March Bookshelf

March Bookshelf

March Books


Finding Margaret Fuller, by Allison Pataki

Young, brazen, beautiful and unapologetically brilliant, Margaret Fuller accepts an invitation from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the celebrated Sage of Concord, to meet his coterie of enlightened friends. There she becomes “the radiant genius and fiery heart” of the Transcendentalists, a role model to a young Louisa May Alcott, an inspiration for Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Hester Prynne and the scandalous Scarlet Letter, a friend to Henry David Thoreau as he ventures out to Walden Pond . . . and a muse to Emerson. From Boston to the gritty streets of New York she defies conventions time and again. When the legendary editor Horace Greeley offers her an assignment in Europe, Margaret makes history as the first female foreign news correspondent, mingling with luminaries like Frédéric Chopin, William Wordsworth, George Sand and others. In Rome she finds a world of passion, romance and revolution, taking a Roman count as a lover — and sparking an international scandal. With a star-studded cast of characters and sweeping, epic historical events, this is a story of an inspiring trailblazer, a woman who loved big and lived even bigger.

Memory Piece, by Lisa Ko

In the early 1980s, Giselle Chin, Jackie Ong and Ellen Ng are three teenagers drawn together by their shared sense of alienation and desire for something different. “Allied in the weirdest parts of themselves,” they envision each other as artistic collaborators and embark on a future defined by freedom and creativity. By the time they are adults, their dreams are murkier. As a performance artist, Giselle must navigate an elite social world she never conceived of. As a coder thrilled by the internet’s early egalitarian promise, Jackie must contend with its more sinister shift toward monetization and surveillance. And as a community activist, Ellen confronts the increasing gentrification and policing overwhelming her New York City neighborhood. Over time their friendship matures and changes, their definitions of success become complicated, and their sense of what matters evolves. Memory Piece is an innovative and audacious story of three lifelong friends as they strive to build satisfying lives in a world that turns out to be radically different from the one they were promised.

James, by Percival Everett

When the enslaved Jim overhears that he is about to be sold to a man in New Orleans, separated from his wife and daughter forever, he decides to hide on nearby Jackson Island until he can formulate a plan. Meanwhile, Huck Finn has faked his own death to escape his violent father, recently returned to town. As all readers of American literature know, thus begins the dangerous and transcendent journey by raft down the Mississippi River toward the elusive and too-often-unreliable promise of the Free States and beyond. While many narrative set pieces of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remain in place, Jim’s agency, intelligence and compassion are shown in a radically new light. Brimming with electrifying humor and lacerating observations James is destined to be a cornerstone of 21st century American literature.

Olivetti, by Allie Millington

Being a typewriter is not as easy as it looks. Surrounded by books (notorious attention hogs) and recently replaced by a computer, Olivetti has been forgotten by the Brindle family — the family he’s lived with for years. The Brindles are busy humans, apart from 12-year-old Ernest, who would rather be left alone with his collection of Oxford English Dictionaries. The least they could do was remember Olivetti once in a while, since he remembers every word they’ve typed on him. It’s a thankless job, keeping memories alive. Olivetti gets a rare glimpse of action from Ernest’s mom, Beatrice, only for her to drop him off at Heartland Pawn Shop and leave him helplessly behind. When Olivetti learns Beatrice has mysteriously gone missing afterward, he believes he can help find her. He breaks the only rule of the “typewriterly code” and types back to Ernest, divulging Beatrice’s memories stored inside him. As Olivetti spills out the past, Ernest is forced to face what he and his family have been running from, The Everything That Happened.




Luigi, The Spider Who Wanted to Be a Kitten, by Michelle Knudsen

Oh, Luigi. The temptation of tasty breakfasts and getting tucked into bed have Luigi thinking kittens must live magical lives. So, a kitten he will be! But how long can he keep up this façade, and what might be at stake pretending to be something you’re not? This is a super sweet pet story from the author/illustrator team that created Library Lion. (Ages 3-6.)

Treehouse Town, by Gideon Sterer

Just below the canopy built on sticks and stilts, that’s where you’ll find treehouse town. With sunset lookout towers, nooks for books, and soft willow tree beds, treehouse town has something for everyone. Snuggle up! This sweet story with illustrations that have stories of their own is the perfect read-together. (Ages 3-7.)

Escargot and the Search for Spring, by Dashka Slater

Bonjour! It is the end of winter and time for Escargot to venture back into the world but . . . do his tentacles look a little droopy? His trail not quite so shimmery? Je suis désolé! It’s time to embrace sunshine. And flowers! And bunnies! Follow everyone’s favorite snail and enjoy the delights of spring. (Ages 2-6.)  PS

Compiled by Kimberly Daniels Taws and Angie Tally.

Poem March 2024

Poem March 2024


In christening gown and bonnet,

he is white and stoic as the moon,

unflinching as the sun burns

through yellow puffs of pine

pollen gathered at his crown

while I pour onto his forehead

from a tiny blue Chinese rice cup

holy water blessed

by John Paul II himself

and say, “I baptize you, Julian Joseph,

in the name of the Father, and of the Son,

and of the Holy Spirit.”

