Knock, Knock

Who’s there? Red-bellied . . .

By Susan Campbell

Here in central North Carolina, we are fortunate enough to share the landscape with six different species of woodpeckers. With pileateds being the largest and downys being the smallest, the red-bellied woodpecker is about in the middle. Often it is possible to identify these feisty birds without the aid of binoculars. And once you recognize their loud, rolling calls, you will likely realize how common and widespread the species is.

Found in mixed forests of the Piedmont, pine forests of the Sandhills, and into the flooded bottomlands of the Coastal Plain, red-bellieds are adaptable birds with a rather broad diet. They require sizable dead trees, referred to as snags, for both roosting and nesting. Their heavy chisel-shaped bills are the perfect tools for drilling a new home when need be. Typically, a new cavity is constructed each spring before nesting begins.

Interestingly, both the male and female will take part in creating the new nesting space. However, birds may take advantage of exiting cavities in live pines (created by red-cockaded woodpeckers) in the Sandhills, if the entrance is large enough for them to squeeze through.

Although adult birds do have a reddish wash on the belly during the spring, it is their red head feathers that get people’s attention. The males have bright feathers from their forehead all the way down the back of the neck, whereas the red on the females is limited to the nape. The back, as with many species of woodpeckers, is covered with black and white barring. Young of the year are easily identified by mid-summer — they have gray heads with no red appearing until early fall.

Given their size, red-bellieds are most often seen hitching along the trunks and larger branches of trees, searching for food. They both look and listen for insects of all kinds on, or even in, the bark. They can pry the wood away or will pound on the outer bark to uncover prey hidden underneath. However, they will take advantage of fruit or nuts later in the season. Since they are opportunists, it is not surprising that they also take advantage of bird feeders. Not only will you see them eating suet but also black oil sunflower seeds. Sugar water feeders may even be attractive to them. The birds can become a nuisance if they become too vigorous and break the feeding ports on hummingbird feeders in their attempts to reach the nectar inside.

Red-bellieds are readily identifiable in flight, given the translucent white patches near the wingtips. Their size and undulating flight style also aid in identification. The fact that they tend to be vocal when on the wing at this time of the year also gives them away. So keep an ear out and an eye to the sky — one of these handsome birds may just get your attention sometime soon.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to receive your wildlife photos and reports. She can be reached at



As the day star rises over a frozen field,

kissing the roofs of houses, the barren

limbs of pin oak trees and the long arm

of the church spire reaching toward the

wintry sky, I can’t help but think of the

rock pigeons we saw huddled wing-to-

wing early last evening, on two ropes of

electrical wire. We passed by them so

quickly, I only glimpsed these dozens of

dozing birds, though long enough to note

their cozy coexistence, their companion-

able willingness to keep each other warm.

Heads tucked into their necks, their chests

puffed like rising pastries, most slept but

a few, perhaps keeping watch, remained

vigilant. Like twin strings of black pearls,

they enhanced the beauty of the bright

firmament that would soon fold them into

its purpling light — their little bird hearts

beating as one through the cold, dark night.

— Terri Kirby Erickson

Terri Kirby Erickson’s most recent book of poetry is
Sun Inside My Chest.

Art of the State

Wild & Whimsical

Anne Lemanski’s fanciful patterned creatures

By Liza Roberts

If you’ve seen any of Anne Lemanski’s cosmic, colorful animal sculptures in person, you know they look as if they might twitch, or pounce, or slink on by. The skins that cover them — psychedelic prints and unexpected patterns — somehow add to this unlikely effect. Perhaps her multicolored tiger, or her ocelot, or her amazing rabbit, has emerged through a looking-glass portal from some magical realm and wound up in our own?

You’re not far off.

Lemanski’s Spruce Pine studio is in fact an otherworldly laboratory of creation where she doesn’t just make an animal, she learns it inside out. She studies its physicality and psychology, figures out how its haunches tense when it sits back, how they loosen in a run, how its brow might scowl at distant prey. Then she replicates all of that with copper rods she bends, cuts and welds into a three-dimensional sculpture, an armature. In an upstairs made of shipping containers, another act of creation happens, guided not by realism but by intuition. Here, she will create a skin for that armature, make it out of digital photographs or prints or collage or all three, and print it on paper. She will draw and cut a pattern as if she were making a dress or a suit, and sew it all on, piece by piece, with artificial sinew. Her tools — wire cutters and an X-ACTO knife — are the same, simple ones she has used for 30 years. She has no assistants.

On a warm and wet spring weekend, Lemanski is learning mink. Her giant mastiff, Dill, sits nearby. Photographs of mink in every position and resolution surround her, filling a wall and every tab on her computer. She’s learning about what minks eat, how they’re bred for coats, about the recent killing of 17 million Covid-infected mink in Denmark. “Millions! I’m not exaggerating. I was horrified,” she says, shivering. The armatures for a few mink in different positions are underway; one is complete. She holds it in her hands. “Once the armature is done, that’s the most important part of capturing the animal,” she says. “I ripped this one apart like three times. And finally, one day, it just clicked.”

