Breaking Bad

It’s Aries’ time to shine . . . and go their own way

By Astrid Stellanova

Star Children, don’t expect a description of the first sign in the horoscope. Aries folks kick over the traces, when anyone dares apply adjectives to them. Lady Gaga. Leonardo da Vinci. Maya Angelou. All Aries, and all tending to have the kind of force field that others notice. Aries don’t take kindly to boredom, following the pack or tradition. They do take kindly to impulse, hacking a trail straight into the thicket and breaking norms right over your head if they have to, all in the name of the Aries fierce individuality. Diamonds, daisies and sweet peas are hallmarks of Aries, which sounds nice, right? Well, diamonds are the hardest substance on Earth — from the Greek word for “unbreakable” — just right for this fire sign. Ad Astra — Astrid

Aries (March 21–April 19)

Nobody would believe it, Ram. But your birthday most always knocks you sideways. What’s in a little ole number, Sugar? You can’t accept your age because you: Don’t feel it, look it and sure don’t act it. However, here you are — and that birth certificate don’t lie. As an actual fact, embracing that scary new number is the first step towards discovering that it may be your luckiest one. Honey, do remember that you are the lucky one until your number is, well, up? (And when did you ever care what somebody else thought, anyhoo?)

Taurus (April 20–May 20)

You, being an unusually mellow and chill Taurus this month, have everybody thrown for a little ole loop. Your newfound self-restraint is about as unexpected as a fainting goat at the petting zoo. Call it age. Call it wisdom. Call it about time. Your friends and family are cheering you on and loving it.

Gemini (May 21–June 20)

The heart wants what it wants. And then, well, snap, it doesn’t. You set out to get what you thought you wanted, made sure you got it, then threw it out the window of a moving car. Now you are going back and forth down that lonesome road hoping to find it and retrieve it. Sugar, it is too late for that, but you’re not too old to learn from it.

Cancer (June 21–July 22)

You remind me of that tea towel that reads: “Loose women tightened up here.” You’ve found a whole new sense of humor, new ways to enjoy yourself and break free, and the road to more discovery is straight ahead. Don’t listen to your critics. If they insist you get tight, do it with a cocktail.

Leo (July 23–August 22)

Some people are like poison ivy, flourishing on shade. That’s the problem with one of your closest confidants. Resist the urge to overshare. As irresistible as the gossip is, it is also toxic and some of that poison will spill onto you if you don’t watch it.

Virgo (August 23–September 22)

Trying to be all things to all people is like trying to teach sex education and driver’s education in the same car! That’s a lot like what you’ve been doing lately — straddling two very different goals and managing neither one. What is your true intention? What do you really want, Honey?

Libra (September 23–October 22)

A recent family fracas left you smarting from a little rope-a-dope. Shake it off, Sugar. Then get yourself a new attitude and close your lips. There is nothing you can say that will make things resolve, and it is not your destiny to leave every family feud with rope burns. It will play out and you can make an exit.

Scorpio (October 23–November 21)

You’re a secret intellectual. You like crossword puzzles and mind games. So, what are you doing joining a book club that only reads beer labels? Why are you hiding yourself when you are smarter than you want to admit? Fess up and step up.

Sagittarius (November 22–December 21)

You didn’t just shoot yourself in the foot. You speared yourself. Lucky for you, this is not a fatal wound. In the future, you will laugh about the way you bumbled your way into a storm of epic proportions, but Honey, right now what you need most is a bandage.

Capricorn (December 22–January 19)

If the good guys really did wear white hats and sit tall in the saddle, life would be easier on all of us. But life ain’t a Western. And, frankly, you have a little secret of your own. If you could unburden yourself and make amends, you might stop picking fights with the bad guys.

Aquarius (January 20–February 18)

Three times. That’s how often an opportunity is going to knock. After that, it may be a dry spell. Opening the door won’t be all that scary, Honey Bun. But letting a good opportunity walk away might be a thing to regret.

Pisces (February 19–March 20)

In the shoulda-coulda-woulda competition, you took first prize. Now try walking the path moving forward, instead of walking it backward. If we got it right the first time, we would all graduate from the big school of life. But nobody does. Second-guessing is not a goal to pursue.  PS

For years, Astrid Stellanova owned and operated Curl Up and Dye Beauty Salon in the boondocks of North Carolina until arthritic fingers and her popular astrological readings provoked a new career path.