Nor does he stir when the monarchs

and swallowtails,

in ecclesiastical vestments,

lift from the purple brushes

of the butterfly bush

and light upon him.

    — Joseph Bathanti

Joseph Bathanti was the North Carolina poet laureate from 2012-2014. He will be inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in October.



Dianne and Sadie

Growing up in the sisterhood

By Bill Fields

I consider myself a “semi-only child” because I came into the world so long after my sisters — 14 1/2 years after Dianne and 12 1/2 after Sadie. They were both off at college before I started first grade.

If what they say about an adult’s first memories is correct — that they usually go back to when someone was 3 or 4 years old — my recollections of Dianne and Sadie date to their teenage days in the early 1960s, about the time we posed in our Sunday finest in the backyard in the accompanying snapshot taken shortly after my fourth birthday. (They look more comfortable in their nice dresses than I do in a bowtie.)

I remember wanting to play — and them not wanting me to in equal measure — with their lipstick and fountain pens, and being intrigued when they utilized the upstairs bathroom sink to change the color of a sweater with Rit dye. There was often music, from their tickling the ivories on the upright piano in our living room to 45s spinning on a record player.

One vivid musical memory makes me think I have some earlier-than-average recall. As much as “Moon River” and “Chances Are” were a soundtrack to those days on East New Jersey Avenue, a silly pop song in my sisters’ record collection stands out in my mind. “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini,” by Brian Hyland, came out in June of 1960, and I’m convinced its lyrics were among the building blocks of my early vocabulary.

When Dianne and Sadie set out to further their educations at Wake Forest and UNC Greensboro, respectively, I tagged along on rides to and from campus. This proximity gave me a backseat vantage point to our father’s frustration upon taking the wrong exit in Winston-Salem or Greensboro, and fatigue after helping haul his daughters’ stuff to their dorm rooms. Once, our family gave Sadie’s roommate a ride to her hometown of Valdese in the North Carolina foothills. It was about a 100-mile trip but seemed like an exotic journey for a little boy who hadn’t seen much beyond Moore County.

My sisters’ college experiences netted me much more than the Wake and UNCG sweatshirts I got from them for Christmas. If they could go to college, why couldn’t I when the time came? That was a lesson more valuable than anything I was learning at East Southern Pines Elementary. And it didn’t hurt that both were fine students, applying themselves in school. Dianne was high school valedictorian, her name on the wall for years next to a painting of the Blue Knight, which was always a source of family pride as I matriculated through those same halls and classrooms until going to Pinecrest as a sophomore.

My sisters weren’t sportswomen, but I could coerce them into shooting a basket. They tolerated my obsession with miniature golf and joined me for countless games on the carpet, although under oath they would confess to not sharing my sadness when the ball disappeared down the chute on the 18th hole.

The difference in our ages mimicked the gaps between our mother and her two older siblings. Mom always hoped the chronology wouldn’t adversely affect our relationship as we aged, that her children would stay connected as they got older, after she was gone.

Five years after our mother passed away not long before her 96th birthday, we are doing what she hoped. My sisters and I haven’t lived in the same area since they left Southern Pines, but despite the geography we remain in touch. Sometimes we talk on a three-way call, a Jetsonian advance from the days when my sisters were lining up to use the party-line phone to speak to a pal, my little self likely tugging on their hemlines.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.

Golftown Journal

Golftown Journal

Cool Aids

Teaching the feel of a swing

By Lee Pace

The concept of the golf school was still in its infancy in the early 1980s, though pioneers like Peggy Kirk Bell at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club had already been entertaining guests for a quarter of a century for multi-day immersions in golf instruction, competition and fellowship.

The management at Golf Digest magazine believed that golf schools at top-echelon resorts taught by the game’s best instructors would be an excellent way to promote the brand and earn a buck, and so by 1982 the Digest schools visited Pinehurst each spring and fall, bringing instruction luminaries like Jim Flick, Jack Lumpkin, Bob Toski and Gary Wiren to the Sandhills.

Wiren spent time not only on the renowned “Maniac Hill” practice ground at the flagship resort, but he and Peggy Kirk Bell were close friends, and Wiren spoke and taught often down Midland Road at Pine Needles.

Today, one of the foundational training aids in the golf instruction centers at both Pinehurst and Pine Needles (and probably most practice ranges in the Sandhills) is one of Wiren’s inventions. In the early 1980s Wiren played off a favorite drill from three-time British Open champion Henry Cotton in which Cotton had golfers simulate impact by swinging against an old tire — shaft leaning forward, hips clearing and head behind the ball. Wiren thought a softer and safer rendition would be to manufacture a large bag of durable fabric and stuff it with towels.

The bright yellow Impact Bag was introduced in 1982 and became one of the most noted training aids in history. It launched Wiren into a sideline of developing and nurturing the creation of devices to help PGA professionals teach and golfers to learn. Today, at 89 years of age, Wiren and his family operate a business called Golf Around the World, built around an online sales catalog of training devices.