With the armature complete, Lemanski moves on to the mink’s skin, leaning into the collages that form a significant counterpart to her sculpture. Comprised of illustrated images from the pages of pre-1970s textbooks, comic books, picture books, and children’s encyclopedias, Lemanski uses her X-ACTO knife to combine, say, giant squid with convertible cars, pigeons with mermaids, skeletons with alphabet blocks, chewing gum with polar bears. There are butcher’s maps for cuts of meat and colored-dot tests for colorblindness, and constellations and cockatoos — a century’s worth of illustrations shaken and stirred into a cocktail of nature and man, science and myth, technology, geometry, and things that are cool. A series made during Covid, Metaphysical Mineral, explores the properties of a series of eight different minerals. Quartz includes a high diver in a ’50s-era swimsuit, a white stallion and a swarm of bees. Sulphur gets a winding snake, a stick of dynamite and a cigarette.

These individual component images are one of a kind and cannot be replicated; to do so would be to lose the unmistakable texture and character of the Ben-Day dots used in printing from the 1950s to the 1970s (made particularly recognizable by the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein). “I’ve tried [copying them], and it just doesn’t work,” she says. So when she uses these images in a collage, Lemanski tacks them down lightly with a little loop of tape so she can take them off and use them again. This technique also adds to the three-dimensional look of the collages once they’re printed.

She credits a residency at Charlotte’s McColl Center with launching this kind of work. Inspired by the possibilities of the center’s large-format digital printer, she made 12 small collages and printed them in huge dimensions. These prints ended up forming the basis of a solo exhibition at the center that also included sculpture, in this instance a “three-dimensional collage” that incorporated some of the printed collage animals themselves. A 4-inch image of an impala in one print, for instance, became a life-sized impala sculpture in the center of the room that she “skinned,” in a meta twist, in digital prints of the tiny image’s own fur. “That was a challenging piece to make,” she says.

So was the Tigris T-1, a freestanding, life-size sculpture of a tiger balancing on a ball, that was acquired by noted collector Fleur Bresler for donation to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark., a career-catapulting moment Lemanski is still pinching herself about. Her work is also in the permanent collections of The Mint Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Asheville Art Museum and in many private collections. It’s even found its way into wallpaper as part of a fanciful line of sly, butterfly-and-bird-bedecked prints made in Schumacher’s Peg Norris collection, a collaboration between Charlotte gallerist Chandra Johnson and interior designer Barrie Benson.

What’s next is what excites Lemanski most. Lately, she’s been working on an animal that’s captured her imagination for a while: a horse — a life-sized Appaloosa. “Who doesn’t love a horse?” she asks, as she works out the intricacies. “The hooves and ankles of a horse are extremely complex; they’re bulbous, they’re angular, and that’s where all the business happens.” Also in the hopper: her first piece of public, outdoor art — another large animal — to be cast in aluminum. It could mark the beginning of a whole new oeuvre.

“I really am looking forward to the work I’m going to make in the future,” Lemanski says. “I think it’s going to be on a large scale, and I just want to keep pushing the work forward… It’s the unknown of the future that keeps me going.”  PS

This is an excerpt from Liza Roberts forthcoming book Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, to be published by UNC Press this fall.


April Books


Search, by Michelle Huneven

Dana Potowski is a restaurant critic and food writer, and a longtime member of a progressive Unitarian Universalist congregation in Southern California. Just as she’s finishing the book tour for her latest bestseller, Dana is asked to join the church search committee for a new minister. Under pressure to find her next book idea, she agrees, and resolves to secretly pen a memoir, with recipes, about the experience. Search follows the travails of the committee and their candidates — and becomes its own media sensation. A wry and wise tale, the James Beard Award-winning author’s food writing and recipes add flavor to a delightful journey.

Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus

Meet Elizabeth Zott: a one-of-a-kind scientist in 1960s California whose career takes a detour when she becomes the star of a beloved TV cooking show. Zott is not your average woman. In fact, she would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. Calvin Evans, her lonely, brilliant, Nobel Prize-nominated colleague falls in love with — of all things — her mind. True chemistry results. But like science, life is unpredictable. Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show, Supper at Six. Her unusual approach to cooking proves revolutionary, but as her following grows, not everyone is happy. Laugh-out-loud funny, this must-read debut novel is studded with a dazzling cast of supporting characters. Lessons in Chemistry is as original and vibrant as its protagonist.

