Magnolia malady

How the magnolia became a Southern symbol, I’ll never know. Sure, it thrives in warm, humid climates and has lovely blossoms that emerge this time of year to give the air a sweet and intoxicating aroma.

But, let’s face it, this tree is a mess. It takes a special homeowner who can handle it. I am not that homeowner.

Magnolia leaf
Why do you lie there, mocking me?

I have an admission: what some people call “discipline” in my lifestyle is more accurately diagnosed as a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The more chaotic my life gets, the more I focus on trying to control small components of it. Back during my newspaper days I wrote an entire column on how I enjoyed ironing. Yes, I know. I’m sick.

The magnolia tree feeds that sickness like no other living thing, and this is the season of the year it taunts me the most.

While every other non-evergreen drops its leaves in the fall, the magnolia sheds thousands of its “leaves” in the spring. As my zoysia lawn finally begins to slowly go from brown to green, it gets covered in the ugly, brown and yellow shards of non-biodegradable cardboard that fall endlessly from the giant magnolia in my front yard.

To make matters worse, this year Carla and I finally did what we should have done when we first moved into our Lilburn home nine years ago: we brought in a landscaping company. Instead of experimenting with plants that would end up dying or that we would replant to a more suitable location, we should have just bitten the bullet and had someone give us what we wanted.

They completed the work two weeks ago, and as the greenery has started to take hold and the gardenias started to flower, the magnolia has begun its annual mischief.

I can’t handle it.

Front yard
The view from upstairs bathroom window. Pardon me while I go down and get a few magnolia leaves up.

When I gaze upon my lawn each morning, I have the urge to run out in my pajamas and start picking up leaves. It’s maddening.

Last weekend as our oldest was getting his first shot at mowing the front yard, I helplessly watched as 20 mile-per-hour winds blew hundreds of leaves onto the pristine lawn.

In the fall when my grass goes dormant, I don’t really feel a compulsion to get up the leaves that fall by the truckloads from my two giant silver maples. I usually wait until the week of Thanksgiving to begin blowing and raking, just in time to put up the Christmas decorations at the end of the week.

But when the rest of the yard is blooming and greening and looking its best, the magnolia’s insidious littering drives me to distraction.

Allow me to make a simple proposal: the New South needs a new symbol.

You can make the case for the lovely but sometimes fragile dogwood. Atlanta’s Dogwood Festival at Piedmont Park was just last weekend, so it’s got a good following already.

I would nominate the pine, but those continually falling needles and pine cones put it in the same annoying and high maintenance category as the magnolia. And don’t get me started about the Sweet Gum, with its prickly little balls that render a scamper to the mailbox hazardous.

In the New South, we don’t have time to pick up after our trees.

So, after much thought and deliberation, I humbly submit, the official tree of the New South should be the crape myrtle. Though many people hack it unmercifully, mistakenly believing it won’t bloom otherwise, this seasonal ornamental has become ubiquitous in recently developed areas of the South.

It doesn’t require much, but it doesn’t give much in return. For good or ill, this sounds exactly like a New Southerner to me.

What’s your favorite Southern tree? What’s your least favorite? Would you nominate something else as the quintessential tree of the New South? Leave a comment below to offer your perspective.

Piano music

New South Essays readers know I’m a fan of Southern singer/songwriter Kate Campbell, so when her 13th album “1000 Pound Machine” was released April 3, it wasn’t a stretch to predict a review was coming.

Kate Campbell at the piano
Kate Campbell at her "1000 pound machine"

I was intrigued by several twists on this album. First, Campbell trades her customary acoustic guitar for a piano, the instrument of her training and youth. Second, she is joined by an all-star cast of musicians including Will Kimbrough, Spooner Oldham, David Hood, John Deaderick, Dave Jacques, David Henry, Paul Griffith, Sloan Wainwright and Emmylou Harris.

And third, no matter what instrument Campbell plays, her melodic storytelling always delivers.

Even with high expectations, I was not disappointed. From the first track to the redux, Kate delivers soulful ballads, playful imaginary scenarios and spiritual depth that will unfold over many hours of listening.