“Telling a golfer is one thing,” says Wiren, who played in the 1994 U.S. Senior Open at Pinehurst wearing knickers and carrying his own bag. “Letting them feel is altogether different.”

Wiren lives in West Palm Beach, Florida, and still makes regular trips each January to the PGA Show in Orlando, where a growing section of the floorspace is dedicated to golfing entrepreneurs who have created better mousetraps to augur a player’s ability to find the proverbial light switch in their golf game.

You might find Jim Hackenburg, who was teaching on Martha’s Vineyard in 2007 when he had the idea of attaching a rubber ball about the size of an orange to a flexible shaft that was designed to help golfers feel the proper motion, sequence and tempo of the swing. Today the Orange Whip is as ubiquitous in golf instruction as the Impact Bag.

Holding court in his booth devoted to his Tour Striker line of training aids is Martin Chuck, an Arizona-based teaching pro. Chuck, frustrated in 2008 by his students’ inability to strike the ball with forward shaft lean, took a 5-iron into his club repair shop and ground off the bottom four grooves of the club, rendering it worthless unless the golfer hit down on the ball sufficiently to force contact in the middle of the clubface — not the bottom edge. Any shot hit on the bottom of the clubface would simply dribble along the ground.

Bernie Fay was a blue collar worker and part-time handyman in Chicago who loved golf and a decade ago conceived a 42-inch polymer shaft with an attached elbow cuff that promotes a wider turn and keeping the left arm straight. He put his life savings into what he calls the “Most Important Stretch In Golf,” or MISIG, for a business name.

“I think that golfers know something that other people do not,” Fay says. “They have something in them that others might not: the light of hope. They have figured out spiritual art. Something beautiful. It’s pure, and I am awestruck when I think about it. The light of hope is always on them.”

This year one of the more novel introductions to the eternal hope for a better golf game is Mike Dickson, a Maryland-based instructor who has created and manufactured a line of devices under the LagMaster banner. Like Wiren, Chuck and many others before him, Dickson was confounded over 17 years teaching at Congressional Country Club in Washington with the average golfer’s tendency to “cast” the club, releasing it well before impact.

But instead of solving the problem at the bottom of the move, Dickson’s LagMaster addresses the issue at the top of the backswing and the early part of the downswing. The device is placed on the grip of the club, and with a properly executed backswing, one end of it touches the right shoulder at the top of the backswing (for a right-handed golfer). The feel Dickson is teaching is to keep the end of the device touching the shoulder into the downswing until the left arm is parallel to the ground. To do that, the golfer has to retain the 90-degree angle of the club and the left arm.

Presto: No cast, and an eventual compression of the ball at impact.

Dickson looks around him at the Orange County Convention Center in January 2024 and takes in all the inventions.

“The whole goal of any training aid in this building is to give somebody a sensation, a feeling without me having to describe it or put my hands on your body,” he says. “If you feel it, you’re going to own it.”

Dickson is a proponent of Homer Kelley’s The Golfing Machine, one of the key elements being the action of the right shoulder. Kelley teaches that the right shoulder swings down “on plane,” along the same line as the club shaft and staying “back and down” until after the hit. Tom Watson credits that move with helping him during his late-career success on the PGA Champions Tour.

“That’s what I am trying to accomplish with the LagMaster,” Dickson says. “You have to turn the right shoulder under to maintain the angle. If I can give you a good grip and sequence you the right way, all this other mess goes away. It’s been fun to watch it evolve.

“A guy ordered the device and wrote back immediately. He said, ‘Mike, after the first three swings, I couldn’t believe how different it felt.’ I see that every day.”

Dickson left Congressional in 2021 to start his own golf academy at Little Bennett Golf Course in Clarksburg, Maryland. He teaches there and runs his LagMaster as a side hustle that, he says, “looks like it’s going to be bigger.”

Indeed, the water is warm in the training aids ocean.  PS

Lee Pace has written about golf in Pinehurst and the Sandhills for more than three decades. Write him at and follow him @LeePaceTweet.

Sporting Life

Sporting Life

Making the Fleet Shipshape

Taking advantage of a little downtime

By Tom Bryant

“Like the Old Man said, there is nothing like being alone on the water in a boat of your own to learn the value of peace, quiet, and responsibility.”  — Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy

Linda and I call March the Bryants’ transition month. Toward the end of February, we would normally leave for Florida in the little Airstream, hoping to be far south before March roared like the proverbial lion.

We liked the west coast the most because it seemed to be more like the old Florida we used to know. Fishing was the put-up reason for turning into snowbirds, but really I think it was just escaping the fickle month of March, and enjoying a little warmth and salt water that really sent us on our way. Later, around the first of April, our wanderlust temporarily sated, we would hook up the compact camper, fire up the Cruiser and make a leisurely trip back to North Carolina, until it was time to head to the beach.

