Farewell to a Fish

leaf strewn mereFarewell to a Fish

Oh, Faramir, your lot was clear: to bring us golden bliss.
Six weeks, alas, would scarcely pass ere something went amiss.
We watched you flutter your bright fins and wait upon your food;
My memory of you must not be of your last, darkened mood.

No, let me rather think on days when you were filled with zest
For flakes and bowl, for water clean (you know we did our best).
But, in the end, our wisdom failed: you sickened, and you died.
No healing touch of king had I; yet, Faramir, I tried.

And will we get another fish? But, no, thought cannot bear
To fill your empty bowl so soon: we’ll wait ’til next year’s fair?
For now, the bowl we’ll stow away–the pebbles and the net;
We’ll bury you beneath the clay, but we will not forget.

So, Faramir, float gently down into this leaf-strewn mere:
A final voyage for steward’s son upon a golden bier.

by Sandra Fleming / Copyright @2017

As you will gather from this tribute, our goldfish Faramir, whose arrival was described here and whose exploits were chronicled here, passed away over the weekend. Saturday morning, my son put a Tetra Flake in Faramir’s bowl before leaving to play chess in a Halloween tournament. Fittingly, my son dressed up as Aragorn, who, like Faramir, is a character in J. R. R. Tolkien’s trilogy, The Lord of the Rings; Aragorn is the stalwart Ranger who eventually becomes King of Gondor. My son had named our goldfish Faramir after the younger brother of Boromir, who is part of the Fellowship of the Ring. Boromir and Faramir are the sons of Denethor, Steward of Gondor, who rules Minas Tirith in the absence of a king. Boromir, the older brother, dies defending Merry and Pippin in The Two Towers. Later in The Two Towers, Faramir appears and aids Frodo and Sam. In The Return of the King, Faramir is injured; he develops a high fever and is rescued from a funeral pyre by the quick actions of Pippin and Beregond, a guard. Near death, Faramir is saved by Aragorn, who, as King of Gondor, has power to heal.

Aragorn at chess tournament

Is this his Viggo Mortensen face or his don’t-take-my-picture face?

When I came home from taking pictures at the chess tournament, I noticed that Faramir was very still—too still for a fish that has always been active; typically, he swims to the surface when he sees one of us coming with the bright orange container of fish flakes. He did not swim up on Saturday. In fact, he was motionless, and I saw his breakfast flake floating, untouched, in his bowl. Alas, I am no king of Gondor and do not have the power to resuscitate even a goldfish. I changed his water multiple times, tried a salt-water bath, and even massaged him, per the directions that I found online. When my husband and son got home, I asked my husband to try to open Faramir’s gills, which was one of the suggestions, but to no avail. Fortunately, my son had done well at the tournament, winning all his games and tying for a first-place trophy, so he was in good spirits when we broke the news to him.

Even though my son named Faramir, I developed an affection for this foundling of a fish, whom we acquired at the fair. I suspect his sudden death may have been because of a change in the type of water we used? We switched from distilled water to spring water after I read an article that suggested goldfish would benefit from the minerals in spring water. At first, he seemed fine, but we didn’t consistently buy the same brand of spring water. As I’ve subsequently learned, spring water varies greatly, and the Great Value spring water may well have had bacteria or parasites that made Faramir sick. At any rate, he hadn’t been very active for the past few days; when I went to feed him lunch on Saturday, I realized that Faramir was unlikely to ever eat a flake again.

Faramir seems unwell

I took this photo of Faramir on Wednesday, October 25, to document his apparent depression. By Saturday afternoon, he was gone.

A week or so before his death, my sister had half-jokingly shared an article with me about how fish can get depressed. Earlier in the week, Faramir was hanging out at the bottom of the bowl, and I wondered if he was depressed. We didn’t have time to move him to the tank, so we continued our routine—three flakes each day, water change every few days. Here I thought I was doing the best thing for the goldfish in switching to the spring water, but, as I so often do when I look up something on the internet, I quickly read one article and stopped. On Saturday I remembered these apt lines from Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism”: “A little learning is a dangerous thing. Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring; / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.” The irony of Pope’s warning to avoid “Spring” water was not lost on me.

It rained heavily Saturday afternoon and evening, and we put off dealing with Faramir. On Sunday, my daughter had invited a friend over, so it seemed courteous to remove the fish bowl. Then my husband had a brilliant idea; some of you LOTR (Lord of the Rings) fans might appreciate his suggestion. He said, “Since Faramir was Boromir’s brother, perhaps it would be fitting for him to go over the Falls of Rauros, too?” He was referring to the way that Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli had put the fallen Boromir into an elven-made boat, which floated over the Falls of Rauros and down the River Anduin to the sea. Giving Faramir’s namesake a waterfall send-off seemed appropriate. Conveniently, we have a water feature with a tiny waterfall in our back yard—hardly the Falls of Rauros but something.

