Category Archives: Everyday Wonders

Send Me an Owl?

Send Me an Owl?    —by Jinny Batterson

A few weeks ago I may have had a close encounter with an owl.  One misty spring morning, I was returning down the entryway to our small condo complex when suddenly something came out of the adjacent woods and hit the left side of my head with considerable force. I’d  been strolling along, looking down at the pavement, daydreaming. I was not ready for something to whack the side of my head. It didn’t knock me down, but threw me off balance enough so it took a few seconds to regain my footing. Checking the area of impact for injuries, I found a small gash in my left earlobe, a larger scratch just behind my left ear. Once I’d recovered enough to look around, I couldn’t find anything evident that might have caused the jolt. No earthbound animals were in the area. What had hit me was too heavy to have been a tree-launched squirrel. 

Once I got home, I did a little internet research. The phrase “owl strikes” showed up for occasional collisions between owls and humans. Some had occurred in the Atlanta area in recent years. Several morning joggers there had endured successive head-to-owl collisions with late-to-bed owls. When I later puzzled over my incident with local friends who’ve lived in our area longer than I have, they mentioned a possible owl incident that had figured into the aftermath of a Durham, North Carolina murder trial. In a high-profile 2003 case, a well-known author was accused of murdering his wife on a chill winter evening. Though initially convicted, Michael Peterson maintained his innocence and was eventually released after the charge was reduced to man-slaughter. A recent Netflix episode caused a resurrection of the theory that Peterson might in fact have been innocent—the culprit instead an owl who attacked a somewhat tipsy Mrs. Peterson and caused a bloody fall: ( https://www.wired.com/story/the-staircase-netflix-owl-theory/). 

My niece, nephews and grandchildren, whatever other generational labels have been applied to them, are all part of a “Harry Potter generation.” Prior to a recent visit with the grandkids, I made my way through the first book of the Potter series. It’s a good read, about a young boy who’s been orphaned and doesn’t fit in with his guardians’ family. Harry eventually finds his way to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where he finds kindred spirits and discovers that he’s a wizard, albeit one in need of considerable training. One of the features of Harry’s life at Hogwarts, where much of the series action takes place, is the use of owls to carry messages—a nice live touch, in contrast with the “real” world where communication can seem more and more mechanical. If you’re at Hogwarts hoping someone will communicate with you over a distance, you’ll probably request that they “send you an owl.”  One of the members of our family’s younger generation has a plush model owl she’s named “Hedwig” in honor of Harry’s owl. With the grandchildren, we’ve watched parts of several Harry Potter films, including at least one with a message-bearing owl. The actual message delivery must have occurred off-screen or happened while I was dozing, something grandmas do occasionally.

If what hit me earlier this year was in fact an owl, I’m grateful for the non-lethal outcome of the encounter. The calls of owls echo some evenings in nearby woods, one owl in particular sounding out a cadence that mimics “Who cooks for you-u-u-u-u?”  If a Hogwarts-style message ever reaches me, I hope its delivery owl will come gently, landing nearby but not on me, and leaving no accompanying injury.

The Durability of Sisterhood

The Durability of Sisterhood   —by Jinny Batterson

Over the past several weeks, I’ve attended three “women mostly” events—an NAACP fundraiser and celebration of that group’s NC mother/woman of the year, the annual meeting of our local chapter of the League of Women Voters, and the 50th reunion of my class from then-women’s-college Randolph College. At each event, there were a few men, as official escorts, unofficial companions, or male affiliates, but the focus was mainly on us women. I’d forgotten how good it can feel to be surrounded by other females.

The NC NAACP celebration was the first formal NAACP event I’d attended. Not knowing anyone to tag along with, I went alone. I expected to be a minority at the event—this proved true. The few other white women, none of whom I knew, seemed more connected and more engaged than I felt. The venue was local to Raleigh, but contestants and their supporters came from nearly twenty NAACP chapters throughout the state. Not realizing the flexibility of the event’s scheduling, I’d accepted an invitation to a lunch meeting in a different part of town, so missed the slightly delayed keynote talk by recently named Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Cheri Beasley. Over the part of the event I did attend, I learned that the NAACP has been holding such annual celebrations since the 1950’s.