This year, though, was gonna be different. My right knee had given up the ghost, so I was to have replacement surgery and then be as good as new. Only problem was the time involved in getting everything back to working the way it should. So, what to do while healing and learning to walk again? I decided I’d do a little inventory, maybe get rid of some stuff that was outdated, if there is such a thing. Linda, my bride, accuses me of never throwing anything away. I disagree. If I’ve used it once, I’m liable to use it again, and there is nothing worse than needing an item and realizing I disposed of it long ago. So I always think long and hard before any of my stuff hits the scrap pile.

A good example would be my ancient, beat-up Grumman canoe resting in the backyard on a couple of sawhorses right up next to the fence. Now the great thing about an aluminum boat is it’s almost indestructible. To prove the point, just look at old SS Haw River. Every boat has to have a name, so I named the canoe Haw River. She saved a friend and me from drowning a time or two in deadly white water rapids on the Haw. Her very first adventure was on that river up in Alamance County where she proved her worth on a river at flood stage.

Three of us were on what Linda calls another misadventure. The plan was to float the Haw River until it merges with the Cape Fear and comes out in Wilmington. Good plan, except the misnomer float would be like comparing a bull ride to a soft canter on a well-disciplined Tennessee walking horse.

To keep a long, almost deadly, story short, somewhere down close to Pittsboro, old Haw became lodged between two massive boulders, where she promptly tossed her passengers out in the raging current, luckily close enough to a narrow island to be able to scramble up the bank.

We saved what gear we could that evening and spent the night on the little spit of land. The next morning, we swam off to safety. All the little adventures that happened during our rescue is another tale, one that was picked up by the local newspapers. But I diverge from the real point: Old Haw was rescued, and her broken keel was fixed, almost good as new. She ushered us down many more rivers, lakes and bays.

So during this time of rest and recuperation, I’m going to dig her out from under the persimmon tree vines, dust her off (well, it’s gonna take a little more than dusting), and get her recommissioned in the fleet.

The fleet is what the bride calls an accumulation of watercraft resting in our backyard. There’s the old SS Haw River. Then a 16-foot aluminum skiff that my dad gave me early in my fishing days; and resting right close is a 12-foot, wide-beamed, low-to-the-water duck boat named the Widgeon. There is also a Keewaydin canoe designed especially for whitewater. I bought this canoe late in my whitewater paddling career when it seemed as if I was “determined to kill myself” — a direct quote from the bride.

I did spend a lot of my outdoor time on rivers, creeks, lakes, bays, and even the ocean, but mostly on waters that would not be too much for a canoe to handle. If I was to blame anyone for my obsession with a love of rivers and creeks, it would have to be my grandfather.

Granddad’s place in South Carolina has been in the family for generations. It’s a working farm that is still part of the family, and its borders ranged from the banks of Black Creek to the dark waters of the Little Pee Dee River and all points in-between. In a youngster’s mind it was a lot of land. And with Black Creek and, more importantly, Little Pee Dee River, there were lots of opportunities to paddle.

There was one adventure on the Little Pee Dee where I was able to help Granddad add to his own personal watercraft. It was a day like many others on the river. We were up and at ’em early, motoring up the river 4 or 5 miles, then floating back down to Granddad’s river shack, fishing all the way.

Late in the day and a little over halfway back to our put-in point, we decided to take a side trip and investigate a small pond in a cut off the main flow of the river. There are a lot of those in some stretches of the Pee Dee, and now and then we would check them out, sometimes catching a boatload of redbreast fish. This one, though, proved to be a disappointment, and Granddad said, “One more cast there, Bubba, and then let’s head to the barn. It’s getting late and we’ve got to clean these fish for supper.”

I threw my favorite lure under a low-hanging cypress limb, started reeling in and got hung up on something solid just under the surface of the black water. When we paddled over to where the lure was hooked, I could see that my favorite lure was securely snagged to what looked like a log.

Granddad checked it out after I dislodged the lure and said, “I’m gonna get help from your uncles and we’re coming back to get this thing. If I’m not mistaken, son, you’ve hooked a dugout boat.”

Sure enough after my Uncle Hubert and Uncle Tommy helped Granddad drag the ancient dugout boat back to the fish camp, it proved to be an amazing vessel. It was 16 feet long and about 5 feet in the beam, and carved out of an amazingly old cypress. After sitting on dry land for an entire year, it was as seaworthy as the day the long-ago Indians carved it from a felled tree. My uncle’s children still have the prehistoric craft resting in one of the outbuildings on their farm.

Having boats is a tradition in our family, and during this down time, I’m determined to get my fleet shipshape.  PS

Tom Bryant, a Southern Pines resident, is a lifelong outdoorsman and PineStraw’s Sporting Life columnist.



An Unlikely Visitor

The rare sight of a western tanager

By Susan Campbell

In the Sandhills and beyond we occasionally find western wanderers soaring overhead, perched in the treetops, or even at a feeder. Birds have wings and so they can (and do) end up anywhere. One of the most exciting parts of watching birds is that you never know who might show up.

