Grand Traditions

History, N.C. pride and personal touches in the mansion

Photographs by Keith Isaacs

One of the many inconveniences endured because our world has bent to the reality of the coronavirus is that North Carolina’s Executive Mansion will be closed to the public during the holiday season. While the interior decorations will be scaled back, this year’s focus will be on the mansion grounds, with colored illuminations on all four sides, garlands and wreaths on the fence and gates. The two front parlors will each have a large tree in the window, decorated with white lights. And festive trees will be displayed in the center second floor window and the center third floor widow.

Just because we can’t tour the mansion in person in 2020, however, doesn’t mean we can’t imagine it in all its splendor. During a more typical year, the week after Thanksgiving, the mansion closes, and for five days staffers work tirelessly to transform the ornate Victorian home from its everyday splendor to a magnificent winter wonderland. These photographs show the governor’s home in more normal times.

Giant, live trees — from N.C. farms, of course — are the focal points. They’re displayed in four rooms on the first floor, usually the men’s lounge, ladies’ parlor, ballroom and sunroom, as well as in second- and third-floor windows above the home’s main entrance. Evergreen garlands wrap columns and banisters, locally-grown poinsettias fill every nook, and oversized arrangements mixing greenery, baubles, ribbons and more are atop every available surface. Outside, millions of lights twinkle, and blinking orbs shine from the limbs of enormous trees. Traditionally, the first spouse takes charge of the holiday decor, aided by a team of volunteers and input from the N.C. Arts Council. The planning ordinarily starts in July, and while some elements may repeat from one year to the next, “We never want it to look the same within the governorship,” David Robinson, the director of the Executive Mansion, who has managed the home for eight years, has said.

Each first family puts their own touch on the decor. For the Coopers, it has meant hanging stockings that first lady Kristin Cooper made for her family, as well as displaying a Christmas village scene she’s collected over time, complete with a tiny replica of nearby Krispy Kreme. “Mrs. Cooper always puts it together herself,” says Robinson.

While the dazzling trees would normally get the biggest oohs and aahs, it’s the details that will be missed this year: sprigs of mistletoe hung from chandeliers (sometimes cut from the mansion’s grounds), decorations made by local artists and nods to North Carolina’s state symbols woven into the decor. Robinson loves the atmosphere the holiday decorations create: “It’s my favorite time of year.” Even if this is a year like no other.  PS

The tree in the ballroom often celebrates a community cause; past years have included a military tree and an education tree.
Cardinals and dogwood on the tree in the men’s lounge.
The powder-blue dining room is set with state china for special occasions.
The tree in the ladies’ parlor is typically decorated in traditional Victorian style to match the home’s architecture.


Tour de Trees

OK, 2020. No Christmas parades. Check. No New Year’s parties. Check. But the town of Southern Pines will still have festive trees lining its streets for the holidays, courtesy of local merchants and civic organizations. Consider it an opportunity for a bit of socially distanced holiday cheer and, while you stroll around town, a little window shopping.

Bryant House Birthday Bash

Rain or shine, bring the family to celebrate the 200th birthday of the Bryant House, combined with Heritage Day, on Saturday, Dec. 5, from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., at 3361 Mt. Carmel Road, Carthage. There will be live music, Christmas cheer, war interpretations and craft demonstrations. For additional information call (910) 692-2051 or go to

Holiday Concert

The Sandhills Community College Holiday Concert will feature choral and piano arrangements to get everyone in the holiday spirit. The concert will be live streamed from the Bradshaw Performing Arts Center on Sunday, Dec. 6, beginning at 4 p.m. You can find it on YouTube at a web address too confusing to contemplate but easy to search.

Shaw House Tours

The historic Shaw House, the Garner House and the Sanders Cabin at 110 W. Morganton Road in Southern Pines will be open for tours and Christmas gift shopping Thursdays and Fridays beginning Dec. 3 from 1 – 4 p.m. Proceeds benefit the Moore County Historical Association and help preserve our heritage. For additional information call (910) 692-2051.

Open House

Enjoy a winter wonderland of holiday décor and gifts at Hollyfield Design, 130 E. Illinois Ave., Southern Pines, beginning Friday, Dec. 4, from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Christmas pet photos will be available on Dec. 6 from 1 – 3 p.m. Get digital files in exchange for donations of cat food for Animal Advocates of Moore County. Sunday hours will be 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. For more information call (910) 692-7243.

Nothing Runs Like a Reindeer

The annual 5K Reindeer Fun Run through the downtown neighborhoods of Aberdeen takes place on Saturday, Dec. 5, from 7:15 a.m. – 12 p.m. The run is for all skill levels, from walkers to trotters to people who are in distressingly good physical condition. For information call (910) 693-3045 or go to

A Cuppa

The Sandhills Women’s Exchange, 15 Azalea Road in Pinehurst, is having “Tea Time at the Cabin” on Sunday, Dec. 13 from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. There is limited seating of only 16 guests. There will be a second seating from 2 – 4 p.m. The cost is $50 per person. For information and reservations call (910) 295-4677.