At the English-Speaking Union, learning is a lifelong mission

By Joyce Reehling

Sometimes I am lucky enough to stumble into a very good thing. Upon leaving Connecticut we knew that one of the things we would miss most would be the exceptional speakers we went to hear at Fairfield University Open Visions Forum.

The proximity to New York and even Washington, D.C., plus very healthy funding by donors and businesses brought truly great personalities from every possible walk of life. Nothing quite like it was here, or so I thought.

Then I saw that one of my favorite people, Thomas Jefferson, would be speaking in Pinehurst (in the guise of Bill Barker from Colonial Williamsburg), and off I went to get tickets-except that he was coming to the English-Speaking Union, members only. Who the heck were they?

I first feared that it would be folks who thought only English should be spoken in our country, but that is not the case. Nor is it a “dining club for the elite,” as some have said, even though they dine together.

No, E-SU has a history, and a deep and abiding set of principles and purposes.

Sir Evelyn Wrench founded this international education charity in 1918 with the aim of bringing together people from different cultures and languages to find a way to build skills, confidence and communication. The intention was to use a common language, English, to further knowledge, understanding and peace and to provide these skills in a non-political and non-sectarian way.

In 1957, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II became the royal patron and E-SU received a royal charter. Princess Ann took over from Prince Phillip and serves as the present patron.

All very nice as far as that goes for those of us in “the Colonies,” but the real job of our E-SU here in the States and around the world is to foster the learning of English as a tool for those who come from elsewhere, as well as our own students.

I came for the speakers and have stayed for the real work of E-SU, helping middle school teachers and students thrive in debate training throughout their school years as E-SU has fostered — along with their schools — strong teams in several schools across Moore County. They enter our annual competition and may go on to further debates nationally.

We also sponsor and present the annual Shakespeare competition, where high school students study Shakespeare and perform a sonnet and a monologue from his plays.

These skills give young students insight, skill and the ability to study, listen well and present themselves in a public format. No matter what technology does for us, everyone needs to garner these skills, find like-minded folks and continue our learning path all through our lives.

At its headquarters in New York City, English in Action puts people together who can assist new learners in both language and cultural understanding, helping them find the assets they need to turn their lives into productive and exciting ones here while learning to speak English. Whether by choice or fleeing war, whether young or old, these people need help learning English and American culture. E-SU in NYC does that because we believe that common language is essential.

Learning skills to become an American with English are not vastly different from the skills children need to leave home and find their way in the world. Language, listening, communicating clearly and being able to define what you believe and who you are are the things I think E-SU does for new arrivals and for our kids right here at home.

The Luard Morse Scholarships help students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities study at a British university for a semester. The Walter Hines Page Scholarship offers British and Argentine teachers a chance to explore and exchange educational ideas in America.

E-SU also offers extra training in the UK for an array of courses to help bolster teachers and their constant need to be refreshed and reinvigorated for the task of teaching.

As to the “dinner club” thing, yes, it is true that we gather for dinner or lunch, but the real purpose is for us to learn from a series of speakers we bring to Pinehurst or have on our own front door step. In the past, we have hosted some gifted writers like Lynne Olson, who wrote the New York Times best-seller Citizens of London, and Craig Johnson, who writes the wonderful Longmire series of stories of law in the wilds of present day Wyoming.

We gather for international speakers as well, like Dieter Dettke, an expert on European security and Euro-Russian relations; Hodding Carter, journalist and a former spokesman for the U.S. State Department during our hostage crisis in the 1970s; and Capt. Carl Newman (now retired), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Deputy Director for Aircraft Operations, who did 14 years of hurricane hunter flights in one of the world’s premiere research aircraft. These are a sampling, a very few, of the men and women who come to help us be lifelong learners.

A charity that focuses on making learning a keystone of life, keeping English as a gateway to knowledge and communication without destroying other languages or cultures, and above all supporting our teachers and students, that is what the English-Speaking Union turns out to be.