In case there’s any doubt that the album’s title refers to a piano, the title track “1000 Pound Machine” begins with a lesson of sorts on exactly how a piano makes music. Line by line, Campbell explains the technical details of making music on a piano, but song by song, the album restores the mystery by placing the emphasis on storytelling.

The sound might be a little different, but the lyrics are classic Campbell. Each song tells a uniquely Southern story with beauty, grace and cleverness. She connects the South’s agricultural roots with a very modern quandary in “Wait for Another Day.” A farmer’s decision turns out to be a universal challenge faced by procrastinators everywhere.

Campbell then takes us on a bus ride across Alabama in “Montgomery to Mobile,” imagining George C. Wallace and Rosa Parks seated next to each other. The excited-to-travel child in all of us is transported down the flat stretches of road flanked by cotton fields and pine trees, and the idealist in all of us is given some reason to hope that human beings can overcome their differences and connect on deeper levels.

“Red Clay After Rain” is a longing for the South by an ex patriot Southern who moves up north for economic opportunity. The song’s protagonist declares “I miss cotton, camellias, curtains of cane and red clay after the rain.”

“Spoonerville” is a tribute to legendary musician Spooner Oldham, who returns to play with Campbell again on this album. The lyric “Don’t you know, you gotta have soul if you want to rock and roll” speaks to Oldham’s approach and what he has brought to Campbell’s previous work.

Haunting and beautiful, “The Occasional Wailer” is an instrumental that sounds as if it has blown in from the Celtic isles.

Album cover of 1000 Pound Machine
"1000 Pound Machine" was released April 3

In the bluesy ballad “Alabama Department of Corrections Meditation Blues,” Campbell’s adopted persona laments the circumstances and character traits that led to his incarceration. But ultimately the song is about redemption and being born again. Campbell seems to be asserting that freedom is a function of the spirit and not physical space, and Emmylou Harris’ vocals add a richness that drives home the point with emotional power.

“I Will Be Your Rest” has a message we can all afford to soak in from time to time, with a warm and full sound. The song envelops you like a hug from God. Next time you are feeling down and out, a good dose of this song will bring comfort and maybe a few tears.

“God Bless You, Arthur Blessitt” tells the true story of the fellow who carried a cross around the world. Rather than focus on those elements of Blessitt’s journey that would strike people as fanatical, Campbell poetically congratulates him for his commitment, perseverance and sense of direction.

“Walk With Me” has a Hammond organ to complement the thousand-pound machine in this song that updates a hymn with compelling emotion and earnest pleading. None of us want to walk this “tedious journey” alone.

The album ends with a reprise of “1000 Pound Machine” that, absent the lyrics, reiterates the piano theme and injects some of the Hammond and an undertone of another piano that intertwines with the dominant melody like two playful swans floating on a still lake.

The final song is “1000 Pound Machine Redux.” Each version plays with sound in different ways, but what all of the versions capture is a sense that life carries on amid playful and sometimes fearful distractions. You can read your own emotional state into the stanzas, and I think I could hear something different in it if I listened to it a thousand times.

For Campbell’s fans, this album is a delight. If it’s your introduction to her brilliant songwriting, you need to invest in some of her other music to hear the contrast. I highly recommend you spend some time with Kate and her 1000 Pound Machine. Don’t “Wait Another Day.”

Fierce landscapes

What a difference a week makes.

Last week I was in the Chattahoochee National Forest connecting with my middle son and enjoying the beauty of the Appalachian foothills.

Vista from Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park
One of the many vistas from the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park.

This week I visited Big Bend National Park in Texas, connecting with pastors and enjoying the beauty of the mountains and desert of southwest Texas. Call it a perk of my day job, I was covering and participating in a post-Easter retreat for ministers in Marathon, Texas, called “Call of the Wilderness.”

While the natural beauty of both locales was undeniable, this week’s destination refreshed me in unexpected ways.

Mountainous desert with an assortment of scrub trees, cacti and clumps of yellow grass isn’t my first thought of a beautiful terrain. But the stark landscape combined with the thought-provoking presentations by retreat leader Belden Lane prompted me to contemplate all of the physical and metaphorical wildernesses I’ve experienced in my life.

