The Omnivorous Reader

Making of a Marsh Girl

Praise for a North Carolina tale

By D.G. Martin

For almost a year now, Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing has been at the top of The New York Times best-seller list, usually at No. 1.

North Carolina likes to be first at everything. Freedom. Flight. Basketball. Books. So, some of us have been bragging because Crawdads is set in North Carolina. Most of the action takes place in the fictional coastal town of Barkley Cove and the surrounding marshes, coves and ocean waters. There are side trips to real places such as Greenville and Asheville.

Others complain that the book’s geography is confusing, that the main character is unbelievable, that the framing of the African-American characters and their dialect is faulty, and that the storyline is broken and contrived.

However, the book’s many fans argue that Crawdads is genuine literary fiction in light of its strong and lovely descriptions of nature’s plants and creatures. They continue with praise about the book’s compelling murder mystery that has an unexpected ending and gives readers a superior entertainment experience. They applaud the coming-of-age story of the book’s central character, Catherine Clark, or “Kya.”

Kya was abandoned by her family as a child and lived alone in a shack in the marshes miles away from town. People in Barkley Cove think she is weird, keep their distance, and call her “the Marsh Girl.” She spent only one day in school and cannot read or write. However, because she is smart and diligent, she learns about the nature of the marshes.

When Kya meets Tate Walker, a young man from Barkley Cove, he senses her strengths and shares her love of plants and animals. He teaches her to read and write. They fall in love.

When Tate leaves Kya behind to study science at UNC Chapel Hill, she is devastated. Later, she rebounds to the seductive charms of Chase Andrews, a town football hero and big shot. Their secret affair is interrupted by Chase’s marriage to another woman, and Kya is again distraught.

Overcoming these disappointments, Kya leverages her reading, writing and self-taught artistic talents to record the natural world that surrounds her. When Tate, now a scientist, returns to her life, he persuades her to submit her work for publication. The book is a great success, and she writes and illustrates several more.

All this is background for the story that begins when Kya is grown and her former lover, Chase Andrews, is found dead at the bottom of an old fire tower. Kya is a suspect and is ultimately charged, arrested, put in prison and tried for Chase’s murder.

The evidence against her seems flimsy at first. But incriminating facts pile up, including her angry response to the married Chase’s attempts to seduce her. But she has a strong alibi. The author’s deftness in setting up this situation, and resolving it smoothly, has helped make it a best-seller.

A remaining mystery is how and why Owens, the author of two successful non-fiction books about the African natural world, came to write Crawdads.

After studying and writing about animal behavior, as she explained on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch in September, “I wanted to write a novel about how much we know about how animal behavior is like ours. It can help us learn about ourselves. So I came up with this idea of writing this novel about a young girl who is forced to live outside of a social group. She’s abandoned. She’s never totally alone, but she has to spend a lot of time alone, and how does that affect her behavior? That is the question of my novel. Because Kya doesn’t have any girlfriends, she is missing something. She’s lonely, she’s isolated, and when people are forced to live in that sort of situation they behave differently.

“Kya was raised in the wild coastal marsh of North Carolina. She was born in the 1940s and lived through the 1950s and on, and so I chose the marsh because she is mostly abandoned by her family. She has to live most of the time by herself. I wanted the story to be believable, and the marsh is a temperate climate so she could live, she didn’t have to worry about snow or freezing, and she had a shack. She could survive because you can truly walk around and pick up mussels and oysters. I know it’s not easy, but you can learn to do it. It was possible for her to survive in that environment. That’s the reason I chose it.”

Owens, who spent much of her life in the wilds of Africa, far from any other human, explained, “There’s a lot of me in Kya: girl, love of nature, live in the wilderness for years, feeling like I don’t belong anywhere. There’s a lot of me in Kya, but there’s a lot of Kya in all of us.”