And now, many months of the year Darling Husband and I hear fine speakers while we support our devotion to learning. The funds raised by our Sandhills branch plant deep roots right here and in the world.  PS

Learn more about E-SU and its programs for students and teachers by emailing 

Joyce Reehling is a frequent contributor and good friend of PineStraw.


Why the dogwood flower is the herald of the true new year

By Serena Kenyon Brown

From the Middle Ages until 1752, the English legal year began on Lady Day, that is, the Feast of the Annunciation, which falls — by no coincidence, I’m sure — on the 25th of March, just after the vernal equinox.

Many other creeds and cultures date their years from around this point in the calendar, and as the equinox goes by and we arrive at April, and spring, that seems eminently sensible.

When I was a city dweller I never used to give much thought to the way we see in the New Year during Christmas, bleary-eyed and liverish, awaiting the bills, just as winter’s really starting to sink in its teeth. The only indicators of seasonal change were the London plane trees outside the office window. In the summer they gave the glorious impression that one was working in a treehouse. During the winter they seemed to disappear completely into the permagloom.

I would put my unease around the 1st of January down to overdoing it on the 31st of December, and trudge over Waterloo Bridge into the new year with the rest of the flock.

But outside the urban microclimate it doesn’t make sense, that the year be new when the trees are black skeletons, the hedgerows bare and the fields set thick with frost. It sets us off on the wrong foot, I know now.

The bright red and gold of the Sandhills years brought with them something of a revelation.

In England, spring is all as advertised by the great poets: racing lambs and a host of golden daffodils. Yes, the weather can be a tad cruel — it might warm up in June — but the days are lengthening and the shadows shrinking rapidly.

Here in the Sandhills the dwarf irises are poking up through the pine straw. The evenings are sweet with the scent of pine, the longleaf cones swelling to a fecund purple before they explode the golden pollen that will engulf us all this month. Turtles emerge to sun themselves on beaver-fallen logs. Snakes are slow and hungry, chock-full of hibernated poison. The frogs are warming up for their summer chorus.

Best of all, the dogwoods are blossoming. What could make one feel more optimistic than those delicate constellations dotted through the budding woods?

I had been in the Sandhills about six months, long enough to learn a few of the trails and tracks of the Walthour-Moss Foundation, when I went for a ride, just Castalon and the woods and me. Cas was a dignified warmblood of advancing years and bright bay coat, and, unusual in a herd animal, a preference for human company over equine. He was just the consort for such a venture.

It was early April. There was a dreamlike, slow-motion quality to the day. There was a musk of deer catching in the breeze. A woodpecker hammered from time to time. The sand was deep in the firebreak and Cas and I moved at a leisurely pace, reins long, bay ears flopping. We saw no other horses or riders, though a fox squirrel kept us company for a few hundred yards and there was a flash of sapphire as a bluebird dived into a nesting box.

We thudded softly over a wooden bridge and followed the course of a creek that ran clear over its smooth sand bed. We nudged into Cas’ rocking-horse canter, but within a few strides we pulled up. I was spellbound.

This was my first sight of the wild flowering dogwoods. We stood at the entrance to a dappled world of spring green and broderie anglaise. It was as though we had happened upon the Lady Chapel within the longleaf pines’ cathedral.

We walked very slowly along the creek. I drank in every moment. It was spring distilled.

Though I rode on many more trails, through many more springs, I never returned to that place. I didn’t want to add another layer to the gossamer of memory. I fell in love with the dogwoods that day, and looked for them eagerly in every wood thereafter. When we moved to the little house on May Street I was glad to find that two old dogwoods graced the front lawn. Through the seasons we lived there, those trees came to represent hope and beauty and the careful balance of nature.

Hope, beauty, balance. We need that at a beginning. The new year starts when the first dogwood of the season flowers.  PS

Serena Brown is chilling the champagne for Dogmanay, which she celebrates annually on the night before the first dogwood blooms.

A Legacy of Imagination

Why Weymouth’s creative soul endures

By Stephen E. Smith    Photographs by John Gessner     Illustrations by Harry Blair

If words well chosen are music to the soul, the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities has been the South’s premier concert hall for almost a century.