All Dressed Up (And Nowhere to Go)

Peruse vintage fashions from 5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 8, at the Poplar Knight Spot, 114 Knight St., Aberdeen. The Rooster’s Wife and Moon Vintage Goods will put on a socially distanced trunk show of fashions ranging from the ’70s to the ’00s. There will be eggnog and gift wrapping. Limited to 20 shoppers at a time. For information go to or call (910) 944-7502.

The Naturalist

Among Kings and Killers

Abundant life on an island at the end of the world

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

Words cannot describe it. Photographs will never do it justice. It has to be experienced, firsthand, to fully appreciate the sheer scale and magnitude. Standing before me, as far as the eye could see, were thousands upon thousands of penguins, all packed tightly together, each bird over 3-feet tall and weighing 25 pounds.

The immense rookery was full of frenetic energy, with birds constantly coming and going, tending to young, and greeting one another with rapid head nods and throaty, guttural calls. It was a complete sensory overload, a bit like standing in the middle of Times Square during a pre-COVID rush hour. I was on one of the most remote spots on the planet, about as far away from humanity as one can get, witnessing one of Earth’s greatest wildlife spectacles.

Lying just north of Antarctica and surrounded by the nutrient-rich waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean, South Georgia is a crescent-shaped island, 100 miles long, and full of rugged, 10,000-foot tall snowcapped mountains. A British territory, the island was first observed in 1675 by London-born Antoine de la Roché, whose ship had been blown off course while traveling from South America to England.

The 150,000 pairs of king penguins stretched from the shoreline all the way up the side of a mountain that was flanked by two broad, icy glaciers. The rookery on Salisbury Plain, near the northwest corner of South Georgia, is the largest on the island and one of the largest in the world.

King penguins are the world’s second largest species of penguin, surpassed only by their close cousins, the emperor penguins, who prefer to nest on the icy continent of Antarctica just to the south. Their regal-like plumage, befitting their common name, is composed of a layer of densely packed black and white feathers (to help shield against the cold) and a brilliant orange facemask.

Working as a naturalist for a tour company that specialized in travel to remote locations around the world, I had landed on the beach earlier that morning with 10 other passengers. As we carefully made our way along the sandy shoreline, dodging a caravan of penguins returning to the beach from an offshore foraging venture, we paused to watch a pair of massive southern elephant seal males (so named for their immense noses) bellow territorial warnings to one another.

Southern elephant seals, like king penguins, are creatures of superlatives. As the largest seal on the planet, males can grow to 16 feet in length and reach weights of 4 tons.

Scattered among the elephant seals and penguins are hundreds of Antarctic fur seals. Most were sleeping, stretched out on their bellies on the sandy beach, but some were sitting high up on tussocks of tall grass, surveying their surroundings. Looking a bit like domestic dogs, with dense fur coats, small heads and pointed snouts, Antarctic fur seals, as well as the larger elephant seals, are living testaments to the resiliency of Mother Nature.

When the famous sea captain James Cook landed on the island in January 1775, claiming it for the British crown and naming it after King George III, he found the land to be barren and inhospitable. However, he reported on the vast numbers of seals found along its rugged shores. Within five years, commercial ships from Britain and the United States descended upon the island in droves to hunt and harvest the abundant pinnipeds.

Elephant seals were killed for their oil and the fur seals harvested for their coats. In just a single year, one British vessel took 3,000 barrels of oil and over 50,000 fur seal skins. That kind of hunting pressure was not sustainable, and soon seal populations were nearing total collapse. Commercial sealing activities folded because there were simply not enough animals left alive to the make the business profitable. In 1972, international laws were established to protect marine mammals around the world, and since that time, populations of elephant seals and fur seals have made a remarkable recovery.

As we toured the immense penguin rookery, one young fur seal caught my eye. Unlike the other seals on the beach, which were dark brown, this one was a striking honey-blond color. This pale condition, likely a recessive genetic trait akin to albinism, is rare in fur seal populations and occurs in just 1 percent of the population. Our group stopped and aimed long telephoto lenses at the youngster, who seemed just as curious about us as we were about him.

Glancing out to sea, just beyond the blond fur seal, I caught sight of another superlative creature flying high above the waves. With a wingspan approaching 12 feet, the wandering albatross is Earth’s longest-winged flying bird, inspiring generations of sailors with its immense size and ability to glide effortlessly through the air in the strongest of gales. Later in the day, we would stop on nearby Prion Island, a small islet in the bay, to observe wandering albatrosses on their nests.