Some birds are quite prone to vagrancy. Whether this condition is a result of wandering, getting lost or blown off course, we cannot usually say. Species that are long-distance migrants are, not surprisingly, at risk for mishaps en route. Though studied a great deal, very little about migration is understood. The fact is birds do migrate and most individuals are successful at it, allowing their genes to be passed on to the next generation.

This is not to say that those birds that end up off track are bound to stay lost forever or perish as a result of a wrong turn along the way. In fact, it’s believed that these out-of-place individuals, in some cases, represent the beginning of a range expansion for their species. Records have been kept long enough that we have documented bird populations moving into new areas of the United States.

A species that has been observed in the winter more and more frequently, well outside of its normal range, is the western tanager. This small but colorful songbird is found in the warmer months throughout most of the western U.S. in a variety of wooded habitats. They head for Mexico and Central America come fall. However, in the early ’90s, one showed up at a feeder in Wilmington and stayed — not just one winter but returned for two more. It fed on suet, shelled seeds and fruit. Since then, more than a dozen other individuals have been documented along the southern coast of North Carolina. What does this mean? It is probably too soon to tell. But bird lovers in our southeastern counties are keeping their eyes out for westerns each year.

It has been more than a decade since the first western tanager appeared in the Sandhills. But this winter, a male western tanager once again turned up in a Pinehurst yard. The hosts, being bird people, realized they had something out of the ordinary at their feeders. It was tricky seeing the necessary field marks on him given his secretive nature. All tanagers molt twice a year and happen to be drab from early fall through early spring, so identification is a bit tricky when these birds do appear in the East. Unlike our more familiar summer and scarlet tanagers, westerns have noticeable barring on their wings and are brighter yellow on their underparts. 

Interestingly, there was also a western tanager in Apex (outside Raleigh) this season. It, too, was a male, but he arrived with lots of orange and red on his head and face already — clearly an adult bird. Like the Pinehurst tanager he was rather shy at first, but within a few weeks, settled in and began strutting his stuff several times a day, enjoying mealworms and bits of fruit from the big platform feeder.

Though sightings of western tanagers are rare, it pays to be prepared with binoculars and a good field guide should something “odd” show up. The unusual is always possible, whether you are visiting a large wildlife refuge, local park, a McDonald’s parking lot or even in your own backyard.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to

First in Flight

First in Flight

A lifetime in the company of birds

Story and Photographs
by Todd Pusser

Feature Photo: Swallow-tailed Kite, Mississippi

The western slope of Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii, does not immediately scream tropical paradise. At 7,000 feet above sea level, it is dry and arid. Scattered shrubs and small trees dot the landscape as far as the eye can see. The scenery contrasts sharply with the lush, flower-filled rainforests and pristine sandy beaches that most people picture when they hear the word Hawaii. But these dry forests hold a treasure, something found nowhere else on the planet.

A distinct bell-like whistle echoes across the blue sky, nearby. As I am slowly walking toward an odd-looking tree with branches draped in clusters of seed pods reminiscent of green beans, a flash of yellow catches my eye. I stop. A few seconds later, a small, finch-like bird sporting yellow, grey and white feathers emerges from a tight cluster of branches and snips off one of the strange, beany-looking seed pods. With surgical precision, the bird pries open the pod with its thick beak and scarfs down the protein-rich seeds nestled inside. Framing its bright yellow head in my camera’s viewfinder, I press the shutter.

The bird, commonly known as the palila, or Loxioides bailleui by its scientific lexicon, is among the most critically endangered birds on the planet. Current estimates suggest fewer than 1,000 adults survive on the western slopes of Mauna Kea. The palila is a specialist, feeding almost exclusively on the alkaloid-rich seeds (which are toxic to most other animals) of the māmane tree, another Hawaiian endemic. Māmanes are long-lived, capable of reaching 500 years in age, but are slow to mature, taking 25 years or more for seedlings to grow into a tree capable of producing a food resource for the birds. So intertwined are the lives of the palila and the māmane tree that some have likened their bond to that of a mother and child. 

Islands are arks of incredible biodiversity. Hawaii, as the most isolated island chain on the planet, is especially so. Before humans reached its shores, Hawaii was once home to an incredibly rich assemblage of plants, flowers, trees, insects and birds. Being stuck out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the islands were never settled by any frog, snake, ant or mosquito. It was paradise, the quintessential tropical Eden — or in the words of Mark Twain, “the loveliest fleet of islands that lie anchored in any ocean.”

Things changed with the arrival of Polynesians and their canoes on Hawaii’s shores around 1,000 A.D. The arrival of Europeans in 1778 only accelerated the process. Cats, dogs, pigs, invasive plants, mosquitoes and viruses were introduced — some intentionally, some unintentionally — to the islands. Natural resources were consumed, and the land was terraformed to meet the demands of an ever-growing human population. The extreme mega-diversity that had long characterized the Hawaiian Islands soon whittled down to a tiny fraction of its former self. The state now bears the depressing moniker of “the extinction capital of the world.” As recently as the end of 2023, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared eight species of Hawaiian birds officially extinct.