James Boyd, who built the house on Weymouth Heights in rambling increments early in the 20th century, wrote his four novels, a book of short stories, his many poems and his voluminous correspondence there, and many of the great American writers of the last century visited the Boyds, talking writing in the great room and library and whiling away the evenings over drinks and witty banter.

For the last 40 years, Weymouth has served as a retreat for North Carolina writers who have created literary works of enduring value: Clyde Edgerton, Betty Adcock, Guy Owen, Robert Morgan, Margaret Maron, Fred Chappell, Shelby Stephenson, Wiley Cash — the list of established writers who’ve enjoyed residencies at Weymouth numbers in the hundreds.

Writers residencies and art colonies abound — Poets & Writers lists more than 300 worldwide — but few such entities boast the literary heritage of the Weymouth Center. Author/editor Jonathan Daniels claimed that the Southern Literary Renaissance began in the living room at the Boyd house, but Weymouth doesn’t need hyperbole to bolster its literary credentials. There’s no doubt F. Scott Fitzgerald held forth on the theory of the novel when he visited with the Boyds for three days in June of 1935, and Thomas Wolfe climbed through an unlocked window into the great room on a January morning in 1937, settling in for a four-day respite. Sherwood Anderson was a frequent guest who lingered for weeks, and Maxwell Perkins, the Scribner’s editor whose clients monopolized the 20th century literary canon, enjoyed visits at the Boyd house. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Green was James Boyd’s best friend.

Surely Weymouth’s literary mojo works its magic on contemporary writers in search of inspiration, but the old house’s ambience is also a contributing factor: Slanting afternoon light decants through ancient wavy green glass windows, inspiring moments of pure vision, the jumbled ups and downs and switchbacks of the meandering hallway in the writers’ quarters are likely to encourage inventiveness and awaken the imagination, and each bedroom, uniquely its own universe and named for a writer who visited during the last century, conjures up words ensconced indelibly on the American psyche.

When the house is closed to the public, visiting writers are free to wander rooms, including the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, where voices eloquently resonate. For those romantic nature poets yearning for the natural world, Weymouth’s meticulously maintained grounds with their longleaf pines and springtime weeping cherries are inviting enough, and less than a mile east is the boundary of Weymouth Woods Sandhills Nature Preserve, donated to the state by the Boyds, with its towering pines, wildflowers, wire grass and rare species, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, pine barrens tree frog, bog spicebush, and fox squirrel. 

Best-selling author Wiley Cash, who’s stayed at Weymouth three times in recent years, communed with the ghosts: “I wrote and revised a chapter of my recent novel, The Last Ballad, at Weymouth in the fall of 2015. I was in the Maxwell Perkins room, and I joked with the other residents that Perkins was known for cutting thousands of words from Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and I was hoping his spirit in the room would help me add thousands of words to the book I was working on. He granted my wish.”

Margaret Maron, the author of 30 books, has been a regular writer in residence, accompanied by a group of fellow mystery writers: “We call ourselves the Weymouth 7,” says Maron, “because it was at Weymouth that we held our first writer’s retreat — Mary Kay Andrews, Brynn Bonner,  Diane Chamberlain, Katy Munger, Sarah Shaber, Alexandra Sokoloff, and me. For one heady week, we met every morning to bounce ideas off each other, then retired to our separate solitary spots and wrote until it was time to gather for supper. We’ve scattered now, but those first annual visits helped produce at least 20 books and we shall always be grateful that Weymouth welcomed us so graciously. (Although we could have done without the ghost!).”

The Visiting Writers Program has come a long way in the last four decades since the Friends of Weymouth acquired the Boyd house from Sandhills Community College, and Sam Ragan, Buffie Ives (Adlai Stevenson’s sister), Guy Owen, Paul Green and other luminaries conceived of Weymouth as a writers’ retreat. At an organizational meeting in the dining room, Guy Owen, author of The Ballad of the Flim-Flam Man, joked, “We can put the pornographic writers in the attic of the barn,” to which Ms. Ives, always proper and outspoken, immediately objected: “There will be no pornographic writers at Weymouth!” No one attempts to influence what is written at Weymouth, and it’s unlikely that any of the writers in residence have sidestepped, in the service of middle-class good taste, the truth as they find it. Thus the program has attracted a wide variety of authors from Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and I Am Charlotte Simmons) to Oprah’s Book Club author Robert Morgan (Gap Creek and Boone).