The LWV Wake County annual meeting had a generally paler audience and was held on a weeknight. Food was higher priced. There was a cash bar. I knew some of the “old stalwarts,” but was pleased to notice younger faces new to me. One older male member I knew, attending without his equally activist spouse, spent a good bit of time talking with me. I wondered if he felt something of an outsider, like my reaction at the NAACP breakfast. The event was tightly scheduled. The business at hand—election of new officers, committee reports, financial updates—was quickly dispatched, assisted by paper agendas. Dinner conversations were pleasant, non-confrontational, and generally apolitical in this non-partisan organization. The Wake county LWV had been founded in 1920, the same year women got the right to vote in national elections. After a rocky period during the late 1930’s and 1940’s, the chapter reconstituted itself in 1950 and has been active ever since.

Then there was the Randolph reunion. I arrived near the beginning of the three-day weekend’s festivities to find a familiar, still beautiful, mostly empty campus. A good student when I’d attended what was then Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in the late 1960’s, I’d nevertheless been anything but a social standout. A foreign language major, I didn’t contribute to campus publications. I wasn’t a horsewoman or an athlete in any sport. I did sing in the glee club, but held no campus leadership positions and rarely attended campus-wide events. I’d felt at graduation that I’d made it through, but would likely not maintain much connection with the school. I wondered how fish-out-of-water I’d feel at a reunion of this institution that had been founded in 1891 exclusively to promote the education of young women, but evolved a lot over its recent existence. About a decade ago, faced with declining enrollment and difficulties attracting highly qualified women to a small, single-sex liberal arts school in the U.S. south, the trustees made a wrenching decision to become a coeducational institution. Alums of the most recent reunion class (those who graduated in 2014) are a rainbow mix of genders and backgrounds, though both the school’s student body and faculty are majority female.

As more and more members of my former class gradually filtered in, I was surprised at how many women I recognized and felt connected with: still-active, still-engaged, still-vibrant septuagenarians whose energy was palpable. This was a tribe I could feel part of! Of course we engaged in some mutual bragging—about further educational achievements, children, life partners, careers, travels, awards, humanitarian endeavors, whatever. Mostly, though, we shared stories based on the values we’d developed during a special time and place together in a supportive environment, values that continue to illuminate our choices and preferences fifty years after graduation. 

With so much travel in my recent past and near future, I’m temporarily traveled out. I’ll miss this Sunday afternoon’s Charlotte-area reunion of a part of my biological family that I’ve become better acquainted with since I moved to North Carolina: the Rea clan. I’ll especially miss the possibility of spending time together with three sisters of my dad’s generation, related to me through my grandmother’s baby brother Zeb. As far as I know, none of the Rea sisters are famous, but they’ve each lived long, fruitful lives, handling multiple challenges with quiet grace. I hope to have later chances to reconnect with Virginia, Betsy, and Judy. Now in their 80’s and 90’s, they have maintained a durable sisterhood through thick and thin.

Rea sisters Judy, Virginia, and Betsy at 2014 reunion

So to sisters everywhere—stay active, stay engaged, stay vibrant. Avoid excluding anyone if you possibly can. And most of all, stay connected!   

  

The Shapes of our Scars

The Shapes of Our Scars  —by Jinny Batterson

This Mother’s Day brought cards and good wishes from the next generations. Although I once in a while miss the annual homemade breakfasts I used to get years ago, having grown-up children is much less hectic. I’m very glad I’ve had chances to be a biological mom. I’m grateful that the generations after mine are coming into their own, establishing their own patterns of family and civic life.