Eagle Springs is just about as far away from Hawaii as one can get. Yet, it is in this tiny enclave, surrounded by longleaf pines and turkey oaks, where my fascination with birds began. I don’t know how to explain it, but I have always been obsessed by wild creatures. The fascination is most assuredly innate, for my parents never showed more than a passing interest in the wildlife outside our back door.

I still recall with vivid clarity, as a kid, watching hummingbirds hover in front of feeders filled with sugar water at a family friend’s house and listening to the incessant calls of whip-poor-wills echoing through the pines on humid summer evenings while swimming in our backyard pool.

Left: Anhinga in Florida’s Everglades

Middle: Palila from the Big Island of Hawaii

Right: Snow Geese Flock in late afternoon light, North Carolina


Later — nerd alert — I won my high school’s science fair by collecting and examining the regurgitated pellets (yuck, I know), full of undigested bone and fur, from a pair of red-tailed hawks that nested in a tall longleaf pine near our house. The project was born from no school assignment. I was simply curious as to what the birds of prey were eating. See, I told you it was innate.

It was around this time that I picked up a camera in an effort to try to document the amazing wildlife I was seeing. Through trial and error — mostly error — I learned the ins and outs of apertures, shutter speeds and film type to best record animals in the field. For all the Gen Z’ers that might be reading, this was back in the stone age of analog, well before the instant feedback of an LCD screen. Did I mention I had to walk uphill, both ways, to collect those hawk pellets?

Birds were, and still are, a subject I find infinitely fascinating, both as a naturalist and as a photographer. Their variety in color, form and behavior is endless. With over 10,000 species (and new ones being discovered every year), birds are among the most diverse vertebrates on the planet. From the Arctic to the Antarctic, and throughout every continent and ocean in between, birds are taking flight right now.

Many people obsessively keep a detailed list of all of the birds they observe in their yard, county, state and country. Millions upon millions of dollars are spent each year on binoculars, spotting scopes and travel to places, both near and far, just to add new species to life lists. Millions more are spent on birdseed and backyard nest boxes. Indeed, birds are among the most popular of animals. Even my grandmother enjoyed watching bluebirds outside her kitchen window each spring.

Though I keep no life lists of my own, I do maintain field notebooks filled with interesting wildlife observations encountered during my travels. Over the years I have had the good fortune of seeing some extraordinary birds in some extraordinary places.

Left: Flamingo Takeoff, Yucatan, Mexico

Left, middle: Ruby-throated Hummingbird Chicks, Pinehurst, N.C.

Right, middle: Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Hoffman, N.C.

Right: Cedar Waxwing and holly berry, Virginia


On a remote island in Antarctica, I once sat on a hillside covered in tussock grass, watching a pair of courting wandering albatross, who possess the longest wingspan of any bird, dancing and weaving against a backdrop of rugged snow-covered mountains. I have laughed out loud watching the comical antics of tufted puffins on a foggy day in the middle of Alaska’s Bering Sea. During a golden-hued sunset in the Bahamas, I marveled as a flock of ground-nesting Abaco parrots flew high over stands of tall Caribbean pines. Along the rocky shores of New Zealand, I observed the smallest species of penguin, the little blue, leap from the ocean like a miniature dolphin. Another time in the Arizona desert, on a smoldering hot August day, I saw a roadrunner catch a lizard beneath a canopy of thorny cacti.

There is no denying the thrill of seeing amazing birds in exotic, far-off places, but my most memorable and cherished avian encounters have actually occurred right here in North Carolina, much closer to home.

Years back, a kind couple from Pinehurst allowed me to set up a tripod and camera in their guest bedroom, where I spent the day photographing the nest of a ruby-throated hummingbird that was perched precariously on a tiny branch just outside their second-floor window. It was the first, and only, time I have been able to observe, in intimate detail, the life history of a species that so captured my childhood imagination.

Once, while my partner, Jessica, and I walked our late, beloved dog, Dexter, down a trail at Merchants Millpond State Park on a bright spring afternoon, a barred owl flew silently over our heads and landed in a tree nearby. I have marveled at a kettle of Mississippi kites hunting dragonflies, in high, swooping arches, over the Pee Dee River near Rockingham. Most poignant of all, on a bitterly cold winter’s day in the heart of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, I watched awestruck, with my father by my side, as tens of thousands of snow geese descended into a corn field, just yards away from where we stood. That feeling of joy and happiness, of being able to share such an incredible spectacle with my old man, is something I will carry for the rest of my life.

Left: Eastern Screech Owl Peekaboo, Pinehurst, N.C.

Left, middle: Red-winged Blackbirds, N.C.

Right, middle: Eastern Bluebird and cricket, N.C.