Albatrosses, penguins and seals, oh my. South Georgia is truly one of the great wildlife meccas on the planet. Even the waters surrounding the island host a tremendous diversity of life. Just the day before, as our ship approached the island from the west, we stumbled upon one of the greatest concentration of marine creatures I have ever seen in 25 years of sailing the high seas.

Under a brilliant blue-sky day, with only a light breeze blowing across the surface of the ocean, we stumbled upon an immense gathering of whales. As far as the eye could see, the tall blows of fin whales, the second largest animal on the planet (capable of reaching lengths over 80 feet and 70 tons), rose above the surface of the water. Dozens of the immense creatures were in view at any one time. Scattered here and there among the fin whales were rotund southern right whales and the occasional humpback whale.

As our ship transited carefully through the area, a long line of seabirds, consisting of prions, petrels and albatrosses, followed. A small group of hourglass dolphins rushed over to play in the wake left behind by the moving vessel. Life was everywhere.

We had crossed the Antarctic Convergence, a zone where the cold currents from Antarctica meet the warmer waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The meeting of these currents can vary from year to year and our ship just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The sighting of the day happened just after noon, when a large group of killer whales approached the ship. Killer whales (a bit of a misnomer, as they are not actually a whale but rather the largest member of the dolphin family) have striking panda-like black and white markings, and when a mother and her calf surfaced close to the bow of the ship, numerous oohhs and aahhs erupted from passengers and crew alike. The group of 20 or so killers accompanied the ship for the better part of an hour and left a lasting impression on all those onboard.

I frequently look back at the images I took during my time around South Georgia. To witness such an abundance of wildlife, especially during this day and age, when so much of the natural world is feeling the negative effects of humanity, was an extraordinary privilege. It also offers a glimmer of hope for the future. If our society — all seven billion of us — can achieve the economic and political resolve to mitigate the decline of the natural world, humans and the other wild creatures that call this planet home, will flourish.  PS

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


By Ashley Wahl

November is the sculptor and the stone — ever chiseling away, ever clarifying what has always been, gently unveiling the mystery.

Near-bare branches reveal ash-gray skies, crisp silhouettes in all directions and a panorama so clear you wonder how you never noticed what you’ve never noticed.

The veil is thin. Like trees with lungs, deer stand silent, eyes wide, ears spread like radio antennae. There is nothing and nowhere to hide. Even the last of the leaves have let go — not yet of their branches but of their need for sunlight. No more churning out chlorophyll. No more illusion of green. Only dappled yellow and mottled orange, the brilliant scarlet truth.

November is the last of the apples, zucchini bread warm from the oven and the cold sting of autumn in your eyes and bones.

In a flash, an earful of waxwing ornament the tender branches of the dogwood, pass its red berries from bill to bill like children sharing candies. You heard them before you saw them. And like a dream, the birds have vanished as suddenly as they arrived, the berries gone with them.

November guides you inward.

You are standing in the kitchen now, cradling a hot beverage until your face and fingers thaw. It doesn’t happen all at once, this softening. But sure as the final leaves descend, the grace of the season will become clear: Things fall away to reveal what matters most. And with all this space — this bare-branched view of the brilliant scarlet truth — there is gratitude.

You give thanks for what is here now, the cold sting of aliveness and the warmth within the mystery.

The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night,
Ya-honk! he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation,
The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listening close,
Find its purpose and place up there toward the wintry sky.
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Turnip Eater

It’s turnip season, and if that doesn’t thrill you from tongue to root, consider the words of Pliny the Elder, who maintained that the turnip “should be spoken of immediately after corn, or the bean, at all events; for next to these two productions, there is no plant that is of more extensive use.”

In Roman times, the globular roots were hurled at unpopular public figures much in the way disappointed groundlings chucked rotting fruit at Shakespeare’s duds.

There are more practical uses, of course.

During World War I, bread and potato shortages gave birth to the “Turnip Winter” of 1916–1917. German civilians subsisted on them. And in World War II, when biscuits and mutton were scarce, guess what? The turnip was there, best in savory Lord Woolton pie, named for the Minister of Food who popularized the dish in 1940.

Turnips are low in carbs and packed with nutrients.

Roast them in butter. Mash them with sage. Pan-fry their greens with sweet onions and garlic, balancing the bitter with brown sugar, salt and apple cider vinegar.

In 2018, Tasmanian farmer Roger Bignell accidentally grew a world record-breaking turnip that weighed a whopping 18.36 kilograms (that’s over 40 pounds). Imagine unearthing that sucker, a root the size of a border collie! Not so easy to hurl.

If Charles Dickens used the word “turnip” in a novel, he was likely referring to a country bumpkin. But it’s a gift to be simple, and when life gives you turnips, you might just get creative with them.

Quiet Time

The full Beaver Moon rises on Monday, November 30. It’s time now.

