When Trees Are Not Our Friends

A couple of weeks ago, my feelings about trees underwent a change. Trees have always seemed like friends to me: I liked to climb them and to sketch them, to sit under their shade and read or to stroll beneath their branches. I’ve thought about changing the name of my blog from time to time, but I like the fact that it gives a nod to Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees.” Heck, I’ve even made the pilgrimage to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Then Irma came along.

Oh, I know I have nothing to complain about, compared to the folks who lost homes, boats, vehicles, livelihoods, and even their lives down in Florida. Still, the morning that we woke up to this sight in our driveway, I began to realize that Tall Trees + High Wind = Potential Catastrophe.IMG_0157 (1280x960)

The night before, violent winds had tossed the trees surrounding our house. After two hours of flickering lights, we were relieved at 12:15 a.m. when the power finally went off and stayed off.  I’d been trying to print my son’s homework (air printers aren’t always our friends, either): every time the internet connection was nearly complete, the lights went out. We armed ourselves with flashlights and went to bed, but sleep was slow in coming.

Most of the trees around our house are hardwoods, but that didn’t matter to Irma. Limbs struck the roof, and mysterious objects crashed to the ground. My husband, who isn’t the worrying sort anyway, wasn’t much comfort: he was trying to sleep in case he got called into work. Drowsily, he told me that hardwoods don’t fall and went back to sleep. Thrashing branches and howling winds with gusts up to 31 mph kept me awake for a long time, but my efforts to see into the dark yard were useless.

Around 4 a.m., the winds died down, and I slept. The next morning, we didn’t even notice the tree in the driveway: a limb had hit my son’s trampoline, but we didn’t see any other damage. Suddenly my daughter, late to her work, dashed in to ask if someone could move a car so she could get out. And there it was, a majestic red oak, no longer destined to shade our yard or provide refuge for squirrels: down it had been thrust by those vicious winds, and down it would stay.

When I looked around at all the trees that could have hit our house, I knew we had dodged a very large bullet. Even the two cars parked in front of our house had escaped. Gazing around uneasily, I realized that we were surrounded by threats: tulip poplars, white oaks, red oaks, sourwoods, maples, and pines glared menacingly at me. No longer did our wooded yard seem a friendly place.

And what to do with this large obstacle blocking our driveway? My husband doubtfully said something about chainsaws and getting his dad to help, but, given his schedule, we agreed that professional help was the best solution. Happily, he knew a guy to call: two hours later, Element Arbor was tackling not only the large oak (wish I’d measured it!) but also a hemlock. The air buzzed with the sound of chainsaws, since our tree was not the only one to fall in the neighborhood.

As my son and I cleaned up the fallen leaves and branches that afternoon—his class had been cancelled, so the unprinted homework was not a problem—I heard the wind from time to time. And I trembled as I would not have the day before. Yet there was beauty even in the broken limbs, especially of the oak trees: never had I seen acorns so fresh and green. What will the squirrels eat this winter, I wonder? Surely the acorns fell too soon, and many will be carted off when the neighborhood crew clears away the brush.

Something about the red wheelbarrow, the crumpled leaves of bright orange and yellow, and the aching green of the new acorns caught at my heart. IMG_0162 (960x1280)After the rain—the ground was drenched, saturated with Irma’s angry tears—everything looked fresh and clean. My son had voluntarily gone out and started clearing leaves from the driveway: he hadn’t done it quite the way I’d have liked, since he’d pushed the leaves to the side rather than sweeping them up and dumping them in the wheelbarrow. But he and I were both busily working outside, feeling industrious, drinking in the cool air that had a nip of early autumn. And how could I be sad any more?

Although Irma brought destruction—in a small measure—to our yard, she also forced us to step out of our normal lives. No orchestra practice that afternoon, no boy scouts that night, no computer to tempt us back inside, and still no power, so my mother-in-law graciously invited us over for dinner. How pleasant it was to sit around her lovely dining table, eating spaghetti and talking of past storms and future plans. My in-laws were happy to share the leftover blueberry pie and softer-than-usual vanilla ice cream that we’d brought over, and we were happy to have a place to charge up all our devices. (I wish I could say that a day without power had cured us of the desire to check our devices, but that would be a lie.)