Mother’s Day observances for me can bring comparisons with other mammalian mothers. Someone has recently started a “dog moms’ day” (celebrating the women who care for their pet dogs) on the Saturday just before (human) Mother’s Day. Lots of internet images these days feature women mothering their pet dogs, or cute dog mothers with their pups, or cat moms with their kittens. What intrigues me most, though, are humpback whale moms. 

Many members of my age cohort were introduced to the songs of humpback whales during the 1970’s, when popular singer Judy Collins produced a duet of human and whale songs based partly on humpback whale recordings captured at sea. The whale songs were haunting. The songs of the humpbacks added impetus to a movement to curtail whale hunting internationally. Humpback populations have since rebounded, though still only at about a third of their estimated 1940 levels.

Marine biologists are learning more about the migration patterns and behavior of all whale species, including humpbacks, one of the larger whale species. Mature humpbacks are about the size of a school bus, weighing 30-40 tons.  Humpbacks migrate huge distances between feeding and breeding grounds each year. Scientists are not sure all the reasons that the whales vocalize—sometimes to find a mate, perhaps to share news, perhaps at times just for fun.  Humpback whale mothers can produce a calf every 2-3 years, and nurse their new calves for up to a year. It takes about a decade for whale calves to reach adult size. A normal humpback lifespan is about 50 years, with ocean pollution, boat collisions, and fishing gear entanglements having replaced whale hunting as main sources of premature death. 

Identifying individual humpbacks can involve studying the patterns of light and dark colorations on the underside of their tail fin, or “fluke.”  Sometimes these patterns are interrupted by scars, which can also help with identification. Recent studies have indicated that many of the scars on mature whales are the result of accidents or attacks when they were calves—often during their first migration.

In a way, such news is reassuring to this fellow mammal. Regardless of my best attempts, sometimes I may have exposed my human children to harm. Sometimes that harm may even have come from me, passed down from the generations that preceded me. I’m grateful that whatever the scars I carry or have inflicted, both I and my children have survived to adulthood. With wisdom, I may be able to use the shape of my individual scars to help heal myself and others.  With wisdom (and perhaps with song), we may be able to heal ourselves and other species from the scars we have inflicted on the planet.   

For more about humpbacks, check the internet—one fairly good introduction has been posted by National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/h/humpback-whale/     

Seeing with New Eyes

Seeing with New Eyes    —by Jinny Batterson

This was the year when my eye doctor pronounced my cataracts “ripe” and ready for removal. I’d noticed some increasing difficulties judging pavement curbs, especially at night, and a gradual dulling of colors. Worsening eyesight is one of the impediments that often come with aging. I relied on the eye doctor to know the difference between mild cataracts and those challenging my vision enough to merit being taken out. After some additional tests that involved shining bright lights in my eyes while asking me to read an eye chart, I was pronounced “ready” and scheduled for eye measurements, then outpatient surgery in both eyes.

Some of my friends and relatives have required bionic replacement knees, shoulders, hips, wrists or ankles. So far for me, the original appendages have functioned adequately and not pained me unduly. I count myself lucky. However, I depend heavily on eyes that function “well enough” and hadn’t had surgery for a good while. I was nervous. 

Doctors, nurses, and technicians did their best to explain my options, then prep me for surgery. They patiently talked me through what would happen and how I would likely react. The strangest thing seemed that, post-surgery, I might no longer require eyeglasses for distance vision. This prospect seemed doubly odd to someone who has worn glasses since childhood, except for a couple of early adult years when I tried out contact lenses to improve my looks. (My contacts adventure ended rather abruptly one night when I forgot to thoroughly wash my hands after cooking with chili peppers.) I vowed that I’d be extra careful in following the prescribed post-op instructions for these new, bionic lenses that would sit within my eyeballs.

Because of some travel plans, it wasn’t practical for me to have both eyes processed in a short period of time. Instead, I spent about three weeks with one eye “post-op” and the other “pre-op.” The optical shop kindly removed the external lens from my glasses for my post-op eye, but coordination between the two eyes between eye operations was off a bit. Now both eyes are new. I’ve started getting accustomed to my changed vision, though I still limit my exposure to bright lights and avoid interstate highways. I don’t drive much after dark. 