The beaver retreats to its lodge, the squirrel to its drey. The bumblebee burrows underground, alone, dreaming of honey and clover.

The creatures lead the way, but we, too, turn inward.

Warm wishes and good health to you and yours this holiday season. May your hearts and cupboards be full.  PS

The Omnivorous Reader

Siberian Odyssey

Exploring the exotic and the desolate

By Stephen E. Smith

“Loss of Travel Causing Americans to Feel Stress and Anxiety” a recent MSN headline blared. If that’s the case, here’s a possible pandemic-proof cure: The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts, a beautifully written travelogue/social history that will likely transport the reader to heretofore unknown locales.

You can’t travel much farther afield than Siberia, the wasteland to which tsarist political prisoners were exiled and in which purged Soviet dissidents disappeared into gulags surrounded by ice, swamps, mosquitoes and intellectual sterility. Much of what the average American knows about Siberia — if he or she knows anything at all — is based on the movie Doctor Zhivago, which wasn’t set in Siberia, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which was, and that’s unfortunate, since Siberia contains an 11th of the world’s land mass, the largest continuous forest, the longest railroad, the biggest lake, the coldest city, and an exotic ethnic mix that’s bewildering even by American standards.

So why would a British journalist travel to Siberia to find lost pianos? Roberts isn’t an authority on the evolution of the instrument or a connoisseur of the finer points of piano construction or restoration. She isn’t even an accomplished pianist. Although she never overtly states her motivation, the reader is left with the impression that the book, in addition to being immensely entertaining and informative, is a testament to the power of music in the most adverse circumstances man can conjure. Simply stated, Roberts went looking for lost pianos in the most desolate place on the planet and wrote a book about what she found.

The narrative is organized around physical locations, social histories and characters. “The pull of private histories is always present in Siberia,” she writes. “Every face informs the enigmatic texture of a place where legacy of exile lingers, like the smell of incense, or the feeble gleam of traffic lights, with the complexity of Russia’s identity, and the mix of Europe and Asia, evident not just in the jumble of architecture of the Siberian baroque church I stood on top of in a snow-breeze in winter, but in the routes reaching out from every side.”

Typical of Roberts’ happier discoveries is the story of Maria Volkonskaya. When Maria was forced into exile in the 1850s with her Decembrist husband, she took a clavichord, dragging it on a sledge. Once settled in Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia, she opened a hospital and concert hall, where recitals became a social force in the region. Roberts visits Maria’s home, now a museum, and discovers a pyramid piano shaped like a concert piano turned up against the wall (the original clavichord had long since disappeared into history) and a Lichtenthal owned by Maria.

When played the Lichtenthal “behaved awkwardly,” but the muffled notes lift Roberts into lyricism: “The keys were sticky, like an old typewriter gluey with ink. He struck the keys until the softened notes — muted by layers of dust, perhaps, or felt that had swollen in the damp — started to appear. At first the sound was reed-thin, no louder than the flick of a fingernail on a bell. Inside the piano, the amber wood still gleamed, the strings’ fragile tensions held in place by tiny twists around the heads of golden, round-headed tuning pins.”

Chapter 8, “The Last Tsar’s Piano: The Urals,” is a predictable rehashing of the Russian Revolution and the transport of the Romanovs to Ekaterinburg. The Tsarina played the piano, an ebony instrument, perhaps a Russian made Schröder, which disappeared along with the Romanovs and the Ipatiev House in which they were executed. Ironically, the body of Rasputin, the Tsarina’s personal mystic, was disinterred, stuffed into an old piano and burned.

Maxim Gorky, who knew something about suffering, wrote of the “genuine horrors” of everyday life in his native Russia, and certainly there are examples aplenty in Roberts’ telling. While visiting Kiakhta, a city located on the Russian-Mongolian border, she describes gruesome deaths by bayonet during the tsarist and Soviet eras. Prisoners were poisoned and shoved alive into bakers’ ovens. Many exiles were sprayed with water and frozen to death so as not to waste bullets.

Near Tomsk, one of the oldest cities in Siberia, she hears stories of a family of “Old Believers,” examples of Slavic civilization before the introduction of Westernizing reforms in the 18th century, who had retreated so far into the snowy taiga of the western Sayan Mountains that they lived in complete isolation until discovered in the late 1970s. They knew nothing of Stalin and the moon landings, which they didn’t believe anyway, and thought cellophane was crumpled glass.

In describing Sakhalin Island near Aleksandrovsk in the North Pacific Ocean, she quotes Chekhov: “A dreadful, hideous place, wretched in every respect, in which only saints or profoundly perverse people could live of their own free will.” Vlas Doroshevick, one of Russia’s most popular and widely read journalists of the 20th century, described Sakhalin as “perhaps the most foul hole as exists on earth.”