Katrina Denza, who directs the Visiting Writers program, admits that it’s a balancing act. “We try to have double the number of new writers so that every level is represented. And we’re always working to improve the program by having the writers give readings open to the public. Recently, Pat Riviere-Seel read from her memoir-in-progress at Belle Meade and Sharon Swanson showed a film she made about Elizabeth Spencer at Penick. Writers and poets have also volunteered for Weymouth’s Write-On Camp in the summer, and they’ve acted as judges for our Moore County Writers’ Competition as well as serve on the Cos Barnes Fiction Fellowship Committee.”

During a November residency, Clyde Edgerton, who wrote the conclusion to Where Trouble Sleeps at Weymouth in the late ’90s, was back at work on a new novel. He brought his banjo along and on the last Tuesday of the month, sat in with the Weymouth Song Circle, entertaining everyone with his original songs and stories.

Residencies are open to North Carolina natives, current residents, or to those with significant ties to the state. Each applicant must submit a list of publications — poems, short stories, screenplays, novels, articles or works of nonfiction — and a plan to work on a specific project during the stay. A minimum residency of one week is required.

Weymouth provides a room with a desk, bed, reading chair, blankets and pillow — nothing luxurious but more than adequate for the writer who seeks solitude. Linens, toiletries and traveling expenses are the participant’s responsibility. Wi-Fi access is limited to the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame study. The writers’ area of the house has a full kitchen, three baths, a sitting room, covered veranda, and four bedrooms.

“We have a wish list of improvements for the program,” says Denza. “We are constantly looking to upgrade the writers’ experience at Weymouth. We’d like to provide meals for the writers. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the resources to do that, but there are excellent restaurants a few blocks away on Broad Street.”

The writers who stay at Weymouth aren’t there for the cuisine. They believe in words the way a scientist believes in carbon — absolutely. Words permeate the ancient plaster walls, and each new writer in residence applies a fresh layer of literary history.

“There is something extra that lives in one who stays at Weymouth,” writes former Poet Laureate Shelby Stephenson, “the combo of magic and desire in being a writer in residence. I feel nostalgia for the Anderson room as I write those sentences. The joy and glow of wonder in those stories. And in that room I stayed in.”

Shortly after Fitzgerald’s 1935 visit with the Boyds, he wrote of happening upon his younger and more optimistic self: “I was with him again — for an instant I had the good fortune to share his dreams . . . And there are still times when I creep up on him . . . on a spring night in Carolina when it is so quiet that you can hear a dog barking in the next county.”

He may have been recalling his time at the Boyd house, where 80 years on writers continue to find inspiration in the fragile stillness of a Southern night. PS

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

April Books


Women in Sunlight, by Frances Mayes

Julia, Camille and Susan have launched a recent and spontaneous friendship that will uproot them completely and redirect their lives. Susan, the most adventurous of the three, entices them into taking a lease on a big, beautiful house in Tuscany. Though novices in a foreign culture, their renewed sense of adventure imbues each of them with a bright sense of bravery, gusto for life, and a fierce determination to thrive. With their new friend, Kit, an American writer, the three friends launch themselves into Italian life, pursuing passions long forgotten. Women in Sunlight reads like a Nora Ephron movie that no one wants to end.

Swimming Between Worlds, by Elaine Neil Orr 

When Tacker, a football hero who just lost his prestigious engineering job in West Africa, and Kate Monroe, a recent college graduate whose parents just passed away, encounter a young African-American, Gaines Townson, their stories converge. As Winston-Salem is pulled into the tumultuous 1960s, these three Americans find themselves at the center of the civil rights struggle, coming to terms with the legacies of the past as they search for an ennobling future.

Circe, by Madeline Miller 

With unforgettably vivid characters, mesmerizing language and page-turning suspense, Circe is an intoxicating epic of family rivalry, palace intrigue, love and loss, as well as a celebration of indomitable female strength in a man’s world. A daughter born into the house of Helios, Circe discovers she possesses the power of witchcraft. Threatened, Zeus banishes her to an island where she has her own adventures with mortals and mythological figures alike. She must choose the world in which she belongs.