Right: Laysan Albatross mated pair, Hawaii


Sadly, many of the bird species I have photographed over the years are endangered. Consider the palila, mentioned earlier. There are a lot of things stacked against that species. Small population size, coupled with a very specialized diet and restricted home range, is a recipe for extinction in a human-dominated world. All it takes is one infectious disease or a large fire, like the recent one that destroyed the historic town of Lahaina on nearby Maui, to erase it from the planet.

Closer to home, take the iconic whip-poor-will, vocal denizen of our summer nights. Recent studies have shown its population to be in steep decline across much of its range. Scientists still do not have solid answers for why their numbers are dropping, though there are clues, such as the corresponding decline of a favored prey item — large moths — and an obvious loss of habitat. Likely it is a combination of many things, including some yet to be discovered.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Populations of the iconic bald eagle have bounced back due to successful conservation action. Ditto for peregrine falcons. I never saw many wild turkeys growing up in Eagle Springs, but on a recent trip back home, I glimpsed one sneaking along the edge of the yard before disappearing into the pines, providing evidence that the restocking program of this important game bird by our state’s wildlife commission is paying off.

The fact remains, many, many populations of bird species continue to decline. For some, all that will be left in the future will be a few tattered museum specimens and photographs.

On my bookshelf, next to where I am typing, is a book titled Lost Animals: Extinction and the Photographic Record, by Errol Fuller. Nestled within its pages are image after image, most in black and white, of animals, including many birds, that are no longer with us on this planet. The one that strikes the biggest chord for me is of Martha, the last of the passenger pigeons, photographed around 1912 in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio.

At one time, the passenger pigeon was the most numerous bird species in North America. In 1813, while traveling near Louisville, Kentucky, John James Audubon recorded a flock of pigeons migrating south that he conservatively estimated to contain one billion individual birds. The immense flock passed overhead for three full days, completely blocking out the sky. It boggles the mind to think that in just 100 years from that remarkable observation, the passenger pigeon would be extinct, hunted to oblivion. If, as the saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” seeing that image of Martha, the very last of her kind, perched stoically in the corner of her cage, really drives home that sentiment and offers a sobering reminder that even the most common species can be wiped out in the relative blink of an eye.

Being outside, away from traffic and the computer screen, photographing birds is therapeutic. The images captured are little tokens of place and time that frequently remind me of family and friends who were standing next to me as I pressed the shutter. Today, I especially love showing pictures to my 4-year-old daughter. Nothing beats seeing her blue eyes sparkle with wonder at seeing a colorful bird for the first time.

Hopefully, the images will instill a sense of awe, respect, and appreciation, in her (and others) for all forms of life that call this remarkable planet home.  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

Left: Roseate Spoonbill, Florida

Left, middle: Carolina Chickadee and caterpillar, Virginia 

Right, middle: Yellow-crowned Night Heron hunting, Florida

Right: Blackbird tornado, N.C.

Tea Leaf Astrologer

Tea Leaf Astrologer


(February 19 – March 20)

They say the average person has three to five dreams per night. The average Pisces, on the other hand, exists in a perpetual dream state, operating from a realm of consciousness akin to a bowl of kelp-laden miso soup. Be gentle with yourself this month, especially when a high-pressure deadline threatens to derail you. Should you find yourself floating on a cube of silken tofu, consider it your life raft from a kind and loving universe. 

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Aries (March 21 – April 19) 

Suffice it to say that the eagle has landed.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

Try rearranging the houseplants.

Gemini (May 21 – June 20)

Worrying won’t change the outcome.

Cancer (June 21 – July 22)

Note the spice level warning.

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Mustard versus vinegar, baby.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)

A dull knife is most dangerous.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

Drop the act.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

A splash of lemon goes a long way.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

They don’t need to understand.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Invest in a nail brush.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

More tree pose.  PS

Zora Stellanova has been divining with tea leaves since Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup mishap of 2019. While she’s not exactly a medium, she’s far from average. She lives in the N.C. foothills with her Sphynx cat, Lyla.

Sun-Raised Sheep

Sun-Raised Sheep

Farming at the bleating edge

By Jenna Biter  

Photographs by John Gessner

Peafowl nap high in the rafters of a classic red barn. One bird, awakened by a buzz buzz buzzing, pecks a housefly out of the air like Mr. Miyagi with chopsticks. And the buzzing stops.

Now, the peacock is presumably less irritated, as well as less hungry, and the fly can’t buzz down to the wobbly-legged lambs, whose developing immune systems are better off without whatever infections the insect might be spreading.

The lambs’ young stomachs aren’t even strong enough to digest what will become their steady diet of grass. When they do grow strong enough, at a couple of months old, they’ll leave the red barn to join the flock munching its way across a quilt of pastures tucked down a gravel drive beside a flea market in Biscoe.

A few westward turns out of Moore County and into Montgomery, the 500-head Katahdin flock grazes beneath the shade of solar panels, where the Old World meets the Ewe, uh, New.