Once my eyes stabilize, my near vision will likely need assistance from reading glasses. Perhaps reading less of the daily news is at this point a boon. Our society seems caught in frequent cycles of “us vs. them” and “win/lose” games. While temporarily appropriate in athletic contests, such scorekeeping in other aspects of life can too often lead toward “all vs. all” and “lose/lose.”

Each morning when I wake up, I relish my new physical eyes; I try to remind myself to reorient my metaphysical eyes as well.

Labor

Labor     —by Jinny Batterson

Not to belabor the point,
But for many of us, labor has gotten
Pretty thoroughly detached from bodily work. 

The fruits of our labors these days
May often involve spreadsheets rather
Than hand-washed sheets spread in the sun
To dry, or fruitful virtual deals rather
Than fruit freshly picked from actual trees.

Fuels laid down in prior geological
Time substitute for much manual labor these days.
Gas, oil, coal, electricity can help make our lives
Comfortable, if not especially productive or fulfilling.
We yearn for connection, but rarely find it.

We may experience nature at a distance,
Or not at all. Sweat, strain, exertion, groans
Happen at the fitness center, washed away
When we shower and change into “street clothes.” 

Physical labor, when done well, has its own inherent dignity.
Might this day, established in the nineteenth century
To honor laborers, remind us in the twenty-first
To take a break from the gym? Instead,
To go outside, to find a patch of earth, however small,
To heft a trowel, hoe, or shovel, then to burrow
Into a bit of the foundational soil that has for
Eons fed both our bodies and our souls. 

How Have We Come So Far on Earth? (50th)

Were we ever that young?

How Have We Come So Far on Earth?  (50th)   —by Jinny Batterson

(Many years ago, we started the custom of a poem on our wedding anniversary. The poetry hasn’t improved all that much; the marriage has somehow endured…)

In retrospect, so much can seem inevitable:
The ungainly bag of holly and pine boughs,
The welcoming seat at the front of the bus,
The
glib blond guy with the Paul Bunyan
Glasses frames. The letter to “Jennifer”
Wit
h the correct postal address at my dorm.

The college-based courtship. That magic
Summer in Montreal. The horses across
The fence our first dew-drenched dawn
Alon
g the road east toward the Gaspé.
Our newlyweds’ apartment near Hopkins,
The night we watched the progress
Of 
pedestrians first dodging, then
Accepting the thunderstorm’s drenching.

Trying to make the Nearings’ rural dream our
Own, though rank novices in needed skills.
Buying
a lakeside cabin at a divorce-sale
Price. Uprooting to northern Virginia and
A
hellish teaching term. Stitching ourselves
Back together while riding Fred the red pickup
Along
the mighty Mississippi to New Orleans.

Two children born of love and post-Watergate
Fervor. 
 The friendly Richmond neighbors who
Salved the silly white liberals aiming to
Dismantle racism double-handedly.
The
Servas adventures, both as hosts and
As travelers. The travails of drug-infested inner
City
living. The trophy house and garden.
The long-term live-ins: Chinese, then Japanese.

The mid-life lump, the reconfiguring of later priorities:
Less career focus, more service, more travel.
China
tourism, China teaching, China by plane, by bus,
By rail, by camel, by motorcycle, by bamboo raft.
Wondering
at scenery, food, sometimes strange
Similarities with America. The sooner-than-expected
Grandchild. Relocating to
North Carolina just
In time for its next slide into regressive politics.
The
Wenchuan earthquake, beginnings of recovery.

Reaching our milestone three score and ten with
Most body parts still functional, grieving for those who’ve
Already
departed the planet. Scant chance we’ll have
Another fifty years, but determination to treasure the
Highs
and lows of the together times that remain.