She says that being totally alone changes a person. “When I was isolated in Africa all those years, I wanted to have social groups. I wanted to have more contact with people. But when I came back, I found out it’s not so easy just to do it. And that’s what happens to someone who’s isolated like Kya. She longed to be with people, but every time she had an opportunity she was shy and didn’t feel socially confident.

“One of the points of the book is that you do not have to live in a marsh to be lonely. A lot of people in cities are lonely. A lot of people in small towns, even though they have friends, are lonely because we don’t have the strong, long-lived groups that we used to have. And when we get away from that, not only do we feel less confident and lonely, but we also behave differently toward others.”

How does Owens make a story out of an isolated young woman who lives in a shack in the marsh?

“I came with the theme first. I wanted to write a story of a young girl growing up alone and how isolation would affect her, but I knew I couldn’t just write that story. It had to have a love story, and it’s a very intense love story. It’s a very compelling, I hope, murder mystery. Of course when Kya reached adolescence, she reached the time that she wanted to be with other people, she wanted to be loved. So she started in her way reaching out, at least watching, and there is sort of a love triangle that follows that is very intense.”

Will there be a movie? Crawdads gained the attention of actress Reese Witherspoon. Fox 2000 has acquired film rights and plans for Witherspoon to be the producer.

We can hope that the movie will be shot in North Carolina. But here the book’s problem jumps up. The geography described in the book, with palmettos and deep marshes adjoining ocean coves, seems to fit South Carolina or Georgia coastal landscapes better than North Carolina’s coastlands.

Nevertheless, whatever the moviemakers decide, North Carolinians can bask in the reflected glory of a No. 1 best-seller that claims our state for its setting.  PS

D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch Sunday at 11 a.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. To View prior programs go to




Avoiding a real drag at dawn

By Bill Fields

Walking through the Atlanta airport to my departure gate for an early morning flight late this summer, I trailed a couple of passengers who took a hard right into a glass-doored room with rows of seats. I didn’t understand their detour until I glimpsed someone settled in with a cigarette, the smoke headed upward toward a powerful vent in an attempt to mitigate the odor.

I checked later, and there are more places at Hartsfield-Jackson International for animals to go to the bathroom than for their owners to have a cigarette.

Smoking is an increasingly lonely and expensive — at my local convenience store, a pack ranges from $7.99 to $11.10 — proposition in the United States. Less than 15 percent of the population is lighting up compared with about four out of 10 Americans half a century ago, not long after the surgeon general first warned of the health risks. Chick-peas grow and solar panels collect the sun’s energy in many places where tobacco once grew.

I’ve smoked cigarettes — probably not a carton in total, right after I graduated from college — but thankfully never got hooked and, growing up in North Carolina when I did, that probably put me in the minority. Going to tour the R.J. Reynolds plant in Winston-Salem was as natural an outing as a trip to a museum in Raleigh or the battleship in Wilmington. We were very proud the Christmas we gave Dad, a Salem man, a kit to roll his own cigarettes. He was less enthusiastic, and Dad never missed a week of purchasing his carton of Salems from the Big Star (for about half the cost of what a single pack runs today).

It is hard for me to picture Dad without a cigarette. He smoked at least two packs a day most of his adult life. He didn’t want a shirt unless it had a pocket to store his smokes — even his T-shirts were so designed. He smoked inside, outside and when he was driving, fishing or playing golf. He had lighters inscribed with his initials.

I don’t know if he agreed with the Salem advertising that the brand had “a taste as soft and fresh as springtime,” but he was thoroughly hooked until he was diagnosed with a smoking-related cancer and had surgery. Dad only lived a little more than a year after that operation. He never smoked again, though, and after he quit came to realize how offensive the habit was.

Given that even doctors endorsed smoking when Dad started as a teenager in the late 1930s, and that cigarettes were part of a soldier’s standard kit during World War II, it’s not hard to see how so many people in his generation got hooked.

As I tried to discourage a young friend of mine from smoking recently, I thought about my father’s life and death, and of those smokers in the airport, who ought to know better, taking a drag at dawn and counting the minutes until they could have another cigarette.