Wingwalkers, by Taylor Brown 

One part epic adventure, one part love story, and one large part American history, Wingwalkers follows the adventures of Della and Zeno Marigold, a pair of Depression-era barnstormers who are funding their journey West by performing death-defying aerial stunts from town to town. When their paths cross with William Faulkner (a thwarted fighter pilot in real life) during a dramatic air show, there will be unexpected consequences for all. With scintillating prose and an action-packed plot, Brown captures the true essence of a bygone era, and sheds a new light on the heart and motivations of one of America’s greatest authors.


Six Walks: In the Footsteps of Henry David Thoreau,
by Ben Shattuck

On an autumn morning in 1849, Henry David Thoreau stepped out his front door to walk the beaches of Cape Cod. Over a century and a half later, Ben Shattuck does the same. With little more than a loaf of bread, brick of cheese and a notebook, Shattuck sets out to retrace Thoreau’s path through the Cape’s outer beaches, from the elbow to Provincetown’s fingertip. This is the first of six journeys taken by Shattuck, each one inspired by a walk once taken by Thoreau. Along the way, he encounters unexpected characters, landscapes and stories, seeing for himself the restorative effects that walking can have on a dampened spirit. Intimate, entertaining and beautifully crafted, Six Walks is a tribute to the ways nature can inspire us all.


What’s Inside a Flower, by Rachel Ignotofsky

Not your ordinary boring science book, What’s Inside a Flower is an art book, a science book, and the book any budding wildlife biologist would want. Stunning illustrations teach not only parts of a flower but the ways they interact with the world. This is the perfect book to welcome spring. (Ages 8-12.)

Cat’s First Baby, by Natalie Nelson

This oh-so-cute newborn baby book is perfect for everyone whose first child was a furbaby. Adding the real thing can be tough for everyone, but shared nap times, snack times and playtimes can bring the whole new family together. (Ages birth-3.)

After the Buzz Comes the Bee, by Robie Rogge

With illustrations by the Caldecott honor-winning Rachel Isadora and a fun flip-the-flap format, After the Buzz Comes the Bee may be everyone’s new favorite animal book. Perfect for lap-time reading. (Ages 3-6.)

I’m Not Scared, You’re Scared,
by Seth Myers

Being big and furry doesn’t equate with being big and brave. That’s when it’s good to have a friend to help get you through the tough spots.  (Ages 3-7.)

Flames of Hope: Wings of Fire Book No. 15, by Tui T. Sutherland

Dedicated Wings of Fire series readers will be waiting at bookshop doors when this final book in the Lost Continent Prophecy Arc hits the shelves. (Ages 9-13.)  PS

Compiled by Kimberly Daniels Taws and Angie Tally.

Hot Trends


By Jason Oliver Nixon
and John Loecke

Green Goddess

Gardening has had a massive resurgence since the pandemic began, so formerly forlorn front yards are displaying a newfound floral bounty. Trees have been trimmed, flowers are blooming blowzily, and stone masons have been busily crafting patios and terraces. But how to connect the interiors of your home with its glorious exterior? Bring the timeless, fresh charms of garden-plucked green hues within — whether in the form of paint, wallpaper, fabrics or rugs. As John says, “If it works in your yard, it will work in your home. And there’s no more cool, soothing neutral hue than green.” Think paint colors such as Soft Fern from Benjamin Moore and Dirty Martini from Clare, and fabrics such as Swans Island in Meadow Green from Madcap Cottage.

Leafy Luxe 

Palmy, balmy interiors — inspired by a mix of the Beverly Hills hotel paired with a jigger of The Greenbrier and Palm Beach’s Colony Hotel — are bursting into bloom. Think traveler palms reaching hither and yon upon wallpaper and lemon trees scampering across sofas. Says Liz Vaughn, a guiding force at Winston’s iconic Gazebo women’s retailer, “Gorgeous palm leaves march across the library at my home and have created a timeless vibe that is one part Dorothy Draper and another part classic escape. Stepping into this room is like taking a mini vacation, no plane tickets required. The color and scale of the grand palm print wallpaper absolutely dazzles our guests.”

Remarkable Rattan

Rattan is finally getting its moment in the sun after seemingly falling out of favor for a blip — but never at Madcap Cottage! And the woven furnishings are not just making star turns on covered porches but also in living rooms and other public spaces. Notes Morgan Cooper, the owner of the glamorous Hive, in Winston-Salem, “Our clients are loving reinterpreted rattan that boasts a dash of unexpected whimsy and wonder. This is definitely not your grandmother’s rattan. And it might be going into a master bedroom or bathroom — not just a sun porch.”

Prince of Chintz 

The pendulum always shifts, n’est-ce pas, so should you really have kept those clothes from the 1970s that made you look like Holly Hobbie to use as so-called “nap” dresses now? Rewind to the 1980s. That decade’s go-to textile, chintz, is having a big resurgence, too. “It’s not the highly polished chintz that we remember from Mario Buatta in 1987,” says John. “And we adored Mario. But today’s chintz is a bit more relaxed, less polished, and with more negative space. Perfect for a sofa or an armchair.”