On the Yamal Peninsula, Roberts observed abandoned “skeletons of iron, diggers, lorries, and drilling machines stuck in hollows of land from Yamal’s vast natural gas fields” — a desolate place that “felt close to the start of time.” The forsaken landscape of Kolyma “felt like the saddest place on the planet.”

And so it goes: the Altai Mountains, Harbin, Novosibirsk, Akademgorodok, Kamchatka, Khabarovsk, etc. — place names so foreign they’re almost unpronounceable.

Roberts spent two years wandering the inhospitable wilderness of Siberia, and her powers of description bring those locales and their histories to life. There may have been pianos yet undiscovered, but Russian authorities eventually became suspicious of her “lost pianos” rationale, and she was ordered out of the country. Riding to the airport, she studied the texture of the skull of a man sitting in front of her. It was “like a brain exposed. The image stayed with me, along with the sight of a handgun in our driver’s glove compartment, the swelling in the land from mass graves, and the statues of Lenin in Kadykchan with half his face shot away.” 

There are disturbing, indelible images in The Lost Pianos of Siberia, visions of what Gorky called the “grotesquely terrible.” But there are also touches of humor and occasional moments of beauty. If Roberts’ descriptions of Siberia don’t magically cure the stress and anxiety of living in pandemic America, thoughtful readers might well find they sleep a little more soundly.  PS

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


Don’t Forget to Write

For our family, the mailman was more than just a welcome sight — he was a lifeline

By Ruth Moose

As a child during World War II, I lived with my grandparents on a farm near Cottonville in Stanly County, North Carolina. With gas rationing, there was no traffic and so quiet we could hear the mailman long before we could see the cloud of dust his car made on the unpaved road. In a world turned upside down and torn apart, mail was the only thing we could count on.

We lived for the mail. It meant the world to us. We had the radio and a weekly newspaper, also delivered by the mailman. But letters told us the people we loved were safe.  At least for the time being.  My grandparents’ four children were in four corners of the world: my father stationed in France; my Uncle Tom a navigator with the Army Air Corps in London; my Aunt Pearl, an Army nurse, was with MacArthur’s troops in the Philippines; and my Uncle Edgar, who had just graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill with a masters in physics was in Washington, D.C., and alternately, Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Each of them wrote a letter home every week. You could depend on it.  And my grandparents wrote back.

When two weeks went by without a letter from her daughter, my grandmother was more than worried, fearing the worst. She sent inquiries. Discovered my aunt was in this country, hospitalized with a mental and physical breakdown. But she was alive and recovered.

The mail not only brought letters each week but also a brand new, fresh copy of my grandmother’s favorite reading, The Saturday Evening Post. That was her recreation, her relaxation, her reward at the end of each long, worried day. On special occasions the mailman might bring a box of Whitman’s Sampler, picked up from a PX somewhere I’m sure. We rationed a single chocolate a day as long as it lasted.

The mailman also brought books! My aunt in D.C. was a librarian and regularly mailed me books, books that were read aloud to me until I taught myself to read. Poems from A Child’s Garden of Verses, The Adventures of Peter Rabbit and others. Books were magic doors to a larger world and gave me a lifelong love of the printed word, of learning, of no greater pleasure than reading.

When the war was over, they all came home, wounded in body, mind and spirit, but thankfully alive. They continued the weekly letters home and to each other the rest of their lives.

After my grandfather died, the farm was sold and my grandmother lived three months at a time with her four children: my aunt a school nurse in New Jersey; my uncle on the faculty at N.C. State in Raleigh; Uncle Edgar teaching at Georgia State; and my family in Albemarle. Always letters back and forth, specialty cards for all the occasions. Cards to be kept and displayed on mantels and dressers. Cards to be re-enjoyed for days and weeks following. Not the same as today’s emails, a blink here and gone forever. I remember getting an e-condolence card after my husband’s death and crying in frustration. If the sender really wanted to send some sympathy, they could have bought a card, or written a note, signed, addressed, stamped and mailed it. An e-condolence was a quick click and no more thought than that. Obligation over.

Sadly none of the old letters survived. Tossed in the purging of estates after a death; nieces, nephews, cousins, grandchildren who saw them as only pieces of paper, not family history.

During the pandemic, I’ve being purging files, boxes from storage and attics. Deep in one box I was amazed to find my letters to my husband, who was then my boyfriend during our four college years. He had somehow, somewhere, kept them and they had survived many moves, packing and unpacking. Don’t tell me emails could do that. Not in a million years. Yellowed and with three-cent stamps, the letters tell the story of a summer romance that lasted over 50 years. I’ve been reading, alternately laughing and crying. We were so young.  So 1950s crazy and scared. The question is: Will my sons want these letters? My grandchildren? I can only hope.  PS

Ruth Moose taught Introduction to Writing Short Fiction at UNC-Chapel Hill for 15 years. Her students have since published New York Times Bestsellers and are getting Netflixed. She recently returned to her roots in the Uwharrie Mountains. 