Physically, the visual beauty of the mountains and desert of Big Bend reminded me of a 1994 trip to New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

Metaphorically, the stark barrenness felt similar to a period of isolation and loneliness I experienced in the mid-1990s.

I didn’t get home until late last night, so I am still processing the week and what it means. This post is part of my attempt to extract meaning from the experience.

Neighboring peak in the Chisos Mountains
A nearby peak, shot from the top of the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos basin.

On Tuesday I hiked the Lost Mine Trail in the Chisos Basin, climbing about 1,100 feet in elevation over two-and-a-half miles up the mountain. It wasn’t a difficult climb. We kept a leisurely pace, stopping frequently to catch our breath, snap photos and sip from our water bottles. As the sun warmed us, the breeze cooled us. During the lapses in our conversation, I was able to notice lizards, buzzards and a colorful scrub jay.

I’m not an overly mystical person, but I kept hoping throughout the hike to hear a word from God. I was seeking answers to life’s big questions that occupied my mind. The only consistent voice was that of the crunch of the stones underfoot. I guess the rocks can really cry out their praise to their creator.

Boquillas Canyon
The Rio Grande River flows into Boquillas Canyon at the Mexican border.

On Wednesday, I made my way down to Boquillas Canyon on the Mexican border. The cave-pocked cliffs pierced by the gently flowing Rio Grande River presented an altogether different beauty than the Chisos Mountains. Temperatures were warmer. Breezes were rarer.

I stood on a large, beige rock overlooking the Rio Grande and caught sight of a couple of vaqueros on the other side in the shade, their horses drinking from the gray water. The small village of Boquillas, Mexico, was off to their right, a couple of dozen houses filling the gaps between the trees in the green valley.

At my feet were an array of hand-made trinkets and hand-painted crafts with an ink-on-cardboard sign indicating the prices tucked under a plastic jug. A few feet beyond this low-rent retail space was a sign in official U.S. brown stating that purchases from Mexican nationals was a crime.

As I scrambled down the rock and toward the river, I could hear the familiar strains of the chorus “Aye, aye, aye-aye.” Another jug with a handwritten sign was nearby. Victor, the Mexican crooner, made his living taking requests a few feet onto U.S. soil, a short swim/wade from his homeland.

From there we progressed to the hot springs and the ruins of an old resort. Bubbling from the corner of a cement tank just a few feet from the Rio Grande, the spring was more warm than hot. The algae floating on the surface made me question its restorative powers. A couple of tourists soaked their feet, and I repressed a shiver at the thought of taking a sip.

Still, I heard no voice, discerned no wisdom. The desert was indifferent to my presence and made no attempt to reveal any secrets. I was not tempted by Satan or fed by ravens, though Biblical analogies came to mind quickly. I conjured no visions, received no epiphanies.

Maybe the time in this fierce landscape wasn’t about answers. Maybe it was just about seeking and listening.

After back-to-back weeks of silence, night skies filled with stars and breathable air, I am reticent to return to the normal. Another trip into the wilderness is already being planned. Maybe I’ll get a little bit closer to the answers next time.

Does the wilderness inspire you? Where do you like to go in nature when you are in need of answers? Leave a comment below and share your experiences.

Happy trails (mostly)

Harris at the beginning of the hike next to the sign.
Spirits were high at the start. Harris had no idea what 4.8 miles felt like.

This week Harris and I embarked on a 4.8 mile journey that has come to represent more than just a hike through the Chattahoochee National Forest.

This rite of passage for my boys began five years ago when Barron was six. We made a similar journey from Amicalola Falls State Park to the Len Foote Hike Inn, and it was Harris’ turn. A middle son not heard often enough and in need of his daddy’s undivided, unplugged attention, Harris had been anticipating the trip since Christmas when I first brought it up with him.

After a quick picnic lunch, we descended 425 steps from the top of the falls to get a better view of one of Georgia’s most impressive sites. That’s when the math lessons started as Harris began calculating how many steps we would take going down and back up.