Think Pink 

“Pink is such a wonderfully flattering hue,” says John. “A pink-hued room will literally take 10 years off your face. And pink can be both feminine and masculine, so the shade can really work in any room of our home — from a living room to master bedroom or bathroom.” Our go-to pink shades include Pink Ground from Farrow and Ball, Rachel Pink from Sherwin-Williams, and Dead Salmon, also from Farrow and Ball. P.S. Our most favorite escape of late is stunning, pink-toned Manor House Room 23 at the amazing Duncraig Manor and Gardens in Southern Pines. Is it the pink walls that leave us feeling so refreshed?

Heavy Metal 

We love using metallic finishes in home design schemes. But don’t think that we are referring to the old adage that “brass and glass equals class.” Think layered. Aged. Patina. Notes John, “Why not embrace metallics on a ceiling to bring light into a room that lacks luster? We often wallpaper ceilings with metallic finishes, and that gentle sparkle really brings a space to life.” A favorite is The Lost City of Silver from Phillip Jeffries — just heaven.

Tried and True 

Noted Winston-Salem landscape architect Jeff Allen turns to classic, timeless garden elements to craft his magical, cooling sanctuaries. Here’s his garden go-to cheat sheet:

1. Boxwoods: versatile, beautiful and sculptural. These classic bushes provide shape and style to any garden and pair well with everything. They can be structural or architectural or can be used as an accent. With regard to the blight, there are varieties that are disease resistant, and there are treatments available.

2. Hydrangeas: dynamic, colorful and dramatic. You can’t go wrong with large sweeps of hydrangeas for dramatic color. Underplant with bulbs to extend the bloom seasonally.

3. Pachysandra: my favorite groundcover. Used liberally in our landscape designs, pachysandra provides continuity with our planting compositions.

Fabulous Follies 

Ah, the great outdoors! But where to kick back and relax and sip a cool sauvignon blanc whilst shaded in splendor? Follies are all the rage in England, and these whimsical garden ornaments are quickly spilling across the pond. Think whimsical temples adorned with columns and plenty of space upon which to toss back on a daybed with book and hooch. Turn to Haddonstone, the England-based cast-stone manufacturer, for whimsical creations that range from temples to pavilions, pergolas and more. Plus, Haddonstone has a U.S.-based arm, so that makes the logistical bits all that much easier.


Make an Entrance 

As we all paused over the past two, gulp, years, we turned our attention to fixing up our homes and addressed areas that had perhaps been long overlooked. One such space that has been a focal point for our clients has been the foyer. Says Anne Rainey Rokahr, the charismatic owner of Winston-Salem’s Trouvaille Home, “The feeling one creates in the foyer sets the tone for the entire house and should therefore never be an afterthought and definitely not a family drop zone. Even if the rest of the house looks a little messy the foyer should always be pristine. And the foyer is the spot to go grand. Pair a spectacular chandelier (always on a dimmer), a one-of-a-kind chest, and a large mirror with a couple of yards of a fine fabric, and you’re on your way!”  PS

Jason Oliver Nixon and John Loecke are the duo behind Thomasville-based Madcap Cottage.

Simple Life

The Cowboy in Me

Old Westerns are the cure for Yellowstone fever

By Jim Dodson

So, there we sat, three old ranch hands around a blazing fire as a lonesome doggie let loose a howl at the moon.

“Sounds like that dadgum dachshund down the street got loose again,” grunted Harry, the quick-draw artist sipping his Buffalo Trace.

“He’s pretty bad,” agreed Timmy the Kid, the tile-slinging merchant. “But that dang goldendoodle across the street ain’t much better. Got a howl on him like a stuck prairie dog.”

Counting women folk (cowboy-speak for “wives”) there actually were six of us gathered round the elegant Tuscan terrace fire pit in Tim and Sally’s beautiful backyard where our brides were drinking excellent white wine and chatting about whatever suburban wives talk about when their husbands are talking like dim-witted ranch hands who have watched too many episodes of Yellowstone, the hottest show on cable TV.

In case you’ve been livin’ under a flat rock in the woods, Yellowstone is the TV saga of rancher John Dutton and his proud but mentally unstable family, owners of the largest cattle ranch in Montana. They are in a perpetual war with an Indian reservation, the national park system and godless resort developers eager to turn their ranch into Club Med West. Think Dynasty with pump shotguns, F-bombs and luxury pickup trucks.

Whether you find Yellowstone appalling or hopelessly addictive, Yellowstone fever has spread like a case of terminal kudzu across the lower 48, turning ordinary dudes like Harry, Tim and briefly me into mini John Dutton wannabes.