When we got home, yellow lights were gleaming in more than one window. Hooray for the power workers who had been pushing themselves since the wee hours of the morning to restore power! Aside from the ice cream, everything in the refrigerator seemed okay; even the milk was drinkable, according to my son. And, when all was said and done, the enormous oak tree hadn’t hit our house.

But I do feel sadder, if not wiser. Wisdom would be for us to call in a tree expert some time and have him check the remaining trees, especially those likely to fall on the house. I hate to lose any more trees, but I remember the menace in that howling wind.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

–William Carlos Williams

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Finding Words for Spring

Baker_Street_CD_CoverIn the 1970s, I had in my possession a Broadway cast album of the musical “Baker Street.” Yes, THAT Baker Street, and, yes, there was a musical about Sherlock Holmes, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” and featuring a romance between Holmes and Irene Adler.

Why I owned this obscure LP is the real mystery. I did like reading mysteries, so maybe that’s why my mother — the greatest of all bargain hunters — bought the record for me or my older brother? My brother initiated me into the sleuthing world with the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Encyclopedia Brown; eventually, I graduated to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown, and the like. We found at least one use for “Baker Street”: an instrumental segment from “Finding Words for Spring” served as background music for our “radio” play, “Murder Man,” a long-term project. With our neighbors, my brother and I intermittently recorded the play on my parents’ tape recorder. (Before you get too impressed with our creativity, we borrowed the concept of the “Murder Man” play from an Encyclopedia Brown story.)

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We loved mysteries, and we loved musicals: how could the album be anything but a hit? Devotees of Sherlock though we were, the songs seemed more laughable than laudable.  Was it because we were kids? Maybe we were more discerning than I realized, if reviews of the album are to be believed. Did Broadway patrons agree with us? “Baker Street” hasn’t been revived yet, and, as far as I know, hasn’t been made into a film. The songs weren’t particularly catchy, and Inga Swenson’s rendition of “Finding Words for Spring” was the sort of soprano warbling that sent adolescents running in the opposite direction.

Even so, a fragment of this song floated into my thoughts as I admired the azaleas lining my driveway: “Finding words for spring / Is no easy thing.” Soon, I was flipping through my stash of LPs, but the album wasn’t there — which is just as well, since my turntable stopped working 10 years ago. Maybe my parents have the album? Thanks to YouTube, I was able to listen to “Finding Words for Spring,” as sung by Swenson, and a nostalgic rendering by songwriter Ray Jessel. Surprisingly, the song isn’t about spring or natural beauty; it’s about the difficulty of articulating romantic feelings:

P1080030 (800x600)Finding words for spring

Is no easy thing

Still, I’m sure I’d find a few.

What words could be right

To describe the night?

Somehow, I would find them, too.

P1080035 (800x600)How can one explain

Love’s sweet splendor?

The most tender words won’t do.

You must fall in love;

Then you’ll find that love

Will explain itself to you.

Should you want to praise

Lazy summer days,

I could find a phrase or two.

As for love, mere words —

P1080040 (800x600)Though they’re clever —

They’ll just never, never do.

You must fall in love;

Then you’ll find that love

Will explain itself to you.

Did I misremember the song? The title “Finding Words for Spring” seemed to promise a song about the inexpressible freshness of spring — not a love song. Honestly, it may be more difficult to describe a landscape than to describe one’s love.  At least you can use images from nature as symbols of love or of the loved one’s perfections. But how to depict with mere words the wonders of spring?

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It has been a glorious spring here in North Carolina. Dogwood blossoms have graced my backyard with a snowy whiteness; daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips have added brilliant colors — yellows, blues, oranges, lilacs, reds — to the greening grass. The azaleas have flamed crimson and scarlet and so many shades of pink against an even greener background. Even my teenage daughter has remarked on the abundance of chlorophyll. Now the rhododendrons are coming into their own, with purply-pinks against glossy, dark-green leaves. Soon it will be time for the roses to fulfill their promise.