We went out by the pond—it was very windy yesterday, and we even saw snowflakes. After I read my hastily penned elegy, I quoted Pope’s lines about “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Nothing went as planned. My husband videoed both the reading of the poem and the floating of the leaf, but he kept the camera on me rather than on the fish; also, Faramir fell off the leaf immediately and drifted under the falls. Ultimately, we buried him near the pond. I apologize if this over-the-top funeral for a fish seems macabre, but somehow the pomp and circumstance were helpful. I do miss seeing Faramir swimming eagerly up in his bowl every morning.

At least my son isn’t too sad about Faramir’s death, although he no longer has a pet to work with on his Pet Merit Badge for scouts. He wants a dog, and a fish—even a gallant goldfish like Faramir—proved a poor substitute.

From The Two Towers:

Now they laid Boromir in the middle of the boat that was to bear him away. The grey hood and elven-cloak they folded and placed beneath his head. They combed his long dark hair and arrayed it upon his shoulders. The golden belt of Lórien gleamed about his waist. His helm they set beside him, and across his lap they laid the cloven horn and the hilts and shards of his sword; beneath his feet they put the swords of his enemies. Then fastening the prow to the stern of the other boat, they drew him out into the water. They rowed sadly along the shore, and turning into the swift-running channel they passed the green sward of Parth Galen. The steep sides of Tol Brandir were glowing: it was now mid-afternoon. As they went south the fume of Rauros rose and shimmered before them, a haze of gold. The rush and thunder of the falls shook the windless air.

Sorrowfully they cast loose the funeral boat: there Boromir lay, restful, peaceful, gliding upon the bosom of the flowing water. The stream took him while they held their own boat back with their paddles. He floated by them, and slowly his boat departed, waning to a dark spot against the golden light; and then suddenly it vanished. Rauros roared on unchanging. The River had taken Boromir son of Denethor, and he was not seen again in Minas Tirith, standing as he used to stand upon the White Tower in the morning. But in Gondor in after-days it long was said that the elven-boat rode the falls and the foaming pool, and bore him down through Osgiliath, and past the many mouths of Anduin, out into the Great Sea at night under the stars.

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Will Ye Go, Lassie, to the Highland Games?

Monday morning, I woke up with a desire to hear bagpipes. Typically, I’m not the biggest fan of bagpipe music, but I spent Saturday at the Stone Mountain Highland Games, where the playing of the pipes is as much a part of the atmosphere as men wearing kilts and tams. Even after we left the Games, the piping continued at the clan banquet Saturday night and again at the Kirkin’ of the Tartan on Sunday morning. Sunday afternoon, as we drove homeward on the curving mountain roads and gasped at each new display of red, orange, or gold leaves around the bend, my daughter and I listened to an album of bagpipe music. No wonder I’m missing the sound of bagpipes today.

P1110832 (640x480)At any given moment of the Highland Games, at least one person seems to be blowing the pipes: between piping competitions, clan events, and official announcements, the bagpipe’s distinctive voice becomes part of the background noise. Bagpipe music is an acquired taste, and, for the sake of my hearing, I try not to stand too close. But when I hear songs like “Scotland the Brave,” “Highland Cathedral,” or “Amazing Grace” played on the bagpipes, my heart inexplicably rejoices. On Saturday I found myself falling into step and videoing a random band as they marched along the path that weaves through the village of clan tents.

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Clan event? Going to a competition?

On another occasion, as we munched on fish-and-chips and Scotch eggs while watching the caber toss and sheaf throw, I heard a band starting “Scotland the Brave” in the adjoining field. I jumped up, pressed “video” on my phone, and, recording as I went, ran to the field, where a crowd of spectators several people deep blocked my view of the band. It didn’t matter: it was the sound of those pipes and drums that I wanted, and I captured it, even though the video itself is crazily disorienting.

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Sheaf Toss Competition

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Toting a violin around all day is not for the faint of heart.

My daughter and I were attending the Highland Games at Stone Mountain for the second time. Last year, my mother and my nephew came with us. We checked out the clan tents and tried to work out if we were related to anyone, tasted the uniquely Scottish food options (haggis or Irn-Bru, anyone?), and explored the vendor booths. Planning to participate in a Scottish fiddling workshop, my daughter had brought her violin, which she and my nephew took turns playing at the Scottish Fiddling Tent. On Sunday, she impulsively ran the kilted race—it was such a spur-of-the-moment decision that she had to borrow my Nikes—and came in second in the Women’s division. This year, she skipped the kilted race (she needs to acquire a sport kilt for that event; yes, they make such things!), but she brought her violin for the Scottish fiddling competition—the first one held at the Stone Mountain Games in several years.