As a result of the show’s surging ratings, there’s now even an official Yellowstone Merchandise TV Shop Collection peddling everything from home goods to coffee mugs for riding the urban range in your luxury pickup truck. Down at the auto mall, fancy rigs like the boys from Yellowstone drive can easily set you back 70K.

Back at Christmas, just for fun, I bought the little missus — a.k.a. my wife — an official Yellowstone ballcap and matching sweatshirt that reads, “Don’t Make Me Go Beth Dutton on You,” thinking she might ditch her daily green tea and morning yoga meditation in favor of going a little bit “Beth Dutton.” Every marriage needs a bit of spice.

In case you been watchin’ way too much CNN and worryin’ about stuff like the future of democracy and the free world, Beth Dutton is the smokin’ hot, potty-mouthed, always drunk, oversexed, mean-as-a-rattlesnake daughter of John Dutton, the stoical, monosyllabic, unnaturally stone-faced daddy-rancher with obvious deep inner conflicts, who every now and then shoots some dumb sumbitch who wants his land or wanders uninvited onto it. 

Unfortunately, while I was over at Tractor Supply one Saturday mornin’ trying to decide how many head of cattle I might be able to raise on a quarter acre suburban lot, the little lady dropped off her sexy new Beth Dutton duds to Goodwill — her way of saying the drunk and nasty lifestyle of the modern TV cowgirl just wasn’t her cup of green tea, with or without the Tito’s chaser.

For those of us who grew up in the 1960s idolizing cowboys like Gene Autry, Matt Dillon and Roy Rogers, not to mention the boys from Bonanza and the gals from The Big Valley, these Yellowstone folks aren’t exactly your polite, old-fashioned TV cowboy types who wear white hats, never seem to get dirty and always marry the pretty school mistress in the end.

Must admit, after binging three full seasons of Yellowstone, I suddenly began to miss those kinder and gentler Hollywood cowboys I grew up with and had every intention of someday becoming.

Sitting on a shelf in our library are a pair of small, well-worn cowboy boots, the only things on my feet for the first four years of my life. We lived in the rolling country north of Dallas, a neighborhood that shared a great big pasture full of horses and a burro named Oscar.

Oscar belonged to me — well, my folks. But I fed and talked to Oscar every morning and sometimes got to ride him in the afternoon. I always figured Oscar and I would someday ride off into the sunset together, meet the right gal and finally settle down. Instead, we moved to the city where I rode a bicycle instead of a burro and gave up my boots for a pair of Keds.

The old-style cowboy in me never died, though. He even still shows up from time to time, like when — in search of the Golf Channel or an update on Ukraine — I stumble across old episodes of The Virginian or Maverick on some remote cable channel and watch the entire episode, remembering exactly what happens. Give me a classic John Wayne western or John Ford epic on TCM and I’m also good for the count.

Several years ago, my wife surprised me with tickets to see Glen Campbell at an outdoor arena in Raleigh. Reportedly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Campbell was making his farewell musical tour.

Unfortunately, a thunderstorm broke right at showtime, and Campbell managed only a brief appearance to sing one song before the show was canceled. He passed on not long afterward.

I guess even rhinestone cowboys never die, though, as long as you have their complete hits on Spotify or Pandora radio. When folks drive like the Wild West in my town, I just sing along with Glen.

Twenty-five years ago, I took my daughter, Maggie, then a precocious 7, on an unforgettable, two-month road trip to fish and camp the great trout rivers of the West. We tented beneath glittering stars by the Shoshone River and attended the Friday night rodeo in Cody. We took a rocking McKenzie boat down the Snake and camped for two days in Yellowstone, saw buffalo and a gray wolf, hiked for miles, and drank our bodyweight in root beer. For a full week we rode horses in the Colorado high country around Durango and camped atop a star-strewn mesa in New Mexico. On the way home, we even bumped into the great-granddaughter of outlaw Jesse James near the Red River. She was a nice old lady with a killer smile.

Though I didn’t tell my daughter this for many years, the cowboy in me was actually scouting out places where I could start a new life following a divorce — somewhere in the wide-open, Western spaces where I could stake a new claim, hear the doggies sing and never look back. 

It didn’t quite work out that way, but the trip sure healed something in both of us and bonded us like saddle pals on the old Chisholm Trail. The little memoir I wrote about our journey of the heart is still in print all these years later — and even got made into a film. Maggie herself now lives in the Golden West.

I guess that’s why I was initially drawn to the saga of the Duttons of Yellowstone Ranch, hoping to find some comforting trace of the Western spirit — the inner cowboy — that lives in all of us.

But after three full seasons of Yellowstone, I simply had enough. I went back to old TV Westerns and John Ford movies that never fail to deliver.

My little missus — better known as my wife, Wendy — knew just the thing to perk me up. She brought me a nice big glass of milk and some Oreos as we settled in to watch a couple of my favorite episodes of The Big Valley.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at



By Ashley Walshe

April hath put a spirit of youth in everything.