Whenever I get a free moment, I find myself rushing off for another stroll at the Biltmore Estate. We treated ourselves to season passes this year, partly because of the “Dressing Downton” exhibit that runs through May. There have been afternoons of pure happiness, riding bikes alongside the river, or hiking up a gentle slope to the house, or slowly strolling through the Azalea Garden. Meanwhile, our passes to the North Carolina Arboretum are good through September, so we can enjoy the beauty of spring blooms there as well.

IMG_3971 (800x600)Why am I even sitting at my computer, when I could be outdoors? Spring in the southern United States is beyond beautiful, especially in the early evening, which seems to be the time of most of our Biltmore jaunts.

IMG_3898 (800x600)So, if anyone has wondered why I’m not writing much, I would say, “It’s springtime, silly!” Alas, I am not a gardener myself, but I can enjoy the fruits of other people’s labors at the Biltmore and the Arboretum. I’m thankful that the people who built our house planted so many azaleas, rhododendrons, and dogwoods. Benign neglect has been our policy so far, with remarkably few ill effects.

With the end of the school year upon me, I am unlikely to blog much in the next month. I’m a slow starter, but I like to finish strongly. This is one homeschooling mom who kicks into gear in the second semester, and especially in the final months. “What? We’re not going to get through the one-year American history curriculum? Says who?” Fortunately, my youngest son likes history.

Look for me when it starts to get hot again. My blogging anniversary is coming up in June: I cannot remain inactive until then. And I still have Doug’s challenge to fulfill: five stories about five photos in five days. Can it wait til spring is over?

For now, I’m off on a final April expedition. (Or not. Now it’s raining. The other side of spring.)

Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Woman?

The Arnolfini Portrait. Artist: Jan van Eyck (1434 ). Source: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/ Contact: picture.library@nationalgallery.co.uk  Copyright © The National Gallery, London

Some scholars believe that Jan van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait includes a self-portrait of the artist within the mirror.

“Every man’s work . . . is always a portrait of himself.”–Samuel Butler

Not long after I started blogging, I had an eye-opening conversation with my mother. This blog is the first public writing that I’ve done since college, and she was happy to see me exploring a creative outlet.

My mother explained that she sees my blog as a way for my children to know me better — the real “me,” that is, not just the mom who chauffeurs them, or washes their clothes, or makes sure they do their schoolwork. Her next remark took me by surprise: “You may not realize how much of yourself is in your posts.” Hmmm. Now I felt nervous, wondering what I had unknowingly revealed about myself in my newly minted blog.

The point that Samuel Butler makes here — “Every man’s work . . . is always a portrait of himself” — is one of the reasons that I’ve been wary of writing fiction. What if I unwittingly incorporate real people into my fictional world? If my fiction is to be lifelike, can I avoid using people I know for models? And (shudder) what if those people aren’t portrayed in a flattering light? There is a thin line between the world of reality and the world of fiction: I don’t want to be like fellow Ashevillian Thomas Wolfe, unable to go home again. No satirical descriptions of my hometown, past or present, thank you very much.

But, if Butler’s observation is right, fiction isn’t the only medium that could give me away. This very post will betray something about me — about what I value, what I believe, what I fear, what I love. Am I okay with that? Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe I should change this site’s name to The Tentative Blogger? (I suspect that name is not in high demand.) It’s not as if hordes of readers are flocking to my posts, but someone might stumble upon a part of myself that I try to conceal. Have I unintentionally bared my innermost self to the public eye?