Jamming at the Scottish Fiddling Tent

Long story short: she won first place in the novice category! Her prize was only a small pin—at the Scottish fiddling competition at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games, the first-place winner receives a large plate—but she also gets the bragging rights, which are well deserved. The competition requirements were fairly rigorous: each competitor had to open with an air and, after a pause, play a march, a strathspey, and a reel without a break between the pieces (to hear what she played, click on the links). She could have used sheet music, but memorization was preferred, as was Scottish attire; she owns a kilt in the Munro tartan, so she was in good shape there. While another competitor’s performance might have been more polished, he couldn’t touch her for technique, difficulty, or expression—not that I’m biased! She picked up a few things at the Scottish fiddling camp she attended this summer (on a scholarship from Clan Lindsay). Just before the judging, a lovely couple from Clan Munro showed up to cheer her on.

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Thanking Clan Lindsay for the scholarship

Whether you have Scottish ancestry or not, the Highland Games are an entertaining way to spend a lovely October day. As the Stone Mountain Highland Games website urges, “Don your tartans if you have them and come join us. No tartan? That’s OK too! EVERYONE can be Scottish for this special weekend celebration.” There is so much to see and hear: musical groups like Raven and Red who sing ballads or bands like Rathkeltair or Stonewall who rock the Celtic vibe; highland dancing, piping, and drumming competitions; demonstrations of Scottish weaponry; traditional Scottish athletic competitions such as foot races, hammer throws, and weight tosses. Exhibits on Scottish falconry, spinning and weaving, sheepdogs, and tartans add an educational aspect to the Games. The children’s activities and games always look appealing, and it’s such fun to see pint-sized people decked out in kilts (no pictures, unfortunately, but kilts and clan members come in all shapes and sizes).

This year, I went to my first whisky tasting. Confession: I’d never tried whisky before, so the distinctions between the different ages were lost on me, but I did like the 18-year variety best. Wandering through the craft and vendor booths is always enjoyable, even if I did succumb to the urge to buy a Robert Burns tea towel and a couple of tartan-related items. Later, we enjoyed a well-brewed cup of tea and a lemon bar as we sat at the Scottish harp tent (unfortunately, the harpists were taking a break then, but you can’t have everything).

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Sampling whisky (see the bottles in the lower right?)

Strolling through the large display of clan tartans is also a highlight of the games. The Tartan Forest backs up to the Scottish Country Dancing exhibit, so I was listening to the caller’s cheerful instructions to dancers as I examined the colorful plaids associated with different clans. Last year, I was surprised to learn how many names were Scottish that hadn’t sounded particularly Scottish to my ignorant ears: Bell, Carmichael, Grant, Young. It seems likely that I have Scottish ancestry, since people have Scottish surnames on both sides of my family tree.

IMG_0753 (640x480)My daughter is the first in our family to truly embrace her Scottish heritage, which comes from her father’s side as well as mine. When she and two friends visited the Grandfather Mountain games a few years ago, they were warmly welcomed by one of the clans, regardless of whether she could prove her pedigree. After wearing clan ribbons and marching with the friendly clan in the Parade of Tartans at Grandfather Mountain, she was hooked on the Highland Games. Now, after a second year of experiencing the highlands of Scotland in the heart of Georgia, I may be hooked, too.

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One Misty, Moisty Morning

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One misty, moisty morning

When cloudy was the weather,

I chanced to meet an old man

Clothed all in leather.

He began to compliment,

And I began to grin,

How do you do? And how do you do?

And how do you do again?

I’ve been storing nursery rhymes in my mental warehouse since I was a little girl. Two Mother Goose books stand out from my childhood: one was “Baby’s Mother Goose,” the cover of which featured a sobbing child (Lucy Locket?) and the Rock-a-bye Baby; the other was a Little Golden book entitled “Nursery Rhymes,” and I particularly remember the pretty pastel illustration for “Lavender’s Blue” in that book: perhaps I aspired to be Queen? As I recall, my older brother and I were allowed to watch only one television show —The Flintstones—so I had plenty of time for looking at the pictures in nursery rhyme books. Like many parents, my mom and dad read aloud to us; being read to frequently was one of the perks of being an older child in a family with six children, or so my mother tells me.

Not only did my parents read nursery rhymes to us, but we also had a record—an LP, vinyl, call it what you will—of nursery rhymes being sung. Our Nursery Rhymes album was released by United Artists in 1962, so I suspect that it belongs to my older brother. (Want it back, Tom?) An extensive series of Tale-Spinners for Children albums was produced in the 1960s. While searching for the Tale-Spinners’ Nursery Rhymes on YouTube, I came across this wonderful Tale-Spinners’ Robin Hood featuring a young Robert Hardy, whom I first encountered on the BBC’s All Creatures Great and Small.  Alas, we didn’t own any of those exciting Tale-Spinners storybook albums, but I was content with Nursery Rhymes (probably because I didn’t know about the storybook records).