Macbeth, by Jo Nesbø

Set in the 1970s in a run-down, rainy industrial town with low employment and high crime, Jo Nesbø’s Macbeth centers around a police force struggling to shed an incessant drug problem. Duncan, chief of police, is idealistic and visionary, a dream to the townspeople but a nightmare for the criminals. The drug trade is ruled by Hekate, whose illegal cultivation of substances, known as “the brew,” is overseen by her crew, “the sisters.” A master of manipulation, Hekate has connections with the highest in power, and she plans to use them to get her way in this magnificent retelling of the classical Macbeth tale by a masterful modern storyteller.

Varina, by Charles Frazier 

From the best-selling author of Cold Mountain, Varina is a moving portrait of the Civil War and its aftermath told from the point of view of one of its most compelling and enigmatic figures. Inspired by the audacious and adventure-filled life of Varina Howell Davis, the second wife of President Jefferson Davis, Varina is the forcefully rendered, captivating fourth novel from Frazier, who returns to the time and place of his momentous first novel.

The Secret to Southern Charm, by Kristy Woodson Harvey

After finding out her military husband is missing in action, middle sister Sloane’s world crumbles as her worst nightmare comes true. She can barely climb out of bed, much less summon the strength to be the parent her children deserve. Her mother, Ansley, provides a much-needed respite at the family beach house, putting her personal life on hold to help Sloane and her grandchildren wade through their new grief-stricken lives. Between caring for her own aging mother, her daughters, and her grandchildren, Ansley’s private worry is that secrets from her past will come to light.


Ritz and Escoffier: The Hotelier, The Chef, and the Rise of the Leisure Class, by Luke Barr 

In a tale replete with scandal and opulence, Luke Barr, author of the New York Times best-selling Provence, 1970, transports readers to the Belle Époque era turn-of-the-century London and Paris to discover how celebrated hotelier César Ritz and famed chef Auguste Escoffier joined forces at the Savoy Hotel to spawn the modern luxury hotel and restaurant, where America’s nouveau riche mingled with British high society, signaling a new social order and the rise of the middle class.

The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World’s Rarest Species, by Carlos Magdalena 

In an impassioned memoir about saving extraordinary plants on the brink of extinction, Magdalena takes readers from the Amazon to the jungles of Mauritius to deep within the Australian Outback in search of the rare and the vulnerable. Back in the lab, he develops groundbreaking techniques for rescuing species from extinction, encouraging them to propagate and thrive once again. Along the way, he offers moving, heartfelt stories about the secrets contained within these incredible organisms.

The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table, by Rick Bragg

Enjoy the memories and stories of one of the South’s best writers as he explores his mother’s cooking. Margaret Bragg does not own a single cookbook. She measures in “dabs” and “smidgens” and “tads” and “you know, hon, just some.” She cannot be pinned down on how long to bake corn bread, “about 15-to-20 minutes, depending on the mysteries of your oven.” Her notion of farm-to-table is a flatbed truck.

The Girl Who Smiled Beads, by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil

Raw, urgent, yet disarmingly beautiful, The Girl Who Smiled Beads captures the true costs and aftershocks of war — what is forever lost; what can be repaired; the fragility and importance of memory; the faith that one can learn to love oneself, even with deep scars. Two sisters, refugees of the 1994 Rwandan massacre, travel through seven African countries as refugees, witnessing horrors and kindness. When they are granted asylum in the United States their lives diverge but their bond is unbreakable.

The Truth about Animals: Stoned Sloths, Lovelorn Hippos, and Other Tales from the Wild Side of Wild Life, by Lucy Cooke 

Humans have gone to the moon and discovered the Higgs boson, but when it comes to understanding animals, we’ve still got a long way to go. Whether we’re seeing a viral video of romping baby pandas or a picture of penguins “holding hands,” it’s hard for us not to project our own values — innocence, fidelity, temperance, hard work — onto animals. So, you’ve probably never considered if moose get drunk, penguins cheat on their mates, or worker ants lie about. They do, and that’s just for starters. In The Truth About Animals, Lucy Cooke takes us on a worldwide journey to meet everyone from a Colombian hippo castrator to a Chinese panda porn peddler, all to lay bare the secret and often hilarious habits of the animal kingdom. Charming, and at times downright weird, this modern bestiary is perfect for anyone who has ever suspected that virtue might be unnatural.