Even when we try to play our cards close to our chest, we may give glimpses of a King here or an Ace there. Any creative endeavor will reveal something about the artist’s personality. There are so many nuances and subtle choices behind a photo or a painting, for instance. What color palette did the artist choose for the portrait of his wife, and why? Fiction, with its need for believable characters, still seems dangerous to me: one’s judgments will surely creep into seemingly innocent descriptions. But is prose any safer? How can you write about the life you know without writing about the people you know?

self-portrait 2015In the end, the blog world is no place for the faint of heart. Neither is the world of literature, of course. The semi-autobiographical work for which Victorian writer Samuel Butler is best known, The Way of All Flesh, was not published during his lifetime, by Butler’s own wish. George Orwell praised Butler for his courage, but how courageous was Butler, if he didn’t want his novel published while he was alive? Perhaps Butler was uneasy not only about his criticisms of Victorian society but also about his self-revelations. The older I grow, the less charm I find in mirrors. Should that distaste carry over to the unconscious mirror of my words, spilling heedlessly onto the screen?

This dialogue begs the question, “Why are you afraid to expose your innermost self ?” Fear of criticism? Fear of self-discovery? Reluctance to accept the face that timidly peers back from the mirror? I am not the person that I wish I were, or the person that I hope to be. If I don’t want the world to get a glimpse of the woman behind the facade, I should stop writing blog posts.


This post was written as part of Silver Threading‘s Writer’s Quote Wednesday event. Thank you, Colleen, for continuing to host this event, week after week. I first encountered Butler’s observation in my son’s English language book. After writing this post, I discovered that the quotation had been abridged. The full quotation reads, “Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself, the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him” (Chapter XIV, The Way of All Flesh).

Ginger All the Way

My children's Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house, November 2006

My children’s Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house (November 2006).

For 22 years, the Grove Park Inn has sponsored a gingerbread house competition: these edible creations take gingerbread architecture to a new level! Many hours of planning, baking, assembling, and decorating go into the construction of each gingerbread “house” — and, usually, some heartbreak as well. Aside from the base, all components of the house must be edible.

Little House in the Big Woods gingerbread cabin (November 2002)

Little House in the Big Woods gingerbread cabin (November 2002)

Despite my lack of domestic skills, my kids have entered houses in the competition three times. I learned the hard way that, yes, you can get food poisoning from Royal Icing. My older daughter’s Little House in the Big Woods cabin even made it to the Top Ten in the children’s category one year!

As you can see from the photo taken in our kitchen the last time a Fleming entered the Grove Park Inn competition, making a gingerbread house wreaks havoc on your actual house. The kitchen chaos is more than repaid by the fun of finding creative ways to use candy, crackers, pretzels, cereal, and, of course, marzipan.

My daughter's rendition of the arrival of Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarfs at Beorn's Hall

My daughter’s rendition of the arrival of Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarfs at Beorn’s Hall from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (November 2010).

She ran out of time, so several plans for embellishing Beorn's Hall had to be abandoned.

She ran out of time and had to abandon plans for embellishing Beorn’s Hall. All 13 dwarfs are rendered with correctly colored capes, however.

Beorn's bee hives, on the other side of the hall.

Beorn’s bee hives, on the other side of the hall.

With several out-of-town guests here to see my younger daughter in The Nutcracker, we decided to make the trek to North Asheville to view the winners — and the non-winners, which are often just as impressive — of the 2014 Gingerbread Competition.

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My photos are a sampling of the teen, adult, youth, and child entries in this year’s competition. If you’d like to see even more gingerbread houses, you can watch a video of the Grand Prize winner or check out photos from the judging at the 2014 competition. The wonderful smell of gingerbread permeated the Grove Park Inn!

And now, back to wrapping those presents . . .

Tea Time with the Master

Wenham Tea House, March 2014

Wenham Tea House, March 2014 (iPhone 5s, edited in PicMonkey)

“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” With this qualified statement, Henry James welcomes us to The Portrait of a Lady, an arena in which Old World and New World meet. His first sentence is masterful: to borrow a line from Jerry Maguire, Mr. James had me at “afternoon tea”  (and “agreeable” didn’t hurt). Mr. James lays the groundwork for his plot as he describes the three men sipping tea on the lawn of an English country house — tea drinkers “not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the occasion,” as Mr. James notes wryly.

Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, does not make an entrance until the second chapter, but the young American is enamored of the Tudor house and its trappings from the moment that she walks onto the lawn: “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful as this.” Mr. James’ naively independent heroine does not find European society as agreeable by the end of the book, but that is a spoiler. At this point, the reader is mentally settling into a cushioned wicker chair and — if the reader is an Anglophile — reveling in a scene that includes not only tea but an eligible English aristocrat. By the time we realize that Isabel, like many nineteenth-century heroines, is a victim of her own illusions, Mr. James has caught us in his novel.

Although I glanced at Leon Edel’s introduction and Mr. James’ lengthy preface recently, I haven’t read The Portrait of a Lady in decades. Mr. James began writing the novel in Venice, where the beautiful view from his rooms was so distracting that he complained about it in the preface. It might be interesting to read his carefully crafted novel now as I would read any book, not because I was assigned to read it (which is how I experienced it). Would I read on to the end, or would I put down the book in exasperation as Isabel refuses one good man after another? I tend to finish books, unless I cannot sympathize with any of the characters, and Isabel, caught between her desire for culture and her wish to remain independent, still compels our sympathy, despite her failings.

I re-read enough of the first chapter to renew my appreciation of Mr. James’ abilities as a writer. His novel first appeared in serial form in two magazines, and he had not completed the novel before the first installments were published in 1880. The opening chapters have the crucial job of getting the reader interested enough to buy future magazines. Clearly, Mr. James is skilled in the art of drawing in a certain kind of reader — a reader who, like Isabel herself, is enchanted with the ceremony of afternoon tea.


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My choice of this famous first line for Writer’s Quote Wednesday was inspired by Lucile’s photograph of a glass teapot. I took my photograph of a glass teapot in March, when I had tea with family members at the Wenham Tea House in Wenham, Massachusetts. To his credit, my brother, who is not much of a tea drinker, suggested that we eat there because he thought his sisters would enjoy it. (He was right. Our one sadness was that another sister and my mother were not there to share the experience.)

As always, thanks to Colleen of Silver Threading for hosting this event. To read other submissions, click here and look for the pingbacks at the end of Colleen’s post. Leon Edel’s introduction appears in Riverside Editions’ The Portrait of a Lady (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963). Text of the post and photo copyrighted © 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

O Brave New World

Miranda:
O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!

Prospero:
‘Tis new to thee.

The Tempest (5.1.181–184)

I had planned to stay off WordPress today, but I wanted to respond to a post that I’d read last night. As I was firmly forcing myself away from my desk, I got a notification from WordPress. Typically, I ignore those, but this one got my attention: “Congratulations on getting 500 total likes . . .” “Total” includes “likes” on my posts and on my comments, and I felt deeply grateful to every WordPress blogger who ever sent a “like” in my direction. Bruce Thiesen‘s “like” for The Edge was the 500th that put me over the edge, so to speak. Too bad there is no jackpot for being #500, Bruce, but I recommend your thought-provoking blog, Ram On.

500 likes

When I started this blog in June, I was unaware of “how many goodly creatures” there are in the blogging community. I have been impressed by the respect with which bloggers treat other bloggers, and the kindness shown to struggling bloggers. Blogging 101, Class of September 2014, was the catalyst that forced me into interaction with other newbies — Beth, Aileen, Deborah, Karen, Terri A and Terri B, April, Lucile, Flavia, RoseRed, Kellie, and Doug are just a few of the many bloggers with whom I crossed paths. I am grateful to WordPress for facilitating those connections: it’s a marketing strategy, but it builds relationships. Blogging has become a “brave new world” in which I interact with people like Teresa and Momma, who live in another hemisphere, and in which I am challenged to post more regularly through events like Linda‘s and Colleen‘s.

In an effort to keep this post short, I cannot thank every individual whose “like” contributed to the 500, but I will note the bloggers whose “likes” for my latest post preceded Bruce‘s lucky “like”: lrod1726, Teresa Ohjswunxin, Dan Antion, Wandering Dawgs, LifestyleswithLia, restoredpeople, fillyourownglass, Victo Dolore,  Priceless Joy, Allison, Terri Webster SchrandtBespoke Traveler, and kcg1974. The bloggers who most recently liked comments are: annanolan2014, Deborah Drucker, thecraftyladyincombatboots, jswunxin, Retirement Lifestyle, Silver Threading, luciledegodoy, Beth, Bespoke Traveler, and sorannymm.

