Joseph E Bird

Let's talk about reading, writing and the arts.


March 2017

time and chance

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Ecclesiastes 9:11

Appalachian Spring

Larry Ellis posted this over at Home Economics. It’s a great description of where we live, in the heart of Appalachia.

At the end a character is introduced and then left standing there. The story of Jack Sampson is told in Larry’s award-winning novel, In the Forest of the Night.

His ancestors settled in the central Appalachians without a thought for aesthetics. They came not for the beauty or value of this place, but only to escape from servitude and second-class citizenship in those cities to the north where their own forebears had landed as indentured servants. This new land to the south was steep, overgrown and not particularly amenable to the plow, but it was away from those engines of commerce and social institutions that had benefitted those to whom they were beholden and had just as certainly kept them a class away from full participation in the new nation’s economy.

The weather here was no more inviting than the soil. The winters were long and damp and made of days and weeks of snow so deep that travel was nearly impossible and in the summers the heat and humidity and insects were relentless. No one who had the luxury of considering the comforts a location might afford would have chosen to live here. There were no beautiful waterfronts and no rolling, thousand-acre spreads of black soil. All of life was closed in to narrow valleys and closed off to the flow of goods and information common to the new cities on the coast.

Those who came to escape the cities paid no heed to the hardships the land and the weather imposed, but lived their short lives together on subsistence farms, learning how to hunt and what to gather in the vast forests that surrounded their villages.

The generations brought change, of course. When those in the north learned that this land was rich in coal, oil and gas, industry came to Appalachia and the tiny villages became small towns and small cities and some made enough money to move themselves back into the mainstreams of commerce and society in the cities of the eastern plain..

It was, and is, an unromantic place. There are no ancient gardens or master artworks on display. There are no homes of famous artists or statesmen and no classic myth to fill the air with mystery.

But in the spring, something happens that no one who settled here saw coming and no one who has not lived here knows of or could even imagine. There are days in April when the scent of the blossoms all over the forests – the tulip poplar flowers, the lilac buds, the honeysuckle, the white blooms of the apple and plum trees, the new buds of the sycamore and the birch – all are lifted from the mountainsides in the softest breezes and the new warmth of the spring sun dries the stones on the edges of the creeks and branches and sends into the air cleansing mineral aromas and the trees on every hillside unfold in new green and soft rains fall and the forest floor thaws and releases the essence of the earth into the air. There are a thousand varieties of tiny plants that sprout under the canopy of the forest in these days. Only the Shawnee knew them. Only the Shawnee had given them names. They are tender and live only for days and in those days they release their own perfume, each a different, subtle taste. The clouds part and the grey of winter disappears and the sky is clear and high above the hawks soar and wheel on the gentle, warm thermals. The sun glistens on the rivers and those rivers run for those few days green and blue like the purest emeralds and sapphires. It is a season all its own, hidden from those who give names to such things, and in those few days the romance of this rugged place is enough to fill the longings of men’s souls and to ignite in their hearts even deeper longings.

It was in this time, in the middle of these days, that Jack Sampson fell in love.

Copyright 2017, Larry Ellis

The garage.

I recently attended the Design and Equipment Expo in Charleston and met a local photographer, Emily Shafer, who specializes in industrial photography. She has a creative sensibility and transforms ordinary images from the blue collar world in to works of art. Like a set of greasy Craftsman tools.

The next day I walked across the street to the mall and saw signs outside the Sears store announcing its closing. I went in and browsed a little, but there wasn’t much left. Empty shelves where the Craftsman tools used to be. With all of that, I couldn’t help but think of a scene I had written in my novel, Heather Girl.

Heather is traveling to Texas to see her father, who has just been paroled. She stops for gas in Montgomery, Alabama and has car trouble. A man and his son are watching (and eventually offer to help). As she’s trying to figure out what the problem is, she remembers learning about cars in her father’s garage.

She turned the key and the engine turned slowly a couple of times but didn’t start. She turned the key again. Same thing. And again.