Happy anniversary to the accidental/inevitable
Love of my life.   Love, Jinny

Dental Office Wisdom

Dental Office Wisdom   —by Jinny Batterson

The realization that I’m aging gets brought home to me each time a medical professional who formerly helped take care of me retires (or, worse, dies). By now I’ve been through at least four primary care doctors and an equal number of specialists and dentists. As a cranky older patient, I balk some at new technology, increasing intrusions on my privacy, seemingly endless medical history and insurance forms, frequent changes in practices and practitioners. 

The office where I’m most vulnerable is the dentist’s—registering a complaint is nearly impossible when one’s mouth is filled with dental instruments. As a child, I dreaded going to get my teeth checked—I nearly always had one or more cavities that needed filling. The sound of a dentist’s drill remains one of my least favorite sounds. My dread diminished as I grew up. By the time I left home for college, all of my teeth were healthy and/or filled.

In young adulthood, I encountered my favorite dentist while living in Richmond, Virginia starting in the early 1970’s. I used to get twice-yearly checkups at his home office. I found his practice by walking past it. Because for our first few years in Richmond, my husband and I shared a single vehicle and my automotive access was skimpy and sporadic, I did my best to find ways to limit my needs for private transportation. We lived on a bus line that serviced the downtown office where I worked. That helped. There was a small grocery store near enough to walk to, a couple of restaurants and a custom butcher shop within a three block radius.

One day as I was lugging bags back home from the grocery, I noticed a small metal sign at the edge of the sidewalk: “Alec Epstein, DDS.” The sign hung above a short set of steps leading to a two-story brick house that looked much like the other houses in our older mixed neighborhood of individual homes, small shops, and two or three story apartment buildings and offices.

It had been a while since my previous dental check-up. Such a convenient location beckoned. Later I checked it out. Walking in, I met Dr. Epstein directly—no receptionist, a rather bare waiting room. Just visible through an archway was an examination room with a single dentist’s chair. I set up a tentative appointment for the following week on a day when I knew my supervisor would be on vacation and my workload would be lighter than usual.

Over the years that I went to Dr. Epstein, he never had a hygienist or an assistant. He kept records by hand in manila folders. After my first appointment, he always had my up-to-date chart at the ready when I came in. He’d greet me by name and usher me into the examination room, giving me time to settle into the worn leather dental chair while he reviewed my recent dental history.

“Any problems?” he’d ask before he began looking into my mouth.

Once in a while I’d need a replacement filling or a new one. If anything really complicated was required, he’d refer me to the dental school at the nearby Medical College of Virginia. His fees were amazingly reasonable. On one wall beside the dental chair he’d hung a framed certificate of his dental school diploma from 1940.

In front of the dentist’s chair, high up on the wall to be visible to a patient tipped back during an exam, he’d put photocopies of two cartoons. One showed a pate nearly as shiny as his own, with the caption “God only made a few perfect heads. The rest he put hair on.”

The other, well before the days of the internet or “The Simpsons” TV show, pictured a rough-looking kid of ten or so, spiky hair sticking up in all directions. “I know I’m somebody,” this proto-Bart snarled, “‘cause God don’t make no junk.”

It’s been over thirty years since I last saw Dr. Epstein. According to the obituary I was able to find via internet, he continued seeing some patients until he was past 90, and was only “fully retired” for about six months before heart disease claimed him. He was widely respected in the community for his skill and his service.

Now that we have an internet and instagram and all sorts of ways of spreading words and images at light speed, the “no junk” cartoon has become hackneyed, but I think its message remains important. From time to time, all of us, from spiky-haired kids to amazingly accomplished former First Lady Michelle Obama, have doubts about whether or not we’re good enough. All of us need the reminder from Dr. Epstein’s office wall: “I know I’m somebody, ‘cause God don’t make no junk.”   