I’m lucky that I quit before I ever really started, unhappy with how smoking made me feel and my clothes smell, beyond what had become indisputable health hazards. The stale scent was so different from what I remembered from a decade earlier when Dad took me to a tobacco warehouse in Fairmont, where the sweetly powerful and appealing aroma of the cured product was more distinct than the auctioneer’s rapid delivery.

I bought my last pack of Salems almost 40 years ago. It was a short smoking experiment, not quite as abbreviated as when I tried chewing tobacco for one inning during a college intramural softball game. As I attempted to manage the chaw, I felt as if I were getting greener than the sparse, end-of-semester grass on which we were playing. I was in left field and out of my league. My first purchase of Red Man was my last.  PS

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


Flying High and Fast

Listen for the “killy, killy, killy” of the American Kestrel this fall

By Susan Campbell

If you happen to see, high up on an electric wire, a brightly colored, sleek raptor surveying its territory, it just might be an American kestrel.

It’s not uncommon to spot kestrels in either the Piedmont or Sandhills year round. Southern populations are not migratory, so pairs remain in the same area throughout their lifetime. In fall, numbers swell as northern individuals arrive for the winter months. The smallest members of the falcon family, these handsome predators have an affinity for open habitat. Also known as “sparrow hawks,” they are fast, maneuverable fliers, quick to dive after prey. But you’ll  also see them hovering. Although kestrels are easiest to spot in large, grassy fields, they can also be found in wooded areas. They feed on a variety of prey: from grasshoppers to small snakes and songbirds. These fast-flying falcons are easy to recognize given their distinctive head pattern and bright plumage. Also listen for their distinctive call, a repeated sharp “killy, killy, killy.”

American kestrels are unique among the hawks found here in that the male and female are quite different in appearance. Both sexes have a dark, helmeted head and a handsome mustache. Males have slate-gray wings that contrast with the rufous upper parts. Females, on the other hand, which are larger than males, are more of a solid red-brown with black wingtips. The sexes also have distinct habits when it comes to defending territory. Males are typically excluded by females from more open areas, which means you can find them in brushier habitat featuring smaller but more abundant prey. Like most hawks, kestrels are monogamous.

The American kestrel can be found across most of the United States in the right habitat.  Birds that breed in Canada and the Upper Midwest are migratory. Northern individuals may move as far south as southern Central America for the winter. Declines in kestrels in the middle of the last century are blamed on the use of DDT. However, as pesticide use changed and nest boxes were added to the landscape in many areas, the species rebounded well and now is a common sight along roadways and the borders of agricultural areas across its range.

American kestrels use open woodlands for breeding.  In the Sandhills the open pine savannahs found on Ft. Bragg and the area’s game lands are ideal habitat to look for kestrels from March through July.  These birds are also unique among area hawks in using cavities for nesting. They take over holes created by other animals, usually pileated woodpeckers, in early spring.  Although they will switch locations from year to year, they may re-use the same cavity within the season. Often kestrels will raise two broods in years when rodents are plentiful. The nest hole needs to be large and deep enough to protect as many as four or five young for about a month until fledging.

Given their handsome appearance and small size, kestrels are popular among falconers. With proper permits, juveniles can be tamed and trained to hunt. Believe it or not, the ancient sport of falconry is alive and well across the United States — even here in North Carolina. But that will have to be a story for another time.  PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos.She can be contacted by email at

Mom Inc.

Running Buddies

No telling what evil lurks

By Renee Whitmore

A few days ago, I galloped back into the house after a run — well, it was more like a trot. I am calling it a trot because after a year’s hiatus from running, I downloaded the “Couch-to-5K” app on my phone, and have come to the realization that what I do is not really running, but can best be described as an uneven trot.

If you are unfamiliar with the Couch-to-5K app, it’s a virtual running partner. The voice tells you through your earbuds, “Start running now,” and “Start walking now,” and my personal favorite, “One minute left.”