She popped the latch on the hood and got out of the car. The boy looked up, then looked away. She opened the hood and looked at the battery.

Always start with the battery.

Her father’s voice. What was it now, thirty years ago?

Easiest thing to check, easiest thing to fix.

The smells of the garage came back to her. Warm, oily smells. There was a gas heater on the back wall and in the winter, there was always a hint of unburned fumes, but most of the time it was tools and parts and greasy rags that made the garage feel heavy and comfortable. The same garage that now is more of a storage locker. Her father’s tools went with him when her parents moved across town, then were sold when they moved south to escape the cold winters of the mountains. She and Robert bought the family home.  Robert took over the garage as his own workshop, complete with a table saw and other carpentry tools. His tools are still there, but are never used. Boxes of boys’ forgotten toys and yard sale finds make it nearly impossible to even see them. She keeps the lawnmower by the door, along with a few garden tools, and every spring makes the same promise that she’ll never keep to throw out the junk and put some order to the mess.

Despite everything, she found it hard not to think back to when the garage was truly a place for parking the family car, and for the weekend project of rebuilding the brakes or cleaning the carburetor or putting in a new radiator. Her dad had a natural genius for such things, part of the reason he was a good engineer. She loved being around him when he was working. It was when he seemed most content. Anything could be fixed.

She learned by watching, and when it became apparent that her brother Wayne had more interest in music than cars, she became her father’s tomboy grease monkey. She never learned enough to really diagnose a car’s problem, but she could change the oil, put in new spark plugs, and even tinker with the timing. She also learned why he enjoyed that kind of work so much, aside from the peace of the garage. Parts that didn’t work properly were thrown out, never to be seen again. Repair manuals didn’t lie. And the tools were always faithful.

If she had one of those old crescent wrenches, maybe the big one that had been used so much that the brand imprinted on the handle had worn away, she could tighten the nuts on the battery terminal. Though she knew that wasn’t the cause of the problem. She looked at the engine and tugged at the battery cables. They seemed tight. Not much corrosion. More than likely the battery was dead.

copyright 2017, joseph e bird

Goodbye, Sears.

Sears 1

Sears 2

We’ve all heard the news. Sears is closing stores. These photos are from the Charleston Town Center store. Four more days and it will close forever.

Do you remember when Sears was the place to go for tools?  For vacuum cleaners?  For back-to-school clothes?

I can’t tell you how many things I’ve bought in this store. How many hours I’ve spent roaming the aisles. To see it so barren is haunting and sad.

Remember the Sears catalog?  It was a precursor to internet sales. Thumb through the catalog, find what you want, fill out the order form and mail it in. I bought a guitar from Sears that way. I bought skis that way. Now I simply click.

Which is why Sears is closing stores. Retail isn’t changing, it has changed. There will be fewer actual stores in the future. But I don’t see them going away completely. Some of us still want to see how clothes fit before we buy them. We want to run the vacuum cleaner over carpet. And we want to see how the tool fits our hand.

One more photo. It’s a sign in what’s left of the clothing department. It may be the only sign left in the store.


No Hard Feelings

I was listening to the Avett Brothers via Youtube yesterday and got to reading some of the comments about how their older work was better than their new stuff. Here’s one of their new ones. You be the judge.


morning conversation

mountains for webDo not go gentle
that good morning.

Isn’t that supposed
to be good night?

But it’s morning.

And why not
go gentle
that good morning?

The day is coming.
And it has teeth.
Lamb to the slaughter.
That kind of thing.

Be the wolf,
not the lamb?

Just be ready.
Be on your toes.

I’m not a dancer.

It’s an expression.
But of course you know that.
You’re just being obstinate.

I’m listening to jazz.
I can’t be a wolf while
I’m listening to jazz.

See those gray clouds?
They’re a portend
of things to come.

But its warm.
And breezy.
I might just sit
and watch the squirrels.

Don’t say
I didn’t
warn you.


Takuya Kuroda.
I’d rather go gentle
good morning.

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