“They use this word ‘agrivoltaics,’” says Joel Olsen, a Charlotte native who owns the Montgomery Sheep Farm, with his wife, Tonje, “which doesn’t mean anything to most people.” That’s something the couple seems on a mission to change.

To people who do know, agrivoltaics is a techy sort of twofer: It’s when a solar farm moonlights as a traditional crop farm or, as with the Olsens, a livestock farm.

“The power here at the farm goes into the local grid, and this . . . ” Joel trails off in search of the right explanation. “Right now,” he says, “we’re powering all of Biscoe and Star — every single home, school, business, factory.”

He looks out at the gleaming fields of silvery tech, more than 100,000 solar panels in all.

“It’s a ton of power, 28 megawatts,” he says, delight warming his Carolina accent. While the solar panels stare up at the sun, quietly collecting golden rays to redistribute as green energy, the flock, unbeknownst to them, is on the clock.

With each happy chomp, the sheep mow the grass beneath and between the panel rows, so the greenery doesn’t shoot up and disrupt the solar harvest.

“When you get shade, it reduces your output, it reduces your income,” Joel says. Despite the clear cause and effect, during the early days of O2  — the name of his N.C. solar development company — he learned that solar farm groundskeeping was often overlooked, low budget, and the first thing to go wrong.

In 2012, the Olsens set out to change the status quo.

With a nostalgia for the lamb dishes of her childhood in Norway — where country sheep, geolocated by bells tinkling on their collars, foraged freely in the summertime — Tonje created Sun Raised Farms, a matchmaking agribusiness that pairs solar farms with ovine maintainers.

“We try to find the best sheep farmers in the area, so they can get free pasture for their lambs on the solar farm, and then we pay them to maintain it,” Tonje says. What can’t be grazed due to natural or technological terrain, Sun Raised Farms hires a human crew to care for.

“It’s kind of a win-win for the farmers,” Tonje says with a smile.

In the next instant, Joel flashes back in time to the beginning of their hike up agrivoltaics’ steep learning curve, a path that originally rejected them like Sisyphus.

“We had a local 21-year-old who bought 13 sheep to put on our first solar farm, and after two weeks, the neighbor’s hunting dogs got out, went right through a hole in the fence, and killed them all,” he says with a disapproving cluck. “That was step one.”

Joel guesstimates that now — with nearly two dozen solar parks under the management of Sun Raised Farms and more than a decade into the learning curve — the Olsens are about 17 steps into their agrivoltaics project. Since 2016, the endeavor has included the Montgomery Sheep Farm, what the Olsens view as a sort of research hub to establish best practices for their farming partners.

Cursed with what Joel characterizes as chalky, inhospitable soil, the century-old property began as a failed farm called the Tobacco Stick Ranch, and then transitioned into a hunting preserve. Its five minutes of fame came in 2006 when The Daily Show’s Nate Corddry used the name and the grounds in a sketch poking fun at then-Vice President Dick Cheney for blasting fellow quail hunter Harry Whittington with birdshot — an incident that actually happened in Texas.

Now the tobacco barn, workshop, farmhouse — all of the compound’s eight or so buildings — have been rehabilitated into a working farm wired into its own private solar microgrid, independent from the panels that feed the community grid.

Via a network of electrical boxes, a solar carport and four Tesla Powerwall 2 batteries hidden away in a mudroom, the farm powers itself most of the time.

“It’s one of the first off-grid farms in the country,” Joel says. “It demonstrates that farms can not only raise their own food, but also generate electricity for their own operations.”

In the distance, the techno-farm’s big power plant is a metallic patchwork that blankets 120 of the property’s 200 sprawling acres. Amidst the panels, inverters and breakers, a labyrinth of thigh-high electric fencing partitions the sheep into 28 micro-pastures, so they don’t overgraze any one section.

Though divided into smaller flocks, the sheep bleat back and forth in a never-ending game of barnyard Marco Polo. White-blond dogs stand watch nearby, wagging their tails. They don’t seem to speak sheep.

By day, the dogs live up to their gentle names like Elsa, Casper and Luna, politely asking for pats with their heads lowered in obeisance. By night, these Great Pyrenees protectors channel their pedigree to fend off coyotes and foxes lurking just beyond the chicken-wire fence.

Across a dirt road, back inside the red barn, the peafowl, some doves and a turkey dutifully continue their watch over the 100 young lambs. At the far end of the barn, a barrel-chested rooster seems preoccupied. He perches self-importantly on the back of a ewe, as if he’s directing a barnyard rehearsal for one of the farm tours that roll through every spring and fall.

Like the circle of life, the tours always end in dinner: a sun-powered, four-course, farm-to-table meal featuring the Montgomery Sheep Farm’s lamb by way of Sun Raised Foods, the Olsens’ avenue for bringing their farmers’ stock to market.

“A lot of the criticism solar farm developers received was because they took farmland away from the community,” Tonje says. “With this model, they kind of give back.”  PS

Jenna Biter is a writer and military wife in the Sandhills. She can be reached at You can purchase tickets for a Montgomery Sheep Farm tour and dinner at