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The Famous Theatre Company and the Hollywood Studio Orchestra performed the songs.

I still have the record, so this morning I listened to the now-scratchy chorus singing classics like “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” “Oranges and Lemons”—a childhood favorite—and “Oh, Dear, What Can the Matter Be?” (Listening to children’s songs sung by classically trained adults was not on my agenda today, but authoring a blog will consume your time in strange and mysterious ways.) I was surprised at how well I remembered every inflection, although I had not remembered the jazziness of certain songs or noticed the musicianship of the Hollywood Studio Orchestra; the creativity of “Humpty, Dumpty, Dumpty,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and “Three Blind Mice” must be heard to be appreciated. On the other hand, the upbeat style of “Three Blind Mice” was a little disturbing, given the subject matter,  and “Rock-a-bye, Baby” sounds almost like a dirge (which, in a way, it is).

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Lovely morning glories brighten the misty morning.

Fortunately for my children, I didn’t have this record in my possession when they were young; today I played part of the album for my youngest son, and he pronounced it “scary.” My husband and I continued the tradition of reading aloud to our children, particularly when they were little. Like my parents before me, I read nursery rhymes to my children: I wonder if people still do that? Even if I hadn’t grown up loving nursery rhymes, I would have read them to my children because experts have suggested that listening to nursery rhymes is good for developing minds. (I’ve always been a sucker for parenting advice.) Happily, my mother had kept the books that we had as children, so in some cases I was reading to my children from the very books that were read to me. That turned out to be another perk of being an older child: inheriting books and toys from my parents’ overflowing attic. Since nursery rhymes were read both to me and by me, I can rattle off Mother Goose verses when the occasion calls for it.

Friday morning, as I took a constitutional walk around tiny Lake Tomahawk in Black Mountain, the occasion definitely called for a recitation of “One Misty, Moisty Morning.” The Weather Channel has been referring to this unseasonably warm weather as  “Augtober”—a mixture of August and October—so perhaps the confluence of some weather systems resulted in the very humid conditions on Friday. “Misty,” “moisty,” and “cloudy” all described the scene perfectly.

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Do I always look so serious when I walk at Lake Tomahawk? I hereby resolve to smile on my next walk.

The conditions weren’t ideal for a walk, particularly since I’d forgotten my rain jacket, but thinking about how well the poem fit the occasion helped keep my mind off how damp my hair was getting. I kept opening up my umbrella and then taking it down again (it interfered with picture-taking, and it really was just misting, not raining outright).

While I didn’t meet an old man clothed all in leather, I did meet these gaily adorned ladies:

Lake Tomahawk adjoins a retirement center, so I also met a number of older men and women out for morning exercise, and I encountered mothers pushing strollers and young adults riding skateboards. It’s only a half-mile around the lake, so I tend to run into the same people repeatedly as I’m trying to get in my two miles. I’ve never been sure whether it’s correct to walk clockwise or counter-clockwise around Lake Tomahawk; as the Scarecrow says in The Wizard of Oz, “People do go both ways.” At any rate, it’s polite to smile or make eye contact with people as you pass them: “How do you, and how do you do, and how do you do again?” Sometimes I’ll even make a remark about the weather, but, mostly, we grin and nod.

On Friday, I chanced to pass a woman whom I know—another homeschooling mother who has two kids in college and several still at home. The first time that I encountered her, we smiled and nodded. The second time that we met up on the path, I decided to do more than smile and nod; I stopped to ask her how her kids were doing, and we had a lengthy conversation about homeschool tutorials and dance studios. Meanwhile, the mist and the moist kept coming and going: I put my umbrella away for a while, but then the drizzle started again.

It’s been a strange fall here: warm weather, leaves late to turn, more fog than I remember typically having. But I enjoyed my misty, moisty walk, particularly the spiderwebs glistening with raindrops and the geese and ducks who plunged into the water the moment they saw me approaching with my camera.

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My fascination with “One Misty, Moisty Morning” did not end when I left Lake Tomahawk. This morning I listened to both sides of the Nursery Rhymes LP (and making an almost inaudible recording of Side 2), but I did not find what I was seeking: an older man’s voice reciting “One Misty, Moisty Morning.” I knew that I had heard that nursery rhyme read aloud, and I was stumped when I didn’t find it on the record. I racked my brain, trying to remember other records we listened to as children, when it came to me: Kindermusik! Kindermusik was another one of those activities that were supposed to be good for children, so I spent years taking my kids to Kindermusik classes and playing the CDs. A recitation of the poem is on the Village DewDrops CD, which I own because I participated in the Kindermusik class with my two youngest children. Mystery solved!