Half way back up the falls, my mobile phone rang. It was my dad.

“Lance, they’ve taken Lee to the hospital in Winter Haven. He’s having chest pains and numbness in his left arm. You need to pray for your brother.”

Lance and Harris at the base of Amicalola Falls
After 425 steps down, we had to pose with Amicalola Falls as our backdrop.

About to embark on an important journey with my middle son, I went numb as I said a prayer for my middle brother. Overwhelmed with confusion and worry, I couldn’t help but enumerate the connections between Lee and Harris: middle sons, lefthanders, witty and clever humorists.

Already winded from the steps and questioning my fitness, we quickly found sturdy walking sticks among the fallen limbs and headed into the woods, pausing long enough to snap a few photos.

As we started, I pointed out the bright green rectangles of paint on the tree trunks, marking our trail. I covered the basic rule of hiking: “Don’t step on anything you can step around or over.” The last thing I needed to do was carry a backpack and a 50-pound boy up and down a rocky and root-covered trail.

It wasn’t long before Harris needed a break.

“Daddy, how long is it to the Hike Inn?” he asked, taking a long sip from our water bottle.

Harris at a scenic overlook
Harris takes one of his frequent breaks at one of the scenic overlooks from the trail.

I looked at my watch. The hiking equivalent of the car trip refrain “Are we there yet?” came three minutes in. It felt like déjà vu. I couldn’t help but remember taking the trip with Barron and how impatient I had been with Barron’s slowness and fatigue and griping and all the things 6-year-olds find to complain about on their first hike. But this time, it was different.

“Oh, we’ve got about three-and-a-half hours,” I answered calmly.

There are some benefits to being the second born. Harris was the beneficiary of my patience and deep understanding that this journey would be over all too soon. Instead of rushing it, I was savoring it.

Conditions were perfect, and while the sun warmed, the breezes cooled. Up and down the trail we went, discussing such truths as “all that glitters is not gold” as we came across pyrite. Harris wisely added only a small piece of Fool’s Gold to his rock collection.

We listened for bird calls and strained to see any signs of wildlife. We discussed Harry Potter, and Harris enlightened me on arcane theories of super hero superiority. We made little progress the first hour, stopping five or six times for brief breaks, but we picked up our pace when Harris felt a different call of nature but was unwilling to answer that call in nature.

The first half of our journey ended all too quickly. We arrived at the Hike Inn without incident, seeing a bee-infested tree, a black salamander and a sprinkling of white-blossomed wild dogwoods in among the budding and the hardwoods with their newly emerged bright green leaves.

Harris headed straight to the restrooms to see the amazing non-flushing, waterless, composting toilets Barron had described.

Standing beside a sign that said “No cell phones, please,” I checked mine. The battery was nearly dead, and service barely registered a faint signal. It was enough to see that Lee was being kept overnight in the hospital, a battery of tests scheduled for the next day. I looked out over the rolling green hills and low fog and offered another silent prayer for my brother.

Harris plays Stratego for the first time
Harris plays Stratego for the first time in the Sunrise Room.

The inn was exactly as I had remembered it, inviting and comfortable without being fancy. We stowed the gear in our bunkroom, toured the facility and gravitated to the Sunrise Room where a number of games and puzzles beckoned. Harris settled on one he had never played – Stratego.

He picked it up quickly, and soon he was giving me a run for my money. I explained how I had grown up playing thousands of games of Stratego with Uncle Lee, becoming an expert in the process. I couldn’t help but make yet another connection between my middle son and my middle brother.

Harris became obsessed with the game. We played three times before supper. He enlisted the help of several of the other kids who were staying at the Hike Inn with their families during their spring break. Anna and Will, a sister-and-brother combo from Cincinnati, Ohio, served as his war advisers, but my supremacy over a 6-year-old held.

The dinner bell rang, and we were summoned to a family-style meal. The rule at the conservation-minded Hike Inn is you must eat what you put on your plate. The goal at every meal is to generate less than 4 ounces of table waste, a policy Barron had briefed Harris on before the trip. We ate family style getting to know the folks at our table, replenishing our energy stores after the hike.