Golftown Journal

Holly Days

Of presidents and penalty strokes

By Lee Pace

As a lifelong hunter and fisherman, George H.W. Bush had a high regard for the environment and the importance of preserving wetlands. As vice president under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, he saw how wetland protection had become a hot-button political issue. Those areas of land covered by water at least part of the time serve as homes for wildlife, buffers for floodwaters and filters for pollution.

But they can also provide obstacles to those wanting to grow crops and build highways, houses, factories and, yes, even golf courses.

Bush seized on the environment as a key platform issue in his race against Michael Dukakis as the 1988 presidential campaign unfolded. He promised that his administration would set a national goal of “no net loss of wetlands.”

Bush took office in January 1989, and the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers soon had new marching orders on what they would or would not approve in future industrial, residential and agricultural development. A Petri dish of that policy and a crystal clear line-in-the-sand of its effects can be found on the 36 holes of golf at Pinewild Country Club, located just 2 miles west of the village of Pinehurst. 

Architect Gene Hamm designed the Magnolia Course in the mid-1980s, built it through 1988 and opened it a year later. There were no restrictions on which areas of the land could be filled in. At 7,446 yards, the course falls behind only Pinehurst No. 2 (7,588) and Quail Hollow (set at 7,600 yards for the 2017 PGA Championship) in the state of North Carolina in terms of length from the championship tees.

The Gary Player-designed Holly Course followed nearly a decade later and opened in 1996. If Player, his lieutenants and the club’s owner wanted to fill in wetlands, they would have to create them elsewhere on the property — a far too complicated and expensive proposition.

Thus the Holly Course hopscotches wetlands, streams and ponds to some degree on roughly half its holes. Some hazards might not require a full carry to safety, but they’re positioned over enough of the fairway or on a line to the green to give the player considerable pause for thought. The 12th and 13th are routed around a lake and its adjunct wetland area, the former hole a par-3 with a full carry over water and the latter a par-4 turning left-to-right with a drive over the lake, and an approach into the green over a patch of wetlands.

Among clubs in the Sandhills with 36 holes or more, the Magnolia and Holly present perhaps the most interesting set of contrasts.

“The Magnolia is right in front of you; there are no tricks,” says Chris Little, the club’s general manager since 1998. “The length is there; it’s a difficult course. There’s more risk-reward on the Holly. There’s a lot of trouble on the Holly, but if you avoid the water, there’s more chance to make some good scores.”

“The Magnolia is more meat-and-potatoes; the Holly allows a bit more creativity,” adds Gus Ulrich, the club’s director of instruction since 2008. “The Holly demands more precision, but you can make more birdies there. For the low-handicapper playing the back tees, the Magnolia’s a real challenge, among the best in town.”

Add those two regulation courses to the club’s nine-hole par-3 course, a three-hole practice track and a double-sided practice range with Ulrich’s teaching compound at one end, and you’ve got one of the most well-rounded and diversified clubs in the Sandhills. No wonder through September that the club had “for sale” signs on only four of some 900 residences within its 2,100-acre footprint.

Little believes that the coronavirus pandemic has helped the club’s stability beyond having lost all of its outside package business in the spring.

“People are working from home now. They’re moving away from the big cities, and the retirement process is being sped up,” he says. “It’s an hour-and-a-half to the airport from here. I have talked to people who say they’ve got three years until retirement, they can work from here and travel wherever they need for a couple days a month.”

When its gates opened in the late 1980s, Pinewild was mostly seen as a retirement community. Now the club has an active military component and numerous families with children.

“When we first joined in 1992, there was no such thing as children here — unless they were someone’s grandchildren,” says Don Power, a longtime member and resident since 2007. “Now there are five schoolbuses coming through and 150 children living here, last I heard. You see parents taking children to the practice range, to the pool, riding bikes. It gives the club a much more balanced feeling.”

The latest chapter in the Pinewild evolution was added over the summer of 2020 when the club rebuilt the greens on the Holly Course, planting Diamond Zoysia on the putting surfaces. The course was closed for June and July and reopened in August.

“After 25 years, it was time for new greens,” Little says. “The greens had shrunk over the years, we’d lost some pin positions, and with aerification and top-dressing they had sunk in some spots. Some of them weren’t getting good sunlight.

“We’re delighted with the results.”

Over the last decade, many clubs in the Mid-Atlantic “transition zone” have converted their greens from bent grass to one of the new hybrid Bermuda varieties better able to withstand the summer heat. Pinewild officials considered Bermuda but faced an added challenge of having a half-dozen greens sitting in shady areas surrounded by trees located on private property, limiting the club’s ability to thin out the tree cover. They opted for the Diamond Zoysia because it thrives in warm weather and without as much need of sunlight as other warm-weather grasses.