Wedding Dress Trees: Of Bradford Pears (and Gnarled Old Oaks)

Wedding Dress Trees: Of Bradford Pears (and Gnarled Old Oaks)    —by Jinny Batterson

A Bradford pear in bloom

Yesterday was a dreary day, made more dreary for me because it contained a memorial service for an elderly former congregation-mate.  We’d had a wetter than usual winter. It seemed the rain would never go away.  Precipitation since the first of December was running about 40% above average.  A late-winter jaunt that my husband and I had recently taken to cities further south had been largely unsuccessful at getting away from the wet. A few sunny days, but mostly just more rain. 

After the memorial service, I drove back toward our condo. The weather alternately showered, drizzled and misted, continuing its uninviting pattern. The white roadside blooms of our area’s Bradford pears and their naturalized cousins temporarily brightened the landscape. A few of the trees reminded me of inverted wedding dresses—puffy, full, virginally white.

I knew a little about this species of tree. Near my former home in Richmond, Virginia, rows of them had been planted as street trees during the 1970’s or 80’s. There, they’d provided ethereal beauty for a couple of weeks each spring. When young, the trees were a welcome addition to the landscape. However, as they aged, they produced mostly headaches. Few lived past twenty, not very old for a tree. Their brittle wood had a tendency to split any time there was a wind stronger than a gentle breeze. During thunderstorm season, city maintenance trucks performed branch clearing chores so regularly they might as well have parked for the summer along the pear-lined street.

Curious for more information about the history of both our departed elder and the Bradford pear, I clicked a few online keys.

According to the obituary that I belatedly read, “Old Jim Quinn,” a long-term member of the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, had served in the military in post-war Europe, but otherwise spent nearly all his 87-plus-year life in North Carolina. He’d married Sonnya, his “Super Chick,” in 1955. During the 1970’s, he’d served two terms on the Raleigh City Council. Later, he and Sonnya became regulars at civil rights marches and demonstrations. Along the way Jim had sired and helped raise several children, designed buildings, helped promote affordable housing before it became a buzzword, and served in numerous other civic capacities. He was known far and wide for his barbecue skills. By the time I knew him slightly, he was gray and a little stooped, if still quick with a smile and a witty remark. 

According to a somewhat critical article (https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/life/2016/03/21/curse-bradford-pear/82070210/), the Bradford pear was introduced as a landscape tree by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1964, imported from its native China and presumed to be sterile. Before long, it was an urban landscape fixture in cities throughout the Southeast. As the first trees aged, problems with their brittle wood became more apparent. Later, problems with cross-pollination with other pear varieties showed up, along with the invasive nature of some hybrid offspring. By now, most towns have stopped planting new Bradford pear cultivars. Some jurisdictions and homeowners have even begun active attempts to rein in Bradford pears and the offspring that can form dense thorny hedges and crowd out native flowering trees.

Bradford pear blossoms

Raleigh, long-time home to Jim Quinn, bills itself as the “city of oaks.” There’s a gnarled old specimen behind our condo, not unlike the gnarled older version of Jim I used to see at church. If Sonnya once in a while looks at her long-ago wedding dress or passes it on to a granddaughter or great-niece for reuse, she must constantly miss the gnarled old oak her life mate grew to become. Here’s to you, Old Jim Quinn.    

Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street

Gathering Walnuts Along Walnut Street   —by Jinny Batterson   

corner of Walnut and Walker            

The first time I remember participating in an autumn ritual of gathering black walnuts (juglans nigra), I was maybe ten or eleven years old. My dad, a small-scale residential building contractor in Maryland’s burgeoning suburbs, would notice, as he traveled from one building site to another, where there were black walnut trees growing along the sides of still-rural roads. He’d make mental notes of the most likely candidates for a bountiful fall harvest. Then, one crisp Sunday afternoon in October or early November, he’d load Mom, me, and my younger brothers and sister, along with some buckets or bushel baskets, into the family station wagon. He’d drive us all to that year’s designated walnut gathering site.