“One misty, moisty morning” engraving by Alexander Anderson in Illustrations of Mother Goose’s Melodies

Still, my memory had played tricks on me, confusing my childhood with my children’s. However, I feel reaffirmed in my commitment to Kindermusik: aside from “One Misty, Moisty Morning,” many other nursery rhymes and folk songs were on the DewDrops CD. Folk music is another thing that I loved as a child, and Kindermusik exposed my children to songs from around the world. I decided to quiz my youngest son on his knowledge of nursery rhymes: he said he didn’t know any, but he was able to recite more than he had expected. One day, he may even read nursery rhymes to his children. I can dream, can’t I?

A Day without Butterflies

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A light mist hung over the brilliantly colored maple by the parking area.

Last Saturday wasn’t a good day for a hike: my college son, who isn’t a fan of hikes (probably because I dragged him on too many during his formative years), was home for fall break; a football game that my husband and sons wanted to see was on TV; and the sky had been overcast all day.  But I knew that this week wasn’t going to be good for hikes because of my husband’s work schedule, and I hadn’t been on a walk of any length since Tuesday.

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Skipping the North Carolina-Notre Dame game proved to be a smart play for this UNC fan, since UNC lost.

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To the right of the parking area an overlook shows the valley, filled with clouds. A trail on the right leads to the site where George Vanderbilt’s hunting lodge once stood.

Leaving the boys at home with the football game as a temporary bond—their ages and tastes are quite different, but college football has the power to draw my sons together—my self-sacrificing husband and I drove off on the Blue Ridge Parkway, with the summit of Mount Pisgah as our destination. (My husband was divided in his loyalties, but I take it as a compliment that he chose me over the game.)

Although we’ve camped at Mount Pisgah several times, I can only recall hiking to the summit twice before. In 2001, our youngest daughter was only three, but she handled the 1.5-mile hike up to the summit AND 1.5-mile hike down with amazing determination. (That should have clued me in to her strength of character and her physical stamina. She is now studying ballet in college.) In 2011, we hiked to the top again. By then, our youngest son had joined the family, although my middle son was off at Boy Scout camp, so we still lacked a full roster. On both occasions, what struck me even more than the view of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains were the beautiful butterflies that swarmed around the wildflowers below the observation platform.

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Hard to believe a three-year-old went up and down that trail on her own, but she was determined to keep up with the older kids.

It’s not logical, but somehow I expected to see those butterflies on Saturday, despite the mist that draped heavily over every tree and stone on the trail up to the summit. We’d seen cars with their lights on before we got to Mount Pisgah, but my husband figured they’d forgotten to turn off their lights after leaving one of the tunnels; it wasn’t raining, and there didn’t seem to be a National Park Service ranger on the prowl for speeding vehicles. Silly us: we got to the Mount Pisgah trail lot, looked around at the creeping fog, and said, “Oh. That’s why.”

Still, the sun was peeking through the tiniest bit as we started the climb upward. We’d only been on the trail for a few minutes when we ran into someone we knew: a teacher who was gamely shepherding her two young cousins on the way down from the summit. We exchanged greetings but didn’t think to ask her whether you could see anything from the observation platform. She was scrambling to keep up with her energetic cousins, so she didn’t have time to chat.IMG_0385 (480x640)

You can see where this story is going. After an arduous climb—more arduous than it might have been because we’d forgotten to bring our trusty hiking sticks—we encountered a woman and her daughters coming down from the platform. An unspoken law of hiking is, “Let the faster person pass you,” so we’d stepped aside to let them pass several minutes before. “There’s nothing to see,” she informed us, as we headed towards the creaky wooden steps.

She was right. No butterflies. No view. Just a large antenna, some brown wildflowers, and dense white clouds as far as the eye could see. Frosted with fog, red-oak trees waved their leaves mockingly at us.

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A very Tolkien-ish tree on the trail

But you know what? We had the platform to ourselves. In fact, we didn’t see another person the whole way back down the mountain. I’ll admit I was disappointed that there were no butterflies. I’m no naturalist, but butterflies have been seen as late as mid-October in this part of western North Carolina. Earlier in the week I had seen a blue butterfly at the Arboretum, but the elevation here was much higher. Maybe butterflies only come out when it’s sunny? This could be a learning opportunity.

What we did have on Saturday was atmosphere. The golden leaves glowing through the haze made us feel like we had stepped into a different world. We’ve just finished listening to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so Lothlorien, the golden realm of the elves Galadriel and Celeborn, came to mind immediately. Sure, I’d have preferred to see a brilliant blue sky and blue mountains glazed with the golds and oranges of fall leaves instead of a blank whiteness at the summit. But the effect of flaming leaves against the pale mist was stunning. Magical.