Lance and Harris at the dinner table
Two hungry hikers ready to clean our plates.

As we passed the green beans and pork roast, I could almost hear Lee ask, “Anybody want any more rolls?” This innocent-sounding question has been our family’s “last call” for the food in question since Lee learned to talk.

Soon, we were back in the Sunrise Room where Harris chose to skip the evening’s program on hiking the Appalachian Trail. The Southern terminus of the “AT” was just a few miles from the Hike Inn at Springer Mountain, and the Hike Inn’s manager had completed a thru-hike in 2008.

I explained that a thru-hike was a nonstop hike from Georgia to Maine or vice versa, and that it usually took six months. Harris couldn’t wrap his mind around a six month hike.

After a few more games of Stratego, we showered and settled into our bunks. We read a book and with my battery waning and no electrical outlets in the bunk rooms, I checked my phone one more time. A Facebook message from Mom confirmed that Lee was stable. Harris and I prayed for Uncle Lee one more time and drifted off to sleep.

Awakened by the soft beat of a drum, we were dressed and ready for the day by 7:30. Well-rested and sipping my coffee, I gave in to Harris’ plea for another game of Stratego before breakfast. We ate another hearty meal, and we were soon packing to leave.

Harris bought a Hike Inn T-shirt, adorned with a trail map on the back, at check-out, and by 9:30 we and our new friends from Cincinnati were headed back to Amicalola Falls. As Kevin and Shelly and I conversed easily about all the things parents talk about, our kids bonded along the trail, buoyed by each other’s presence. Then, when we least expected it, Harris fell.

Harris receives first aid on the trail
Will looks on as Shelly provides first aid. Harris made a full recovery.

Tripped by a root that looped out of the ground, his left foot caught and his right knee came down hard on another root. His left elbow and right hand were a little scraped up, but from the wailing, nearby hikers may have thought someone had a fatal injury.

Shelly tended to his superficial wounds with a mother’s tenderness, distracting him from his injuries by asking him to read the instructions on an ice pack from her first aid kit. I was grateful she was there. Again I was reminded of my trip with Barron. He, too, had fallen on the way out, scraping up his knee and tearing a hole in his pants.

Sometimes, our children fail to heed our warnings and the examples of their siblings. Some falls just have to be repeated.

Anna took my pack as I carried Harris on my back for a couple hundred yards, crossing a creek and seeing a water snake. The encounter helped distract Harris from his injury, and soon he was moving under his own power again, and I was able to relieve Anna of my pack.

Still seeking that moment of profound parent-child interaction, I trudged on, trying to relish the experience while being concerned for my brother. About that time, Harris came back from his new friends and joined me at the rear of our little traveling party.

“Daddy, I just want to walk with you for a little bit, OK?”

“Sure, Harris. I’m glad you want to walk with me.”

“Thanks for taking me to the Hike Inn. It was the best, especially that game – what’s it called? Stras-ty-go? Can I get that game for my birthday?”

Harris and Will at the trail head
Success! Harris and his new friend, Will, commemorate their hike with a photo.

Almost 24 hours to the minute from when we had set off, we emerged from the woods into the upper parking lot at the falls. We said goodbye to our new friends, snapped a few, last photos and headed for home.

When my cell signal returned, I paused at an intersection and checked Facebook. Lee was posting, his sense of humor returned. He complained about hospital food and having EKG sensors pull his abundant red chest hair out. Mr. Lee, “the Wolf,” was going to be OK.

The stress of being on a local church staff had evidently caused the episode, and there was no evidence of a heart attack or any damage to his heart.

Relieved, I said a prayer of thanksgiving and told Harris that his Uncle Lee would be OK.

We spent the hour-and-a-half drive home sharing our “favorites” from the trip. Harris decided he wanted to go back to the Hike Inn with the rest of the family.

Whether we can convince Carla to make the trip remains to be seen, but I’d gladly go back into the woods with Harris any time.

Next time, though, Lee better stay out of the hospital. Middle kids always have to do something extraordinary to get some attention.