We kids learned to be careful picking up the nuts. If the outer hulls were the least bit bruised, they could ooze a sticky sap onto our hands, turning them walnut brown. Once we’d either filled our buckets/baskets or run out of easily accessible nuts, we’d all pile back into the station wagon and return home.

The next challenge was to find a good way to remove the nuts’ outer hulls, then to keep the partially processed nuts secure from local squirrels until it was time to finish the nut cracking process. Dad tried various mesh screens, or running over the walnuts with the car, or storing the unhulled nuts loose in a shed in the back yard while their outer hulls dried, then husking them like corn. No solution was perfect, but by Christmas we typically had enough partially hulled nuts left to shell out a supply of nutmeats for flavoring cakes and Christmas cookies. Black walnuts’ inner shells are hard. It took a lot of effort with a hammer and a nut pick to get the meats from their shells. We nearly always missed a few choice morsels that were just too difficult to pry out. The flavor of black walnuts in carrot cake or oatmeal-raisin cookies, though, was worth the extra work.        

For a lot of years after I left Maryland, I lived where black walnut trees were scarce. Then one autumn as I was wandering in a suburban park near the central North Carolina condo where I now live, I spied a black walnut tree with nuts on the ground around it. A brief errand back to the condo to get a bucket and some gloves equipped me for suburban foraging. That year’s crop was bountiful enough for both me and the squirrels. My after-harvest squirrel protection measures worked well. The resulting carrot cake was wonderful. For several years afterward, I found enough nuts in this park along aptly named Walnut Street to share with the squirrels and still have my carrot cake.   

Walnut trees, it turns out, do not thrive in deep shade. They need a certain amount of sunlight to achieve their maximum potential, hence their prevalence along roadway edges, in open areas, or in abandoned fields. They are a tree that “does not play well with others”—they produce a substance, jugione, that inhibits the growth of other trees and shrubs in their vicinity. However, their nuts and their wood are both valuable. They also appear on several top-ten lists of temperate region trees which absorb the most CO2, helping mitigate climate change. 

“tree protection area” near major new construction project

This year, the suburban park tree of my past harvests is inaccessible—stretching skyward behind fencing near a new library/parking complex. Though it stands in a “tree protection zone,” I’m not sure if it will survive the construction disruption. Habitat loss is not the only challenge for black walnuts. In the U.S. west, a fungal pest has been decimating walnut groves there. The disease has recently been discovered in Tennessee. If it spreads widely, walnuts may eventually suffer the sorts of die-offs that previously wiped out elms and chestnuts.

We need our trees, especially our mature specimens. Please send thoughts, prayers, and good tree karma to North Carolina’s remaining black walnut trees. While you’re at it, please pay attention to other instances of environmental neglect with potentially awful consequences for us proud, stubborn humans. A recent short clip, “Gone in a Generation”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/national/gone-in-a-generation/?utm_term=.7d70420d76b8, tells the story rather starkly.    

Experiments in Car-Less Living

Experiments in Car-less Living    —by Jinny Batterson

My body periodically tells me it’s no longer young or limber—creaky knees, back twinges, huffing up hills, diminished stamina, hearing difficulties, memory lapses.

The biggest problem is my eyes. Most of my life I’ve been nearsighted, my vision corrected with either glasses or contact lenses. Unfortunately, my aging orbs have recently developed both glaucoma (probably an inherited trait) and cataracts. The glaucoma, caught early, has done minimal harm, with further damage slowed or stopped by medication. The cataracts will sooner or later require corrective surgery. In the meantime, my night vision is declining. I try to avoid driving after dark. For those evening events I really don’t want to miss, I do my best to catch rides.

Last weekend I traveled out of town to my previous hometown of Richmond, VA. During this midwinter solo getaway, I’d visit with former classmates and friends, touch base with my financial advisor, attend a couple of public events. The trip could be a more extended experiment in getting along without a car. I’d made a provisional plan:

1) Get my accommodating husband to drive me and my luggage to the train station, then take the Friday morning train north from Raleigh, NC.