IMG_0389 (640x480)Some sunny day, I’d like to try Mount Pisgah again. But mist in the mountains creates its own beauty, particularly when the leaves are golden and brown and the only sounds you hear are the birds calling, the wind blowing, and your feet tramping down the path towards home.

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Retreating to the Trees

IMG_0308 (480x640)Trees and I are on good terms again. On Tuesday, I even went on a walk at the Arboretum, which is literally “a place with trees.” The North Carolina Arboretum, located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, features many plants besides trees. Its attractions include (but are not limited to) a quilt garden, a greenhouse, outdoor artwork, native plants, a model railroad, a cafe, an outdoor ampitheater, 10 miles of hiking trails, and a bonsai garden (more trees but tiny ones). You get a lot for your yearly membership fee at the Arboretum, which is how my husband justified renewing at the end of September.

To get to the trees, my husband and I took the path on the other side of the Baker Exhibit Building. Immediately, we were shaded by friendly evergreens and hardwoods, which was helpful since it was warming up. We both regretted not having left our jackets in the car. Most of the leaves haven’t changed color yet, although this sassafras sapling is getting into the act. sassafras saplingYears ago, we used to take our kids on the “tree trail” at the Arboretum, which featured 10 trees with a number nailed to the bark. The goal was to identify what kind of tree each was, but an even more important goal was not to accidentally miss one of the 10 trees: if we skipped one, that meant turning around and going back til we found it. I can’t fault my children for being obsessive about things like that, since I am myself. Aside from being one of those activities that gives you the pleasure of checking off tasks, the tree trail (officially called the “Carolina Mountain Trail”) taught me something about trees. I can usually identify those ten types of trees without much trouble: red oak, sourwood, tulip poplar, maple, pine, dogwood, white oak, mountain laurel, sassafras. . . . Oh, well, I remember most of them!

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On Tuesday, our destination was not the Carolina Mountain Trail but the Bent Creek Trail, which meanders alongside a pleasant little stream. Last time we took this trail, I startled a snake sunning himself on the path, but today the only wildlife that we encountered were an elusive blue butterfly, some busy squirrels, and numerous birds. I wish I were better at identifying birds, particularly since my father is a birder who keeps a lifebook of all the birds he’s seen. Still, we enjoyed listening to their calls as we got deeper into the woods.

It was good to be outside on Tuesday: I sometimes think if I could spend a couple of hours walking in the woods every day that I would be a better person. (I would be a happier person and a more fit person, but what would happen to home and hearth and homeschooled child?) Like most of us, I have been struggling to come to terms with the unthinkable tragedy in Las Vegas. On Monday, I was hardly aware of it and happily penned a fluffy piece about missing September. Then, after I’d posted it, I started scrolling through the Reader and browsing on the internet. I began reading more details and trying to fathom what could have prompted such an evil act. How can the world be such a beautiful place and such a terrible place at the same time? But it is.

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Today, as I sit at a bookstore and wait for my son to finish his chess game, I am surrounded by the tranquil beauty and normalcy that I often take for granted. It helps me to recall the lovely woodland scenes that my husband and I saw on Tuesday. You don’t get impressive vistas at the Arboretum; there are a few places where you can glimpse the mountains, but mostly what caught my fancy was down in the forest: a funny red mushroom, a place where the foaming bubbles in the creek had formed something that looked like a mushroom, the flaming red leaves of a slim sapling that caught my eye, an oddly shaped wildflower, the twisted trunk of a mountain laurel in the middle of the path.

At the end of our walk, my husband and I had lunch in the cafe, where the food was better than I had remembered with lots of yummy options. I went with the veggie muffaletta while he had the chicken salad sandwich with apricots, almond, and basil. No pictures of the food, though: I’m trying to cut down on my incessant picture taking, at least if I sense that it is annoying other people. But pictures help me to remember and to relive beautiful moments, so I’m not going to stop altogether. In the foyer of the Education Building, I saw a lovely arrangement of fresh flowers: something about the formality of the arrangement and the predominance of purple flowers, which I associate with mourning, made me think again of the 58 people whose lives were ruthlessly truncated on Sunday.

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Beauty helps to distract us from the horrors, although it doesn’t make them disappear. It doesn’t erase the evil, and, in some ways, it acts as an ironic contrast to the ugliness of life. An acquaintance of mine posted a poem recently that captures that sense of disjointedness: how can the sky be so gorgeous when there is such grief in the world? Yet I hope on, trusting to the providence of a God whose ways are mysterious and inscrutable. He is creator of the beauty and comforter of those who mourn.

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So long, September!

I’m going to miss September. October has just begun, but it’s getting dark earlier, so we have to scramble to get a walk in. Today, I missed that narrow window, so no walk for me. I found myself thinking about all the lovely walks I had in September.