The job was handled in-house with direction from John Robertson, director of golf course maintenance, and Shawn Giordano, course superintendent. The greens were enlarged by approximately 1,700 square feet to a total of 5,500 each, on average, and the original contours re-established. Several bunkers were rebuilt to solve drainage issues. Little says the club plans a similar project on the Magnolia Course in 2021 and will likely convert the greens to hybrid Bermuda.

“The course plays differently now,” Little says. “We have pin positions we didn’t have since the course was constructed.”

“The Diamond Zoysia is perfect for this course,” adds Robertson. “It does well in hot weather and in the shade. It’s used a lot in South Carolina, where you have all the oaks and Spanish moss, and you can’t take the trees down.”

Early returns on the zoysia greens are that they’re healthier than the previous strain of bent but not as firm as Bermuda.

“The zoysia takes the energy out of the ball,” Little says. “It hits the green and absorbs the shock, then rolls just a little. It’s not like bent that hits and spins 30 feet back. It’s very dense grass.”

“There are a lot of forced carries on the Holly, and the greens accept shots better instead of them hitting and flying past, over the green,” adds Robertson.

Power and his wife, Joan, are natives of the Chicago area but lived their adult lives in Orange County, California. They were introduced to the Sandhills through a friend who worked for DuPont and attended regular client outings at Pinehurst. They bought a lot in Pinewild in 1992 and moved permanently in 2007.

Over the years as he’s moved up a set of tees and Power says he’s come to appreciate the appeal of the Holly Course more and more.

“Initially, I was not in love with the Holly,” he says. “The Magnolia is long and difficult. It’s been a U.S. Open qualifying course, so it has to be tough. Over the years, I’ve become more a fan of the Holly. It’s much more playable as you get a little older.

“I love what they’ve done with the Holly. The greens are spectacular. The zoysia has held up beautifully. We are very blessed and pleased. There are few divots and the ball holds. The greens are not extra soft, not extra firm, and they putt very true.”

And during this political season, it’s interesting to muse about how a presidential directive affected the playability of a golf course in Pinehurst. PS

Lee Pace has been writing about golf in the Sandhills since the late 1980s—the very time that Pinewild Country Club was founded.

In the Spirit

Kettle to the Coil

Wine and heavy metal

By Tony Cross

Six years ago, I was approached by a committee from our local community college asking if I would be interested in creating a cocktail for an event. Bestselling author Tom Wolfe was coming to town, and they wanted a cocktail that had orange(s) in it. Why? One of Wolfe’s more popular books, The Right Stuff, is about astronauts, so I guess the committee thought, “Tang!”

I agreed, but warned them that the orange mix astronauts used to drink (Do they still?) would probably not make the cut.

I remember my thought process being a bit backward when visualizing what I wanted to do. Yes, I was incorporating oranges, but that’s not what I had my eye on. It was September, and the temperature was starting to drop, and I had been toying around with the idea of putting a cocktail on the list with a red wine syrup. I found a recipe I wanted to tinker with, and that’s what I wanted to do with the “orange drink.” So, maybe a wine syrup and oranges? No. How about infusing the wine with oranges? Possible. But no. What about an orange-infused spirit? I believe that’s how it started.

I had an idea in my head of what I wanted my cocktail to taste like, but it rarely happens as planned. At the time I hadn’t worked with Scotch very much when it came to mixing it with other ingredients. So, where the idea for an orangey Scotch came from, well, I just don’t know. But why the hell not? I needed to get the syrup right first, and then work around that. I chose a light and fruity pinot noir for my wine. I figured that since I was going to add fall spices to it, I didn’t want anything too complex. I added quite a bit to the wine: apples, anise, cloves, on and on, and . . . wait for it, oranges! Well, the peels anyway.

The syrup came out pretty yum, so now it was on to the orange-infused Scotch. I chose The Famous Grouse, a blended whisky. It’s not over the top pricewise, and it does a decent job when blending with other ingredients in a shaken cocktail. I had never infused just oranges in a dark liquor before, and my first attempt wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good either. Basically, I had cut out the flesh of the oranges (avoiding pith), and let it sit in a glass jar of Scotch for five days to a week. The result was kind of cloudy and lackluster.

My next go round, I decided to cut the amount of fruit in half and replace the other half with orange peels. I was pleasantly surprised after three to five days of infusing. Oh, and I cut my jar amount in half, too. I took two Mason jars and split the bottle of Scotch up with the flesh and peels. That’s what I should have called the cocktail, “Flesh and Peels.” Instead — and I was notorious for this — I named it after a song. A metal song, “From the Kettle onto the Coil.” Why? Because I was never good at naming a drink, unless it was after a lady or a song. What could go wrong?