— William Shakespeare

April is a child of wonder, lord of the mud pies, the crown prince of play.

Yesterday it rained so hard the earthworms learned to swim. Today, the peepers are peeping. The sun is out. The prince of play gathers the essentials:

Large wooden spoon? Check.

Mixing bowl and pie tins? Check, check.

Measuring cups? Don’t need them.

There’s a watering can full of rain on the back porch. Or, there was. The boy squishes across the yard, settles onto the floor of his squashy kingdom.

Mud sings as sweet as any muse. But you must know how to listen.

The boy closes his eyes, readjusts his flower crown and scoops up a wet heap of earth. He dabs a little on his face. He squelches his fingers through it. He digs into the mire with his toes.


This is what the mud said:

In a large mixing bowl, combine two parts squish and one part rainwater. Wriggle your toes as you stir, mixing until the first hummingbird graces the first bearded iris.

When the cottontail rabbits multiply, fold in a dash of wet grass and a fat pinch of redbud before transferring to pie tins.

As the robins pluck their breakfast from the lawn, top with generous layer of dandelion leaves.

Garnish with snakeskin, snail shells and a
dollop of wisteria.

The sun will take care of the rest.


Fairy Rings

Spring is doing what spring does best. The earth is softening, once-barren landscapes now bubbling with tender buds and blossoms. In the garden, asparagus rises like birdsong. And after it rains? Enter Marasmius oreades, aka, the fairy ring mushroom.

If ever you’ve stumbled on a near-perfect circle of these buff-colored, wavy-capped fungi, perhaps you’ve smiled at the amusing “coincidence.” Or maybe it spooked you, particularly if one popped up on your own lawn. (Note: These boomers are known to kill turf.)

Myth and folklore refer to these circles as “fairy rings.” Can’t you almost see it? A wild band of wee folk dancing among these mushroom portals?

Tempting as it may be to step inside a fairy ring, myths warn against it. Long of the short of it, those who are lured inside become captives of an unseen realm where hundreds of years can pass in a blink.

On the subject of fair warnings: The fairy ring mushroom is actually a choice edible with a sweet quality that has made its dried caps the star ingredient of more than a few macaroon and cookie recipes. (Go on, look them up.) But this innocent wildling does have a toxic lookalike. Best not to harvest unless you know for sure. And, certainly, withhold from sautéing them.


How did the pretty foxglove get its name? Etymologists have spun many theories. In 1847, William Fox Talbot proposed that “foxglove” may have derived from “folks’ glove,” especially since the Welsh called the flower maneg ellyllon, aka, “fairies’ glove.”

This much we do know: They are bumblebee magnets.

If ingested, the common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) is highly poisonous to people and animals. In this case, looks can’t kill. But one could see why the Scottish called them “witches’ thimbles.”  PS

The Omnivorous Reader

Writing on the Edge

Short stories that stick

By Anne Blythe

Joanna Pearson, a psychiatrist in the Chapel Hill area, describes herself as a “lapsed poet” on the jacket of her new short story collection, titled Now You Know It All.

Yet, in the 11 stories that plumb the depths of the hearts and minds of a variety of flawed but intriguing characters, it’s clear that Pearson’s poetic touch is not on hiatus. The author deftly describes settings, backstories and eerie omens as the narrators of her mini-mysteries move toward precipices that will forever change their lives.

These stories can be dark, tempting readers to turn their eyes away from characters whose hard-living and messy circumstances have pushed them to a point where they struggle mentally with what is and isn’t real.

It’s difficult to read about James, the foster child (also known as the Devil Boy), the therapist Miss Beth Ann, and her boyfriend in “The Films of Roman Polanski” and not be disquieted by the troubling, manipulative behavior on display in that story. In “Mr. Forble,” you might get creeped out as you read about the disturbed 13-year-old boy who tries to sic the miscreant from an internet hoax on his birthday party guests.

Other characters we meet in Now You Know It All include two sisters at their grandmother’s rural Burke County home who hear about a boy tied up in the barn next door; a pregnant woman in her 40s reliving a previous brutal bout of postpartum depression; and a waitress/bartender wooed away from her small Southern town by a socialite eerily similar to Ghislaine Maxwell.

Pearson builds compassion for her storytellers as they teeter toward their ominous misfortunes, while hooking readers with her descriptive writing.

“There were ruins and fountains and a fury of beeping horns,” Pearson writes in “Rome,” the opener of the book. “Naked putti lounging fatly in marble. Gorgeous long-armed women in skirts and strappy sandals, and young men hanging out of their cars in mirrored glasses. Old men in storefronts arranged cheeses and sausages tenderly, as if they were tucking in sleeping infants while chattering tour groups trailed guides holding red umbrellas, and honeymooners licked perfect gelatos.”