This summer, we went on a number of hikes: for me, a hike is defined as a walk that does not originate from my house and that consists of at least two miles—preferably three and maybe more. Once September came, activities filled up the schedule, and our hikes petered out. Still, we’ve taken some delightful walks on September evenings. Even on days when the temperatures soared, things had usually cooled off by the time we left for a walk.IMG_0034 (640x480)

We walked in the neighborhood (above) and at the Botanical Gardens (below).

We tried a new walk at the Biltmore Estate,

but we also revisited some well-known haunts there.

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The first couple of days after Irma, the Blue Ridge Parkway was closed, and my sons and I reveled in walking along the road; a lot of commuters use it, so it was wonderful to have it to ourselves, aside from a lone cyclist. The next day, the parkway had reopened, which dashed my plans for riding bikes. Instead, we decided to check out the damage Irma had wreaked on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Volunteers had already cleared the trail of fallen trees and limbs.

One night in September, my husband and I drove up to the Pisgah Inn for dinner. We took a walk along the ridge to the place where George Vanderbilt used to have a hunting lodge; unfortunately, we were facing east, so we just got the faintest part of the sunset.

This past Saturday night—the last day of September—we were traveling, so our walk took us around the beautiful campus of Indiana University. It was cool that evening, but, aside from a stray tree or two, the leaves hadn’t changed color.IMG_0268 (640x480)IMG_0278 (640x480)

No doubt I’ll get excited as the fall colors brighten up the parkway, but, at the moment, I’m sad about the end of sweet September. September is the swan song of summer.

When Fish Have Wings: The Exciting Life of a Goldfish Owner

Until yesterday I’d never given thought to the phrase “a fish out of water.” The long-suffering goldfish in “The Cat in the Hat” came to mind immediately, which betrays my age; born in the 1960s, I practically cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss. If you’ll recall, a six-foot cat in a striped top hat shows up uninvited at the home of two children on a rainy afternoon. I’m not sure this storyline would fly in an age of stranger danger, but it’s probably okay to let in a talking cat, even when your mother is out? Promising fun and tricks, the Cat wreaks havoc while the officious family goldfish tries to evict him. Children’s programming was limited back then, and I looked forward to “The Cat in the Hat” TV special. I especially liked the Cat’s song with foreign words: “Cat, hat, In French, chat, chapeau!  In Spanish, el gato in a sombrero!” Still, I felt sorry for the fish, who tries to keep the irrepressible Cat and his minions from destroying the house. Who doesn’t pity the fish when Thing One and Thing Two toss his bowl about as if it were a football or basketball?

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Art from “A Fish out of Water” article on the Dr. Seuss Wiki at FANDOM and licensed under the CC-BY-SA.

Although his bowl nearly breaks during the Cat’s shenanigans, ultimately the fish leaves the safety of water on his own terms: he hops out to scold the Cat or to call for help. A few years after the publication of “The Cat in the Hat,” Seuss’ wife, Helen Palmer Geisel, wrote “A Fish Out of Water” about a fish who outgrows his bowl; her book was inspired by “Gustav the Goldfish,” a short story written by Seuss under his real name, Theodor Geisel. Out-of-water fish must have amused the Geisels. Me? Not so much.

A fish flying from its bowl sounds like something from a children’s book or a Saturday morning cartoon—except that it really happened last night. Imagine my horror this morning when I glanced at Faramir’s bowl to make sure that he’d lived through the night and saw that Faramir wasn’t in his bowl! Since my daughter had already left for work, my first thought was, “Did the fish die in the night? Did Emily dispose of him?” Wildly, I looked around, and there he lay, his vivid orange-and-black body motionless beside the bowl, not gasping for air but staring wide-eyed at me. I shrieked, and my husband came running from the breakfast room.

Bryson may sleep through high winds, but he knows what to do for a dying fish: he scooped him up and put him in the bowl. Breathless (not literally, like poor Faramir), we waited to see what would happen. To my amazement, Faramir seemed to breathe a little. Belatedly, we realized that Bryson should have scooped up Faramir with the net rather than touching him, but at least Faramir was back in the water. Mainly, I was relieved that the fish wasn’t dead . . . yet. By the time my son came down for breakfast, Faramir was moving around a little, although one of his fins seemed to be stuck to his body.

While Bryson drove David to his homeschool classes, I researched what could be done for a fish snatched from the jaws of death. Neither Bryson nor I had much doubt as to why this had happened: Bryson had added water to the bowl before he went to bed, bringing the water level up to just below the rim. Had I been paying attention, I could have told him that was a bad idea: I’d read the day before that it was better for fish living in a bowl to have more air at the top. Alas, I was on Facebook at the time. I don’t fault him. A supportive husband, Bryson had read my post about Faramir and had stepped up his vigilance with the fish’s water. He’d used the trick of diluting, rather than changing, the water with other fish: who’d a-thought this fish would make a break for it?