On Day One, you start with small bursts of 60-second runs between several minute-long walks. Each week, the running time increases and the walking time decreases. Ideally, you run at least three days a week, and according to my software tyrant, in nine weeks, you’re ready to run a 5K (3.1 miles). Sounds great, right? Not so fast, as they say.

I am currently on Week Three, but I have to be honest: Week Three has been on repeat for four weeks because I wasn’t ready to move onto Week Four because, well, that’s a lot of running, er, trotting, and Week Three (otherwise known as September) was still too hot to trot.

Anyway, I want to tell you about that day’s run/walk. Let me preface this by saying that I live in the country, so I have a great running road with lots of room and rarely do I encounter anything out of the ordinary. By ordinary, I mean the usual roadkill, a snake or two, empty beer bottles and crumpled McDonalds cheeseburger wrappers pitched out on the side of the road. Maybe, if I’m lucky, some dog who either thinks I’m in his territory or just wants to meet me feels like a romp and tags along for a bit.

On that particular day, I was running back to my house, about three-fourths of the way through my trot. Sweat was dripping off my forehead, stinging my eyes, and my chest felt like it was on fire. (I mentioned the heat, didn’t I?) Suddenly, I started to feel like I was being watched.

I rarely see other humans on my runs, unless someone stops to ask me for directions (which is a bad idea, by the way, because half the time, runners don’t really know where they are and couldn’t find their way home without using the GPS on their phone). Anyway, something was off. Someone or something was watching me.

I frantically glanced around, into the fields on both sides of me, up at the sky, behind me, in front of me. Just the usual. The puffy white clouds. The pine trees. The growing corn stalks. A dead squirrel.

The feeling lingered, though. A car lazily passed me. I waved. They waved back. I kept trucking. But, still. What was watching me? It’s probably just in my head.

Then, there it was. On my left. Fenced in a neighbor’s yard. Its black, beady eyes glared right through me. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. As I ran by, its head moved, keeping its eyes on me. A chill ran through me, even though I was sweating, and I thought of the last Stephen King novel I read, which I’m pretty sure involved an animal very much like this one.

It was a goat. But not like any goat I had ever seen. A big, jet-black goat with huge pointy horns. He was sitting in his yard, behind the wire fence, staring at me.

So, I ran. I ignored the high-pitched voice in my earbuds that commanded, “Start walking now.” I just ran. All the way home and into my front door with Mr. Stephen King Black Goat still burned in my mind.

I tried to tell my husband and sons about the big black goat, but they just laughed it off like I was being melodramatic. No one seemed to take the goat seriously, and for the next several days, when we passed the house with the fence, I said, “Look for the goat!” Except he was gone.

Did I imagine him? No. No way. He was there. He was big. He had pointy horns. He was jet-black. Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of a goat gone bad?

Well, I just got in from another trot/run this evening (I graduated to Week Four). When I passed the house with the fence, there he was! Sitting in the same spot, those eyes boring into me just like before. We exchanged stares. He stood up and charged at the fence near me. I stopped running and just stood there, contemplating whether I should snap a picture. Goat proof.

In the distance, behind the fierce, almost-certainly-possessed goat, the front door of the house opened, and an elderly lady with a cane peeked out. When she saw the goat and me standing practically eye-to-eye, she yelled, in the strongest voice the poor old woman could muster, “Fluffy! Leave that lady alone and get back in here! It’s time for dinner!”

And, wouldn’t you know, Fluffy turned right around and galloped right through the front door. Virtual goat no more.

I trotted on down the road.  PS

When Renee is not teaching English or being a professional taxi driver for her two boys, she is working on her first book.

Food for Thought

The Tomato’s Last Hurrah

Summer’s carefree days have drawn to a close, but much of the bounty is still with us. Now’s the time to use up every bit of the tomato’s goodness

By Jane Lear

When I was a child, no one I knew cooked pasta (what we called noodles) with tomato sauce at home. In our part of the South, that sort of food was considered not just ethnic, but positively exotic, enjoyed as a special treat at the lone Italian restaurant in town. So although a college roommate introduced me to Ragú — we both thought it was pretty good — I didn’t have what you might call a relationship with tomato sauce until I moved to New York City in the late 1970s.

By sheer good fortune, I landed a job at Alfred A. Knopf, the legendary publishing house, and among the luminaries who graced the halls was Marcella Hazan, author of the instant classics The Classic Italian Cook Book and More Classic Italian Cooking. (Both books are combined in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, published by Knopf almost 20 years later.)

Mrs. Hazan’s recipe for Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter, from the first book, is at once devastatingly simple and life-changing. Aside from pasta and cheese, it lists just four ingredients: tomatoes (fresh or canned), one onion, five tablespoons of butter, and salt. That recipe, which is easily available online, has long been famous for being a gift to home cooks everywhere; periodically, it is rediscovered and wins a whole new fan base.

I made tomato sauce the Marcella way for years. Eventually, though, I branched out, impelled by curiosity and the fact that during the end of tomato season, God will strike me dead if I let a single soft-ripe heirloom go to waste. That’s how I found out that a sauce gets complexity and a good balance of acidity and fruity sweetness from a mixture of varieties, and those juicy heirlooms were more interesting to play with than the pulpier plum (Roma) types.

The basic sauce below is extremely versatile — it’s what my husband and I reach for when making pasta and pizza. It’s wonderful drizzled over flat fresh romano beans, a slab of meatloaf, or polenta. And it seems to taste even better when made with the last of the year’s tomatoes. I freeze as much of it as I can because the jar in the fridge will be gone in no time flat.

By the way, the key to a great tomato sauce is the right pot. You want something heavy-bottomed, to discourage scorching, and with a wide surface area, to aid evaporation. The less time the tomatoes spend reducing, the fresher and more immediate the flavor will be.

A few personal asides on tomato prep: Some people like to peel and seed tomatoes before making sauce; others feel it’s more efficient to toss everything into the pot, then pass the cooked sauce through a food mill to get rid of the gnarly bits.

I generally prefer doing the work on the front end, but unlike many folks, I don’t blanch the tomatoes in boiling water first. Instead, I plunk them in a bowl, pour a kettle of boiling water over them and make myself a cup of tea while I’m at it. By the time I’ve gotten a sieve organized over another bowl, the tomatoes can be eased out of the hot water one by one; with a little help from a paring knife, the skins slip right off.

When seeding tomatoes, first cut them in half crosswise — around the equator — exposing the seed pockets. Use a finger to loosen the seeds in each pocket, then empty the tomato halves over the sieve.

To save every drop of the juices, I don’t chop the tomatoes on a cutting board, but instead in my hand, over the sieve. My tool of choice is a Dexter Russell oyster knife; the straight-edged blade is dull yet can still get the job done, the rubber handle is grippy in a wet hand, and the curved, rounded tip is ideal for flicking errant seeds out of the way. The chopped tomatoes go in the bowl underneath, and once you’ve pressed hard on the solids in the sieve, you can toss them into the compost pail knowing they’ve given their all.

Late-Season Tomato Sauce

Makes about 1 1/2 quarts

I’ve never found my finished sauce to be overly acidic, so it never occurs to me to add any sugar, but I’m no purist: It all depends on the tomatoes. If your sauce tastes harsh, add a little brown sugar to taste. Lastly, inspiration here comes from Marcella Hazan, but also the late Giuliano Bugialli, who taught me that basil isn’t used in a tomato sauce for its own flavor, but to bring out the flavor of the tomatoes themselves.