That’s how we meet Lindsay, an American college student exploring Rome with her friend Paul. They’re sick of each other, and as it is with each story in the collection, Pearson does not seduce her readers with an ordinary tale about a young couple exploring their feelings for each other as they travel together in a foreign land. Expect the unexpected.

“We were finally seeing all the things — beautiful, famous things we’d waited all our young lives to see — but we couldn’t appreciate any of it any longer,” Lindsay said.

Then comes the plot twist.

After an unanticipated night of romance with Paul — and him spending the next day worrying about it — Lindsay sets out on her own for a day trip to the Tivoli ruins, leaving her traveling partner alone in bed in the hostel. Along the way she meets the Gooleys, a “seemingly wholesome family” of five blonde-haired girls, a Pentecostal father and mother who she believed to be pregnant.

Not only does Lindsay come to realize the “wholesomeness” of the family she was touring the ruins with might be more of the “slippery quality” that sometimes accompanies such carefully crafted images, she also questions who she really is.

Pearson’s stories rarely conclude with a clean-cut resolution to the many mysteries posed, leaving a sense of uneasiness that gives a nod toward the tumult of our times.

In “The Field Glasses,” Pearson opens with the line: “For weeks my sister Clara had been warning me that there was something in the woods that wanted to eat the children.”

And she closes it with: “There was another call, a different animal this time, joining in mournfully with the first, their voices rising in a strange duet, and I determined it must be two dogs, something wounded and wild in their voices. Through the dark of the trees, I imagined or heard the crack of branches. Something hungry out there. I waited for a figure — my sister, a deer, some other animal — to emerge.”

That’s it. The end of the story. In Pearson’s world, the uncertainty lingers, leaving readers to long ponder not only what’s lurking in the woods but what truly lurks in the minds of the narrators. She shows us how the power of suggestion and expectation can shape her characters’ narratives, as well as our own.

We never really know everything they’re thinking or how what’s roiling below the surface is going to lead to new discoveries.

Pearson’s stories might be short, but they have a long-lasting impression while craftily making you think about life’s mysteries.  PS

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades. She has covered city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

The Kitchen Garden

To Everything
a Season

And spring is for
digging in the dirt

By Jan Leitschuh

These are the best of days, weather-wise.

In the Sandhills, dogwoods and azaleas swell, turning our area into a fairyland. The garden stores and centers see a brisk business in April, as sunny days and pleasant temps lure folks out to tend their yellowed, pine-pollened yards.

And the urge to grow a garden takes hold, to raise a few fresh vegetables for the kitchen.

Now is a beautiful time to turn rich compost and a little lime into our garden beds, preparing the soil to receive seeds and tender transplants. It’s one of the ancient rites of spring, that calls to get our hands in the cold dirt.

Some plants thrive in it, and some languish or rot away. It’s good to have a handle on which do what.

Think of March, April and May as three different planting zones. In late February and early March, sugar snap and snow peas can be sown directly into the garden. They laugh at the cold and provide buckets of sweet snaps for salads, stir-fries and snacks.

Other seeds that thrive in this time period are chard, spinach, turnip, radish, carrots, lettuce, arugula, beets, rutabaga and spicy mustard. Irish potatoes can go in too. Transplants of onions, broccoli, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi and collards can be set out during this time. Pots of parsley, mint and dill seed are herbs that thrive.

If you dislike hot summer gardening and bugs, perhaps you will enjoy just planting an early garden for a fresh harvest. After all, the farmers markets are bursting at the seams come summer.

April allows for further variety. Weather conditions are transitioning, and that is reflected in the soil temperatures. Our last frost date is in early April, meaning the probability is low for a killing frost. The nights are still chilly, but the days grow warmer. The soil, though transitioning, is still quite chilly and can rot certain seeds and even transplants.

Choose seeds and plants suited for this situation. If you’re unwilling to lose a few seeds or plants, early April can be a little tricky, but sound the all-clear after mid-month. Bush snap beans can be pre-sprouted or sown directly. Summer squash and zucchini can go in early, to try to outrun some of the emerging bugs. Plant any sweet corn this month. Set up that cucumber trellis and go for it, especially after the middle of the month.

Southern field peas can start to go in and continue in succession through May. Some peppers can be planted mid-month, though if you are only putting in a few plants, you might wait until the last week of April. Sunflowers can be seeded in if you’d like to attract pollinators to your garden. And fennel is an herb that will thrive.

In April, that itch to plant a tomato hits. Resist.

Who doesn’t love a juicy, homegrown tomato? The garden shops and farmers markets are full of beautiful transplants, and lots of variety — heirloom, grape, slicing/sandwich, plum/paste, and more. Feel free to grab your favorites, but hold off planting them directly in the garden soil. Instead, pot them up in a nutrient-balanced potting soil, and bring your tray of transplants in at night if temps drop low. They will put on healthy root systems and good top growth and be ready to hit the ground running. I find rinsed milk cartons with a few holes punched for drainage to be economical and roomy, growing gorgeous tomato transplants. When the time comes to plant, dig a deep hole, peel back the carton and plant — in May.

