce varieties, onions, potatoes were rotated in first. They were followed by Blue Lake bush green beans and Silver Queen corn. Peanuts were not a success, as the Shenandoah Valley growing season is too short, and I never tried sweet potatoes or cantaloupe although some neighbors did with good results. Later, there was an herb garden enhanced by the delicate ferns of asparagus, along with thyme, basil, oregano, parsley (a bienniel), rhubarb, and mint spread alarmingly in the yard. It was the catnip variety and felines rolled sensually and playfully in it. What we didn't eat fresh, I put up in plastic containers, bags, or wrap and kept in a standup freezer from the Arlington house. Vegetables were quick-steamed in a colander inside of a huge covered pot to kill enzyme action and deterioration. Game -- mostly deer, catfish, perch, smallmouth bass, and sunfish, but also rabbit, squirrel, occasionally bear or goose, and once commercially-raised chickens their owner allowed us to catch, a donated lamb, trout, snapping turtle, carp, frogs' legs were butchered or filleted. Once I fixed an eel from cookbook directions but didn't care for it, and cooked groundhog meat which was okay. I ordered quail at a local restaurant, but it's too spare. A neighbor brought dandelion wine, another thick and sweet grape. Farming neighbors allowed me to pick chestnuts for roasting. Fertilized eggs, plentiful and delicious in season, were cracked and lightly stirred for storing. Leftovers went into the compost bin or became animal and bird treats. It was all fairly hard work, including weeding -- with expenses of hunting and fishing, building and maintenance supplies, feed and farm equipment, seed (although I gathered, dried and saved some) and, later, minimal chemical sprays and dust to discourage devouring insects like bean beatles and potato bugs which became rampant over the years.

Loving to cook and enthusiastic about country living, I learned how to prepare game, eggs and fresh vegetables in new and traditional ways through an extensive cookbook collection and talking with farming community neighbors. In addition to standard and show banty chickens, ducks, goats and guineas, we also raised beagle ("rabbit") dogs in a good-sized outdoor area enclosed by us with wire fence, and sold or gave away the pups. When one nanny goat became pregnant, she finally delivered a stillborn female and a beautiful solid white male which died within a day. As was common with early human settlers and their offspring, many of the free-range chicks perished also from predation and disease, although we provided treated feed and tried to keep them safe.

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[text excerpt from Chameleon]

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Original material c. A Country Rag, Inc. and/or Jeannette Harris, Jonesborough Tennessee, April 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013. All rights reserved.