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“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may not apply to Faramir.

Happily, I found one practical suggestion for Faramir: fish have a slimy coating, which could have been affected during Faramir’s time out of water. Adding water conditioner was the recommendation; fortunately, we had a small bottle in the cabinet. Almost immediately, Faramir’s fin seemed to come unstuck, and his swimming improved. Thank you, fish forums!

Faramir refused to eat even one Tetra-Fin flake, however, which seemed ominous. Then I learned that fish food can go bad. In our ignorance, we’d been feeding out-of-date food to Faramir since bringing him home from the fair. Bryson bought a small container of food and two gallons of distilled water after he dropped off David. When he got home, he moved Faramir to a tiny bowl; next, he emptied the larger bowl and, using distilled water, rinsed off the rocks in a colander. After adding fresh water and water conditioner, Bryson returned Faramir to the bowl and gave him a flake of the new food. Lo and behold, he ate a flake!

Will there be any long-term effects? Who can say? He doesn’t seem quite as active as before, and he still has the black splotches (possibly from ammonia poisoning): maybe they’ll go away, if we keep his water free of waste and leftover food? I’ve also read that the change in color could be genetic; the black-and-orange combination is rather striking—perfect for Halloween! Whether because of his ammonia burns or his personality (do fish have personality?), Faramir has been very active since we brought him home. A little less activity might be good for him.

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Fish with a death wish?

That leads me to the next question: why did he jump? Was it simply because he had the opportunity? Some folks say that goldfish will jump, if you don’t keep a lid on the tank. (On the fish-care forums, there was a lot of hate for those of us who keep fish in an open bowl, but I’ll address that in a moment.) Others suggested that fish jump when breeding or when they don’t like something about the water. With the water level so high, an active fish like Faramir probably couldn’t resist the temptation. Apparently, he has little in common with Karlos K. Krinkelbein, the rule-keeping fish from “The Cat in the Hat.” As my daughter said when she heard the latest development, “He’s a jumper.”

Is a tank in Faramir’s future? Probably—but we don’t want him to suffer the same fate as Merry and Pippin, whom we bought at PetSmart in the fall of 2013 because we didn’t win a fish at the fair that year. See? It’s a lose-lose situation with that fish game at the fair: if you win a fish, you bring home an unhealthy fish; if you don’t win a fish, you have disappointed children whom you placate the next day by buying them healthy fish. For Merry and Pippin’s well-being, we also invested in our first tank, but it wasn’t really large enough for two fish. Right from the start, as you’ll learn if you watch this video of my son introducing the fish to his college siblings, Pippin tended to gobble up all the food, leaving Merry to fend for himself. My daughter’s friend suggested that Pippin should be renamed Fatty Bolger, an amiable hobbit from The Lord of the Rings; presumably, Fatty enjoyed not only a first and second breakfast but even a third breakfast.

Food squabbles weren’t the worst of it, however. One day, my younger daughter rushed up from the basement to report that Merry’s fin was caught in the filter! Even though turning off the filter freed him, his fin was damaged (shades of “Finding Nemo,” but, trust me, that wasn’t a “lucky fin”). Before long, he died. Then Pippin also swam up to the filter, got caught and injured, and died shortly thereafter. See why we have a phobia about tanks with filters? Still, Faramir does need more room (assuming he makes it through the weekend). I’ll have to read up on tanks and filters before we make that transition.

How can I be putting so much thought and energy into this foundling of a fish? Clearly, my son isn’t the only one who cares about him: I found myself talking to Faramir several times today, although I did that annoying parent thing and called him “Frodo” instead of “Faramir.” In my defense, we once owned a betta fish named Frodo. Frodo was very short-lived, but Dave, whom we bought at the same time, lived for more than two years. Dave and Frodo were kept in separate bowls because the pet store people told us two male bettas shouldn’t be in the same space, and they used to glare at one another. After Frodo died, Dave’s existence was less intense but also less interesting. (My daughter dubbed him, “Dave, the Boring Betta.”)

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Merry and Pippin joined the family on September 23, 2013–just one day late for Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ birthday celebration on September 22.

I fervently hope that my next post here will be a typical descriptive piece about one of our hikes and not an elegy for Faramir. While the poet in me might enjoy composing it, the parent in me wants Faramir to live a long and happy life. After so much emotion expended on one fish, it would be nice to get a good return on our investment. That is the problem with fish, though: they’re not much trouble—or not usually—but they can’t go on a walk, or learn tricks, or show affection. . . . I can’t complain: Faramir may be trouble, but he has added more drama to our lives than I was expecting. The moral of this story is, if you name your fish for an epic hero, he may decide to have adventures befitting his name.