Thank you to the readers who cannot “like” because they are not WordPress bloggers but who have demonstrated support for my blog in other ways. You know who you are!

The Edge

August 2012 (Panasonic Lumix)

Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway, August 2012 (Panasonic Lumix)

When I saw that “Edge” was the assignment for Photography 101, it was only a matter of time before I started thinking about  The Edge. No, I’m not referring to U2’s guitarist. I have a strange fondness for the 1997 adventure film The Edge, which features Anthony Hopkins, Alec Baldwin, Elle Macpherson, and an actor named Harold Perrineau, whom I know as “Michael” in the television show Lost.

Bear with me if you have seen this movie (and forgive the pun). Since some readers might not have watched The Edge, I’ll try to minimize the spoilers. This rather grisly movie (last pun, I promise) takes place in the Alaskan wilderness, where a plane crash strands a bookish billionaire, Charles (Hopkins), and two photographers, Bob (Baldwin) and Stephen (Perrineau). Making a bad situation worse, Charles suspects that Bob has been fooling around with his wife (Macpherson), and a Kodiak bear begins to track them. The Edge is an intense viewing experience, with enough violence, gore, and language to earn it an “R” rating — not usually the cup of tea that this Janeite sips; in fact, I have to cover my eyes or fast-forward in a couple of places.

I Iike The Edge for two reasons: 1) its revenge-of-the-nerd plot; 2) its inclusion of one of my favorite lines in a movie: “They die of shame.” Throw in a script by David Mamet and an excellent cast, and there you have it: a movie that will not only keep you on the edge of your seat but may lodge this dialogue in your brain permanently (that’s what happened to me):

Charles Morse: You know, I once read an interesting book which said that, uh, most people lost in the wilds, they, they die of shame.

Stephen: What?

Charles Morse: Yeah, see, they die of shame. “What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?” And so they sit there and they… die. Because they didn’t do the one thing that would save their lives.

Robert Green: And what is that, Charles?

Charles Morse: Thinking.

As someone who over-analyzes every decision and agonizes over past decisions, I seized on Charles’ quote as wisdom that applies to many situations, not only to occasions that find us literally on the edge of society and survival. No matter how much I may justify my actions later, I blow it — not from time to time but every day. Sometimes the consequences of my mistakes are minor, and sometimes they are enormous. Sure, I should learn from past mistakes, but nothing good will come of permitting myself to be paralyzed by the awareness of my own incompetence.

December 2014 (iPhone 5s)

Edge of the Parking Garage, December 2014 (iPhone 5s)

If I’m running late to an appointment or event, will it help if I “die of shame” on the way, castigating myself for the series of poor choices that led to my being late? It will not. Nor will wasting the first five minutes after I arrive by over-apologizing. Human frailty is a redundant phrase: as Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Criticism, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” Should we hold ourselves to a high standard in our daily actions? Yes. Should we “forgive” ourselves when we stumble and slide along that straight and narrow path? If we don’t, then we may do more damage — not only to ourselves but to those around us.

In the unlikely event that my college kids happen to be reading this, please don’t “die of shame” at the end of the academic semester. In The Edge, Charles implies that thinking would have saved the lives of the people lost in the wilderness. Not necessarily, but assessing the remaining options, now that the door has been irrevocably closed on better options, is the only way out of any bad situation. (Says the woman who can’t seem to schedule her mornings productively.) So study on! Find a study group, limit your internet time, go visit the professor — but don’t die of shame.


Not having gone on any Alaskan adventures recently, I have no edgy photos of charging grizzlies to illustrate my post. I had hoped for a return trip to the Devil’s Courthouse on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where I remember the sensation of being on the edge of the world.  I had to content myself with the edges that I found in a local park and in a local parking garage (above). Adding a black-and-white filter brought out edges and textures in some photos.

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Text and photos copyrighted 2014 by Sandra Fleming. Please do not reproduce them without her permission.