2) Get a former college suite mate to pick me up at the Richmond station and shepherd me around to that day’s activities, then drop me at the suburban hotel I’d booked near my other weekend events.

3) Line up two other friends who lived near the hotel to be my companion/chauffeur, one each for the two other weekend days, with my “Sunday driver” depositing me back at the Richmond train station in time for the mid-afternoon southbound train.

4) Phone hubby and have him pick me and my luggage back up in Raleigh.

The start of the plan worked well—hubby complained only slightly about getting up early enough to drive me to the train station; the train, though slightly late, was very comfortable; my classmate met me promptly at the Richmond station; we shared a leisurely restaurant lunch nearby and began catching up on our respective lives. She then drove me to my Friday afternoon appointment downtown. I wasn’t sure how long it would last. My friend assured me she’d be available for further ferrying duties—just phone her once I was done. After she deposited me at the appropriate high-rise office building, she drove off westward to share babysitting chores with her husband, spending some quality time with their most recent grand baby.

The meeting was briefer than I’d expected, so I decided to experiment with the new high-speed bus that ran from the downtown area west to a shopping center near where my friend and her husband were babysitting. That way, I figured, I’d save her from coping with downtown traffic plus have my own little adventure with public transportation.

The infrastructure of the new bus line was impressive: a dedicated bus lane, ramps to raised bus stops imbedded in the median of a major east-west street, automated ticket kiosks. The first kiosk I came to was out of order. I asked a woman waiting for the next bus where I could get a ticket headed west.

“Maybe the machine at the next stop is working,” she told me, “but it’s quite a ways.”   

Turns out one of the design changes for the new line increased the distance between stops. I walked about half a mile, got a ticket, then waited fifteen minutes for the next bus. Overall, the five mile trek to the shopping center took me more than an hour. Not a huge problem for me. Potentially hard on someone with a tighter schedule and/or mobility problems.

After my “Friday chauffeur” had picked me up at the shopping center, we’d caught up more over coffee, and she’d deposited me at my hotel, I got a plaintive phone call from Saturday’s ride. She’d broken a bone. She was in pain, with her arm in a sling. She was temporarily in no shape to drive.

Due to my friend’s injury, my Saturday logistics would be more complicated. Luckily, I’d installed an app on my phone for one of the ride-sharing services that’s recently sprung up in some American cities. An exploratory check for potential rides turned up multiple possibilities. My scaled back Saturday itinerary could be satisfied using a combination of public bus, walking, and Lyft. On Saturday morning, the hotel front desk directed me to a nearby bus stop; my first errand was just over a mile away along the bus line; a return walk to the hotel was doable, though there were gaps in the sidewalk on a busy street. In the afternoon, Lyft rides to and from my event were less expensive than I’d feared. I found a supper restaurant an easy walk from the hotel. My Sunday ride was healthy and punctual. Needing her chauffeuring was a good excuse to catch up. Hubby picked me and my luggage up with minimal griping.   

My aging eyes have got me thinking about our society’s over-dependence on private automobiles. If I’d previously listened to the frustrations of car-less friends and acquaintances with a mixture of pity and amusement, my turn for similar frustrations might arrive sooner than expected. I’m still lucky—I can afford and access alternatives. People with limited economic means can rarely afford a car, for-fee ride-sharing, or extensive public transit. In rural areas, suitable transit isn’t often available. This morning I awoke to a cold snap that had made outdoor temperatures so frigid that in some northern areas, schools and offices were closed, and even the U.S. postal service had temporarily halted deliveries.

An aging population, income disparities, geographic sprawl,  and climate change will severely stress a society accustomed to hopping in the car for every errand and need. Public transportation in the area where I live is spotty, but I’m going to learn more about riding the bus (https://gotriangle.org/how-ride-bus), using ride sharing services, and occasionally engaging a customized pick-up service our town provides. What are your options?