By then, the night temperatures are consistently in the 50s. The soil is warming up to receive the last of your garden’s spring input.

Besides tomatoes, you can give heat-loving eggplant the same treatment. It will thank you with strong production. May is the time for direct seeding your okra, and winter squash will thrive. Sweet potato slips planted then will make some fun digging in the fall. Basil, a true heat-thriver, can be safely transplanted or sown — or both.

Enjoy these upcoming spring days, pollen or no. Answer that ancient call to root about in the dirt. I know I will be.  PS

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

The Naturalist

Backyard Bandits

Observing the private lives of a raccoon family

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

As I was walking past our living room window on a bright, winter’s night, something caught my eye. Out in the front yard, beneath a birdfeeder, stood a bandit. The full moon high above illuminated its distinctive hunched back, pointed ears, dog-like snout and bushy tail. Dexterous paws busily scooped up sunflower seeds from the ground, spilled earlier in the day by hungry cardinals and gray squirrels.

I stood quietly and watched as the raccoon turned its attention to the birdfeeder hanging high above its head. Standing on its hind legs, while simultaneously extending its front legs upward, the raccoon grasped the feeder with its paws and slowly rocked it back and forth, emptying more seed onto the ground. The ease at which the precocious critter performed the task left me with the distinct feeling it had done this before.

Over the next 15 minutes, the raccoon repeated this behavior numerous times, eventually emptying the birdfeeder of its contents. Satiated, or perhaps simply because there was nothing left to eat, the raccoon slowly ambled toward the edge of the yard and disappeared into the night, no doubt looking for more mischief elsewhere.

With their striped tails, large eyes, and distinctive black and white markings wrapped around a cute puppy-dog face, raccoons are among the most recognizable of North American mammals. Incredibly adaptive and intelligent, they make their homes in a wide assortment of habitats ranging from remote forests to heavily urbanized cities.

Growing up in rural Eagle Springs, along the western edge of the North Carolina Sandhills, raccoons were always present on the landscape but I rarely saw them. My most memorable childhood encounters with the crafty critters were among the pages of Sterling North’s Rascal and Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, two beloved novels that still feature prominently on my bookshelf. It was not until I moved to a densely populated Virginia city that I was able to observe raccoons, outside in their natural environment, with any detail.

Our 3-acre suburban yard bordered a tidal river and contained a mixture of loblolly pines and hardwood trees. One impressive tree, a tall sweetgum, with a large, open cavity about 15 feet off the ground, stood just outside our second-story bedroom window.

One April morning a few years back, I noticed a raccoon curled up in a tight ball at the cavity entrance. The animal remained there for several days, rarely moving, except to occasionally lift its head and stare at me when I mowed the lawn. After a couple of weeks, I began to worry that the animal might be sick. Toward the middle of May, I woke one morning to find three tiny, young raccoons peering out from the cavity along with the larger animal. The raccoon had not been sick, as I had feared, but was simply pregnant and had given birth to a trio of impossibly cute kits whose antics provided hours of entertainment.

Being able to observe the intimate details of the lives of animals is a rare treat, and so it became a morning routine, with a cup of coffee in hand, to watch the raccoon family for a couple of hours before work. Mother raccoons are attentive, loving and tender, and this one proved to be no exception. Throughout the day, she constantly groomed and nursed her young. As the kits grew, she would often leave the increasingly cramped tree cavity and bask quietly on a nearby tree limb, obviously treasuring a moment of solace from her rambunctious young.

Over time, her routine became predictable. She stayed nestled in the tree cavity with her young for much of the day, occasionally basking on nearby tree limbs when it was hot. At night, she ventured out of the cavity to look for food, always returning by sunrise. Toward the middle of summer, she began to take her young on her nightly forays.


The raccoon family utilized the entire yard but frequented the azalea garden and the patch of dirt beneath the bird feeders, where they eagerly gobbled up spilled sunflower seeds. Several times that summer, I observed the young foraging elbow deep in the river and marveled at the dexterity of their paws as they “washed” their food.

By early fall, mother raccoon weaned her kits and sent them on their way. I am not sure where they eventually settled, but on occasion, I would see a young raccoon dash across a nearby neighborhood street late at night in front of my car and wonder if it might be one from our yard.

We ended up moving away from that riverfront property over six years ago. From time to time, I still think about that mother raccoon and wonder if she might still be alive. With abundant food and adequate shelter — which our yard had in spades — raccoons can live for well over a decade. It is entirely possible she is. Perhaps this spring will find her raising another family of young kits inside the cozy tree cavity just outside our old bedroom window.

Thinking about that now, I can’t help but smile.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at