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson 

Waist-high in a river in northern New Mexico, Kirk Wallace Johnson has learned from his fly-fishing guide about the 2009 heist of one of the largest ornithological collections in the world. The 28-year-old American flautist Edwin Rist robbed the Tring museum, full of rare bird specimens whose gorgeous feathers, collected more than 150 years ago by contemporaries of Darwin, were worth staggering amounts of money to the men who shared Rist’s obsession: the art of fly tying.  Johnson was catapulted into a worldwide investigation. The gripping story of a bizarre and shocking crime, The Feather Thief is a fascinating exploration of obsession, and man’s destructive instinct to harvest the beauty of nature.


Baby Monkey, Private Eye, by Brian Selznick and David Serlin

He’s a monkey! He’s a baby! He’s a private investigator! Baby Monkey’s adventures come to life in an exciting blend of picture book, beginning reader, and graphic novel. With easy-to-read text and elaborate illustrations by Caldecott Award-winning illustrator Selznick, Baby Monkey is just the cutest thing on the shelf. (Ages 6-10)

My Pet Wants a Pet, by Elise Broach

What starts out as a typical story — boy wants a pet — barrel rolls into a comic tale as each pet soon wants a pet of their own. The perfect story for the family pondering pet ownership, My Pet Wants A Pet reveals that, in the end, when you take care of something, that something takes care of you. (Ages 3-6)

Can I Be Your Dog? by Troy Cummings

Arfy wants a home. Any home! The beautiful house, the butcher, the fire station. Arfy’s not choosy, so he pens notes to everyone on Butternut Street. Unfortunately, no one can seem to accommodate this sweet, literate pup until, surprise, someone steps up. Just like Arfy, this charming little book will find its way into the hearts of readers young and old. (Age 3-6)

Ghost Boys, by Jewell Parker Rhodes.

Jerome is a 12-year-old tragically killed when a police officer mistakes his toy gun for a real weapon. As a ghost, Jerome meets Emmitt Till, another ghost from another time, who helps Jerome understand the devastation unleashed on his family and community. Ghost Boys will haunt the reader long past the final page. Destined to be the novel of the year. (Ages 12 and up)  PS

Compiled by Kimberly Daniels Taws and Angie Tally.

Breath-Holding Time

The perils of a warm winter and protecting tender plants

By Jan Leitschuh

March, they say, comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. But spend a few springs in the Sandhills, and you’ll learn that’s not always true. These are the days that give local farmers pause.

Sometimes a Sandhills March is as soft as a calico kitten. Then, having playfully coaxed the spring-blooming fruits out of their winter dormancy . . . whammo! A late, hard frost slashes vulnerable blossoms and blackens infant fruits. Thought it was spring? April Fools!

Who doesn’t love farm-fresh Sandhills produce? Juicy peaches, tender Sandhills strawberries, sweet blueberries, fall apples? While most of us won’t set out garden plants till mid-April, area fruit producers are “planted.” Our growers hold their collective breath from mid-March to the first two weeks of April, dreading a killing frost. The future of their 2018 crops depends on their ability to thwart the cold.

And yet, “It’s not the cold that we’re worried about so much,” says John Blue of Highlanders Farm, a seventh-generation heritage farm on Highway 22 in Carthage.

“It’s not the cold,” agrees peach and apple producer Ken Chappell of Eagle Springs. “There are peaches that can withstand minus 15 degrees, and produce fruit as far north as Canada.” Plants have a winter-protective mechanism called dormancy. It allows them to withstand bitter, low temperatures. Lengthening days and warm sun awaken the plant to a new season. It shoots out blooms and tender new growth.

It’s when Sleeping Beauty awakens that things get tricky. Timing is everything in fruit production.

“The warm winters of the last couple of years have broken dormancy early,” says Blue. When that happens, the fruit producer has to be super-vigilant in protecting the vulnerable new growth. That can mean extra labor and long, exhausting — even wet — nights until the last frost date has passed.