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 large yellow onion, chopped

3 fat cloves of garlic, minced

Several sprigs of fresh thyme, marjoram
or winter savory, tied together with kitchen string

5 to 6 pounds soft-ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and roughly chopped, plus
their juices

Coarse salt

1 or 2 fresh basil sprigs

A little unsalted butter, if desired

1. Heat the oil in a large, wide, heavy-bottomed pot over moderately high heat until it’s hot. Add the onion and cook until it begins to soften, then add the garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion and garlic are thoroughly softened (don’t let them brown).

2. Add the tied herb sprigs, the tomatoes and their juices, and a generous pinch or two of salt. Simmer the sauce, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until it thickens nicely, about 1 hour. Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning. Remove the herb sprigs.

3. After the sauce is done, add the basil sprigs, simmer the sauce an additional 2 minutes, then remove the basil.

4. Stirring in a little butter at this point will round out the flavors in the sauce and give it finesse, but it’s by no means necessary. I like a fairly chunky sauce, but if you prefer something smoother, purée it in a blender. Let the sauce cool completely, uncovered, before refrigerating or freezing.  PS

Jane Lear, formerly of Gourmet magazine and Martha Stewart Living, is the editor of Feed Me, a quarterly magazine for Long Island food lovers.

Simple Life

Smoke and Memory

Both are easily gone in a puff

By Jim Dodson

On a cool and misty autumn afternoon not long ago, I found myself taking up a secret pleasure I’d abandoned years ago.

While doing book research for the day in Staunton, Virginia, the lovely Shenandoah Valley town just off the Great Wagon Road that brought thousands of Scots-Irish to the American South, I turned up my coat’s collar and took a stroll though downtown in search of a cup of tea and a bookshop before hitting the road for home.

On the corner, I spotted an old-fashioned tobacco shop.

Its window display featured a selection of gorgeous, hand-carved pipes with names such as Mastro Geppetto and Savinelli Estate.

Beyond them, two gents sat in comfortable wing chairs, smoking pipes and having a quiet rainy day conversation.

On a lark, I stepped inside.

If Marcel Proust’s main character in Swann’s Way associated the taste of a simple madeleine with childhood, my version might well be a whiff of pipe smoke.

The scent of aromatic pipe smoke, you see, has a similar effect on me, conjuring up nice family memories and not a little amusement at my own youthful vanity.

Walter Dodson, my paternal grandfather, a cabinetmaker whose name I bear, smoked a Dr. Grabow pipe, the inexpensive brand once manufactured in the pretty Carolina mountain town of Sparta. Walter was a man of few words but a rural polymath who could make anything with his hands. He taught me to fish and how to cut a straight line with a handsaw.

Some of my fondest memories of him are of fishing together in a Florida bayou or watching my grandfather work in his carpenter’s shop, his Grabow pipe clenched in his teeth, fragrant smoke drifting all around us. Walter was the age I am today — mid 60s — but looked positively ancient to me, and a bit like an old Indian chief. In fact, family lore holds that his mother was a woman of Native American heritage.

I was 10 or 12 years old at the time of these encounters, a bookish kid under the influence of adventure tales in which wise forest wizards and noble Indian chiefs smoked pipes. So it all seemed perfectly natural and wildly romantic to me.

I never worked up the courage to ask my grandfather if I could try a puff of his Grabow pipe, and he never offered.

Ironically, about this same time, heeding the new surgeon general’s warnings about the health hazards of smoking, both my parents ditched their cigarettes, hoping my older brother and I wouldn’t take up the habit.

They needn’t have worried.

Following the prescribed formula for pulling an “all-nighter” for a geology exam my freshman year at college, like an idiot I drank an entire pot of black coffee and smoked half a pack of Camels, my first cigarettes ever. Somewhere around midnight, after throwing up and peeing myself silly, I fell asleep and managed to miss my 8 a.m. exam.

I’ve never touched another cigarette.

That same autumn, however, I drove home on a beautiful October afternoon to surprise my father at his office, hoping we might slip out for nine holes of golf before dark.

I found him sitting in his office reading Markings, a spiritual classic by Dag Hammarskjöld, the Scandinavian diplomat who’d served as the secretary-general of the United Nations.

He was also smoking a handsome wooden pipe.

“Oh no! You’ve discovered my secret pleasure,” he said with a sheepish grin.

Given my recent unhappy run-in with cigarettes, not to mention his own abandoned habit, I was surprised to see him smoking anything.

He explained that pipes were different from cigarettes. For one thing, you didn’t inhale pipe smoke into your lungs but allowed it to circulate in the air around you, “pleasing both the nose and the soul” — one reason, he reckoned, so many writers, poets and philosophers chose to smoke a pipe.

“It was either Charles Darwin or James Barrie who said a pipe stimulates noble thoughts” he said.

“Maybe it was either Santa Claus or Hugh Hefner,” I suggested. “They smoke pipes, too.”

I learned that he’d bought his first pipe in London during the Blitz and brought the habit home with him. “I thought it made me look like an intellectual,” he added with a chuckle. “Truth is, it reminded me of home. Your granddad smoked a pipe. It was pure comfort, a pacifier with smoke and memory.”

I wondered how frequently he smoked his pipes. There were three on his desk. Two looked new, one looked very old.

“Not very often.  A dozen times a year, tops. It’s not a habit — more a simple pleasure.”

He laughed, handing me his oldest-looking pipe. It had a cracked stem.

“This one belonged to your grandfather. You can have it, if you wish.”

“Can I smoke it?”

“Better try this one instead. Fits the hand nicely. Not much bite.”

It was a handsome thing, burled briarwood, a simple Italian affair with an elegant long stem. He showed me how to pack and light it and watched me puff away, reminding me not to inhale.

“So what do you think, college boy?” He asked.

I liked it.

He smiled. “We won’t tell your mother.”

That Christmas, though, he gave me a copy of Markings and a gorgeous handmade-Italian pipe that looked like it had been carved from a knot of mahogany.

I loved my new pipe even if my new college girlfriend didn’t.

She was a fellow English lit major, a self-described Marxist who had expensive tastes in footwear. She laughed out loud when she saw me pull out my fancy new Italian pipe and fire it up at a party where the guests were smoking a different kind of pipe and something that smelled like burning shag carpet.

“My God,” she hooted. “You look like an idiot! Next thing you’ll be wearing a corduroy jacket with elbow patches and calling yourself a Republican.” Had I been quicker on my feet, I might have told her that Che Guevara and her personal hero Virginia Woolf both smoked pipes, and that William Wordsworth carried his favorite pipe with him during his famous Lake District rambles. I could just picture the bard sitting on the crumbling wall at Tintern Abbey, dreaming of his lost Lucy as he sent perfect smoke rings into the still summer air.

We broke up a short time later — irreconcilable differences over politics and pipes — at which point I went straight out and bought a second-hand corduroy jacket with elbow patches, hoping I might look like John le Carré on the back cover of his latest espionage thriller.

By the time I was a married father living in a forest of birch and beech trees near the coast of Maine, I owned several handmade pipes, which I typically only smoked when summer vanished and the weather turned.

Our kids, however, always loved watching me smoke my pipe, probably because I could blow smoke rings prettier than either Bilbo Baggins or Gandalf the wizard.

Which may explain why, on that recent misty afternoon in western Virginia, realizing it had been many years since I even held a pipe in my hand, I impulsively bought a cheap Missouri Meerschaum pipe and an ounce of mild tobacco and had a fine time making smoke rings as I hoofed around town.

Back home, I went searching for a box in the basement that contained items from my office desk in Maine and found a few of my favorite pipes from those days, but not my grandfather’s Grabow or even the handsome Italian number my father gave me once upon a time.

They may be waiting somewhere in an unopened box, like artifacts from a carpenter’s workshop or a spy novelist’s corduroy jacket.

Or maybe they simply vanished, like smoke and memory.  PS

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at