The drink turned out great, and the folks that ran the event loved it. However, I don’t recall seeing Mr. Wolfe or his trademark white suit. Oh, well.

Below is the recipe for the wine syrup and cocktail. Feel free to use this syrup in an old-fashioned with Scotch, bourbon or rye whisk(e)y, or however you feel inspired.

Pinot Noir Syrup

750 milliliters pinot noir

3 cups granulated sugar

1 tablespoon whole cloves

1 tablespoon star anise pods

1/2 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg

1/2 tablespoon cardamom pods (crushed)

3 cinnamon sticks

1/2 apple (sliced)

Zest of 6 oranges

Combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to just under a boil. Reduce heat to low and let simmer for 20 minutes or until reduced by half.

Kettle to the Coil

1 1/4 ounces orange-infused Scotch

1/2 ounce Drambuie

1/2 ounce pinot noir syrup

3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice

Add all ingredients to shaker with ice. Shake hard for 10 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Express the oils of an orange peel over the cocktail and discard into glass.

Orange-infused Scotch

Take two 16-ounce Mason jars and put into each of them:

Flesh and peel of one medium-large orange. Half a bottle of The Famous Grouse (or other blended Scotch). Tighten jar, and let sit in a cool, dark room for 3-5 days, each day slightly agitating jars. Pour through strainer when ready, and then filter again through coffee filter. The infusion should last for a few weeks, though every bottle I made rarely survived longer than a day or two.  PS

Tony Cross is a bartender (well, ex-bartender) who runs cocktail catering company Reverie Cocktails in Southern Pines.


The Return of the Bufflehead

The little ducks are back — if only for the winter

By Susan Campbell

For me, late autumn means one of my favorite groups of birds, waterfowl, are on the way south.

As the colder months bring thousands south to spend the winter, the vast majority of ducks, geese and swans touch down along the coast. Still, inland throughout the Sandhills and Piedmont, reservoirs and farm ponds attract a great diversity of these web-footed wonders. Although nonmigratory wood ducks and mallards are common enough, smaller species can be seen, including the bufflehead.

Male and female buffleheads have distinctly different plumage. Males are the showier of the two with lots of white on the head and the body and a splash on the wings. The glossy green “buffle” over the male’s cheeks and crown, though, is the bird’s really distinguishing feature. Also look for dark feathers on the back, and, in flight, a white stripe at the shoulder and a patch across the middle of the wing. 

Females are brown all over with just a white “ear” patch. Juveniles will sport their first set of feathers through most of the winter with young males looking very much like their mothers: having very limited white feathering. Overall, these are small, stout ducks with short, wide bills.

One surprising feature of the males is their red-orange legs. You may get a glimpse of them as they come in for a landing. But come late winter, as their hormone levels change, they will be more apt to display their colorful shanks in addition to bobbing their handsome heads. Listen for their characteristic croaking calls as they swim around their mate, showing off. Unlike other species of ducks, they mate for life, only spending a little time apart in late summer when they undergo a complete molt.

Bufflehead breed way up north in boreal forests — in close association with northern flickers. They are dependent on the woodpecker; abandoned flicker cavities are just the right size for the diminutive hen to lay her eggs. As with other cavity-nesting waterfowl, as soon as all of the eggs have hatched (and that may take all day since there can be a dozen or more), mom will exit and call the young to her on the ground. The literal “leap of faith” ensues and the fat, downy balls of feathers will, one by one, jump out of the nest hole. It is not unusual for them to bounce a time or two when they hit the leaf litter. But their insulation and soft bones protect them from the impact.  The brood will be led a short distance to water where they are well equipped to spend day and night from there on out.

Inland, the birds have quite a broad diet during the cooler months.  They have legs placed well back on their bodies so they are at ease diving and swimming in all sorts of wet habitats. You may see bufflehead diving not only for invertebrates but small clams, snails and worms in deep water. In shallow bays and around pond edges, they search out seeds and berries.

Quite unexpectedly I came to realize that buffleheads can become regular “yard birds” if you live on a body of water that they frequent. In Whispering Pines, I would throw corn to the ring-necked ducks (yet another small wintering species) that came up to our bulkhead. Not long after the first bufflehead appeared, in about 2010, they not only zeroed in on the free food but quickly drove away the ring-necked fowl. Week after week, these little ducks would arrive at dawn looking for breakfast and provide lots of entertainment, enthusiastically diving to gobble up cracked corn. By the end of February, the flock would disappear, no doubt heading north, back to their breeding grounds. So each fall I would anticipate the return of the buffleheads. I would wait and wait: until one morning in late October, following a good cold front, the first feisty group would show up once again — hungry as ever!  PS

Susan would love to receive your wildlife observations and/or photos at