It’s not unusual to get those late March and early April frosts, but with a warm winter, strawberries and other fruits will bloom early. The plant itself can take a lot of cold, but the blooms are fragile and more prone to freeze than the plant. “When the strawberries bloom in February or even January, they’re just too advanced to hold,” says Blue.

Highlanders Farm grows roughly three acres of strawberries for the pick-your-own market, their own farm stands, value-added ice creams and jams and for the Sandhills Farm to Table produce boxes. Strawberries are a high-value crop per acre, but they are costly to install and maintain — and, potentially, lose.

Damaged blooms mean less fruit so it’s rough on the bottom line. Besides reduced yield, frost kills deliver another economic whammy. “If blooms get damaged we need to pull them off the plant to reduce disease potential,” says Blue. “So, you have time and another labor expense for cleanup.”

For those with pick-your-own fields and farm stands, weird weather can spin the calendar a bit. Mother’s Day is the typical peak of strawberry season. “Some of these strange years throw the picking off,” says Blue. “In a strange year it’s probably peaking a week or two early.”

Luckily, strawberry farmers have a few tricks up their sleeves to hang on to future strawberry shortcakes. Most Sandhills producers use white row covers for frost protection. These spun
poly fabric strips  “get you about five-seven degrees of protection,” says Blue. “You can
use a heavier one, but it lets in less sunlight,” also needed for plant health. Still, “most people are going to a heavier one after the last several years.” Cue the on-and-off row cover dance
on especially warm days. Wind makes the
process even more exciting.

Sprinklers can also protect blooms when temps plunge. Paradoxically, an ice encasement holds tender blossoms safely.  But the intervention takes a lot of water. “Once you start, you don’t want to cut it off until the temperature comes up,” says Blue. “It’s nerve-racking, you can’t risk a machinery breakdown. Last year some were running 12 hours a day for a week or so.”

Eagles Nest Blueberry Farm in Jackson Springs was one farm that used water to protect blueberry and blackberry crops last April.
“The  Southern highbush blueberries are a
little bit hardier than the rabbiteyes, but they also bloom earlier, and sometimes we lose those,” says producer Karyn Ring.  “This year, we’ve already reached our chill hours (the required number of cold temps to set a crop) and they are ready to bloom in early March.
In 2007, with that April freeze, we lost everything — blueberries and blackberries. Since 2007, there’s been a 50-50 chance you’re going to lose 50 percent of your crop.”

This year, Eagles Nest is experimenting with row covers for its blueberries. “We won’t do it on all three acres of the berries,” says Ring. “We’ll try them on the Southern highbush, and attempt to cover one row of two rabbiteye varieties just to see — no point in buying all this fabric if it doesn’t work. “

Chappell Orchards also deploys protective strategies — wind machines. “We have four,” says Chappell, who grows 35 acres of peaches and six  of apples, “but they are only protective when the air is still. Then you can warm four
to five degrees. “

The first two weeks in April “is when we get our damage,” says Chappell. “Last year, it was late March due to early bloom. Two years ago, we managed a third of a crop of peaches, but the apples were damaged. Apples have five seeds, but some got only one due to poor pollination.”

Ah yes, the bees don’t like to fly in cold, wet and windy weather. Toss in another challenge for Sandhills fruit.

And it’s not just fruit. Billy Carter of Eagle Springs likes to roll the dice on a March 10 planting of a cold-hardy variety of sweet corn, planting a heat-loving crop very early to capture the late spring craving for sweet corn.

“It’s a gamble, and the largest portion of the time you’ll make it,” he says. Three years ago, that first planting got wiped out in an April 10 freeze. “The corn is not inexpensive to lose, but you’re making eight to ten successive plantings,” he notes. “With strawberries, you have so much more in that one planting. Corn costs you $125 an acre at that point, where strawberries are a $10,000 investment.”

Not until tax day do area fruit producers let their breath out. “If there’s no freezing weather in sight by April 15, then I feel pretty confident we have that crop of peaches,” says Chappell. “So the first two weeks of April are critical.”

You can fight, but ultimately only do so much. “At a certain point,” says Blue with a rueful laugh, “you just have to go with what’s happening.”

Here’s hoping!  PS

Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative.